4 Keys to a Heart-Level Discipleship

by Jared C. Wilson October 5, 2020

The ongoing need of the church today is a real discipleship at the local level toward greater followship of Jesus. As biblical literacy continues to erode, as various idolatries continue to rival Jesus for evangelicalism’s attention, and as wordliness of all kinds continues to stunt our faith, the urgent need of the day is intensive and relational tutelage in the way of Christ.

So what are we missing? How are we getting discipleship wrong?

For one thing, far too many churches aren’t taking discipleship seriously at all. They expect maturation to occur only by incidental exposure to church programming. And, indeed, Christ-centered worship gatherings and word-centered community/fellowship are integral to congregational discipleship. But on the intentional and relational level, there is still widespread work that has yet to be taken up. But for those who are undertaking personal discipleship, no matter the format or program, we can still fall short of what Christians need to be provoked to good works and goodheartedness for the glory of God.

What can we do? Here are four ways to take your personal discipleship deeper, beyond the mind to the level of the heart.

1. Ask heart-level questions.

A lot of discipleship encounters are solely preoccupied with information transfer. Whether in “discipleship training” classes/programs or in informal, personal meetings, there is often a misconception about discipleship that it is purely about learning more stuff. And to be clear, learning more stuff is vitally important! Transformation begins with the renewing of the mind, and the renewing of the mind begins with knowing more about God from his word. So Bible study — alone and together — is in fact the number one catalyst for spiritual growth. But if we’re only meeting to rehearse what knowledge we’ve learned, we run the risk of replicating hearing of the word without doing.

We need to ask deeper questions than “What are you reading?,” “What did you learn?,” and “What did you memorize?” David Powlison’s X-Ray Questions (pdf) may be helpful here. John Wesley’s accountability questions can be useful too. We need to be asking our disciples about their inner life as much as their intellectual exertion. How are they applying the word in their relationships? Their responses to stressors and challenges? What areas of doubt are they warring against? What sins need to be confessed and crucified. Asking, seriously and intensely, “How are you doing? No, really?” is a great way to go deeper.

You can’t get to heart-level discipleship without asking heart-level questions.

2. Measure deeper.

One problem with discipleship programs past is that churches assume maturity can be measured only by people getting correct answers to Bible questions or checking off successive Bible verse memorization outlines. These are important measurements, but spiritual growth is more deeply measured by spiritual fruit.

How is your time in the word and prayer shaping you as a person?

One important way we measure more deeply is by considering our growth according to the fruit of the Spirit. How are those we’re discipling growing in peace? Patience? Joy? Self-control? Etc.

If we’re training men for maturity, we may look to the biblical qualifications for eldership in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. Our disciple may not aspire (yet?) to eldership, but these qualifications still set a high bar of maturity that men can consider in their own journey.

The fruit of the Spirit and the qualifications for eldership — and other biblical markers of growth in Christ — have a lot more to do with character, disposition, and Christlike personhood than external achievements can reveal. They show us not just how much we’re learning but to what extent we are being conformed to the image of our Savior.

3. Exhort to service.

One inherent danger of personal discipleship is that we inculcate an individualistic faith. Everything becomes about enhancing someone’s personal spirituality, which can inadvertently encourage a privatized spirituality. So the kind of application of our disciples’ faith we encourage is really key.

Do we encourage our disciple to pray not just for their own needs and wants but for the needs and wants of others? Do we encourage them in the way of mission? To seek evangelistic opportunities and to pray for and work toward the welfare of their neighbors? What is their posture toward the lost world? Is it fearful or hostile, or is it loving and compassionate?

Further, how are we encouraging them in their consideration of the fellowship? New believers especially run the danger of contrasting their own zeal and fresh passion for the word and the spiritual disciplines with that of their longer-toothed brethren? “Why isn’t everyone as passionate as me?” is a slippery slope comparison that leads to pride and resentment. Do we encourage our disciples, new and “old,” to love and serve their churches, to “outdo one another showing honor” (Rom. 12:10)? Do we encourage them to serve their church in any way possible?

Model this yourself and accompany them in their service. Set a good example in faithful service and mission, and watch them watch you as you both learn to be active parts of the body rather than lone ranger Christians.

A heart-level discipleship is one that is others-oriented, that gets outside of itself and applies the faith to the love of brethren and neighbor.

4. Arrange a confrontation with Christ.

People are fundamentally changed the way we most ought to change when they intently and consistently encounter the glory of Jesus in his gospel (2 Cor. 3:18). It is grace that trains us (Titus 2:11-12). So all that we do in our discipleship must have Jesus as its focus. More Bible knowledge can be a wonderful thing, but only the gospel found in the Bible is power to change. Only Jesus’ glory makes us more like Jesus. Beholding is becoming. Thus, our discipleship encounters, formal and informal, must be primarily about putting people in the cross-hairs of the grace of Christ.

The law will leverage nobody to treasure Jesus. It can tell us what to do and it can tell us we aren’t great at doing it. Only the “done” of the gospel frees us from the condemnation of our falling short and fuels us to worshipful obedience.

So don’t just tell — show. Show them Jesus. As Bonhoeffer put it, “We meet each other as bringers of the gospel.” A fruitful discipleship relationship is one in which we continuously point each other to the supernatural power of grace; it is one in which we continuously confront each other with the living and supreme reality of Christ himself.