We live in a culture that overthinks everything. I have to admit I’m infected too, as I’ve rewritten this introduction more than once. Unfortunately, we sometimes overthink things that God meant to be quite simple. One of those things is discipleship.
Paul’s invitation in 1 Corinthians 11:1 is a refreshingly simple thought, even though my heart isn’t always comfortable thinking this way: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (NKJV).
Don’t overthink it.
When we overthink this, we tend to turn discipleship into a program, and too often that’s where we miss our mark. Consider how Paul’s invitation to imitation intersects with Christ’s Great Commission to “make disciples.” Of course, making disciples involves teaching the Bible, but Jesus attached the passive participle “going” to His command before He ends with “teaching.” It seems that discipleship involves motion and takes place in the “going.” I’ve heard discipleship defined as “a long obedience in the same direction.” I think this captures the motion involved with discipleship: We are "going" somewhere together. Following Christ involves others showing us the way. I know I needed that in my Christian walk.
I learned a lot about following Christ from my grandfathers, Herb and Rusty. They served as missionaries in the Netherlands and France. Neither of them intentionally “did” a Bible study with me. But it wasn’t about what they told me to do; it was how they lived the life of Christ. And I could watch their lives up close. Their examples helped me as a teenager and challenged me as a young adult. It wasn’t until later that I connected their examples with the biblical principles that governed their lives.
Could it be that the reason discipleship so often stalls or dead-ends is because we spend more time telling people what to do and not enough time showing them how? A few years ago a friend sent me a quote by Robert Murray M'Cheyne, a 19th century Scottish pastor: “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.” I think he’s right. And I think we underthink our own holiness in discipling others.
Don’t underthink it.
I recently read that our overthinking problem is that we “underthink.” We may think too much about the details, because we haven’t thought enough about the steps that make up the bigger picture. So let me break it down. Church members have told me they see Sunday’s sermons worked out in our living room. They’ve watched us lovingly— yet firmly—correct our teenagers. Or sipped their coffee while listening to Heather and me work through a decision. They have prayed with us as we struggled to understand God’s direction in life’s circumstances. They’ve heard us ask for and grant forgiveness. Hebrews 13:7 explains that this is how God designed it to work: “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.” That’s essentially saying: “Imitate your pastors, as they imitate Christ!”
A young lady grew up in our camp ministry and spent many a weekend during her 20s in our home. She played with our kids, chased our dog, shared meals with us, and enjoyed long walks with Heather. She tells us we invested in her life and taught her so much. We never did a one-on-one Bible study; we just opened our home to her.
An engaged man asked me to help him prepare for marriage. I invested a few evenings in focused Bible study and gave him homework assignments. But he told me he’s learned more from seeing me clean up after dinner and hearing me honor Heather with words of love. We once talked about confession and forgiveness while lifting weights at the local gym. He’s one of our deacons now.
Now “imitate me, as I imitate Christ” offers us a proper qualifier, because none of us imitate Christ perfectly. But it’s not about the parts of your life that still need work; it’s about those parts that do imitate Christ.
Discipleship is following Christ and inviting others to join you in your “going.” So don’t just tell people to follow Christ … ask them to join you as you follow Him.
Don’t overthink it.
Daniel Boyd is the third generation of his family to build Christ’s church in the Netherlands. He and his wife, Heather have three sons: Cole, Luke, and Joel.