A couple years back I was in the UK on study leave, looking at Fresh Expressions and other forms of missional church. It didn’t take long to notice that the same word come up again and again and again in theological colleges, in bishops offices, and in new church plants. Discipleship.
But it came up less as a theological buzz word and more as a slow realisation that for all the mission theory and big talk about contextualising the Gospel, something seemed to be seriously holding us back in the Western world. It wasn’t until a meeting with the leader of a significant theological college that I heard the conundrum finally named: “You know what? I think our church has just forgotten how to disciple people.”
“Golly” I thought to myself. It certainly sounded pretty bad when he put it like that. Especially since the mission statement Jesus gave us seemed pretty hot on the D word. If Discipleship is a buzzword, it’s good to remember it was Jesus’ buzzword too. I mean, how could we forget how to do the main thing Jesus commissioned us to do? I left that meeting feeling more than a little disturbed. But at the same time it was like a light bulb had just gone off.
Over the past 50 years or so the Church has gotten really really good at running things. We love programmes! And what’s not to love? They’re measurable. When they succeed they give us that “feel good” factor. They deliver great bang for our buck. They have fancy glossy brochures… When they first came onto the scene these programmes were intended to support discipleship: education, social action, outreach. Programmes and courses were only ever supposed to play a supporting role in forming followers of Jesus and in assisting discipling relationships to flourish.
Perhaps we’ve gotten a little too good at running things? Many of us have unintentionally started treating discipleship and evangelism as being primarily about the programmes: Discipleship equals attending a Bible study, while evangelism equals inviting someone to an Alpha course. These are great things, but are they producing the kinds of Kingdom hearted, mission minded disciples our world so desperately needs right now? Increasingly the consensus amongst many Christian leaders is “No.”
Inform & Imitate
What is a disciple? It sounds like a silly question. But it’s one that people are wrestling with right now. So for the sake of starting somewhere, let’s go with something suitably simple: “Someone living in the way of Jesus Christ.”
Discipleship is fundamentally about forming someone to follow in Jesus’ way faithfully and obediently. And if we look at Jesus’ life with the twelve we can see two major aspects of how he discipled people: Information and Imitation.
Part of forming disciples involves giving people the information they need. And boy, we’ve become incredibly good at giving people lots and lots and lots of information. Sermons, Bible studies, lectures, books, courses on how to share your faith, courses on how to pray for people, courses on how to run courses. Most churches have a smorgasbord of info-treats on offer every week.
But the other ingredient required to form disciples is for them to have someone to imitate… and this is the bit we’re not so good at. Despite all the words and theories and principles we tell people to believe, learning the way of Jesus involves more than information. It’s vital for us to see people putting it into action. And rarely do we allow those we’re discipling close enough to imitate us: How do we spend our money? How do we fight (and reconcile) with our spouse? How do we make decisions? How do we pray? How do we read our Bible? How do we share our faith? This is an area we all need to work on. People don’t need a perfect example, they just need a living one.
I truly believe that for the Church to flourish and for our mission organisations to be fruitful, all of us will have to rediscover our passion for dirty, gritty, heart-breaking, life-giving relational discipleship. Disciples of Jesus have always been the most basic unit when it comes to sharing and embodying the Good News. Not flashy brands, or fancy bands, or Facebook pages. People.
So it’s simple really. Intentionally form people to follow Jesus, and then allow God’s mission to flourish. I know it sounds mad! But it’s not my idea. Jesus poured half of his three years of ministry into just twelve people. Teaching them, doing life with them and imitating God’s Kingdom to them. 2000 years later his gamble seems to have paid off.
Maybe it’s time we took that same gamble again?
What might balance between Information and Imitation look like in your group?
Would you be comfortable telling others to imitate the life you’re living (as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 4:14-17)? Why / why not?
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