Reimagining Discipleship


I’ve been pondering discipleship for a few weeks now and this past few days at New Wine some thoughts have come to the fore. I’m not sure I have answers but would love a discussion and to hear ideas.

I remember quite clearly the first time I heard the word discipleship. I was a teenager and was listening to someone who was promoting their Bible study course at the church I was attending. I got involved, what transpired was a positive experience for my faith; a weekly look at personal holiness and good behaviour. It helped me iron out some creases that were forming in my life. For a long time that is how I have viewed discipleship but also what I have discovered a lot of popular discipleship material has been about; personal holiness. There is a huge swathe of the church for whom discipleship is about overcoming personal sin and defeating temptation. In this movement, discipleship is about being a better version of oneself. Surely it is something more.

I’m sure it is time to reimagine what we are doing around the area of discipleship. Following Jesus must be about more than directed behavioural change. When we look at the disciples of Jesus they did a lot more than defeat sin. Discipleship must be more than a ‘good living’ movement; more than a drink less, give money, don’t swear movement.

Personal discipleship is an oxymoron.
The phrase ‘personal discipleship’ is confusing. Personal discipleship is an oxymoron. There is nothing personal about following Jesus. If the Jesus you follow is focussed entirely on your personal life then you may be following the wrong guy. In fact, if you are following Jesus to solely focus on self-betterment then he’s going to ruin your plans. Being a disciple of Jesus will always lead to the discipleship of others. It is impossible to truly follow Jesus without it affecting the lives of those around you. If you follow where He is leading it won’t take long to realise that He is leading you to go to other people.

Holiness without mission is not holiness.
In more traditional language we were saved from sin but salvation is much more expansive than this. We are not only saved from sin we are saved for the purposes of holiness. Holiness is a being set aside for God’s purposes and those purposes always involve mission. When we save money we don’t just save it from frivolous waste, we save it for a purpose. Money saved is put to good purpose. Lives saved by God are not just saved from waste but saved for good purpose. Our discipleship relationships and systems must focus on helping people find their fight. As they are set apart who are they set apart for? Who or what has God purposed them to be saved for?

Biblical knowledge is not enough.
Much of our discipleship programme and material has been focussed on helping people know their Bibles. Of course as a church leader I believe this is important but it but one aspect of following Jesus. How are we giving people an opportunity to practice what they are learning. When we teach the principles of Christian community do we also create spaces within which this is modelled. At Hay Hill I recently taught about how to be a welcoming community, but we learned more about community by spending a day together in the park than we did in my 30 minute ramble. Do our small groups, services and discipleship relationships have a practical edge to them? Are we building structures that teach knowledge as well as equipping and releasing people to action?

Discipleship doesn’t eventually qualify you for mission, you’re qualified from the start.
Many of the discipleship experiences I have had personally and put in place for others in the past have almost been a conveyor belt model. We assemble people bit by bit, removing the bad, improving some areas and then we release them for mission. The problem is that once you build a culture of discipleship that is self-improvement-focussed it is difficult to suddenly change that to be outward focussed. Mission must be part of our discipleship from day one. That is Jesus model. His teaching was more like a commentary running alongside the lifestyle of mission that the 12 were experiencing. It is much messier to bring people on mission from day one, but it’s the model Jesus used, and it works.
Discipleship reaches further than how to play a church role.
Much of our more intensive discipleship programmes are based around gap years. People come from their context, give up a year to serve and learn in a church setting. Often these are structured around roles within church life e.g. children’s work, worship team etc. They also often focussed on under 25s. I think these are a great thing and regularly encourage people to join them. Anecdotally though, I have seen people who do these roles as training for a full-time employed role in these areas go on to thrive but others struggle to engage what they have learned into their ‘normal job’ once they leave at the end of their year. How are we discipling people for real life? Are we providing missional discipleship that is transferrable to life as a teacher, a dentist, a homemaker or a shop assistant? How do we build discipleship cultures that help people to bring Jesus into their context?

Discipleship is at the core of what it means to be church. Following Jesus into the world and helping others to join you in that is the purpose of the church. Discipleship will send us into areas of our town’s and cities to live and love well. It will impact how we shop and how we eat and what fuel we use. Discipleship will change how we relate to our enemies and our friends. It expansive and all encompassing. I think we need a conversation about how our churches are discipling.

All thoughts, ideas and stories are welcome.

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