Making Disciples: A Serious Challenge
Daniel L. Frank
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV)
These are Jesus’ last words to his disciples on the Mount of Olives and are often quoted by church planters and evangelists. But how can I do this faithfully, today?
The challenge is understanding how I have come to personally practice the process of discipleship, and then learning to move beyond this in faithful and fresh ways. My western culture is different, the challenges are different, and so the response also needs to be different. One place to start and to look for answers is by assessing my own journey.
Understanding the forces that shape my current practice
Changing patterns of life
My wife Becky and I came as the only members of the Wallacewell church planting team in February 2011. It is one of the lowest 5% SIMD areas in Scotland and a community who felt very let down by the traditional church there. It had been out of touch with the challenges families face on a daily basis. This radically challenged our more traditional view of building a church that focused on a Sunday morning worship service. In a short time it became apparent that this out dated approach would not work in reaching a de-churched and non-churched population who daily faced serious life issues. It also became clear that a ministry that only engaged with people 1-2 hours a week would not work.
Thinking back to the gospels, Jesus did not follow an event-based pattern but walked with people in the everyday, where they addressed real life issues, met him face to face and asked the hard questions. Jesus was with his disciples twenty four hours-a-day, seven days-a-week over a three-year period of time. They saw him in every circumstance and sought to emulate him in every way. He modelled relationship with his Father and much more was ‘caught rather than taught’. His ethics were situational and directed by the Holy Spirit doing only what he saw the Father doing. His Spirit listened to the Holy Spirit and he interacted with each person or people group based upon what he knew the Father wanted him to do.
Our challenge is this: are we really able to lead in the same way? More than likely not!
Most of the time my mentors and leaders who represent or ‘re-present’ Jesus to me have a limited amount of time. They are people who in general work with large numbers of “followers” (or attenders) and it limits their communication and interpretation of who Jesus is and how He lived. Even during times where I was mentored I experienced perhaps an hour-or-so a week of input, if I ever even got that much time!
Most of the time when being discipled, it was by engaging in an intellectual exercise where I’ve read about Jesus and then had a dialogue with those on a similar journey. I’d read about what he did, what he said and who he spent time with. I would reflect upon his words and actions from my culture and from my own basis and understandings of western values and educational models. All of these are based upon Aristotelian Greek and Roman cultural deductive reason/logic. I was taught to use a scientific method to review material and information and then formulate the best way to apply this as a disciple. And yet this is not who Jesus was or even is.
As a result, I discovered that a serious conflict develops. What I read doesn’t match up with how Jesus, or even Paul, Peter and the other leaders of the early church, did discipleship.
Mass communication in the post-modern era has become about getting the good news out there as a priority, in contrast to the principal of “teaching” them to “obey everything.” (Matthew 28:18,19)
Evangelism for most has become all about a decision. A prayer prayed, and numbers or converts quoted for evidence. But, in reality, is it really making disciples? I personally find that in the west we are excellent at ‘marketing’ evangelism and so mass open air crusades and ‘revivals’ are still held to get people to make decisions. These approaches still dominate in Africa and India today.
Don’t get me wrong: communication of the good news of the Kingdom remains vital. And yet without Kingdom expressions where discipleship is the priority I don’t believe we will ever impact any culture to the point where we see genuine Kingdom transformation.
Historically, Christianity was a small movement, growing steadily from 36 A.D.-300 A.D. It focused on discipleship and small groups meetings in homes and synagogues. Some scholars say it was somewhere between 10-30% of the known population before Constantine converted to Christianity and then declared it to be the state religion. It is arguable that in this move it fell into the ‘religious/political/legalistic/denominational/institutional’ organisation full of religious forms but without the true transformational power of Holy Spirit. Those whose hearts are truly converted come to the realization that it is those within the religious establishment who need repeated experiences of reformation (“reformed and always reforming”). Evangelism had become no longer about discipleship but about perpetuating the existence of the organised institution.
This challenges my own behavior! I am not too sure that I personally have moved away from the mentality where I, as part of the organised institutional church, feel the strong urge to count numbers of people who now attend. At what point is a person truly a disciple learning, growing and following follow Jesus? But then again am I too concerned with who is or is not a disciple?
I live in a western consumeristic society that is primed to promote and market the next best thing even in Christian circles. This flies in the face of how Jesus discipled.
Moving beyond these forces: taking time
The key factor that Jesus seemed to promote when it came to discipleship was time. Taking time can have a big impact on all three factors above. Jesus modelled discipleship as his disciples watched, listened and interacted with him every day. He did it. They did it while he watched. They did it and reported back. And in the end they did it. How do I model this pattern? How vulnerable do I make myself with those I seek to disciple? How often do they see me following the Spirit’s lead and demonstrating the power of God?
Mary (not her real name) was first introduced to the person of Jesus as a child attending church occasionally with her parents. But she never really believed that following Jesus meant more than that. It was only after coming along to some our community encounter groups that she began to encounter God in a fresh way. The realisation has begun to sink in that the community of faith is a place where the love of Jesus is real and different. She’s new at this, and is still skeptical of religion, but wants to be around those who are modelling Jesus. This is only the first few steps of what I would describe as the sowing of good news seed into the plowed ground (see the Parable of Sower). She’s attended a few worship services that have taken place but finds the most challenge place is with Mums who are sharing life together in our Nurture group. Here she can try and live out the command of Jesus: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Is she a disciple? Does she know Jesus? Has the seed taken root? I don’t know yet, but there is evidence of a life being changed and in her own words: “this place is what I believe Christian community is all about.” Mary has caught much of what we are doing to ‘love a community to life’, but when will I know she is a disciple of Jesus?
I think I am asking the right questions, but this challenges the expectations of the accountability structures I operate under. I am being challenged by the institutional church to count disciples when in reality very few can measure up or get even close to the Biblical model Jesus and Paul laid out. Because successful discipleship takes time (thousand of hours), I believe we need to radically recalibrate our expectations, methods and evaluative our processes. If not we may miss what God’s Holy Spirit is actually doing in the world around us
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