“How long should it take to disciple someone?”
Asked the wrong way, that’s a heartless question. “How much time is the salvation and spiritual maturation of another person worth?”
And yet, there is some value in having a loose, flexible idea of the process of discipleship and the timeframe within which it takes place. Perhaps, then, we should ask, “What’s the timeline of discipleship, and what are some of the landmarks along the way that can give us an idea of our progress along that timeline?”
Given this better question, perhaps we can begin to sketch out this “timeline.”
Starting the Timeline With Salvation
Mot of us would say that salvation, of course, makes the beginning of this timeline, but does it? We often start there, in our minds, but let’s rethink that. The saved of God are gathered together into the Church, the Bride of Christ. Are we to assume that we’d be ok with a friend getting engaged after one date? Then why do we assume that people need only one encounter with the Gospel message to accept Christ, to become part of the Bride?
Don’t misunderstand me. The Holy Spirit can awaken anyone’s heart at any time. I’m not trying to put God in a box. My point, however, is this: we are far too impatient when it comes to the timeline of discipleship.
One of the main causes of this is that we do, indeed, consider salvation to be the beginning of discipleship, but is that really the case? Perhaps we should look at how Jesus did it. What did His timeline look like?
From the calling of the first four “fishers” of men to His crucifixion, Jesus worked with His twelve closest disciples, whom He later termed “apostles,” for 3 years. That’s a pretty long amount of time.
When, in that process, did the disciples “get saved”? Was it when He first asked them to follow Him? I don’t know because, at that moment, they didn’t have any idea who He really was.
How about when they realized who He was?
Wait, when was that? When did He ask them who He was? It certainly wasn’t at the beginning of their time with Him. (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:29; and Luke 9:20) Now, I don’t know exactly when this happened, but I would argue that it was in the second to third year of Jesus’ ministry, probably the third. Why? The Transfiguration happens right after, which was when Moses and Elijah came to speak with Jesus about His soon coming trials. The cross was on the horizon, and Jesus was wrapping up His ministry.
Which then means that Jesus worked with these fellows for three year before He put the question to them. Even then, only Peter really demonstrates any faith at that moment—though he soon after exposes his lack of understanding of Jesus’ true mission—though some of the others might have believed without saying so. Of course, some might not have. In John 14, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, how us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Seriously, Philip? He didn’t get it. Did any of them?
That’s all Jesus got for three years of intense discipleship: two handfuls of guys who didn’t get it, one who denied Him, and another who betrayed Him. Were these guys saved? I don’t know. I think that very question demonstrates how little we truly—or maybe only “I”—understand salvation.
For my money, not that I’m allowed to gamble, I’d say that the apostles most likely entered into what we presently know as salvation when, in John 20:22, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit indwells all who have been saved by Jesus. It’s His presence within us that moves us past justification1 and onward toward sanctification.2 When He moves in, we’re saved.
So, if that’s the case, the Gospels are the record of Jesus spending three years with a dozen knuckle-headed sinners who don’t fully understand Him or what He’s trying to do until He’s already done it. Dear friends, that’s discipleship. Discipleship is, in one sense, the process of leading someone to Christ. In another, it’s the process of helping them become more like Christ and follow Him more closely, once they have met Him. In a third sense, it’s a fluid combination of those first two senses with none of the arbitrary distinctions that guys like me need.
Playing the Long Game
Discipleship is a long game. For some of our friends and family, it might be the longest.
It’s a game that’s not played quickly, nor are there very many first-time wins. It takes several matches, several encounters with the opposing team before we even get close to victory.
That might sound discouraging, but it should sound just right, when we we look at what Jesus went through. Discipling doesn’t begin at salvation; it begins when the Holy Spirit leads us to someone who needs discipled.
Don’t think of “discipleship” as teaching a new convert how to be a Christian. Think of it as the whole process of becoming and living as a Christian, which ends only when we enter the presence of our Savior in eternity.
Discipleship is a long journey that starts when we start to live life with those who need Jesus. Whether they know it or not, when we walk with them, they are walking with us, and we are walking with Jesus.
The timeline of discipleship is vague in that there are no signs in the sky or voices from Heaven—at least not usually—to give us sign posts along the way. The starting point isn’t salvation; it’s conversation. “Hi, I’m Phil. What’s your name?” The end point isn’t graduating from a class at church; it’s meeting Christ face to face. What are our goals along the way? Making disciples. Every disciple should make more disciples. How do we know our discipleship efforts are paying off? Our disciples will make more disciples.
Like Jesus’ disciples did. Eventually.
It just takes time.
Justification is the theological term for our sins being wiped away and our receiving the perfect righteousness of Jesus. It’s “just as if” we’d never sinned. It’s like being in an almost incomprehensible amount of debt only to have the richest person in the universe pay it all off and then give you an infinite fortune to enjoy. Yeah, it’s like that. ↩
Sanctification is the process by which we are both made “holy” by being cleansed from sinful habits or ways of thinking and are “set apart” to be used by God for His glory and our good. ↩