Increasingly I’ve noticed that many people confuse or blur the difference between DISCIPLESHIP and SPIRITUAL FORMATION. When I hear people talk about it or write about it or even the way they share their personal spiritual story, it feels like they use each idea interchangeably.

This may sound nit-picky on my part, but I think it has some interesting implications for the frustration we’re experiencing in the Western Church.

Practical example:
Maybe I ask someone, “Have you ever been discipled before?” They will probably answer “yes” and describe what their experience was like. But as I listen, I can’t help but think to myself, “Wait…you’re not talking about discipleship. You’re talking about Spiritual Formation. Do you mean to tell me you’ve been a Christian for ____ years and you’ve not been discipled yet? Holy crap, that’s tragic.” (I might be exaggerating what my internal monologue sounds like, because after reading that, it feels like there’s a constant Greek tragedy running through my mind…but I digress…)

The point is, I think a lot of people are running around thinking they’ve been discipled and they probably haven’t, and I think a lot of it comes down to what we think discipleship is. So if I may, I’d like to give two quick definitions for how I understand it.

Thought it’s probably worth saying from the get-go that I’m not necessarily ‘right’ about these exact definitions. In fact, a few people might flip them and give the opposite of how I’m giving it. In some ways, what’s most important is having distinct categories for these two things so our pursuit of Jesus is happening in an intentional manner and not just haphazardly.

So here we go.


“Anything that forms, either intentionally or unintentionally, the kind of spiritual person you are becoming.”


“The intentional relational process of one Christian investing into the life of another Christian, through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that the person being discipled becomes more like Jesus.”

Think of Spiritual Formation this way: Everything is spiritually forming you in some way. The culture we live in is shaping you to be a certain kind of spiritual person. The movies, music and television we watch are spiritually forming us. The church family we are a part of, the worship songs we sing, the friends we have, our prayer life (or lack thereof), the things we do for fun, the spiritual disciplines we engage with (or lack thereof), the jobs we labor at…these are all spiritually forming us. They are pressing down on you, molding you to be certain kind of spiritual person, like clay in the hands of a potter. 

In the way I understand it, things like small groups, Missional Communities, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, church programming, worship services…all of these things are spiritually forming us.

But this isn’t Discipleship. This is Spiritual Formation.

We also recognize our culture is forming us in a particular way that is malforming us away from the likeness of Christ. It’s why Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

The prevailing culture is not forming us to Christlikeness. In fact, most of the time it is forming us in the opposite direction of Jesus. There are many, many things that are spiritually forming us. The question isn’t whether or not we are being formed. The question is do we like what we are getting?

Discipleship, however, is a kind of Spiritual Formation. And in many ways, it’s the gateway for the outworking of the intentional spiritual formation we are looking for in the rest of our life.

If you are being discipled well, it means the person investing in you recognizes that Jesus is actually the one discipling you. He’s the Great Shepherd and you are his under-shepherd. Your primary responsibility is to help the person you are discipling attend to what God is already doing in their life; as Henry Blackaby says, “To join in the work that God is already doing.”

Discipleship is the difference between someone telling you that you SHOULD do something and someone showing you HOW to do it by walking alongside of you, so you can do as they do it. In many ways, the starting point is being able to identify where God’s Spirit is already working. To know when it’s happening, how it’s happening, how to hear what God is saying, and how to then be the Wise Man by joining Jesus in what he’s doing (Matthew 7:24-27).

Discipleship is the gateway.

As I grow in my ability to sense how Jesus is discipling me because of the investment of a real flesh-and-blood person in my life, I have a much greater sense of how God’s Spirit is at work in all of the other things that are seeking to form me. Now that someone is walking alongside of me, a worship service isn’t just something I attend out of duty or for prayer of spiritual fireworks. No. God is there. He’s working. What’s he up to and how can I participate in how he’s forming me and the rest of the church body today? Spiritual disciplines can start feeling like an outworking of grace where I’m trying to stay in step with the Spirit. And when the prevailing attempts to malform me with every commercial or Facebook post, I develop a sense of how to do battle and fight the good fight of faith through the Spirit’s power.

Without discipleship, I’m usually left with a list of things I should be doing, but without a clue of how to do them.

Read my Bible. Great. Yes. That should form me.

But what if you don’t know how to read it well? It’s gigantic. There’s some really, really crazy stuff in there. I don’t just need to know I SHOULD read it. I need someone to show me HOW to read it and how to engage with the Holy Spirit as I read it.

You should definitely pray. For sure. I hear Paul even says I should pray unceasingly. But can we be honest? Unceasingly is code for “never stop praying” and what if you have no idea how to connect with God for even three minutes? After all…we are kind of talking to a person you can’t see at all. I get that prayer is supposed to form me. But what if I don’t know how to pray?

So many of the things that we want people to engage in that are supposed to be forming people into Christ-likeness are like a disconnected fire hose in a house fire. If people don’t know how to connect to God’s Spirit, it quickly becomes religious duty and not an outworking of grace. It can turn our hearts to stone. We start to judge our standing with God on all the “right things we do” and not the practical outworking of the grace of the Gospel.

Spiritual Formation is critical to our Christ-likeness. But Spiritual Formation without Discipleship? Well….we’ve seen the kind of spiritual people it develops, haven’t we? Maybe, just maybe, there is a very specific reason that Jesus’ final command, his whole plan, was this: “Go and make disciples…”

Share This
New Coaching Cohorts