If we are seeking wisdom and understanding about discipleship, we need to look first to Jesus himself. He called the Church to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). But how do we carry out the task of making disciples? We should begin at the beginning. And the beginning of discipleship is Jesus himself: what he said, what he did, and how he went about the task of calling together and raising disciples to work alongside him. He is our primary pattern.
We are not looking for a blueprint in the Gospels that lays down precise rules to follow. Nor are we expecting to find a recipe that tells us exactly what ingredients to add together to produce a “disciple.” We cannot return to the first century and copy what Jesus did in a literal way. Instead, we are seeking to discover patterns of discipleship in the biblical text. How did Jesus go about calling his disciples? What strategies did he employ to teach and form them over time? What can we learn from the record of the Gospels about what Jesus did, so that we become better equipped to call and form disciples in our time?
Before investigating these patterns, we need to take a step back and recognize that Jesus himself provides the primary pattern for what it means to be a disciple. Jesus is our primary example of what a disciple should be. This may sound shocking, but it is important to recognize this. There is a striking prophetic portrait of Jesus in Isaiah—often called the third “Servant Song”—that shows him to be one whose ear is always open to the word of the Lord. He has “an instructed tongue” and speaks only what he hears:
The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious. (Is 50:4-5)
The words that Jesus speaks are not of his own making. He is one who is taught every morning, and he speaks what he hears: “I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me” (Jn 8:28). As a true disciple, Jesus is always looking to his Father in order to carry out his will. He is the true and perfect disciple who listens and sees and then does what the Father shows him to do. He constantly has the Father “in view” and so models for us what it means to become his disciples.
There are many ways of identifying and organizing the patterns for discipleship that we find on the pages of the Gospels. Here I have identified six patterns that display how Jesus called and formed his disciples, and I offer them as helpful guides for our common work of forming missionary disciples in the Church.
1. A disciple is one who decides to “follow after” Jesus.
It is striking how frequently the language of “following” appears in the context of discipleship in all four Gospels. Becoming a Christian disciple is more than just being a religious person or holding a set of religious beliefs. If we are a disciple, we actually follow a person—and that person is Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ day, to follow him had real consequences. It was costly and required commitment. To become a disciple of Jesus meant leaving home and family and setting out on the road, walking behind Jesus, and identifying with his company of friends. Today, we don’t follow Jesus physically by strapping on our sandals and walking behind him down the dusty roads of Palestine, but we are genuinely called to follow him. It means sharing his fate and identifying fully with him.
2. A disciple is one who is taught and tutored by Jesus.
The Gospels make clear that Jesus spent a lot of time teaching. He often taught large crowds of people, once climbing into a boat so that he could address all the people gathered on the shore (Mt 13:2). Jesus also took his hand-picked disciples aside on many occasions and explained to them his teaching in parables. He opened his mind to them and revealed things about the kingdom of God. This teaching was progressive, one thing building on another. The disciples were often slow learners and failed to understand his purpose, but Jesus persevered in patience, instructing them so that they would be ready to carry on his mission. Today, we continue to be taught by Jesus when we open our ears and come to him day by day. He continues to speak in the Scriptures, through the Church, and through the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will continue to teach his disciples (Jn 14:26). The Son and the Spirit remain the primary teachers for Christian disciples, but the disciples themselves also teach others. Teaching is part of forming disciples.
3. Discipleship includes hands-on training and testing.
If teaching provides one essential element in Jesus’ approach to disciple-making, then hands-on training and testing supply another. On many occasions, Jesus allowed practical, daily events to challenge his disciples so that he could train them in the kind of faith they would need in order to weather the greater storms that would come upon them. We cannot duplicate Jesus’ hands-on training by following him around the roads of first-century Palestine. But if we will let him, Jesus continues to train us as disciples through the various circumstances of our lives. He tests and trains us directly, but also through the help of other disciples so that we will be ready to work alongside him in company with our fellow disciples.
4. Disciples are formed in the context of a community of disciples.
When we read the Gospels, we often miss something obvious: Jesus forms his disciples, not one-by-one in a solitary way, but in the context of a community of disciples. We often lose sight of the fact that Jesus almost always speaks and acts in the company of his disciples—sometimes with three of them, sometimes with twelve, sometimes with seventy or more. It is important to see that Jesus is not just forming individual disciples in the context of a communal environment; he is genuinely forming a community of disciples by forming them together. The communal context is not just a means to an end. Jesus is forming a new family, the people of God. Recapturing this communal context for discipleship is an important step in the task for forming Christian disciples today.
5. Training in discipleship includes being sent out on mission.
There is a perennial temptation to think that Christians should be sent out on mission only after they have been fully trained as disciples: first comes the formation in discipleship, and then we are sent out on mission. But this is not the pattern we see in the Gospels. Rather, we see Jesus sending out various groups on mission as part of their training in discipleship. Now the disciples did not always experience success—this, too, is important for training in mission. We often learn more from our failures in mission than from our successes.
6. Jesus led his disciples through an intensive period of formation to equip them for lifelong discipleship and fruitfulness.
In this life, the process of spiritual growth as a disciple of Christ never ends. We are always capable by God’s grace of advancing in holiness and being further transformed into the image of God. Yet the biblical record in the Gospels also shows us the value and importance of a specific period of formation—of apprenticeship—when Jesus worked intensely with his picked disciples, preparing them for their ongoing mission in the world. Discipleship continues for our whole lives, but where possible, it is greatly helpful to provide a period of training, or apprenticeship, for intensive formation as disciples.
In conclusion, Jesus didn’t just call and form disciples. He also called his disciples to make and teach other disciples. A question naturally arises: “Do we really make disciples for Jesus?” Can we bring disciples into being? The short answer is “no.” Christ Jesus is the one who truly “makes disciples.” He is the great discipler. That was true when he walked the earth, and it is still true today. Nonetheless, we are called to be co-workers with Jesus—we have a genuine and important part to play—as he calls and forms disciples.
This article is adapted from Called to Christian Joy and Maturity: Forming Missionary Disciples, by Gordon C. DeMarais and Daniel A. Keating (The Word Among Us Press, 2021).
Dr. Daniel Keating is Professor of Theology at Sacred Heart where he teaches on the Church Fathers, Ecumenism, and the New Evangelization.