Jesus’ final instruction to His followers was to “make disciples.” He gathered them together following His resurrection, then, just before He ascended back into heaven, gave them that familiar command in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).
They were to carry on His work after He was physically gone from them. He had spent three years with the 12 Apostles, or “those sent on a mission,” and now He was leaving them on earth to actively and intentionally do what He had trained them to do.
Practically anyone who has been around church ministry ever since has understood that the imperative of the church is to make disciples. However, the subject of discipleship has had its ups and downs in the church’s priority list throughout history. It seems as if the subject of discipleship is a trend that bubbles to the surface in a recurring, cyclical fashion every so often in the chronicles of church life.
Christ never intended discipleship to be just another trend. He modeled it as a method of ministry training with His own disciples and He instructed His followers to make it the focus of their ministries after He went back to heaven.
Discipleship in a Time of Social Distancing
Of course, there have been other times in the history of the church when God’s people have had to practice the discipline of “social distancing.” Right now, COVID-19 seems to have moved ministry online. God’s church has begun to use technological tools such as Facebook Live and Zoom to connect with people during the time when public gatherings are not encouraged.
Discipleship, the practice of doing life with an influential teacher, seems to have moved to the background. Planning, recording, and live streaming the church’s weekend services has become the current priority for the church.
Church leaders recognize the importance of making the worship services available to the largest number of people and are making that aspect of their ministries take precedence in their time and schedules.
Believers can be thankful for the ability to use technology for ministry. The internet has provided an invaluable opportunity to connect with people and to still do ministry and outreach even in times of virtual isolation from other people.
Yet, many ministry leaders have verbalized the experience of technological overload. One writer referred to what has become “Zoom fatigue,” which could be defined as the stress that comes from watching or participating in an excess amount of online meetings. The last thing God’s people really need right now is one more cyber-meeting.
Is Digital Discipleship Possible?
Ministry leaders have an abundance of choices to make about the use of their time and energy during the days of this pandemic and the resulting time of social distancing. Some, indeed, are choosing to make the weekend worship and preaching services their priority, while others are deciding to concentrate on developing and enhancing interpersonal relationships. With that in mind, many churches have ramped up their small group ministries, knowing that the individual spiritual development of people must be emphasized.
In that regard, a question begs to be asked. Is it possible to disciple people digitally?
Throughout Scripture, the concept of discipleship, especially in Christ’s ministry with the 12 and the Apostle Paul’s role with young men (like John Mark, Timothy, Silas, and Titus), was seen as a training pursuit where individuals were selected by the teacher to spend time following them and learning from them as life happened. This is the very idea behind what Christ asked of Simon Peter and Andrew in Mark 1:17, when He simply said, “Follow Me.”
Discipleship Can Be Practiced During This Crisis
Making disciples is what Christ left His followers on earth to do. That was their mandate then, and it is still the overreaching directive of the church today. No matter what the current circumstances are, the imperative of discipleship in the Great Commission is to be the emphasis.
There are some universal disciple-making principles in the Bible that can be implemented no matter what the circumstances are in culture. In other words, “Yes” — it is possible to disciple people digitally. Here are some thoughts to consider.
1. Jesus’ vision for discipleship was clear. In perhaps the most familiar account of Jesus calling His disciples in Luke 5:1-11, is the story of Christ teaching out of Peter’s fishing boat and then instructing those early disciples to “Launch out into the deep” for an incredible catch of fish. That’s when He shared with them His vision for what was to become their new responsibility, “From now on you will catch men.” The result was that “they forsook all and followed Him.”
There was no ambiguity. Peter and Andrew and James and John witnessed the Lord do something great and they responded in kind. If the Lord could do this miracle, He could work in the lives of men as well. This was exactly what they wanted, and so they followed Him whole-heartedly. The principle here is that Jesus told these followers exactly what His vision was for them, and they responded accordingly.
Disciples today should implement this principle as well. Christ motivated His followers by giving them a vision of something much bigger than their current worldly endeavors. Once they understood the big picture, they were willing to walk away from their normal everyday pursuits to be involved in this new initiative.
Leaders and teachers must do that with their disciples today, as well. Only then will followers see the need to put the trivial matters of life on the back burner for something that matters for eternity.
2. Genuine discipleship requires time. Spending time together may be the chief hallmark of authentic discipleship. Christ made that clear very early on in His discipling process with the 12. Mark 3:13-14 says, “And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted. And they came to Him. Then He appointed twelve, that they might be with Him…” History records that Jesus spent the next three years of His life with these men in this organized and strategic training endeavor.
There’s no getting around this today. Time must be the key ingredient of any discipling relationship. The teacher must spend quality time with learners — and this will undoubtedly be the rub today. People do not have much time to give, but perhaps the current stay-at-home order concerning the coronavirus situation has altered human scheduling to the point where people have more time to give.
Leaders will need to coordinate their schedules to include online training sessions, “virtual” Bible studies, and ministry training. It is possible to get together via technology and it is possible to effectively communicate in a variety of ways with disciples today.
3. Making disciples involves teaching. Christ spent a significant amount of time teaching in His ministry with His disciples. The Sermon on the Mount is one such example in Matthew 5-7. That passage begins. “…He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them…” There are numerous other examples woven throughout the gospels that tell of Jesus’ teaching ministry with His followers.
This perhaps is the easiest aspect of digital discipleship today. Recent technological advances provide a host of ways to teach and to present the truth of Scripture online. The internet allows for a world of ultra-creative options that leaders and teachers can use to instruct students in ways that allow for presentation and interaction. The important thing here is to make this ingredient of discipleship a priority in their personal schedules.
4. Discipleship demands ministry training and experience. Christ’s ministry with His disciples was also highly characterized by ministry training. Luke 9 gives the account of how Jesus got his disciples together and “sent them out to preach…” (Luke 9:2). This chapter records His specific instructions of what their ministry should look like. Then verse 10 describes Christ’s follow-up with them.
This is very possible utilizing technology as well. Social media is full of innovative ways local churches have responded to COVID-19. God’s people have responded to the current situation with vigor, enthusiasm, and energy. There are scores of ways leaders can challenge and motivate their people to get actively involved in ministry and outreach even during times of social distancing. The key is to make this a significant ingredient of discipleship. That’s what Christ did.
5. Making disciples requires a commitment. Luke 14:25-33 is an important passage about Christ’s ministry of discipleship. It contains His manifesto on what is required of a disciple. The language is bold and is written in a no-holds-barred manner. “…Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” It’s obvious that true discipleship demands a commitment.
This perhaps is the least-discussed facet of a discipleship initiative today. Culture shouts to keep options open and to only get involved with things after considering all other opportunities. Too many of God’s people are willing, however, to make a commitment to sports or other activities, but not to dedicate themselves to God’s program, the church.
This ought not to be. A true follower of Christ must be willing to commit time and energy to be a disciple. Leaders and teachers must call disciples today to commit as well.
Why Does This Matter?
It’s important to understand that COVID-19 did not thwart Christ’s mandate to His church. Even during the days of social distancing and physical isolation from others, it is possible to disciple people toward Christlikeness — even using digital discipleship methods.
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Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is also the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. He is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.GoingOnForGod.com. Mel has written 13 books on various aspects of youth ministry, including Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for the Church. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.