In response to an earlier post, a colleague reminded me that the future does not rest upon ministers and church staff working harder but upon upon the whole people of God. He also stressed the importance of training so that the tasks of ministry can be shared more widely allowing freedom and space for all of us to exercise our gifts.
Training is vital. Without it, the suggestion of the wider church taking on the tasks of mission and ministry is wishful thinking or even a cost saving, cop-out. But with the right support ‘whole church’ ministry could be incredibly effective. I say this not to be elitist, but to recognise that Jesus trained people to continue his mission. Training is not the opposite of relying on the Holy Spirit, although we must beware of replacing faith with competence.
In the church we have a particular type of training; we call it discipleship. The two terms are not synonymous; discipleship has a particular relational dimension which should make it even more powerful than training. Churches that train without discipleship have missed a vital ingredient of developing followers of Jesus.
Discipleship was key to Jesus’ ministry. It was integral to his announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven’s proximity. Based on his apparent priorities, it was possibly more important to him than his many miracles. And, according to Matthew, discipleship was core to Jesus final instructions to his followers: “as you go, make disciples…” Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch, but might that even qualify discipleship as a sacrament?
However, churches often do discipleship badly. In the UK we have succeeded in forming Christians as church-goers, consumers, activists and theological zealots. But how well do we nurture disciples?
Church-goers are a dying breed, in part, due to the removal of the cultural expectation of Kirk attendance. The few remaining church-goers make occasional visits, often preceding the request for a family ‘Christening’. Church-goers may enjoy the familiar hymns and the historical continuity of attending the church where they were married or held a funeral. But for them, church is an activity devoid of deeper meaning beyond personal sentimentality.
Consumer Christians follow Jesus for the fringe benefits. The purpose of Church is to meet their needs or provide a desired experience. They follow Buddy Jesus, who is way to busy being a dude to demand much. The Christian community provides them with entertainment, friends, child-care, a worship hit or spiritual safety-net but if these wane, so will their allegiance.
Activist Christians are ready to co-opt Jesus and his Kingdom in support of whatever cause is close to their hearts. Their’s is woke Jesus, libertarian Jesus, culturally affirming Jesus, culturally conservative Jesus, environmentalist Jesus etc. To them, Jesus does make demands, in particular that everyone should join him in support of their chosen movement or cause.
The theological zealots perfectly fulfil Phil Collin’s lyric “Jesus he knows me and he knows I’m right“. Queuing to burn their copy of ‘Velvet Elvis’ the zealots form a theological Stasi, too busy thanking God that they are the right sort of Christian to get out the tweezers and remove any stray opthalmological planks.
This list of the product of churches is not exhaustive. We might add the ‘church-hoppers’, the choral-union Christians, the historical re-enactment Christians or the novelty seeking, Prophecy or Mission junkies.
If truth be told, most of us will fall into some of the above categories. Are any of us immune to seeking novelty, co-opting Jesus to our cause, enjoying his community for the sake of its benefits, or thanking God that we are the best sort of Christians? We need the scriptural scalpel in the skilled hands of the Spirit to cut away our baser motivations and sinful self-centredness.
And this is the work of discipleship. Discipleship requires a holistic community commitment to the learning of Scripture and the discipline of prayer. It demands faithfulness to God and each other and valuing both our collective and individual relationship to God. Discipleship requires sacrifice in an age of procured personal fulfilment.
And discipleship is the only future for the church. Only a church based on discipleship will withstand the discomfort or even trials to come. If Jesus is the solid ground and cornerstone, discipleship is the building blocks that will allow us to withstand hostile elements. But it is also the source of flexibility that will allow necessary change to occur. Because discipleship keeps the main thing the main thing. It recognises what can be left behind on the journey.
Discipleship has perhaps never been so vital. In an age of competing identities and the last gasps of institutions nostalgic for Christendom, discipleship forms and reforms Jesus’ followers with common purpose and a shared identity transcending all earthly divisions and intersections.
As we plan and cast vision for 2022. As we formulate mission goals and prepare sermon series. As we consider how to enthuse and entertain the Covid beleaguered congregation. Spare a thought for the unglamorous, unfashionable, donkey-work of discipleship. It is the key to unlocking the riches of God’s kingdom, not just for the Church, but for the whole world.