In recent weeks I have been thinking that too much of the discussion in ministry and theological circles is about forms of church, worship styles and models of mission, without the primary focus on what Jesus sent his followers to do: making disciples. All those other topics are crucial. But we lose the focus if we do not have front and centre of our efforts the commission to 'go into all the world and make disciples' (Matthew 28. 19).
So I have spent a little time thinking about what it actually means to be disciples of Jesus.
1. To begin with, it is crucial to say that discipleship is not a solo activity. By definition, to be a disciple of someone is to go with and learn from that someone. Christian discipleship is about following Jesus: going with him, on his way.
But Jesus does not call individuals to follow him as solo units, either. Disciples are called to follow him, together. This is perhaps the most difficult thing for us, with this concept of discipleship: in effect, it means if you want to have Jesus you have to accept also all the people who come with him, and some of them are probably characters you won't like or would prefer not to be seen with! It was always so. His followers, in the New Testament times, were a bit of a rabble and some of them were definitely not 'respectable' types.
2. There are some distinctive things that make up a community of disciples. I would suggest 7 key aspects.
Making disciples is about evoking and nurturing these 7 things:
1. Commitment to Jesus: following his way;
2. Believing the basic Christian understandings about Jesus, salvation and what it means to be a church or faith community;
3. Practicing, that is a lifestyle of devotion to God, ethical living, relationships which reflect the Jesus way;
4. Participating in community, through worship, prayer and fellowship;
5. Engagement with society: caring, serving, working for justice;
6. Spoken witness, giving testimony to Jesus and his way;
7. Growing, in personal and collective reflective change.
All of this may be debated—the list, the sequence, the focus, the content. But actually I think that kind of debate is pretty sterile. It's people wanting to re-order priorities to suit their own preferences or style. All that is fine, but sooner or later we actually need to get on with this!
3. We need leaders for whom discipleship is the priority. I am convinced that if we are about becoming a community of disciples then we need leaders who will grow disciples and lead discipleship communities.
Church programs need to have a focus on transformative living, and the church itself should be open to these priorities, as opposed to the self-perpetuation of the church as such.
When I say this, I do not presume any specific forms of church or leadership styles. Rather, I believe we need to continue to affirm a wide range of church and leadership styles, but all within this comprehensive vision of making disciples. Some will be large-church discipleship communities, some will be small, some experimental and some traditional, some will need to be re-planted, and some will be being planted, some will be being healed and some will be in a fast-growing phase, while others are consolidating. Church planting, evangelism, women’s ministry and youth leadership, children’s ministry and multicultural ministry, community care and prophetic witness are all elements within this wider vision, and none should be excluded, and all should welcome the other as parts of the body, each with something to add to the whole.
4. Where can this happen? The local church: that's what it's all about!
The primary focus of discipleship making is in the local churches. They are already doing this and many of them are doing it well.
As a teacher of those who will become pastors and leaders of churches, my objective is to affirm what is already happening and to enhance it. All this helps to define what a theological seminary should be about.
- we need to affirm what is already being done to make disciples;
- we need to offer a broader vision, in areas where our discipleship vision is too narrow or deficient;
- we need to develop pastoral leaders who are equipped to make disciples and to train others to make disciples;
- we need train leaders who can manage communities of disciples, with discipleship as their priorities.
The mission of the Christian community today needs leaders for all the areas of making disciples and all the elements of discipleship. If we can assist the churches in this way, there will be transformative change. God will see to that.