Why and How Do We Disciple?

This is the final in my series of articles on the importance of helping disciples of Jesus “live into place.” Previously, I’ve written about five reasons that this is an imperative: (1) the incarnation of Jesus, (2) the Kingdom of God, (3) the fragmentation of our society, (4) the dismemberment of the church, and (5) the advancement of the gospel. This article looks at both the process and the purpose of discipleship.

I wonder sometimes if we get so caught up in the process of disciplemaking that we forget the purpose. Our purpose is to flood the earth with people who know, love, and are becoming like Jesus in the places He has planted them. This is whole-life discipleship.

Navigators often speak of Life-to-Life™ discipleship, a term that I love. It reflects how we go about helping people grow in Christ. We do so life-to-life as opposed to some other, perhaps more programmatic approach. Whole-life discipleship speaks less about the how and more about the fact that our discipleship is not limited to the religious or spiritual arenas of life. It is about all of life. In our Navigator Vision, we call it “a heart for the whole person.” We believe that when these “whole people” are “rooted incarnationally in their local contexts,” then “transformed communities multiply.”

My friend John Pattison, co-author of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, points out that “the word whole derives from the same root as the words health and holy. The forces of fragmentation—consumerism, hypermobility, sectarianism, individualism, etc.—make it harder to be human because they make it harder to be whole, healthy, and holy.”

The way I see it, discipleship that is “whole” will always root the person in place. For most of us, place includes workplace, place of worship, and even a “third place” (informal settings where people regularly “hang out,” such as bars and coffee shops). Yet I believe our neighborhoods are unique places for discipleship.

During one of our Neighbors training sessions, Paul Sparks of Parish Collective was asked, “Aren’t all relational networks really the same as neighborhoods?” Paul responded that neighborhood is the relational context for shared life, for being known, and for learning to fit together.

I agree. Neighborhood is the one place where life's primary spheres intersect (economy, civic, environmental, educational), and where they can be fostered holistically by their stakeholders. Put another way, what our disciples practice in the places they live can certainly be exported to all relational contexts, but the reverse may not be true.

In his classic work The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God, Dallas Willard wrote, “The teachings of Jesus in the Gospels show us how to live the life we have been given through the time, place, family, neighbors, talents, and opportunities that are ours. His words left to us in Scripture provide all we need in the way of general teachings about how to conduct our particular affairs.”

That’s it. In those two sentences, Professor Willard captured why discipleship that is for the whole person will always help them root into place. Our lives in Christ can never be lived in a bubble. As we become more like Him, He intends for those who live closest to us to be affected by the transformation. This is where disciples take the words of Jesus and put them into practice—in all of life.


Al Engler is the director of Navigators Neighbors and Navigators Workplace. To contact him or to learn more about his ministry, click here

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