In my early ministry at a seaside town in Queensland, Australia, I had a meaningful exchange with one of my young leaders which has remained in my memory. We were standing on a jetty, looking out at the river, when I challenged him to join me on a journey of making new disciples of Jesus. I’ve never forgotten his response. How could he effectively disciple others into a meaningful relationship with Jesus when he himself had never been properly discipled? So I issued a further challenge to him: Would he use his lack of discipleship as an excuse not to join me or as the motivation to come on a journey of learning together how to disciple others well. I remember my response was something like this: ‘Isn’t it time to break the cycle?’
It wasn’t easy to break that cycle but it was the beginning of a lifelong journey for me and for others who have been willing to join me along the way. That was over 30 years ago and what we have learned about discipleship since then is radical, but I still find myself asking the same question today, inviting others to embark on a discipling pathway with me.
The definition of discipleship behind that question is:
‘‘Discipleship is the whole of life response of a person to Jesus Christ. Everything a person believes and does is an aspect of discipleship. The goal of discipleship for an individual is growing and maturing, examining and changing how they think, feel and act as they become more Christ-like in every aspect of life’.
The evidence suggests that the church in Australia still has a long way to go in seeing more of this kind of disciple and the sobering reality is that if we are not transitioning our current discipleship processes to meet the dramatic changes that are already happening in the 21st century (especially in the West), we will see less and less people who are becoming Christ-like in every aspect of their life. We can no longer respond to the current situation by simply continuing to do what we have always done.
After writing our first book ‘As you go, make Disciples’, we received a lot of feedback and a variety of responses from both ministry leaders and individual disciplers. One of the common responses from readers was, ‘Colin, how did you reach the conclusions you did? What was the journey you took to get to this place?’ At that point I realised that I hadn’t tried to systematically record what I had discovered about the discipleship journey. ‘As you go, make Disciples’ was simply where my journey with Jesus took me, along with others who shared parts of my journey. All of this was undergirded by a voracious appetite to discover as much as I could about following Jesus authentically. It was never about learning for learning’s sake but about applying and growing along with a community of God’s people. So for the next two years the questions people asked gave me the incentive to revisit the 2000 years of church history in order to understand the line of discipleship that weaves its way through that history. The end result was the book ‘Making Disciples in a Postmodern Era-Reviewing and Contextualising Historical Discipleship’
What I discovered in those two years was that the Church historically has spent a lot of time using words that we don’t fully understand. These include words like Evangelism, Mission and especially Discipleship. We use these words to describe the activities of the church and implement them in strategic and mechanical ways. We go through the motions of trying to make them work without completely understanding what they are and how these concepts are to be utilised in the life of the church. Ultimately we are unsure how to measure whether they are effective.
One leader put it this way:
When I read this book I was faced with things that made me uncomfortable, truths that challenged my traditions/paradigms that I have held without challenge for years, but ultimately it encouraged me to check my current personal commitment to making disciples. I realised I needed to take personal responsibility for my own journey to grow as a mature disciple of Jesus, be willing to confront my long-standing paradigms and view them in the light of the teaching and practice of Jesus and the historical church, and face the reality that the journey of making disciples is a costly process that I’m willing to commit to.
What we currently believe about discipleship and how it is outworked is influenced by the history, culture, philosophy, and church belief/practice of the last 2000 years. The aim of the next few blogs is to review this historical journey of discipleship to discover how we arrived at what we currently believe and practise, and then to outline the blockages to change that will hinder the practice of discipleship in the 21st century.