When does discipleship start?

There are a group of guys who are all part of a team that plays in a Christian Football League. Throughout the league a high value is placed on fair play, honesty, integrity and respect. They invite their friends who aren’t yet Christians to come along and play too. They pray together before and after training and games. At their celebrations and Christmas do’s they share a Bible thought. When good and bad things happen in their lives they pray for each other.

These guys play together, there’s a mutuality of friendship. One of the lads who isn’t a Christian has commented on how he loves being part of this group because of how they make him feel and the sense of contentment among the group that he hasn’t seen in other people. Another has asked to start exploring the Bible.

Neither of these lads has made a faith commitment, so ask yourself this: Where is discipleship present in that story?

Ryan Wileman, Salvation Army Pioneer Leader, was challenged in his view of discipleship when someone asked him the question, ‘When did Jesus disciples get saved?’ Since then he has been mulling over what discipleship looks like; here he shares just a few thoughts.

When did Jesus disciples get ‘saved’? We don’t know too much about the faith experiences of these people prior to them following Jesus, apart from the fact that at the point at which Jesus called them they weren’t following anyone else; all we know is that Jesus said ‘Come, follow me’ and they went. Did they have any idea what they were letting themselves in for? Possibly not! But being part of this Christian Football League and being present in what God is doing in the Westfield estate of Sheffield, where we work and having been asked this question I am now coming to the conclusion that actually discipleship can happen outside of what we would stereotypically define as a Christian faith commitment.

The lads we play alongside in that football team have never been forced to become a Christian. We have just lived life alongside one another, they have been discipled in what that means for us personally; although they would never use this language. Anything that has happened has been reactive to the questions that they have asked.

There’s perhaps a history within the church of defining discipleship into a neat ‘post Salvation’ box. This person has given their life to Jesus, now they start their discipleship journey. A few years ago that is what I would have thought.

There is a family in Westfield who have committed to attending the Messy Church  that we run in partnership with  the local Anglican church. They attend church most weeks and they volunteer to help with Messy Church activities. Their children are going to be baptised soon. Yet they themselves haven’t made an overt faith commitment. If we keep within our neat ‘post Salvation’ discipleship box where are they on the discipleship journey?

And then there’s the idea of discipleship as just the ‘academic’ learning.

Perhaps when we pigeon-hole the elements of Christianity into separate things – eg. worship, mission, prayer, social action and discipleship – then we miss the richness of what discipleship is.

Jesus modelled holistic discipleship, which included all of those other factors but didn’t separate them up. The learning of the disciples was everyday. They were present when people were asking questions of Jesus. They were still present when the question asker had gone and they could delve further into the meaning of it. It was in the proximity of life that Jesus discipled them in all things. But it was also hugely practical. They worshipped, they prayed, they healed people, they evangelised; all of this was part of their discipleship experience.

Perhaps then we need to take discipleship out of the box we may have neatly packaged it into and turn it into more of an umbrella that covers every aspect of our Christian living?


Article by Ryan Wileman and Jo Edwards