Let’s face it: most Christians in America have no idea what it means to follow Jesus. According to one Barna study, only 20% of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity. Another study found that only 45% of regular church attenders read the Bible more than once a week, and almost 20% never read it. Preston Sprinkle wrote a book based on a Barna study commissioned by NavPress on the state of discipleship in America. His conclusion? “The American church is not doing very well at discipling its people.”
In the introduction to that book, David Kinnaman writes that three-quarters (76%) of practicing Christians in the U.S. agree with the notion that the best version of themselves can be found by looking inside themselves. That sounds more like following your heart than following Jesus.
In the church, we talk a lot about “following Jesus,” or being a “Christ-follower.” I fear this is one of those terms we hear so much that we’ve become numb to what it truly means, so we assume we are following Jesus without ever really considering what we say we are.
The Roots of Discipleship
These terms—“following Jesus” and “Christ-follower”—are modern ways of identifying as “disciples” of Jesus. That word, “disciple,” is crucial for understanding what it means to follow Jesus. In Greek, the language the New Testament was written in, the word we translate as “disciple” is mathētḗs. That term simply means “learner.” But it doesn’t mean that in the sense you might think.
Today, to say that someone is a “learner” means that they’re a student. It means they take instruction, internalize information, and regurgitate it for a test or another person. But that’s not what the Bible means when it uses the word “learner,” or disciple. When the Bible speaks of learning or of being a disciple, it’s referring to something closer to what we would call equipping, training, or apprenticing.
In Jesus’ day, being a disciple of a rabbi was the pinnacle of achievement. It’s what every young boy growing up would want to be. From a young age, they would start memorizing the entire Torah, or what we think of as the Old Testament, in hopes that they would one day be qualified to become a disciple. If they actually made it all the way through the process and were picked to be discipled by one of the rabbis, they would start following them around everywhere they went.
If you were a disciple, the goal was to spend as much time with your rabbi as possible in order to learn as much of their teaching as possible so that you could become as much like them as possible. To do that, they had to walk where they walked, do what they did, and teach like they taught. They were being equipped to be a rabbi on their own one day. They were in training as an apprentice. That’s much different than classroom learning as we think of it today.
What Following Jesus Really Means
So when Jesus called someone to be his disciple, he was calling them in that context, with that cultural understanding. Following Jesus does not mean sitting in a classroom and memorizing information. Following Jesus means walking where he walks, doing what he did, and teaching what he taught. Disciples of Jesus are not supposed to simply learn information, they are supposed to apply information into their lives in a way that leads to transformation.
So, what does it really mean to follow Jesus, to be his disciple? Greg Ogden summarizes it this way in Discipleship Essentials,
“A disciple is one who responds in faith and obedience to the gracious call to follow Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is a lifelong process of dying to self while allowing Jesus Christ to come alive in us.”
In the articles to follow, I’ll examine each of the phrases in that definition so we can see exactly what it means to follow Jesus.