Discipling the whole person

Expand your understanding of discipleship from what we do to who we are—and then how we convey that to our members.

Scott Ward, DMin, previously a youth pastor and teacher, is an assistant professor of discipleship and lifespan education.
David Sedlacek, PhD, researcher, is a professor of family ministry and discipleship and chair of the Department of Discipleship and Lifespan Education.
Rogelio Paquini, DMin, previously a church planter and lead pastor of young adult congregations, is an assistant professor of youth and young adult ministries.
Jasmine Fraser, PhD, having served the church in various discipleship roles, is an assistant professor of discipleship in lifespan education and director of the PhD program in discipleship and lifespan education.

The concept of discipleship is often misunderstood solely as something we do. We, as ministerial professionals, study the Scripture with people, baptize them, and encourage them to tell others about Jesus. Some see discipleship mostly as equipping members to serve in church ministry offices. While we must do such things, who we are as disciples is as important as what we do—especially as pastors.

Fundamentally, discipleship is relationship, and the goal of relationship with Jesus is transformation—to become more like Him in the ways we love and the things we do. For that reason, how we treat each other and help each other grow as persons have a great impact on becoming healthy disciples of Jesus. So first of all, pastors need to see themselves as disciples who need to be nurtured closer to the heart of God so that they can then share what they personally have with others.1 Then we also need to consider other influences that hinder disciples from fully experiencing Jesus and living for Him.

Overview and definition

Although the core of discipleship is devotional life, a relationship with Jesus is not one size fits all. Church members come in endless varieties and speak hundreds of different languages representing wide ranges of cultures and relationship dynamics. Differences in how we love and learn affect how we engage in relationships—including that with Jesus.

Additionally, every generation reacts to the one before it through new ways of thinking and interacting. That is why we often have generational conflict and/or disconnect in our congregations. Furthermore, the fact that we are all living in a sinful world where we are all victims of various afflictions and abuses also disturbs our ability to have healthy relationships with Jesus and other humans.

As ministry leaders from diverse cultures, languages, and temperaments, we often have both differences and similarities in the ways we interact with Jesus. Both our differences and similarities challenge us to assess the individual and collective needs for discipleship in our congregations as we seek to develop approaches to meet their needs. As we consider relevant approaches to discipleship, I (Scott Ward) would like to offer my working definition of discipleship and unpack some of its implications through the framework of “discipleship and the devotional life.”

Leading people

All leaders work by example whether they know it or not—actions are more powerful than words. You cannot lead others into what you do not have—especially regarding a personal relationship with Jesus.

Healthy growth, according to Adventist education, is nurtured by addressing body, mind, and spirit.

  • Body is both physical and emotional and is affected by trauma.
  • Mind is both cognitive and affective and involves various learning styles, love languages, and temperaments.2 Culture and generational location impact both.
  • Spirit is our experience with Jesus via the Holy Spirit. It may also involve spiritual warfare and battling demonic influences and oppression/depression—the great controversy.

All three areas work together for optimal health and growth, and all need to be nurtured by effective discipleship practices to produce healthy followers of Jesus.

The relationship is between people and Jesus. The relationship with Jesus is greatly shaped by the community of people with people.

Now, with an understanding of the discipleship process, we will look at discipleship within various ministry contexts. Anything that affects our relational dynamics (positively or negatively) with Jesus or others cannot be excluded from our discipleship journey. When we regard all our experiences as opportunities for healing and nurturing, we are more likely to grow into healthy disciples displaying the fruit of the Spirit.

Discipleship and trauma
(David Sedlacek)

We live in a fallen world. As a result, hurt, pain, and trauma interfere with a person’s ability to trust God. Since discipleship, by definition, is assisting a person to develop a loving, intimate relationship with God, Satan’s goal is to interfere in the discipling process as much as possible. He does so in several ways. He knows that the iniquity of parents affects children to the third and fourth generation (Deut. 5:9). Modern science confirms this biblical reality.

Both genetics and parental modeling make children vulnerable to household trauma in forms such as divorce, mental illness, addiction, or parents in prison. Even more directly, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in the home, domestic violence, or the emotional and physical neglect of basic needs can be traumatic. Additional types of trauma include living in an unsafe neighborhood, bullying, or being exposed to a mass shooting. Environmental trauma, such as damage from a flood, earthquake, tornado, or hurricane, can create anxiety and hypervigilance.

The goal of discipling broken, traumatized individuals is to give them such an experience of unconditional love (through safe communities or a therapeutic counseling process) that, rather than living with anxiety or hypervigilance, they will be able to open their hearts to God’s love (1 John 4:18). Safe communities might involve Christ-centered 12-step programs such as Journey to Wholeness, or they might include men’s or women’s groups that focus on emotional healing. Professional interventions must be strongly encouraged and should be trauma-focused and include an experiential element. The healing of wounds received in relationships best occurs in ways that include both cognitive and experiential components.

It is vital to understand a person’s life journey so we can better understand the next steps in discipleship for that individual and how we can best support them.3

Discipleship and culture
(Rogelio Paquini)

Youth discipleship is where young people can come together, grow in their faith, and build community. In this context, culture and spirituality intersect. Culture informs how young people understand and engage with spirituality, and spirituality forms the culture of youth ministry. A working definition of culture is “the comprehensive, penetrating context that encompasses life and thought, art and speech, entertainment and sensibility, values and faith.”4

In many groups, a desire for independence and belonging, and a search for meaning and purpose define youth culture.5 The way young people approach spirituality and faith reflects their particular culture. They want to understand their beliefs and practices in a way that makes sense to them and desire to express their spirituality in ways meaningful and relevant to their experiences.

One of the primary challenges of youth ministry is enabling young people to explore their faith and spirituality in a safe and supportive environment. Good discipleship practices require an open and inclusive culture that encourages young people to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings. A study indicates that 36 percent of 13- to 25-year-olds agree “they don’t have anyone to talk to.”6 Youth ministers and other leaders in youth ministry must demonstrate a willingness to listen and engage in open and honest conversations with those in their care.

Relating to other cultures is essential in youth ministry discipleship because it helps young people broaden their perspectives and develop empathy for those different from them. Diversity is a gift.7 Exposure to diversity can lead to increased understanding and acceptance of various cultural practices, beliefs, and values. When young people connect with others from different backgrounds, they are more likely to be open-minded and accepting of diversity. Relating to other cultures can promote spiritual growth and a deeper understanding of God’s love for all people, regardless of their background. While young people are growing progressively diverse, most ministry methods and resources still have not been contextualized.8

A biblical-theological framework (Jasmine Fraser)

A biblical-theological framework for understanding and practicing discipleship centers on the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19, 20) to preach, teach, and baptize. However, we must not miss the practicality of discipleship expressed throughout Jesus’ life in His relationships with people, particularly the 12 men in His inner circle.

Jesus is the ultimate model of discipleship. He modeled what He taught, showing His disciples what devotional life with the Father looked like (Mark 1:35; Matt. 11:25–30; John 17). Jesus also modeled what is involved in meeting His disciples’ emotional needs. Through compassion and empathy, He addressed each disciple’s physiological and psychological needs (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; John 11:32–38). The apostle Paul also tells us that Jesus was “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15, KJV), confirming His compassionate and empathetic approach to discipleship.

It is also necessary to understand the pivotal role of the Holy Spirit in the discipleship process. Paul discusses various gifts the Holy Spirit gives for building healthy relationships and communities (Eph. 4:1–12). Then, in verses 14 to 16, he emphasizes the reason and benefits of the discipleship gifts. While the gifts are multifaceted, the common objective is the formation of Jesus in each disciple (v. 13), which leads to maturity.

As we grow in faith, we are empowered to live and speak the truth in love, becoming more like Jesus, who is love and truth. As disciples experience transformation through devotional encounters and relationships with Jesus and in community, they grow in unity, building up the body of Christ.

A relational-communal model approach to discipleship helps us understand the interwoven cords of journeying, obedience, transformation, and serving. We journey with Jesus and others in community and respond daily in obedience to the directive of the Holy Spirit. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, our lives are transformed, and we become conduits of God’s love and truth.

A prayer
(Scott Ward)

My prayer is that pastors and members implement these understandings into the existing discipling activities of their local churches to help deal with the underlying issues that hinder members from deeper relationships with Jesus.

I also pray that many pastors will be able to understand that Jesus wants them to be the healthiest disciples possible so that the fruits of their ministries can flow ever more fully from their own relationship with Jesus and into the lives of the members of the congregations they serve.

  1. To help you in this, I recommend S. Joseph Kidder’s book Journey to the Heart of God (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2019).
  2. I have my students take these inventories to help them discover their personal devotional engagement style.
  3. See David Sedlacek and Renee Drumm, “ ‘My Well Is Empty’: Adverse Childhood Experiences Among Pastors,” Ministry, May 2023, 12–14.
  4. James Emery White, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017), 80.
  5. Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin argue that finding purpose is one of the three main drivers in seeking identity in young people members of Gen Z. Kara Powell and Brad M. Griffin, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2021).
  6. Springtide Research Institute, Belonging: Reconnecting America’s Loneliest Generation (n.p.: Springtide Research Institute, March 2020), 16.
  7. Jennifer A. Guerra Aldana, “Guiding Values for Multicultural Youth Ministry,” Fuller Youth Institute, March 29, 2018, https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/blog/guiding-values-for-multicultural.
  8. Growing Young Adventists is a great initiative in the North American Division for helping with this.

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Scott Ward, DMin, previously a youth pastor and teacher, is an assistant professor of discipleship and lifespan education.
David Sedlacek, PhD, researcher, is a professor of family ministry and discipleship and chair of the Department of Discipleship and Lifespan Education.
Rogelio Paquini, DMin, previously a church planter and lead pastor of young adult congregations, is an assistant professor of youth and young adult ministries.
Jasmine Fraser, PhD, having served the church in various discipleship roles, is an assistant professor of discipleship in lifespan education and director of the PhD program in discipleship and lifespan education.

August 2023

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