3 Styles of Discipleship

America is the most resourced nation in history when it comes to tools for discipleship. And while that’s a great gift, it means that sometimes our styles of discipleship have been more influenced by a Western culture than we might think. We can find ourselves building approaches that reduce people, making them into their thoughts, or reducing them to their emotions, or focusing on their actions, as if that’s all we are.

As a pendulum swing against that danger, some of us have built discipleship methodologies that neglect all the human faculties, as if we are souls rather than embodied souls. But true discipleship does not neglect human faculties, or reduce us to pieces of ourselves – it engages the whole person.

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The Three Styles of Discipleship

Management-style Discipleship Hyper-spiritual Discipleship Whole Person Discipleship
Vision We reduce people to thoughts feelings and actions. We neglect these faculties as if people are merely souls. Whole Person Discipleship engages with our thoughts, feelings and actions as the means through which God builds faith in the soul.
How People Change We can change people by training them in the way we are strongest. We have no role to play in changing people. We disciple people by engaging the whole person.
What Success Looks Like Success looks like changing thoughts, feelings or actions. Success is impossible to see. Success is faith and impacts our whole person.

How Do People Change?

In Management-Style Discipleship we think we can change people by approaching them either through their thoughts, feelings or actions, and we determine which one – based on our own strengths. We each have an unconscious bias towards a particular human faculty, and we can’t help but think if we could influence that part of another human, they will be changed.

  • Those strong in thinking tend to think – if thoughts are right then people will start to feel rightly and act rightly. But the demons think rightly – evidencing that right thoughts about God don’t equal worship.
  • Those more in tune with emotions think that if a heart can just feel and experience the love or truth about God, then their mind and actions will follow. But Jesus talks about our hearts following our actions in Matthew.
  • Those strong in ‘doing rightly’ affirm that Matthew truth. They may not articulate it but their discipleship often looks like ‘just obey! Even if you’e not sure what you think! Even if you don’t feel it!’ But the Pharisees did everything right. Paul says He was blameless but not reborn. And David prays that God would enlarge his heart so that he could run in the commands.

In the Hyper-Spiritual Discipleship style, we think that changing people doesn’t really involve us. It’s God’s work. And while it’s true that transformative discipleship is God’s work, by His power alone, He works through us.

In Whole-Person Discipleship we disciple people by engaging the whole person. We know that transformation is from faith. We know that any change we’re going to see in someone is going to come through the Spirit empowering them to believe, but that is going to be done – not regardless of these faculties – but through all these faculties. People are gloriously complicated, and in Whole-Person Discipleship we see is that we are far more entangled then we would like. If we’re going to disciple people to worship God with all their faculties, it’s going to mean engaging their thoughts, their feelings and their actions.

What Is Success?

In Management-Style Discipleship, as our vision is reductionistic, our goals for people are too. We function as if controlling or shaping thoughts, feelings or actions is the same as discipleship. We build our discipleship groups around changing the way people think, or holding thing them accountable to certain behaviors or providing counseling-style spaces where their emotions can be shaped. We seek behavior modification, emotional modification, or theological modification.

In Hyper-Spiritual Discipleship we tend to think our peoples thoughts, feelings and actions don’t matter. We behave as if faith will not impact these things.

But Whole-Person Discipleship seeks transformation from faith for faith. And while it is a slow, and often counter-cultural journey, true faith does infect all our faculties – our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions.

  • Faith is not less than thoughts, but more. Faith is not merely right thinking, (even the demons believe true things about God), but it is not less than right thinking. Our brains must have the true explanations to hand us when we encounter experiences that challenge and change us.
  • Faith is not less than feelings, but more. Faith is not merely right feeling. As Jonathan Edwards pointed out, there are things in this Gospel of ours that cause emotions to rise regardless of the treasuring of Christ. However, it is not less than feelings. Our emotions are addressed throughout the Bible, and we see in the person of Jesus someone who honors God through His feelings.
  • Faith is not less than actions, but more. Faith is not merely acting in line with God’s commands. Paul calls himself blameless under the law, but he counts that behavior as nothing apart from faith. However, if you love God, He claims you will pursue obedience.

We are complex creatures, and when we reduce one another we rob ourselves of the chance to embrace our human design and watch God work through that design to plant faith in the deepest parts of our souls; we miss out on the chance of using our Whole Personhood to change our Whole Personhood.

Want to go deeper and get personal coaching to grow in holistic discipleship?

Check out this Coaching Cohort with Fabs Harford: