Re-imagining apprenticeship as a model for 21st century Christian discipleship

Being a Christian is less about looking for ways to mechanically apply practical ideas and principles to ones life and more about becoming a living embodiment of the One we’re trying to follow.

The ancient art of apprenticeship communicates just that. As Jeff Goins outlined in a blog post, apprenticeship in ancient times wasn’t a two-week or two-month process, but a totally immersive process where the student at times actually lived in the same house as the teacher - absorbing their ideas, watching their every move, listening to their every word.

Christian discipleship is a totally immersive process that naturally flows into all of life. Click To Tweet

As it relates to Christian apprenticeship, following Jesus is less concerned with looking for ways to add his principles to one’s life and more about modeling our Teacher as a way of life.

While we may start out following Jesus along pragmatic lines as we look for concrete situations into which we can apply Jesus' teachings, the process needs to grow into a more natural outflow of one's total life, rather than a mechanistic, almost robotic like, application of principles from a 'to do' list.

  • The former feels like we’re trying to add something to life from the outside-in. The latter flows naturally from the inside-out.
  • The former follows only for pragmatic reasons. The latter is an expression of life.
  • The former doesn’t require relationship. The latter assumes it.
  • The former views principles as good things that will make life better - as in good advice. The latter views the story of Jesus as good news that changes the very course of one’s entire life.
  • The former picks and chooses principles based on personal preference. The latter sees the entire Jesus-story as an all-encompassing, ethos-shaping lifestyle.
  • The former can lead to moralism that demands we follow a system of rules and obligations. The latter leads to adopting a posture of grace and mercy towards oneself and others.

Discipleship is first and foremost about being - not doing

Discipleship is first and foremost about being. It is an identity we embrace and become. It is an active and ongoing participation with Christ in his life, death and resurrection, in the power of the Holy Spirit. It has never been something we add to our life as a periphery item, but something that defines the very essence of who we are as Christ-followers.

Christian discipleship is first and foremost about being, not doing. Click To Tweet

Just before his ascension, Christ told the first group of disciples, in reference to the soon outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that they would BE his witnesses (Acts 1:8). No doubt his mission entailed doing, but the focus was less on activity, and more on being. For Jesus, witness was first about identity and doing was understood to be an outflow of who they were becoming.

Can discipleship be restricted to a church-based program?

If we make discipleship into a program, people may begin to see it as something they can either opt-in or opt-out of, as though discipleship is an optional piece of equipment within the Christian life. However, when we begin to view discipleship, not as something we add to our lives, but as something we are by virtue of always being in Christ, the opt-in/opt-out mentality will no longer have any space to exist.

Making discipleship into a program may lead some to believe they can opt-in or opt-out of it. Click To Tweet

Church-based discipleship programs can provide a place for people to be introduced to a larger group of people who are intentionally seeking to learn what it means to be followers of Jesus within a community. And, for this reason, we shouldn't completely deny a place for the structure a program can provide.

Having said that, we also need to be careful that the program is understood to be a means to an end and not the end in itself. Otherwise, people may begin to interpret discipleship solely through the lens of a program and miss the holistic nature inherent to discipleship.

Therefore, to limit discipleship to a program is to fundamentally misunderstand what following Jesus actually entails. Discipleship programs can and do serve a purpose in a local church setting, but discipleship must also extend past the context of a discipleship program lest those involved eventually come to define discipleship exclusively along programmatic lines.

To limit discipleship to a program is to misunderstand what following Jesus actually entails. Click To Tweet

We also need to be cautious over the program becoming an exclusive club that limits membership to a select few friends, while leaving strangers out in the cold.

We should never form discipleship groups on the basis of who we like or shared interests, effectively closing the doors to outsiders and those different from us. The very essence of discipleship is diversity and any church-based program that jeopardizes diversity needs to be carefully analyzed and restructured accordingly.

Following Jesus is a lifestyle that flows from the inside-out

The ancient art of apprenticeship as an immersive process is an idea Christians should begin to reflect on as they begin to re-imagine what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century. More than simply looking for practical outlets where we can apply the principles of Jesus to our lives, apprenticeship draws our attention away from a principle-based following to a lifestyle-based following.

While it may be practical for newer believers to look for ways to apply Jesus' ideas to life as they learn to navigate how their newfound faith impacts everyday living, we need to intentionally move forward within the discipleship process by immersing ourselves inside the Jesus-story until the Jesus-story begins to flow out naturally from the inside-out, touching every facet of our existence.

In essence, to be a Jesus-follower is to center one's entire life in Jesus, within a community, and to allow the Jesus-at-the-center model to form and shape us into Jesus-looking people. We are called by the Holy Spirit to give ourselves over to Jesus so that his life and story can begin to inhabit us and be lived out through us with an ever-increasing depth and clarity.

To be a Jesus-follower is to center one's entire life in Jesus, within a community. Click To Tweet

However, Jesus-at-the-center can never remain at the application-of-principles stage. We must follow the Spirit of Jesus into a life that flows with life-giving water - touching everything and everyone around us with the newness of life only the Spirit can bring.

So, in the end, following Jesus is not about applying principles to the exterior circumstances of life, but about immersing ourselves in his life and message until his life and message begins to immerse itself in each of us, flowing out from us into the world around us.

Only then can we truly say that Jesus is the heart of discipleship.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jeff is a columnist with ChristianWeek, a public speaker, blogger, and award-winning published writer of articles and book reviews in a variety of faith-based publications. He also blogs at

About the author