Why the difference between Discipleship & Spiritual Formation Matters

Why the difference between Discipleship & Spiritual Formation Matters

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…”

Innovation and Winging the “I Have a Dream” Speech

Innovation and Winging the “I Have a Dream” Speech


At 3am the night before, the speech wasn’t done and the pressure was mounting for the 34 year old pastor, community organizer and national rabble rouser. As had happened so many times in their ever-developing strategy, they’d pushed most of their chips into the middle of the table.

The stakes? There would be 250,000 people gathered around the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and and millions more watching on their now antiquated television screens. Celebrities like Rosa Parks, Bob Dylan, Jackie Robinson, Marlon Brando and Harry Belafonte would pepper the audience. Like all of the other speakers, he only had five minutes of allotted time. “If I can talk as long as I want,” President Woodrow Wilson once said, “it requires no preparation…If it is a ten-minute speech, it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it.”

In 272 words, Abraham Lincoln used the Gettysburg Address to reframe the struggle of the Civil War as a fight for justice, equality and ensuring the bedrock claims of the Declaration of Independence were enacted into reality. He received that invitation two weeks in advance. The young pastor had even more time than this to think and to craft.

Two hours before standing at the steps of Lincoln to deliver one of the most important speeches ever given, in the literal shadow of monument to rhetorical greatness from one hundred years before, Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t land the speech. Minutes before it was time, he was still furiously working on it, knowing it wasn’t there yet. “Just before King spoke, politician Drew Hensen writes, he was “crossing out lines and scribbling new ones as he awaited his turn. And it looked like he was still editing the speech until he walked to the podium to deliver it.”

He stood at the podium and delivered the opening pages of the speech, staying mostly on course, but ad libbing a few extras here and there. But about mid way through, the voice of King’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, came ringing through the audience behind him:

“Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!”

As Clarence Jones put it, “In front of all those people, cameras and microphones, Martin winged it.”

The voice boomed through the microphone and into living rooms across the world and across the annals of history: “I have a dream….”

At that point Martin Luther King, Jr. diverged from his speech entirely to deliver what is considered one of the most important speeches in human history. The kicker? Starting with the phrase, “I have a dream,” none of it was in his actual prepared speech.

The question we’re left to ask ourselves is this: What does this story tell us about the process of innovation? 


Lesson #1: You have to put in the work to get the innovation.

MLK knew this was an incredibly important speech and he put it the work. Months before that day in Washington, he gathered three close advisers to talk through content and tone. He then brought in Clarence Jones, his lawyer and collaborative speechwriter. But he resisted landing the overall direction.

The previous year, he’d traveled more than 275,000 miles and given more than 350 speeches. What this produced was a whole host of “oratorical fragments.” Hansen again gives some insight: “He collected a repertoire of…successful passages from his own sermons, sections from other preachers’ work, anecdotes, Bible verses, lines from poets. King did not so much write speeches as assemble them.”

And in the last year, he’d assembled a lot of them.


Lesson #2: You have to trust yourself and your intuition.

When Mahalia Jackson called out to him in the middle of the speech, encouraging him to tell the crowd about the dream, something inside of him responded. With more on the line than almost any other time, he knew it was time to jump off script, but he had the confidence to deviate. There was as belief in himself, in the work he’d put in and in the moment. The timing felt right. So he went for it.

But this wasn’t simply a blind leap of faith, and as we think about innovation around the things that we lead, we shouldn’t be so blind either. King had a track record of success when he used his intuition in spur of the moment situations. This wasn’t happening in a vacuum or even that rarely. It just happened to be a much bigger moment.

So yes, trust your intuition, but use the smaller decision to hone that intuitive sense so when the big moments arrive, you’re ready.


Lesson #3: You have to cultivate your half ideas and slow hunches.

What’s interesting is that the “I have a dream” fragment had made its way into lots of his speeches in the previous year. But it had never really worked. He knew there was something there, but he hadn’t stuck the landing yet. So he kept working on it, kept iterating it, kept experimenting with that phrase and, most importantly, the description of the dream itself. The previous versions were clunky and felt uninspired. But there was a sense that it was worth cultivating.

Stephen Johnson is an innovation and ideas writer and he calls this the practice of “cultivation.” It’s the process of knowing you have a half idea or a slow hunch that is worth digging into and not letting go of. It’s about collecting them and constantly honing them.

It’s what you actively see at work in the year leading up to this speech.


Lesson #4: You have to know when it’s not actually there yet.

Ultimately, I think it’s fair to say that King didn’t think his original speech was good enough. It wasn’t just his intuition, it wasn’t just the moment at hand, and it wasn’t just Mahalia Jackson. The speech in front of him, that he’d feverishly worked on, completely thrown out and rewritten with a room full of people the night before, was editing and scratching things out literally seconds before he hit the podium…it just wasn’t working the way he needed it to.

We are conditioned to think he was taking a risk. He couldn’t deliver a subpar speech, and with the notes in front of him, he was about to give a good speech, but certainly not an all-timer. King was not actually taking a risk; he was mitigating one. He needed greatness and what was in front of him wasn’t great. He knew it wasn’t good enough, but he knew he’d put in the work, he knew he grew up in a rhetorical tradition that apprentices preachers in improvisation just like a jazz musician, and he knew he’d spent a year cultivating the ideas behind the description of the dream.

It was a greater risk not to deviate. He was safer improvising than he was sticking on script. He needed this win, his speech wasn’t going to make the mark he needed, so he innovated in the moment.

And we, ladies and gentlemen, are all beneficiaries of that.

As U.S. Congressman and Civil Rights activist John Lewis said: “Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.”

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