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What is a Whole-Life Disciple?

You might be a plumber in your van, rushing to respond to an emergency call out.

You might be a chief executive, at your desk preparing for the upcoming virtual board meeting.

You might be a student, sitting at home and procrastinating about writing your next essay.

You might be a keen runner, reconnecting with your local Parkrun community.

You might be a retiree, looking after your grandchildren.

You might be a full-time parent, juggling responsibilities as family taxi driver, food provider, and crowd controller.

Whatever you do and wherever you do it, God has put you there for a reason. That’s your mission field. Today, that’s where you’re called. To be a follower and messenger of Christ wherever you are, in all that you do.

To be a ‘whole-life disciple’.

Our end goal isn’t just to become Christians – it’s to live as disciples of Christ, day by day, task by task, place by place. For his glory and the good of those around us.

How then do we do that? What does it mean to be a whole-life disciple? We’ve put quite a lot of thought into this question, and learned from other wise voices in the church (check out the ‘read on’ section at the end for more on those!).

The answer can be written in a single sentence, but the implications are huge. Put simply, a whole-life disciple is someone who’s learning to follow the way of Jesus in their place and at this time.

There’s a lot in there, so we’ll unpack it one chunk at a time. But before we start, there might be another question in your mind: why do we refer to whole-life disciples? Why not just ‘disciples’?

Well, ‘discipleship’ is a word that needs reclaiming. In recent times, it’s often been used to refer to programmes, private spiritual disciplines, or the stuff that happens at church gatherings. Whilst none of these things are bad – indeed, they’re essential – this narrow definition has had the effect of making discipleship about something less than the whole of our lives. As a result, in the Saltley Trust’s research into ‘What Helps Disciples Grow’, the second most common response to the question ‘what hinders your Christian growth?’ was ‘the commitments of daily life’. When we see ‘discipleship’ as something that happens in church, many Christians end up feeling that daily life is primarily a barrier to discipleship, rather than an opportunity for it.[i]

That’s why we talk about ‘whole-life discipleship’. Much like a shop attendant referring to a ‘real leather sofa’ or a vicar talking about ‘missional church’, we use the term ‘whole-life discipleship’ to indicate that Jesus’ all-encompassing call isn’t confined to the times when we gather as a church – as crucial as those times are.

So – back to what it means to be a whole-life disciple.

 

Someone who’s learning…

Biblically, a standout passage for a definition of discipleship is the Great Commission. Jesus sends out his followers to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19).

The word to describe what Jesus is calling his followers to do is matheteuo, and it contains some real gold for thinking about what discipleship looks like for us. The word takes its root from the verb ‘to learn’. A disciple is a learner. So, it makes sense that Jesus calls his followers to teach these learners to obey his commands – commands which aren’t burdensome, but instead lead to ‘life to the full’ (John 10:10).

And obedience starts with listening to the commands. As John Stott explained, ‘every true disciple is a listener’.[ii] When we truly hear and obey God’s commands, this shapes our heads (learning to believe God’s truth), our hearts (learning to desire God’s character), and our hands (learning to act as his body, serving the people around us).

In the Great Commission, Jesus talks about ‘making disciples’. But the same verb also refers to being a disciple. To be a disciple is to make disciples; to make disciples is to be a disciple. It involves training others and being trained yourself. This explains why the disciples are sent out to preach the gospel, even as they continue to learn from Jesus. A whole-life disciple is a learner, but also someone who teaches others.

 

to follow…

As we’ve seen, though, at its heart discipleship involves learning from the person of Jesus, which requires us to put our trust in him as our Lord and Saviour. It cannot be reduced to a philosophical worldview or mere intellectual pursuit. This is a learning by doing, closer to an apprenticeship in a workshop than study in a classroom, with Jesus as the master craftsman.

And we’re not alone in the workshop. We follow Jesus in community, where we’re shaped and nurtured as disciples, supporting one another to serve God’s purposes in the wider world. It’s been said that ‘the plural of disciple is church’: not an institution, but the dynamic body of believers partnering together in God’s mission.[iii]

Our apprenticeship under Jesus has two core elements, highlighted in Mark 3:14–15. Jesus calls his disciples ‘that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority’. So, firstly we’re invited to be with Jesus. The rabbi–student dynamic predated Jesus, and central to it was the understanding that students followed their rabbi everywhere. There’s even a story of two students hiding in their rabbi’s bedroom! We don’t just learn from Jesus’ teaching, but we’re called to be always with him.

But we’re also called to let it affect the way we live. Growing as a whole-life disciple is both about what we do (practices which imitate Christ’s life – hospitality, discernment, healing, prayer) and how often we do it (by repeating these practices we become like Christ[iv]). As he comes to the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes this clear. ‘Everyone who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built his house on the rock’ (Matthew 7:24).

As we read in the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples are not passive observers. Instead, as in the feeding of the five thousand, he expects them to get involved. Whilst the disciples were looking to send the crowds away, he challenged them: ‘you give them something to eat’. They’ve seen Jesus do miracles, now it’s their turn. And now it’s ours, right where we are in our daily lives – we’ll never work or play, shop or serve, live or learn the same way again.

 

the way of Jesus…

As we follow Jesus, we imitate his life and words and seek to become more like him. However, Jesus was a 1st-century Middle-Eastern male carpenter, God-in-the-flesh, the image of the invisible God, firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15), and the template for new humanity.

That makes Jesus our Saviour, and worthy of our worship, but also means we can’t simply follow him by trying to literally replicate every element of his life. Our life is found in his death and resurrection, as we’re sustained by his Spirit. But, as we spend time with Jesus, we increasingly become like him in character. In fact, in the New Testament, ‘disciples [are] called Christians’ (Acts 11:26), a word literally meaning ‘little Christs’ – people who reflect their Saviour. Through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us (John 20:19–22), we’re able to ask ourselves: how would Jesus live if he were you? This is what it means to follow the way of Jesus.

If you’ve ever seen a live concert or a theatre performance, you might have witnessed improvisation. The performers didn’t know where things were going, but through honing their skills – whether musical scales or acting exercises – together they responded to the situation in front of them, and the result was great music or incredible drama. As disciples, through repeated practice, by being with Jesus and being formed by his Spirit, we’re able to faithfully improvise, reacting to daily situations as Jesus would. For example, a regular practice of repentance develops in me a godly humility which, in time, makes me quicker to admit fault and apologise to friends when I’m in the wrong. Or, weekly fasting helps me to control my own desires, and instead reminds me of where true satisfaction lies.

By studying the Scriptures, which point to Jesus from start to finish, we can draw out some core rhythms and principles that characterise Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This pattern should shape the lives of his disciples. Of course, many themes could be picked out. But, briefly, here are two which serve both to point us to the nature of God and to the way we’re called to live as those formed in his image (Galatians 4:19): love and self-denial.

When asked about the greatest commandment in the law, ‘Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Matthew 22:37–39). Love for God, and love for neighbour – by this love ‘all people will know that you are my disciples’ (John 13:35). God is love, Jesus perfectly lived out this love, and so as disciples we are called to follow him in our love, seeking his kingdom by living for the shalom of the places we go and the people we meet. As Stott famously said, this starts with taking the time ‘to listen to God and to our fellow human beings’, which is ‘above all an authentic token of Christian humility and love’.[v]

A second theme in the life of Jesus is his willingness to enter into suffering and self-denial. As Paul famously writes in Philippians 2, his very incarnation involved ‘making himself nothing’, and ‘humbling himself by becoming obedient to death’. Suffering is the sandpaper that rubs the disciple into the shape of Jesus – the process is painful, but formative. If even Christ ‘learned obedience from what he suffered’ (Hebrews 5:8), then we shouldn’t be surprised that the way of Jesus requires his disciples to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross and follow’ him (Matthew 16:24).

In doing this, we follow the pattern of Colossians 3, humbly denying our old self while moving in God’s power to put on the new. We’re crucified with Christ, and he lives in us (Galatians 2:20). Wherever we find ourselves day to day – in work, at home, with family, among neighbours – Jesus’ life speaks to the way that we should live today, as we radically reorientate ourselves to ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33), joining his work of setting the world to rights.

 

in their place…

We all have places where we work and play, live and learn, shop and serve. At LICC, we call them our frontlines. ‘Frontline’ might conjure up images of armies at war, or hospital triage for patients during a pandemic. But it captures that there’s a spiritual battle going on in the places and activities where we regularly spend time with those who don’t follow Jesus.

These places in which we find ourselves are the arenas in which our discipleship is worked out, the places where we’re formed and the places we’re formed for. ‘Whatever you do, whether in word or deed’ is to be done ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (Colossians 3:17). We’re to be agents of healing and reconciliation at these pressure points, bringing peace amidst the chaos.

That means the way of Jesus has something to say to each of our contexts.

Throughout the Gospels, we see that Jesus isn’t in any way limited in where he works. We see him teaching and healing in the temple courts and synagogues, and we’d probably still expect him to be active in our church gatherings today. But we also read stories of Jesus ministering at a wedding, on mountainsides and roadsides, at city gates, on a lake shore, and in the homes of friends, new converts, synagogue leaders, and Pharisees.[vi] As we keep reading into the book of Acts, we see a similar expectation in the early church that discipleship concerns the home and marketplace as much as the church’s gathering space.

Stott agreed that Christians must ‘permeate society… their light is to shine into the darkness, and their salt is to soak into decaying meat.’[vii] So, whether it’s your office or local street, supermarket, or retirement home, being a whole-life disciple has implications for the way you follow Jesus there.

Our 6Ms framework is a really helpful way to think about what it might look like to join in with God’s good work, right where you are. It could be taking extra care in your work, resisting the urge to cut corners. Or moulding the culture of your street by greeting neighbours, demonstrating God’s kindness to them. It could be shopping with an eye on sustainability, consuming in a way that promotes justice. Or sharing the gospel with a friend when the opportunity arises, in a meaningful way that speaks to their questions and longings.

What’s the Spirit inviting you to do in the places you go, day by day?

 

and at this time.

Whole-life discipleship applies in each moment and every stage from cradle to the grave, as we live out our faith in the particular time in which we find ourselves. Being a disciple might look different as an adolescent, in working life, in retirement, or at big ‘transition moments’ such as job changes, marriage, or parenthood.

It also involves making sense of the cultural times we’re in, and we see this in Jesus’ teaching. In Matthew 13, when Jesus tells the parables of the kingdom, his analogies may not make immediate sense to us. The imagery involved – from a farmer sowing seeds, to weeds, to a mustard seed – is slightly alien. But in Jesus’ time, with an agrarian economy, these analogies would have been much more familiar. He’s speaking a language his listeners understand – communicating appropriately for his time. And we should do the same.

As well as using relatable imagery, Jesus encourages us to read the ‘signs of the times’ (Matthew 16:3) and understand what’s required for this cultural moment, much like the people of Issachar who could ‘understand the times and knew what Israel should do’ (1 Chronicles 12:32). This takes wisdom – the kind that grows through the Spirit’s work in us.

So, what does discipleship look like in your context, at this time? That’s the joy and challenge of following the way of Jesus as a whole-life disciple. It requires careful and patient ‘triple listening’ to the word, to the world, and to one other. And it’s entirely dependent on the Spirit, who transforms us into Christ’s image with ever-increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18), showing us how to work for shalom in the place and time and season of life we’re in. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus – through the Spirit – sends us (John 20:19–20).

 

Whole-life discipleship: the big picture

Whether you’re a plumber, chief executive, student, runner, stay-at-home parent – whoever you are and whatever you do – you can discover the joy of living for, with, and like Jesus in the midst of your everyday. As you learn to follow the way of Jesus in your place and at this time, dying to self and living for Christ, the uniqueness of your day-to-day life means no two disciples will look the same.

As you grow, and when you join with other disciples in the community we call the body of Christ, you’ll look like Jesus, living as his hands and feet out in the world today. Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself, whatever you do, all for his glory.

 

Matt Jolley
Culture and Discipleship – Research & Development

 


 

Want to go deeper? Read on!

In his book The Message of Discipleship, Peter Morden highlights several passages in Scripture that are foundational for understanding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. These are listed below, along with several core questions which are worth asking and discussing, perhaps with your small group.

These questions are designed to help you develop as a whole-life disciple, serving God’s mission with your head (understanding the theology of discipleship), heart (the formation of virtue, shaping your desire), and hands (the skill to follow Jesus and fruitfully live this out in practice on your everyday frontlines).

  • Mark 8:22–38 | Jesus as crucified Lord
  • Mark 9:1–13 | Jesus as exalted Lord
  • Mark 9:14–32 | Jesus as missionary Lord
  • Matthew 6:9–15 | The role of prayer
  • 2 Timothy 1:6–7 | The role of the Spirit
  • Hebrews 10:11–25 | The role of the church
  • John 20:19–32 | Discipleship and resurrection
  • Colossians 3:1–14 | Discipleship and holiness
  • Colossians 3:22–25 | Discipleship and daily work
  • John 13:31–38 | Love as the hallmark of discipleship
Questions
  1. What does Mark 8:22–38 suggest as the starting point for Christian discipleship?
  1. What strikes you about how prayer is described in Matthew 6:9–15? Is there anything you’d like to ask God to help you change in your own prayer life?
  1. Looking at 2 Timothy 1:6–7, in what ways does being filled with the Spirit have an impact on ourlives?
  1. What practical considerations from Hebrews 10:11–25 could encourage us to try to build deeper relationships within the church?
  1. What implications does Colossians 3:22–25 have for how we worship God in our daily work, or other frontlines where we live, learn, play, shop, or serve?
  1. How do we see John 13:31–38 working out in church life today?
  1. What contribution is God calling you to make, in your particular context?

 

Other helpful resources:

John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Wholehearted Christian Living (Nottingham: IVP, 2021).

John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening (Nottingham: IVP, 1992).

John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th ed., revised by Roy McCloughry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).

Mark Greene, ‘The 6Ms – Uncovering Fruitfulness Where You Are’, LICC Blog, n.d.

Neil Hudson, Imagine Church: Releasing Whole Life Disciples (London: IVP, 2012).

Neil Hudson, Scattered & Gathered: Equipping Disciples for the Frontline (London: IVP, 2019).

Peter Morden, The Message of Discipleship: Authentic Followers of Jesus in Today’s World (London: IVP: 2018).

Simon Foster, What Helps Disciples Grow?, Saltley Faith & Learning Series no. 2, edited by Ian Jones (Birmingham: St Peter’s Saltley Trust, 2016).

The Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England, Kingdom Calling: The Vocation, Ministry and Discipleship of the Whole People of God (London: Church Publishing House, 2020), esp. pages 68–70.

 


[i] Ian Jones, ‘What Do We Mean When We Say “Discipleship”?’, Mystic Trumpeter Blog, July 5, 2017.

[ii] John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening (Nottingham: IVP, 1992), p. 99.

[iii] Ross Hastings, ‘Vocation from Union with Christ: Overcoming Dualisms in the Calling of the Church’, The Regent World, iss. 33, no. 1 (April 20, 2021).

[iv] Ian Jones, ‘Twelve Challenges for Christian Formation’, Mystic Trumpeter Blog, April 22, 2021.

[v] Stott, The Contemporary Christian, p. 112-113

[vi] John 2:1; Matthew 5—7; Mark 10:46; Luke 6:11; John 21:10; Luke 10:38; Luke 19:2; Matthew 9:23; Luke 7:36.

[vii] John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th ed., revised by Roy McCloughry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p. 84

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Matt Jolley

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