Jesus calls us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20, NIV).
Spreading the gospel was Jesus’ final call to action on earth, and it still applies to believers today. But before we can obey the call to “go and make disciples,” we have to understand what it means to be a disciple ourselves.
So, what is a disciple?
According to New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg, “A disciple was an adherent or follower of a master, an intimate companion in some common endeavor, often learning and promoting a particular ideology.”1
In our context, though, a disciple is simply a fully devoted follower of Jesus.
When I think about discipleship, my mind goes to the calling of the first disciples in Matthew 4:18–22.
As Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He called the first disciples—Simon, Andrew, James, and John. What was Jesus thinking when He called them? And what were they thinking when He called them? We may never know the answers to these questions, but what we do know is that He said, “Come.”
It wasn’t a demand or a command, though. It was an invitation to join Him, to spend time together, to do life together. It was an invitation into discipleship.
And it wasn’t a general invitation to everyone on the shore that day either. It was a specific, intentional invitation to four men who Jesus believed could do what He did, live like He did, and say things like He said.
We need to invite students into that discipleship relationship. Jesus calls us all to come and follow Him, but our job as youth pastors and leaders is to extend that invitation to our students, not only with Jesus but with us as well.
An action is then required. “Follow” isn’t necessarily a hard concept, but it is something that we choose to do or not do.
“Come” is an invitation but following is a commitment. There is action required on our part when someone tells us to follow them. With the disciples, following Jesus meant traveling with Him, ethically obeying his teaching and model of God's will.2
The call to discipleship is unconditional, so we have to help students understand what they are saying yes to when they accept Jesus. They have to choose to discipline themselves and put their faith into action on a daily basis. Students need to know that it is ultimately a commitment to a lifestyle that they make for a lifetime.
Through that commitment, there is a connection that is made. As the disciples cultivated a relationship with Jesus, He was saying to them, “Live with me and learn by watching me. Own my values and priorities. Learn to become passionate for the things I live for. And follow my example by doing the ministry I have come to do.”3
There was a connection made because they entered into a relationship with Jesus. Similarly, when we commit to follow Jesus, we also have the opportunity to form a relationship with Him.
And as leaders, it is our responsibility to demonstrate to our students how we connect with Jesus by following His example and commands, and with each other in our discipleship relationship. I believe youth leaders should be able to say to their students the same thing that Paul said in Scripture: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NIV). In order to do that, our example needs to be worth following.
Another thing discipleship requires is submission. Once we enter into that relationship, we have to accept that we cannot go our own way anymore.
The disciples had to put everything they knew—their occupation, families, their way of life—behind them. Because they were venturing out into something new and didn’t know what to do or how to do it, they had to submit to Jesus’ leadership.
Their lives were changed because they surrendered to the discipleship process.
When Jesus calls, it is crucial that our students know they must be willing to realign their previous plans and goals with the truth found in Scripture. We must teach them that once they choose to follow, they are not living for just themselves anymore, nor are they living for what other people want or expect them to do.
Jesus required His disciples to give Him their allegiance, daily count the cost of commitment, and serve others as He did.4 He requires the same of us when we accept His invitation to become a disciple, and as leaders we need to help students recognize this and then work through the process of realigning their plans.
After this, transformation takes place.
Jesus took what His disciples were and made them into something new and something different. But He related the concept to something they understood—fishing. Rather than catching fish, Jesus told them, “I will send you out to fish for people” (Matthew 4:19, NIV). In another translation, He says, “I will make you fishers of men” (ESV, emphasis added).
Jesus said He would “make” them, which means He was going to teach them what they needed to know. They would experience the transformation as they lived alongside Jesus and learned from the way He thought, spoke, and acted.
Leaders, let’s teach students that in order to be a disciple of Jesus we don’t have to know everything all at once. That through the Word of God, prayer, and other disciplines, they can experience transformation in their lives, thoughts, actions, and words. Their discipleship journey is a process, and transformation comes after the commitment to follow and submission to what they’re being called to.
The last thing we focus on is the mission. Jesus called His disciples to follow Him, not just in that moment, but to follow His direction to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19, NIV).
Students need to know that when they choose to follow Jesus, they must commit to this same mission. Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost,” and as believers—if they’re becoming like Him and following His discipleship—it’s their job to do the same (Luke 19:10, NIV).
But decisions still have to be made: will they do it? Will they choose to accept the invitation? Will they choose to act? Will they choose to connect? Will they choose to submit? Will they choose to be transformed? Will they choose to accept the mission?
As a leader, what are you intentionally doing to help your students commit to Jesus? Are you willing to walk with your students through the discipleship process? No matter what you do it won’t be easy. But the investment you make in your students—in making disciples—will be well worth it.
Director of Student Discipleship & Resource Development
1 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 90). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
2 Turner, D., & Bock, D. L. (2005). Cornerstone biblical commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (p. 71). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
3 Weber, S. K. (2000). Matthew (Vol. 1, p. 45). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
4 Barton, B. B. (1996). Matthew (p. 68). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.