The Mystery – and Hard Work – of Discipleship: A Roundtable Discussion 

Date Published

January 1, 2010

Home / Blog / The Mystery – and Hard Work – of Discipleship: A Roundtable Discussion 

Published by Calvin Seminary

For this issue on discipleship, Forum gathered a group of pastors with various perspectives on the subject (see cover photo). Dr. Mary Hulst, a preaching professor at CTS, is also the newly appointed chaplain at Calvin College and has particular insight into discipling today’s college students. Dr. Reggie Smith teaches “Discipleship and Teaching: Evangelism and Cross-Cultural Ministry” at CTS and

is currently pastor at Roosevelt Park Community CRC, an urban congregation in southwest Grand Rapids. Rev. Heidi DeJonge was Pastor of Discernment at CTS for three years before taking her current position as Pastor of the Celebration Congregation and Diaconal Ministries at Harderwyk CRC in Holland, Michigan. She moved from mentoring younger people to serving a congregation with many older members. Dr. Darwin Glassford teaches church education at CTS and has particular interest and expertise in the faith development of young people. They all sat down with Duane Kelderman, Vice President for Administration at CTS and veteran pastor in the CRC, to discuss this vital topic. 

Duane: Discipleship means different things to different people. What is “discipleship” as you use the term?

Mary: Discipleship is forming people more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. At Calvin, we want students to look more like Jesus at the end of their four years at Calvin than they did when they started. A disciple is one who imitates his or her master.

Darwin: Yes. And discipleship is holistic. That is, discipleship is not just a cogni- tive exercise or an emotional exercise or a behavioral exercise, but engages the whole person. We often assume that if people know the right things, they’ll do the right things. That’s just not true.

Reggie: At its core, discipleship is being a follower of Jesus, and that’s a communal thing. I’m thinking about Ben Martin, a young man who just joined our church. Ben is not a very talkative person, but he’s been hanging around for the last ten years. And he decided, “I need to deal with some things in my life, and I need to learn more about what this Jesus life looks like. From what I can see from you guys, I think I want that.” Discipleship is less about an “answer” and more about a story. Jesus did a great job of entering into people’s stories. Because of him, we invite people into a larger story, a new community.

Heidi: I think there’s a lot of mystery in this growing up into Christ. One of my favorite quotes lately is from Anne Lamott—that grace “meets me where I am but doesn’t leave me where it found me.” To be a disciple is to be growing in grace.

Duane: I think we would all agree that there are seasons in the church and in world history, and that the Holy Spirit works in different ways in different sea- sons. What season are we in right now? Do you see the Holy Spirit blessing par- ticular ways of discipling?

Heidi: I think mentoring is a particular way the Spirit is discipling people today. From pastors to seminary students to youth ministry and many other kinds of ministry, we’re seeing an emphasis on mentoring, and I think God is blessing that. 

Reggie: As a church we came to a conclusion about three years ago that we needed to get out of the “youth program business” and get into the “formational partnership business.” We had three programs in our church that were trying to shape people into being followers of Jesus. We had a summer program, a church kids program, a neighborhood kids program—all these programs! But what were we trying to accomplish with all of this activity? So we developed “Cross Over,” and its genius was the leaders’ vision that programs are not the end, they’re the means to the end of forming people into the image of Christ. We still do activities, but we’re much clearer about the goal now. And it started with Henry and Jackie, leaders who had an overriding formation vision for everything we do with young people. 

Mary: The college students I work with have a deep hunger to know that this faith stuff is real, that it matters. They’ve grown up with this gift—which sometimes feels like a burden— and they want to know what it means. They want to own it. Authenticity has always been important, but it’s especially important with young people today. 

Duane: What I hear all of you saying is that at its core, discipleship happens relationally. 

Darwin: Yes, and it begins with the most basic relationships—parents and children. But too often today we are seeing that parents are not taking an active role in discipling their own children. They figure church programs will do it, or the Christian school. Beyond the parent-child relationship, young people also need to interact with other adults in the church who are willing to share the ups and downs of their spiritual journey. Mary: And many parents need help with discipling their children. Too many parents in the CRC don’t talk about why they go to church, what Jesus means to them, how the gospel shapes their life. In our tradition we have leaned toward a more private piety. We have to help parents find their spiritual voice. Encourage them to simply tell their children what God means to them. Those simple things can make such a difference in our faith becoming real to our kids. 

Darwin: If we believe the core of discipleship is relational, we have to make a huge shift in the area of youth ministry—from hiring staff who run programs for young people to hiring staff who equip our congregation, including parents, to disciple young people. This is a very different strategy than merely conducting meetings or planning trips. 

Reggie: On this relational thing, so much of great discipling is also being a great listener. That’s very hard for us who see ourselves as experts, and whose business is talking. Someone is talking to us and we’re already thinking of the next thing we’re going to say. Years ago Eugene Peterson said pastoring is not that hard. He said you have to “listen people’s stories out of them.” Often we don’t do a very good job of listening to people’s stories because we think we have to solve their problems, to fix them. 

A while back a young man, Ali, came in my office. He had lost his 14-year-old brother to a heart attack. You don’t hear about 14-year-olds having a heart attack very often! Ali said, “I knew you would be here because you are always here.” I’ve known Ali since he was a tike. He just broke down and said, “I just need a place to cry.” This is an African American young man. Where is he going to cry? This was a safe place for him to just let it go. After we talked a little bit he said, “I always knew you’d be here.” And all I did was listen. 

Darwin: Good disciplers also know how to ask good questions, even when people only want answers. Often we have to ask people good questions to help them understand what’s motivating them deep down. In educational speak we call this “creating disequilibrium.” We throw people off balance. In my own discipleship experiences, I grew the most when I was pushed so hard that it threw me off balance. It felt like I was in a wrestling match being pinned to the carpet. The trick is to push people enough to throw them off balance, but to also help them regain their footing. 

Duane: We’ve talked about particular seasons in discipleship. But some things are universal, like personal devotions, reading Scripture, and prayer. We’ve talked about the family and holy friendships. What are other basics for all seasons? 

Heidi: Well, we certainly don’t want to overlook Sunday worship as a discipling experience. Calvin once said we need the gospel preached to us every week and the Lord’s Supper to ratify the promise of the gospel because we are partly unbelievers until we die. We need to be continually fed with this regular pouring in of grace. 

Mary: And people are hungry in worship. There’s a deep hunger for good preaching. Students go where there is good preaching. They want the Word, and they want to know the Word. They want to know that knowing the Word makes a difference in how you live your lives. I see that in students all the time. Worship and preaching are core discipleship activities. 

Darwin: I would add that a basic discipleship capacity is being able, as 1 Peter 3:15 says, “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” and to do so “with gentleness and respect.” Not every believer is necessarily an evangelist, but every believer needs to be able to testify, within the fellowship of God’s people as well as with non-Christians, to what God means to you and what Christ is doing in your life. 

Duane: What about the role of suffering in discipleship? A while back I read a fascinating book on leadership titled Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders. Geezers are my parents’ age, and geeks are my kids’ age. The question of the book was, Does era—the time in which someone grew up—shape leaders? In particular, did the era in which World War II veterans grew up generate different kinds of leaders? The researchers fully expected the answers to these questions to be yes. But the answer to their research was a resounding no. However—and this is why I mention this book here—the authors did make an unexpected discovery about what shapes leaders: virtually all effective leaders have been shaped by “crucible experiences”—suffering, things that shook them to the core of their being and tested who they really were. Things that made them ask, “What do I really believe? What am I willing to die for?” So now, how does that relate to discipleship? Is there a painless way to grow? 

Reggie and Mary: No! 

Darwin: Absolutely not! 

Mary: It’s so hard for parents to let their kids suffer. A parent I was talking to recently said, “I know that in my own life, the big moments of growth have been when I have gone through suffering, and yet for my kid I will do almost anything to protect him from all of those very things. I don’t want him to suffer, but I know that’s his only way to grow.” That led to this great conversation about things that we’ve learned or are learning through suffering. 

Heidi: The God I know is the God who rescues me. I know that God the best. My spiritual growth—my discipleship—has all been about God rescuing me in times of suffering. It’s interesting that my life has been relatively safe for a few years now— no car accidents, no cancer diagnosis. I am walking beside still waters and in green pastures. Now the challenge for me is to still grow without the deep suffering I’ve known. I’m not trying to be masochistic here. I’m not advocating that we inflict pain on ourselves to grow. But yes, we do grow through pain and suffering. 

Darwin: Often we view discipleship as being linear—this straight, predictable, upward line of progress. But that’s not reality, and it doesn’t account for the way suffering jumbles everything up. This linear view of discipleship comes out of early developmental psychology, which put people into various stages of moral development. The theory is that we predictably move through these stages. But suffering often brings us back to fundamentals. And we feel like we should have more resources to address our suffering than we do. My wife and I are living right now with her recent diagnosis of cancer. I’m a Christian Reformed minister and seminary professor. Janet works in the Chaplain’s office at the college. Are we allowed to ask fundamental questions like “Where is God in all of this?” Aren’t we supposed to be beyond this? How will we be viewed in our church community if we are asking such basic questions? If we have a neat, linear view of discipleship, we feel as if we shouldn’t get thrown back to basics. But suffering brings us back to some of these fundamental questions. And I think those are important questions that we have to continue to work through in our lives. 

Mary: Suffering forces, or invites, us to take the long view. We really have no idea how suffering today will impact our lives 25 years from now, or 40 years from now. Suffering forces us to say God’s got a much bigger plan going on here. Job couldn’t possibly have known at the time why he went through what he did. A lot of times we don’t get to know why either, but we can also say that we are different people. I know I am a different person today than I was ten years ago because of what I have lived through in the last ten years. Would I go back? Would I say I would rather be more shallow and narcissistic? I know I wouldn’t be able to be who I am for the community of Calvin College if I hadn’t gone through what I’ve been through. 

Heidi: Because my congregation at this point is made up of mostly older people, the discipleship of the elderly is very important to me. And I’m still exploring what that means in my context. I think it means helping people “age on purpose” and age well and not fight against that. Interestingly, when Time magazine recently listed the top ten new ideas changing the world, one of them was “the new Calvinism” and another was “amortality.” There’s this idea that we can fight against aging, which ends up being a fight against a sovereign God who holds all the times in his hands, including my time. We are determined to be in control and not get old. Even in my congregation, there’s this kind of protest against the reality of aging. My father-in-law wrote a wonderful study that I want to use with them called Aging on Purpose, which suggests that there is a “monasticism of aging.” Monastics entered monasteries, and gave things up in order to focus on their relationship to God. There is something about aging where things are stripped away from us; and that giving up of health and vitality sometimes gives people an opportunity to die and rise with Christ in an affirming way. They live more in trust. I love helping people see that discipleship is definitely not over once you’ve done your profession of faith. And clearly they are open to that. 

Duane: This conversation today shows how counter-cultural discipleship really is. We’ve said it’s not efficient. It’s not measurable. It’s not linear. It’s not just an unfolding success story. And in a lot of ways, the excesses and deviations in the church’s ministries that we’ve noted today have at least in part been due to cultural pressures—we want it clear, we want to be able to measure it, we want to be able to have programs that say you’ve graduated, you’ve arrived. Also, it strikes me how ill-equipped an individualistic culture is to truly disciple people. Showing up at church for an hour or two isn’t enough to instill a way of life into people. The young man Reggie was talking about needs a 24/7 community of people around him. I don’t know what the answer for this is. 

Mary: It’s the spiritual disciplines that we’re inviting people into. So yes, it’s all counter-cultural. “Hi, please do that with less money.” “Please control your sex lives.” “Every now and then you should fast from food.” “And you should gather with people who you really don’t like and worship a God you don’t understand. And do that regularly because that would be good for you.” It’s just nonsensical for most of the world. “And yet …” 

Duane: I don’t even like the sound of most of that, and I’m supposed to be for it! 

Mary: “… and yet, you should confess your sins. And you should be aware of them.” Yes, discipleship is counter-cultural and counter everything we want to do in our natural selves. But when you see people you admire who are in their 60s, 70s, 80s, they are the people who have done these things. They’re the people who make you think, “I want to be like that when I grow up.” But guess what, they didn’t wake up one morning like that. It’s a growing up. Discipleship is the Ephesians idea of “growing up into Christ” over a lifetime. 


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