What’s your language for discipleship?
Insights from FYI Research
Growing up in Brazil, one of my favorite things about Saturday mornings was making pão de queijo, or cheese bread, with my family. This cheesy goodness was the product of a one-of-a-kind family recipe. While it’s a common Brazilian dish, every recipe I’ve come across as an adult varies slightly from the way we made it growing up.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience with a familiar recipe. The fact of the matter is, there is no universal way to make bread. The ingredients and the process of bread-making vary whether you live in Ohio, Brazil, or Russia; yet, we can all identify that appetizing dish when we see it (and eat it).
Spiritual formation is quite similar.
As Christians, we can identify what spiritual formation is because there are common outcomes across traditions. Yet the ways we approach and talk about it are numerous. Understanding how we think and talk about spiritual formation can help ministry leaders better integrate character and virtue development into discipleship efforts.
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An abundance of language
In a previous blog post, our research team referenced a national survey of youth leaders completed by the Fuller Youth Institute in the winter of 2018. We wanted to understand how different youth ministry and church leaders spoke of character and virtue development within their ministry contexts, as well as the processes that shape and develop character and virtue in young people within their ministries.
In that survey we asked participants the following questions:
- What do you call the personal qualities that are evidence of Christ's work in your students?
- How do you describe the process of nurturing these qualities through your ministry?
When we explored responses to these questions, we found that the most frequently used term to describe the process was “discipleship,” followed by “faith formation” or “growing in faith,” and “relationship building.” But a deeper look at these answers uncovered even more helpful insight:
When we broke down responses by gender, we discovered that women and men differed slightly in their responses. “Fruit of the Spirit” was mentioned more frequently by men than women, while “becoming like Christ” or “Christlikeness” was mentioned by more women than men. Women also noted the personal quality of “service” as evidence of Christ's work in students more so than men. Referring to the process of nurturing these qualities, women listed faith formation and spiritual development more often than men, while the theme used by men was discipleship.
Likewise, we found that answers differed somewhat across ethnicities. The theme of spiritual maturity was generally used to describe Christlike qualities more by Asian, African American, and Latino respondents, while White respondents more frequently noted faith formation. Discipleship was the most commonly used term across Asian (40%), White/Caucasian (30%), Latino (36%), then African American respondents (27%), and the themes of the fruit of the Spirit, relationship building, and fellowship were used equally among all.
Lastly, we examined how answers varied among respondents who held different roles in the church. Spiritual maturity and fruit of the Spirit were often mentioned by persons in all leadership positions, from youth ministry volunteers to paid pastors and staff. However, pastors and staff also used “following Christ,” “growing in character and faith,” “spiritual practices,” “sanctification,” and discipleship or “making disciples.”
It seems that role most influenced how the process of character and virtue development was defined: Pastors and staff used the themes of discipleship and faith formation more than volunteers, while volunteers and other leaders frequently wrote about relationship building. This last distinction could be a matter of perspective, as pastors and staff are often positioned to think about long-term ministry goals might call what’s going on discipleship, whereas volunteers leading small groups and working with individual students call it relationship.
Far from erasing our differences and coming up with a one-size-fits-all formula for character and virtue development, a better grasp of the varied terminology we use to identify the evidence of Christ’s work in young people can shape how we speak, and which virtues we might find most relevant to pursue. Talk of "faith formation" at all levels won't get the job done, but neither will talk of "relationship." We may need to contextualize not just by community, but even within our church.
Since we know that those with the greatest formational impact on young people are those who are in closest relationship with them, what themes can we all stack hands on to ensure that we’re working together toward the same goal?
Common ingredients for discipleship
Just as bread is central to an international bread festival, so Christ’s work in young people is central to our ideas about youth ministry. There are many ingredients, recipes, and baking instructions for bread across contexts, just as there is a diversity of language surrounding our outcomes and processes in youth ministry. Some talk about the fruit of the Spirit, some talk about Christlikeness, and still others about discipleship. These multifaceted answers from church leaders representing different genders, ethnicities, and roles are worth noting; just as different kinds of bread require different kinds of flour, so character and virtue development may take on different nuances in various contexts.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Cor 12:20-21). The varied language leaders use in response to the question, “What is spiritual formation?” reminds us that we are one body relying on distinct parts to thrive. Paul’s words here can help us practically teach young people to build their character and develop virtue in ways that are holistic as well as culturally nuanced.
Particular cultures emphasize community building, whereas others emphasize personal growth and development. These emphases impact how character and virtue are spoken about and modeled to young people. What’s more, understanding how different cultures and ethnicities define these themes will impact not only what we teach, but most importantly how we live. If we struggle to embrace this diversity (sometimes even within the same local church!), then we will not be successful at cultivating character and virtue within the young people who are looking to us for guidance.
Reflect on the discipleship language in your own context:
Consider whether character and virtue development are currently a priority for leaders. What’s being implemented to model them to young people you serve?
Reflect on why you choose certain words and not others to describe character and virtue. Does this language align with the outcomes you hope to produce in the youth you serve?
Lean into your community to deepen your understanding of character and virtue. How might your brothers and sisters in the church help you see discipleship more fully? Male leaders, perhaps you might ask women who serve in your church how they define character and virtue.
Ask members of your church who come from different ethnic, racial, and geographic backgrounds to describe character and virtue. How does that shape their walk of faith?
This post is part of a series presenting findings from the Fuller Youth Institute’s Character and Virtue Development in Youth Ministry project, funded by a planning grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Read more from the project here.
 Noticeably absent to our research team were the terms “holiness” or “sanctification.”