Disciples were never meant to travel alone
In our present culture there is huge emphasis upon the individual. The post-modern mantra of “that’s good for you, but I’ll find my own truth” pervades every corner of our lives. It also has impacted and informed current day discipleship processes. Discipleship has become a process that is done to us—we attend a six week class at church and are pronounced “discipled”! Or, we are smart enough to know the right (intellectual) responses to doctrinal questions (that reinforce our denominational biases) and people think we are doing well as Christians. Perhaps, like me, you have been brought up in the church and have "learned" what prayers will get people saying “Amen!” or can lead worship in just the right way to make the congregation feel “tingly.” It is possible to do all these things and not be a disciple of Jesus. Let me say that again to reiterate that statement’s importance:
It is possible to say the right things, pray the right things, lead the right way, have just the right words to say . . . and not be a disciple of Jesus!
Now, I am not stating that prayer, praise, and rich biblical knowledge are bad—they most certainly are not . . . unless they are done with the wrong motivation. Discipleship is not a Christian conveyor belt through which we travel to achieve a better Christian status.
Discipleship is a deepening relationship with Christ Jesus with whom we travel through life in faith. Many Christians have started their journey of faith with 100% sincerity that the Christian life is for them. They started off enthusiastic about living for Jesus and got stuck into church life, maybe even being so touched by Jesus that they vibrantly shared their faith with anybody who would listen. Then they’ve been "discipled" into believing certain things and behaving in certain ways. For many the process of discipleship has removed their passion for Jesus and enthusiasm to share their faith and helped them to "settle down in faith."
Sadly, for others a dry non-relational discipleship process has not been enough to stop some from "forsaking their faith" when life has got hard or the church has been lacking in the grace that Jesus had shown them. It always saddens me when I see people turning from their faith in Jesus. It saddens me that often our programs have turned people off Jesus. But, more so, it saddens me that often we have judged these lost souls as not able to persevere (we love the parable of the sower), or worse—we state that they never had a real faith if they have "so quickly turned away." I believe that the problem is not always with the person who has left the church (although at times it is). I believe that it is more to do with the fact that the church has not created faith communities that are conducive to growing disciples who reach maturity of faith. It is this point that I wish to stick on:
The church needs to create discipleship communities where disciples can thrive and mature in faith!
Disciples were never meant to travel alone! When we look at Jesus’ model of discipleship we never see him holding a class, handing out notes, and asking people to bring them back completed. Jesus intentionally chose twelve key people and called them to be his disciples. What are some of the keys we can find from how Jesus made disciples?
Jesus Created a Community of Disciples
Jesus called twelve men together to learn from him. He formed a band of brothers who traveled with him; questioned him; listened to him; watched him preach, pray, and perform miracles; they argued with each other (about who would be the greatest in the kingdom); they ate with him (often); they went through some terrifying experiences with him (stormy seas and a garden arrest!). Jesus invested his time, energy, experience, and spiritual life with them. Whenever Jesus went somewhere, they went with him. They served Jesus and each other. They prepared for festivals with him, and went to parties with him.
In thirty years of church life, I have rarely experienced this form of closeness with a group of Christians. There have been inklings of it once in a while. I spent six month on a YWAM Discipleship Training School (I was actively searching to grow as a disciple at a time when my church was not engaging in making disciples) and lived in a huge house with over fifty other people. During this time I spent every waking minute (almost) with other members of the DTS. It was a great period in my life and I still look back on it as a period of massive spiritual growth in my life. I could put this down to the amazing teaching sessions I attended (although I think this was a minor facet in my discipleship at that point). I believe that I grew spiritually because I became part of a community of believers who were looking out for me, loving me, listening to me, correcting me, encouraging me, praying for and with me, crying with me, barbecuing with me, joking with me, walking on the beach with me, eating with me, and more besides—all of this with Jesus at the center of it all! During this time I shared my life intimately with about eight of these people and (I believe) added spiritual value and discipleship to their lives.
Gospel and Missional Community: A Basic Theology
Discipleship needs community, but community is not enough. A discipleship community needs to be on a mission with the gospel together. Here are three emphases I want to articulate:
- We will glorify God together (gospel)
- We will gather and grow in Christ together (discipleship)
- We will go out in the Spirit’s power together (mission)
All of these center and depend on God in all his Triune glory.
Christian community begins and ends with God! In the Trinity we have the original community. Father, Son and Holy Spirit work together perfectly to fulfill their plan of redeeming the world and restoring humanity into a right relationship with the father again. The Father sent the Son on a mission. The Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit to carry on that mission through the Church. And we are that Church!
Our community (Church) needs to relate to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God-centered community, like other styles of being the church needs to maintain a relational balance in relationship with our Trinitarian God. Discipleship that does not relate to all three members of the Trinity will be unbalanced and unhealthy. Our God is a Trinitarian being so we need to be Trinitarian people in thought, word and in deeds as we journey together.
The other emphasis is on a very small word with big implications. That word is “we.” Disciples are not lone rangers. We do not do church or mission alone. In Luke 10, Jesus sends the disciples out in two's. Nowhere in the Gospels do we see Jesus sending the disciples out alone. Discipleship is a community thing because it is a relationship thing. We disciple each other—I need you and you need me! I am discipled by the strongest and the weakest members of my community. This is an amazing truth to grasp. We often think that we need to be discipled by someone who knows more than us—I have found that God uses the weak things to silence the strong. God does not just give revelation and wisdom to "leaders"—he shares himself and the riches of his grace with every member of the Church. This can be a very humbling experience for us. We need to expect that God will speak through every member of our communities. We need to create communities where we expect that God will minister and speak through a child or through a new convert, as well as through the mature disciples. This not only encourages our faith, but it will encourage new disciples’ faith as they see how God uses them. This encourages them to have an expectation that God will use them to play their part in the discipleship of other people. What a joy to hear and see young disciples of Jesus discipling others.
The emphasis on gospel, discipleship, and mission is also important in ensuring that our discipleship is balanced. Where we lack in one area there will be imbalance in the discipleship process. If we do not emphasize the gospel we will create disciples who do not depend on God, and who are not looking to see his purposes fulfilled. Discipleship very easily becomes about us when we do not look squarely to the cross of Christ and its far-reaching implications.
If we do not seek to grow as disciples together, we will not value the need to meet together and to grow in faith. The result is that faith and Christian community become low priorities for us and we may not have any commitment to the community of believers. This is counter-productive to the relational discipleship process.
If we do not look out in mission, we run the risk of being disciples without purpose—we become a closed club for the spiritually initiated. Disciples without a mission are like mountaineers without a mountain to climb—we learn how to be disciples by following Jesus into mission just as the first disciples did. Essentially, it is Jesus who disciples us (albeit often through his church). Mission is the disciple’s mountain upon which they will grow in their understanding of how to follow Jesus’ teachings in the reality of their particular life contexts
We need to disciple within the context of gospel-centered communities centered on God and going in mission together. Community offers us accountability to grow in faith in a loving and supportive environment as we share life together in the spiritual and practical experiences and conversations we have.
May we be a people who follow Jesus to the God the Father in the power of the Spirit to make, mature, and multiply gospel-centered, discipling, missional communities and churches.