28 October 2016
I love the great commission, found in Matthew. It is brilliant that it starts in worship (verse 17), is rooted in the authority of the risen Christ (verse 18), and brings clarity to the mission of the people of Jesus. Disciples are to make disciples. They were to give their lives as learners and followers of Jesus to create new learners and followers of Jesus. They were not called to make members, or even converts, but disciples. I want to address three issues in this article: what do we mean by disciple? What are some barriers to discipleship? Is it possible to create a discipleship culture?
The night had been great fun. Alison had been very unsure about the school prom. As she thought, most of the guys had stayed talking and joking among themselves. She and her friends had laughed, chatted, stood around, half hoping to be asked to dance and also petrified that someone might ask. Still, it was near the end and nothing disastrous had happened.
As she scanned the room she let her gaze fall on the few couples who had been brave enough, or stupid enough, to dance. Then she noticed Steve. He was walking over towards her. He was the head boy, liked by just about everyone. He was looking at her. Alison studied her shoes. He stopped in front of her: "Alison." He spoke her name clearly but quietly. "Will you dance with me?" "I don't really know how to dance," she mumbled, shocked that of all the people in the room he had asked her. He had known her name and invited her.
"Don't worry," he said: "I know the steps to every dance. Just trust me, stay close, follow my lead." Alison felt that everyone was watching her. What should she do? Did she have the courage to step away from the wall and her friends or should she just say no?
He put out his hand and said her name again. She put her hand in his and stepped into the adventure of the dance.
I have told a longer version of this story in several conferences on discipleship. I love the image of dance as a model for discipleship. I know it is not perfect, but it is used by several people. Ken Gire, in his book The Divine Embrace writes: "There are places He wants to take us on the dance floor, things He wants to show us, feelings He wants to share with us, words He wants to whisper in our ear."
Discipleship begins at the invitation of Jesus. He calls us to leave the safety and trust him into the unknown. He gives us identity by calling us by name and our lives are spent in the constant learning and following. It will not be easy, it will involve mistakes and frustration, pain and confusion. Yet it will be fulfilling what life was always meant to be. It is identity, relationship, and risky, sacrificial adventure. It is both sitting at the Master's feet, and being sent out by him. That costly adventure where we grow, learn and follow Jesus is what we as believers are all called to. We are to live it daily, all our lives, living in his authority and going where he leads. Millions of decisions where we are called to simply to say yes to him.
Barriers to discipleship
I'm sure we can list many barriers to making disciples today. I could do some analysis of the culture and point to a society that lives for instant gratification – a culture that finds long-term commitment difficult and defines itself by celebrity, image, etc.
However, here are three provoking thoughts, all based on ourselves as the Church. I believe the biggest barriers to discipleship are not in the world, but in the Church.
Is it possible that in our desire to build numbers we have, in our sharing of the gospel, ignored the place of cost and commitment? Have we offered revisionist gospel that has deleted anything that may put someone off?
We can give the impression that everything revolves around us. Jesus is just there to meet my needs. Do I need anything? If so, I'll go to Jesus. Do I want happiness in life? Then I'll go to Jesus. Do I want eternal security? Then I'll go to Jesus as an insurance policy. We can let Jesus be the spiritual veneer on our secularism. In presenting Jesus in this way, we are in danger of turning the suffering servant into our servant.
I really like the NLT version of Luke 14:26 – 28 "If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you can't be a disciple. And you can't be my disciple if you do not carry your own cross and follow me. Don't begin until you count the cost." Could it be that we are spending more time, money and energy on making converts than we are on how we disciple those who hear the call of God. I'm not saying we shouldn't be sharing the gospel or spending energy on evangelism. However, have we thought through what walking with people might look like? What does discipleship community look like? How do we put it into place? Have we got disciples ready to mentor and walk intentionally with new disciples? Who is teaching others to pray, to listen, to persevere?
Do we underestimate the desire and ability to rise to challenges of new disciples? Particularly younger ones. Are we frightened to challenge the very ones who are up for challenge? Are we diluting parts of the message for people who actually long for the radical, sacrificial challenge to follow Jesus despite the cost? My hunch is that people are tired of a grey spiritual low-cost, commitment-free Christianity and long to see a radical kingdom people who live differently. I believe we should be brave enough to point to the joy and the cost, the success and the failure that is part of learning from and following Jesus.
Is it possible to create a discipleship-making culture?
I believe discipleship comes from encountering Jesus, hearing his call and recognising his authority over life. He calls people by name into a relationship of love, trust and obedience. It is joyful, adventurous and sometimes costly. It is Jesus first.
Seeing each other as disciples, living in the authority of Jesus forces us to ask a different set of questions than when we simply see ourselves as members of a congregation or fellowship. Discipleship calls us into the realms of life sharing, vulnerability, accountability and openness that are not always the marks we would associate with Church.
Can we find ways to create these sorts of spaces in church life that enable us to grow together? Are we prepared to invest time, energy and money in creating structures that may radically alter how we function, so that we become disciples who make disciples? Do we have people who are more mature in faith ready and willing to invest their lives into others' so that disciples make disciples who make disciples? Are we making time to share life with others?
The challenge is before us. God has given us clarity on our calling, to be disciple makers. How are we doing?