Jesus final commandment to his followers was very clear;
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.”
(Matthew 28:16-20, NIV)
Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to make converts, or even to make Christians; they are to make disciples.
And there is the problem. For the one thing that churches, of all spiritualties, have struggled to do throughout history, is to consistently make large numbers of disciples.
However, the Spirit of God is doing something remarkable in our time. Across the whole of the Christian Church there is a renewed focus on discipleship and mission.
The World Council of Churches recently put out something called the Arusha Call to Discipleship.
In the Roman Catholic world in Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) which calls for discipleship to be our primary focus.
Closer to home, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nottingham has recently expressed how he wants his diocese to respond to Pope Francis’ call.
He expressed three elements;
“I would like to ensure that people of all ages in our parishes, schools, and chaplaincies are helped to discover, or discover more deeply, the importance of a personal ENCOUNTER with Christ; so that they can become convinced that they are each loved by God and are invited to grow in their relationship with him.
Because of that personal encounter with Christ, I would like to encourage each of us to hear and respond to his invitation to be his DISCIPLES, to follow him more closely, and to seek to serve him generously in our daily lives.
…with a greater recognition of, and openness to, the help, guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we can all become MISSIONARY DISCIPLES; faith-filled, joyful and outward-looking Christians who are growing in confidence to speak humbly of the difference that knowing Christ makes to our lives…”
(Right Reverend Patrick Joseph McKinney, Bishop of Nottingham, Pastoral Letter November 2018)
In our own Anglican church, we have seen the recent publication of the ‘Setting God’s People Free’ report. This report is a clarion call to put discipleship and mission front and centre.
In our own diocese, Bishop Martyn’s recent initiatives are all seeking to follow the impetus of this report.
Now it cannot be an accident when Churches across the world and across the broadest spectrum of spirituality are all converging on the same call to make disciples who are on mission with God.
Someone once told me that the Christian life can be summed up as praying for the Holy Spirit to move, and then when He does, trying not to fall off!
So if the Holy Spirit is moving across the whole world calling the people of God to put discipleship front and centre, how can we join in with what God is doing, how can we join in with making disciples?
Perhaps we can best understand the process of making disciples if we focus our attention on Jesus’ calling of his first followers;
Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted,
and they came to him.
He appointed twelve that they might be with him
and that he might send them out to preach
and to have authority to drive out demons.
(Mark 3:13-15, NIV)
If we consider this passage about the calling of the first disciples, I think we can see 4 elements that show us how disciples are made.
And perhaps that is something we need to state right at the start. Disciples are only made intentionally – they don’t happen by accident.
If you don’t have a process, or a programme, or a model for making disciples,
then you probably won’t make any.
So how does Jesus go about intentionally creating disciples?
The first element is having a sense of Jesus calling us to follow Him and making a response to that call.
‘(Jesus) called to Him those He wanted and they came to Him’.
As churches cannot make disciples without being intentional about it, neither can we become disciples without a chosen and serious engagement.
There is a sense here that these followers of Jesus allowed Him to interrupt and re-orient their lives. They chose to centre their lives on Him.
Their relationship with Jesus would no longer be peripheral, some vague and sporadic meetings, but rather it was to be at the very centre of their lives and their primary concern.
So the discipleship question is;
How central is Jesus in our lives?
How far up our list of priorities does Jesus come?
The second element in discipleship is that the primary calling of a disciple is to BE with Jesus;
‘that they might be with Him.’
These would-be disciples were called to spend time with Jesus, and this in community.
This is what is going help them to become disciples and this is what will enable them to go out on mission.
This is a key fact about discipleship, it only happens in small groups, or one to one. It almost never happens in large assemblies of people.
That’s because discipleship is more like a virus than a training programme. You catch it from someone that has it, and in order to catch it you have to live in close proximity to them.
A man joined a fresh expression that my wife and I led. He had been an Anglican his whole life, but to be honest he’d never really connected with the spiritual side of things.
Like most blokes he was happy doing the practical stuff. He was certainly always ready to help others with their car problems and DIY, but the spiritual practices – prayer, engagement with the Bible, had never really been his thing.
With the result that he was a kind helpful person, but not an effective disciple who could lead others to Jesus. He couldn’t really talk about his faith, he didn’t really know how to pray. He was a cultural Christian not an engaged disciple.
He and his wife started to come to our fresh expression of church – primarily because it was a warm friendly group of people who had fun together, who supported each other, and who shared their lives with each other. And as they grew closer to this group of people, things started to happen.
When we decided as a group that we needed to start praying seriously for our community, this man and his wide came along to the prayer times.
We would introduce a topic for prayer for our community – perhaps local businesses, the schools, sports clubs etc. and we would pass a holding cross around the group. When you received the cross, it was your turn to pray. We made it clear that you could pray silently, or out loud.
The first few times this guy prayed silently, but after a while, hearing others pray, he gained confidence and started to pray out loud.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so overjoyed to hear a prayer. Not because it was an eloquent, impressive prayer, but because it was a real step forward in this guys practice of his faith and his prayer – however inarticulate – was genuine expression of his heart for his community and a desire to see God’s blessing upon it.
Over the months and years that followed, this man’s faith grew through the support and encouragement of the fresh expression community. He started to have spiritual conversations with other dog walkers that he met, simply sharing his faith when there were opportunities. He even grew in confidence enough to start leading sessions of the fresh expression.
How did that all happen? By being part of a small group with some mature Christians in a space where spiritual practices were engaged with in an accessible and non-threatening way.
So the discipleship question is, where are the spaces in your community where people can grow in discipleship through engagement in the spiritual practices – prayer, engagement with the Bible etc. with a small group of Christians?
The third element in Jesus’ model for making disciples is that they are sent out to preach;
and that he might send them out to preach
How do we preach?
Do you remember at Primary School taking part in ‘Show and Tell’?
You brought an object to school and then told your classmates the story of the object – here’s a shell I found on the beach on my holiday etc.
Well when we are sent out to preach we are sent out to ‘Show and Tell’. We Show by our life, and we Tell by our conversation.
The Early Church saw rapid expansion before there were structures, training centres, professional missionaries, even church buildings.
Why? Because ordinary Christians lived differently to their neighbours. They were loving, kind, they shared together, they looked after the poor and oppressed in their communities.
In Peter’s first letter we read his advice to Christians living in a culture that was hostile to them;
Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, …
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect
(1 Peter 3:8-9, 13-15, NIV)
Do you see here how the ‘show’ and the ‘tell’ of Christian witness are intertwined?
A life which demonstrates the kindness and generosity of God provokes questions and these questions give an opportunity for witness to the difference Jesus makes.
The greatest weakness in the Christian Church is that we often separate the ‘showing’ of the faith and the ‘telling’ of the faith.
Some groups are very good at showing Christian love in service to their communities, but they never get around to sharing how these actions are an expression of their faith in Jesus.
Other groups are very good at telling people about what they believe, but they don’t demonstrate it in generosity towards, and loving service of, those around them.
A recent book ‘The Desecularisation of the City’ has looked at the churches in London that are seeing vibrant growth and this is their conclusion;
“The strongest growth seems to be occurring where congregations are committed to social transformation, without reducing the faith to a purely social gospel.”
In Leicester Diocese we are trying to hold both the showing and telling of gospel proclamation together.
Bishop Martyn’s ‘3 Questions’ challenge us about growth in numbers of disciples, growth in the depth of our discipleship but also about growth in loving service of the world.
So the discipleship question would be, are we showing the love of Jesus in concrete ways to those outside of the Church and is that accompanied by an explanation of why our faith motivates us to this action?
The fourth and final element of Jesus’ discipleship model is seen in the spiritual power that is given to them.
and to have authority to drive out demons
Those who have grown in their relationship with Jesus through putting Him at the centre of their lives, who have developed through spiritual practices in community, who have been obedient to the call to go out and preach the gospel in word and deed, these people are imbued with spiritual power.
The reality of our lives is that we are in a spiritual battle for people’s souls.
We are fighting against determined opposition to establish the Kingdom of God in a hostile world.
You can only do that effectively when you have spiritual power. You can only be filled with God’s power through a life of discipleship.
So to conclude, the question to ask ourselves is, ‘Where are we in our discipleship?’
Have we heard Jesus’ call to come to Him, to make Him the centre of our lives? Have we responded to that call?
Are we engaged in spiritual practices with a small group that will enable us to grow in our faith?
Are we engaged in a life that preaches the gospel by word and deed?
Is the power of God’s Holy Spirit evident in our lives bringing change, destroying that which diminishes human life and establishing the kingdom of God?
In this time of Lent may God enable us to examine our lives and the activities of our churches and respond to this world-wide movement of the Spirit of God to place the creation of disciples at the centre of all we do.
May God help and bless us all.