The Discipleship issue!
There are the 2 big buzzwords on the Christian landscape again today. Wherever we look around the world there are conferences where you can go and join the debate on how and why we should connect with ‘discipleship’ and ‘mission’ (or both). There is no end of resources available.
Surely discipleship and mission are intertwined together. We can watch the debate unfold then go round in circles. I appreciate there are many views on discipleship, I know maybe some of you reading this blog may have been injured by what is known as the discipleship movement. And others who will say it’s been a mighty blessing in their lives. I would like to share several thoughts.
I have personally been highly involved in discipleship with many people for 30+ years. I’ve taught it, modelled it, I’ve read many books on the topic. I’ve now come to the point where I’m asking the question: how well are we doing discipleship?
At Frontline we have been blessed to see discipleship develop over the years – with large numbers of people in discipleship relationships. This was most clearly seen during the years we did G12 church, but even that wasn’t without challenges of sustainability.
This issue of discipleship has gone around and around church leadership circles forever. The question I’m asking is if we’re doing so well why does it keep coming up again and again? I wonder if in the area of discipleship we still need some significant help, some insight, could we be getting it wrong? What if our general understanding and application of discipleship is producing some of the ill health and even stagnation and decline we see all around us in the church? I’ve been pondering and rethinking what I mean by discipleship?
Let’s define DISCIPLE.
In the New Testament, “disciple,” “convert”, “believer,” and “Christian” are all used interchangeably. The word “discipleship” is often used today to refer to the biblical idea of being formed into Christ’s image. It’s a word that describes Christian growth. The biblical term for this is “transformation.” But we will use “discipleship” as a synonym for transformation even though the New Testament never uses it this way.
I wonder if, as church leaders, we have mistakenly used discipleship as a tool to sort people out? A people problem solver program? Where we tell people how to live, something that may have become prescriptive. What if discipleship is people doing life together? Where we walk together, share our lives, and model to those around us Christlikeness? Yes, something where believers are taught, yet where they are taught how to feed themselves through developing solid devotional lives? [Prayer-Word].
Where they are equipped and empowered, not controlled? Where they are encouraged to develop accountable relationships?
I have been involved in conversations were one party argues we should put more of our focus, time, energy and resources into evangelism. This view point is challenged by the argument that whilst evangelism is important we really need to focus on discipleship. They go on to say that much of the church is immature and that we need to grow the ones we already have. Their conclusion is much of the church is known for producing shallow and immature Christians.
I appreciate the opinion and perception that Christians in the West are often immature and fleshly. And I acknowledge that our walk doesn’t always match our talk. One way some leaders approach maturity is to assume that knowledge produces maturity. I totally agree that people need to understand what they believe and why they believe it, yet knowledge in and of itself is not a hallmark of Christian maturity. As Paul says, knowledge puffs up. Love by contrast builds up. And some of the most biblically literate people in Jesus day got by-passed as disciples.
The aim is not just to know, but to do something with what we know. I have written a book called ‘Fed up trying to be a better me’ which addresses some of these issues. It was written to challenge our definition of Christian maturity.
I want to say something that may sound a little misplaced but stay with me. Why is it so many Christians are so driven about discipleship? Jesus told us to be disciples, but he commanded us to make disciples.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The Great Commission is at its heart an outward movement.
Could it be that in the process of making disciples we actually become more of who Christ designed us to be? Do we not read that it was in the act of sharing their faith and lives that thousands of early Christians were transformed into new creations?
I know that I grow most and learn most when I am helping others. It gives me a place to apply what I’m learning and to take the focus off myself and place it on Jesus and others that’s where the focus belongs.
Wasn’t the thrust of first century discipleship to share Jesus with the world he loves and died for?
Can we really be a true Christ follower and disciple without being a person who shares that love with others as we go about our lives. I would say that the opposite is true as well. That is you cannot be a Christ follower who shares that love without being a disciple. Somehow many people would rather be disciples without ever sharing the good news, whether through words or deeds.
A common criticism of churches that draw in large numbers of people who don’t know Christ is this they may come as enquirers or guests of church members, or they may be new believers, but these folks may have many struggles and challenges. For example they might not realize that reincarnation isn’t biblical or struggle to understand the faith they’re stepping into.
What if that’s a sign that their discipleship is authentic?
Peter frequently got it wrong when he was around Jesus. Many leaders in the early church needed correction. Even Paul would later confront Peter about his unwillingness to eat with Gentiles. And yet Jesus chose to build the early church on Peter and Paul.
One stinging criticism of churches that are reaching people is that many of their attenders don’t bear much resemblance to Jesus.
The critics say that these new, immature Christians can be persuaded by powerful personalities and still be sexually active outside of marriage. They may have questionable business practices and end up in broken families or be influenced by the culture. They may not know how to conduct themselves in worship. They may doubt core doctrines like the resurrection. The church in Corinth struggled with every problem listed above! And yet the church in Corinth was an authentic church that loved Jesus.
What if the fact that we have these problems may actually be a sign we are making progress with the unchurched. We don’t want to leave them there but when people really start engaging with Jesus things can get messy.
It would be great if there was instant maturity in faith and in life. It seldom works that way. You can’t expect a 3 year old to have the maturity of a 13 year old, or expect a 23 year old to have the maturity of a 43 year old. When you place expectations on people that they are just not able to carry, you crush or confuse them.
I wonder if sometimes we do that in church unintentionally? People grow and mature over time. Our progress isn’t always steady, but often fluctuates as people go through different seasons of life. I know some 23 year olds who are more mature than some 43 year olds.
What if we exposed new Christians to: 1) the love of God, 2) Christian community, 3) great teaching, 4) great relationships, 5) solid accountability. Wouldn’t that lead to men & women who are growing and maturing in their faith?
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. 2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
Surely we should not judge them after a few months or even a few years!
Christian maturity has never been about us anyway. It is certainly not about how good we are compared to others, or how smart we are, or how righteous we are, or how holy we are. It is about Jesus. And it is about others.
Jesus said the authentic mark of his followers is love. If we love the world how can you ignore it?
He defined the primary relationship between God and humanity as one of love.
He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
The truth he ushered in is inseparable from love. The primary motivation for evangelism and discipleship is the same; it is love. That should characterize both the discussion about evangelism and discipleship, and also the way we go about both.
For a long time I have wanted to put some thoughts together on the issues of discipleship and evangelism. I’m hoping this discussion will continue.
Another very important part of the conversation is about the church. I want to say we cannot separate disciple making from the ekklesia. We cannot separate the forming of people into full-fledged followers of Jesus and a living, breathing, vibrant community that gathers under His headship. We can’t separate discipleship from the ekklesia anymore than you can separate child rearing from the family. And we can’t separate the ekklesia from Jesus Himself, for it’s His body.
I would suggest that discipleship has been separated from the Christian’s native habitat; the ekklesia. And it’s become a highly individualistic event. An individual discipler “disciples” an individual disciple to become a better individual disciple.
Christianity has and always will be a living in community sharing a corporate life, and collective pursuit of God.
I would suggest the issue is not discipleship. Could it be that the issue is restoring the ekklesia as God intended it to be, for the ekklesia is the Christian’s native habitat. And out of it flows everything else.
How did the apostles who received the original commission of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” carry out this command? When I read the New Testament chronologically, from Acts to Revelation, there’s only one answer you can come up with. They did so by planting ekklesias all over the known world.
Converts were made and continued being formed into full-fledged followers of Christ, naturally and organically, simply by being part of the local ekklesia in their city. For them, the ekklesia was the environment for spiritual training! The Twelve knew ekklesia themselves. They lived in an embryonic expression of it in Galilee, with Jesus Himself! The Twelve and some women lived in community with one another, where Jesus was both the centre and the head of their lives.
When a Christian lives in an authentic expression of the Body of Christ today, they are being disciple, just by being part of that expression.
Ekklesia, therefore is the birth right of every child of God. By living in it, God’s people are naturally captivated by Christ. This is because in an authentic ekklesia, the life of Jesus Christ is constantly flowing, being shared, expressed, revealed, and imparted by and to the members.
I’m not just talking theoretically. I have seen this happen countless times over the years in healthy ekklesias.
Those who are called to plant and lead ekklesias today, therefore, carry out the “Great Commission.” They make disciples (converts) and establish them into communities where the Holy Spirit does the work of transformation.
In a word, you cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple-making transformation take place.
The problem is not with discipleship; the problem lies in our practice of the church ! When we emphasize discipleship, we must demonstrate our understanding that we cannot separate the ekklesia of God from producing serious followers of Jesus Christ who are mature, tempered, balanced, and free from religious bondage.
Don’t settle for just establishing programs or superficial relationships.
Insist that Discipleship is about relationship, doing life together as we look to serve our wonderful Saviour.
If you found this helpful please let me know.
Big thanks to my good friend Lowell Qualls from Richmond Virginia USA for his input editing this blog.