Radical Discipleship

The one ingredient missing in many of today’s churches is radical discipleship.[1] Radical discipleship was the norm for the early Christians.

So what is radical discipleship? It is allowing every facet of one’s life to be shaped by the life of Jesus. It’s more than attending a membership class or attending worship or even being a tither. It’s to walk and talk and act like Jesus. Radical discipleship is of such nature that if we even come close to it in our daily lives, others will want to know what we have that they don’t have, which opens the door for us to share our faith.

Radical discipleship is both father and mother to any authentic church and that leaves a lot of our churches lacking. The following explores what radical discipleship looks like in action.

The Problem

The problem with talking about radical discipleship is that we have seen too few examples of it over the past sixty or seventy decades. Most branches of Christianity are producing consumers of Christianity. We’ve seen decades of church shoppers looking for the best deal for their soul. It is now so bad in the U.S. that most pastors are delighted if their parishioners simply show up.

We’ve witnessed one attendance program after another focused on getting people “back to church.” There is even a national “Back to Church Sunday.” Most churches don’t disciple anyone today, much less disciple them radically. The word disciple is so watered down that it means little more than being a member of a church who shows up on a regular basis. A radical disciple doesn’t have to be encouraged to show up on Sunday morning or become involved in mission projects, or share their faith with their neighbors – they just do it, because that’s who they are. They are radical about their faith.

Now if the use of the word “radical” bothers you I understand. No one wants to be radical like ISIS. I’m using the term in the context of the life of Jesus. Nothing could be more radical than laying down one’s life for someone you don’t even know. In this context, radical means being like Jesus, and Jesus isn’t going to ask a person to strap on a bomb and explode it in the midst of a shopping mall. But he does want to reshape our lives such that they become totally new in every way. And that is radical!

Radical discipleship means being obedient to every command of Jesus – even our sex lives (I’m sure that got your attention!). Whether at work or play or even in the bedroom, Jesus must be Lord of our lives and shape how we conduct ourselves. Radical discipleship conjures up words like servant and obedience – words that few people in the U.S. use very often today.

Radical Discipleship is More than Leadership Development

People are always confusing leadership development with radical discipleship. Obviously both are important, but few churches see the distinction. It is this distinction that prepares people to be true disciples of Jesus. So compare the following:

Leadership Development              Radical Disciple

Taking charge                                           Surrendering to Jesus

Confident                                                   Obedient

Sure of one’s self                                      Relying on the Holy Spirit

Advancement is important                    All that matters is His will

Learn a skill                                               Learn to be like Jesus

The mark of a good leader is someone who can take charge and make things happen. But just the opposite is true for radical disciples. They must acknowledge that, without Jesus, they don’t have any real authority or power.

Discipleship Pipeline

Developing a discipleship pipeline is crucial to seeing radical discipleship emerge from the crowd. A discipleship pipeline is simply whatever method a church uses to move people from the pew to mission field. It is the ABC’s of radical discipleship. Although how it is done doesn’t really matter, in all of the cases I’ve seen, it is done through small groups that do life together.

So what does radical discipleship look like?

Radical discipleship usually begins in a small group because it’s rare for radical disciples to be the result of merely participating in worship. Instead, radical disciples are formed in a safe, small, intimate community of faith where a people do life together and feel comfortable exploring their personal and spiritual issues and learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

These groups usually have three goals: one, to help people grow closer to Christ and to one another; two, to provide a small community where everyone is known by name and feels safe; and three, to mentor and raise up future leaders. Of course there is Bible study, but the emphasis isn’t what happens in the head, but what happens in the heart. Application of the Bible is more important to these groups than knowledge.[2] Learning how to be obedient to Jesus’ commands is what these small groups are about.

Most Christian leaders today have a head full of information about the Bible. Most of us are educated well beyond our level of obedience. But knowledge without application results in less than radical disciples. The more we know, the less time we have to apply what we are learning. It’s not what we know that will change the world; it’s how we love others and share the Good News that will ultimately win back the West for Christianity.

Perhaps the best way to describe radical discipleship is by sharing some questions that might be asked in these small groups. [3]

  • Where have I sinned today and what am I going to do about it?
  • Am I willing to follow every command of my Lord and Savior?
  • Am I willing to go wherever God asks me to go?
  • What does it mean for me to give my life according to the demands of the gospel?
  • How can my life repeatedly be molded by the pattern of Jesus’ servanthood?
  • What are the daily implications of loving my enemies?
  • What temptations have I had today and what did I do about them?
  • What is God doing in your life this week?
  • Where are you struggling?
  • How can we pray for you?

As you read these questions, you can easily see why normal Sunday School is drastically different from small groups that make disciples. Sunday School is focused on learning the Bible, and seldom, if ever, would a person feel comfortable enough to confess their sins or talk about their temptations in class.

Radical discipleship is being remade in the image of Christ. As Paul says, “… if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”[4] Radical discipleship is being on the road to mission with Jesus. Instead of trying to take our people deeper and deeper into personal growth, we should be encouraging them to take part in what God is already doing in the world. After all, it’s not about us; it’s about those who have not yet responded to the Good News.

Words that Hamper Radical Discipleship

Often the words we use betray where our heart and head really are and what we value. In order to better understand radical discipleship, let’s examine some words that get in the way of radical discipleship.

Clergy and Laity

Making a distinction between clergy and laity is a killer for radical discipleship because it divides God’s people into two classes – experts and novices. Oh, that may not have been the original attempt, but that is the result. Maybe you’ve heard someone say when asked to do something important for God, “But I’m just a lay person.” For our purposes, the use of the terms implies that clergy are the ones to do the real ministry and the laity are let off the hook.


Just as the clergy/laity distinction makes laypeople into second-class citizens when it comes to ministry, ordination does the same – it sets a person apart from the rest of the church. If we are going to use the word, it must apply to everyone.


Volunteers give you what they want to give you, when they want to give it to you, and how they want to give it to you. For most volunteers, everything depends on the situation. There is nothing radical about a volunteer. Volunteers won’t sell their home and business and move to another city to plant a church, but servants will.

I entered THE ministry

This is a favorite saying of many clergy members, and it is deadly because it alludes to the belief that ministry is something special. Let’s get honest: full-time ministry is just one of many callings. There’s nothing special about being an ordained pastor, and as long as we think there is, we will be saddled with volunteers rather than servants.

Programs and Committees

How in God’s name we devised such things as programs and committees, I’ll never know. The Devil made us do it, I guess. We have so many of these that the last thing most pastors want to hear of is another program like making disciples.

An Example

The best model for radical discipleship I’ve seen is the fractal model that New Hope Oahu uses. To be a leader in that church you have to be mentoring three people. I saw this firsthand. The lady running the snow cone machine had a couple of people watching to see how to do it. The person running the PowerPoint had two or three people standing behind him learning how to do it. I peeked into an elementary classroom and saw a couple of adults sitting a corner learning how to teach. [5]

Final Thoughts on Radical Discipleship

My experience with young adults has taught me that they either commit to something 150% or they want nothing to do with it. There is not much middle ground to them. They already live in a world filled with too much gray. The last thing they want from Christianity is a middle-of-the-road faith. They are looking for some solid, loving, and authentic community that will produce results. Either we produce those kinds of churches and people or we will miss entire generations of people.

Question: How and where have you seen radical discipleship put into practice? Share your experiences in the Comments section below.


[1] The Webster definition of ‘radical’ is: very new and different from what is traditional or ordinary; very basic and important. In other words, it refers to something that relates to or fundamentally affects the nature of something; it’s far-reaching or thorough. ‘Radical discipleship’ is a term that means to be committed beyond what is accepted or what is going on in and around you. In our case it means being obedient to all the commands of Jesus.

[2] These small groups are so important that some thriving churches make attending one a prerequisite to joining.

[3] I have drawn some of the following questions from the works of Wesley and the Anabaptists and added some myself.

[4] II Cor. 5:17

[5] For more information on the Fractal system, read the book Doing Church as a Team, by Wayne Cordeiro.

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