What Does Discipleship Mean, Anyway?: Making Clear Distinctions and a Clear Vocabulary

June 30, 2014


One of the early steps in the analysis of our nearly 250(!) interviews has been to separately define the oft-overlapping concepts of Discipleship, Evangelization, Stewardship, and Engagement. In each interview, the pastor talks about many or all of these things—but not with a shared vocabulary. As we analyze the pastors’ responses, we want to be careful to compare apples to apples.

So, how do you separate these four concepts? In some sense, ‘discipleship’ can be so broadly interpreted that it becomes synonymous with ‘Christianity’ and subsumes the other three concepts. This was rarely what each pastor meant when he said ‘discipleship’, however—making the umbrella definition, though of theological interest, unhelpful for our purposes.

After some brainstorming, we have defined each of these concepts as follows:

Discipleship—growing in relationship with Jesus.

In the interviews, pastors typically refer to ‘discipleship’ as a movement or program within their parish, intended to promote the committing of oneself to Christ not as a privatized plan of salvation, but as a radical blueprint (or set of imperatives) for one’s life.

Evangelization—sharing a) the Gospel or 2) one’s own (personal) testimony of life in Christ with believers or nonbelievers.

Certainly, some pastors do conceptualize evangelization as a component of discipleship—as the “disciple-making” piece of that to which Jesus has called each of us. However, we suspect most pastors made a clean distinction between these two concepts, and spoke of them separately.

Engagement—the measurement of the extent to which something appears to be happening. In our interviews, pastors usually are speaking of either discipleship or evangelization.

Stewardship—giving to the church (financial contributions, volunteerism, etc.).

What do you think of these definitions?

Remember, our goal was not to define these terms as we think they ought to be defined, with full theological freight, but to try to capture—with some simplicity—what most pastors would mean when they use these words.

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