Everyone seems to be talking about discipleship

Over the last year in my work with the Inspire Network I have visited dozens of Methodist Churches, as well as Baptists, Anglicans, Salvation Army, URC and various kinds of ‘Fresh Expressions’, New Churches and non-denominational pioneer missional communities. Everyone seems to be talking about discipleship!

It is, however, possible to use the language of discipleship, and still miss the point. ‘Discipleship’ can all too easily become a new label that we stick on the old church tin, and imagine that because we now brand ourselves a ‘discipleship movement’ (for example) everything will be different. Sadly, in more recent centuries, the Church has found a number of ways to ‘hold to the outer form of discipleship, but deny its real power’ (to misquote Paul!).

It has reduced discipleship to knowledge about Christian doctrine rather than a living relationship with Jesus. It has made discipleship about activity, tasks of witness and service that we perform for God, but divorced them from the deep spirituality that can alone guide and sustain such work. It has made discipleship a ‘short-term’ course (typically of twelve sessions) and not a life-long learning experience. It has made discipleship sound like an optional extra for keen Christians, with a conversion experience (or worse, mere church attendance) being substituted as the main markers of Christian identity. It has assumed that discipleship will happen automatically, if people attend enough church meetings, listen to enough sermons and – hopefully – develop the habit of a personal ‘quiet time’.

Despite such an accumulation of blind-spots, it is encouraging that large numbers of churches are seeing the need to correct the imbalances of the past and bring discipleship, of the fully-leaded Jesus-shaped variety, to the front of their agenda. In our work with the Inspire Network we are working with increasing numbers of churches who are addressing the discipleship challenge, and wrestling with what church life looks like when discipleship is seen as the church’s agenda, rather than as merely one item on the church’s agenda.

One of the major shifts of thinking and practice that is required is the need to think long-term and strategically about discipleship. If discipleship really is a life-long learning experience, then some understanding of the life-cycle of the processes that support discipleship in the long haul is vital. With Inspire we are currently using the metaphor of ‘waymarking’ to provide support for our fellowship bands. Discipleship groups and walkers on a long-distance trail both need direction at regular points along the path to ensure that they stay on track, and need help to manage those tricky moments of transition from one path to another. The four ‘paths’ that we develop within the waymarking metaphor are those of Gearing Up, Pressing In, Reaching Out and Moving On.

Gearing Up includes all of the activity that is required to orientate people towards an understanding of what is means to be a disciple, and to develop a hunger for this way of life. Pressing In includes the processes and practices that help people to stay on the track of mission-shaped discipleship. Reaching Out includes enabling those already on the discipleship track to widen their influence so that others can join them on the journey. Moving On deals with the issues surrounding the major transitions that occur within the formation of disciples when, for example, existing structures no longer ‘work’ for some reason, or a major life-transition (e.g. move of house) disrupt the status quo.

These are a few lessons that we are learning around each of those waymarks.

Gearing UpL~

Leaders need to embrace the discipleship agenda themselves. Too often leaders are tempted to look for ‘technical fixes’ to church needs. Running off-the shelf courses, or rolling out programmes that have been perceived to work in other churches can appear to be purposeful activity, but if leaders are to be disciple-makers, they need to be pursuing discipleship themselves. They should be able to say, with Paul, ‘be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Leadership in a disciple-movement is about modelling and not mandating; revealing one’s own heart and not just recruiting for the next course. This is why we strongly advocate that leaders wanting to establish Inspire bands in their churches are actually in an Inspire band themselves!

Churches need clear teaching on what discipleship looks like. Discipleship needs to be taught. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus systematically deconstructs his disciples’ religious worldview and offers them a fresh vision of what being a disciple looks like. Explicitly or implicitly the refrain of ‘you have heard this… but I tell you this’ shapes the sermon. In churches that have never talked about discipleship in any joined-up way, or where the language of discipleship has been given no clear content, this task of deconstruction and reconstruction is vital. Churches that we work with are encouraged to preach through the four elements of our ‘way of life’ as a way of offering a simple framework for the basic tenets of a discipleship worldview (seeking growth in God’s love; using the means of grace; sharing deep fellowship; engaging everyday life as mission opportunity).

Such teaching is not however simply about making people more ‘clued up’ about the subject-matter of discipleship. Rather, through passionate preaching we aim to create desire: the kind of desire that reaches out for a life of all-out Jesus-centred living; the kind of desire that asks, seeks and knocks on heaven’s door until the Spirit is given and the life of Christ is formed in the heart; the kind of desire that longs to see others drawn into the life of the kingdom. In other words, preaching that creates a desire for authentic discipleship.

Pressing InL~

Churches need intentional structures to make disciples. Once the hunger for discipleship is awakened, it quickly becomes clear that the ‘Sunday meeting’ is incapable of providing the richness of mutual engagement that is required by the disciple-agenda. Wesley’s language of ‘social-holiness’ (rightly understood) alerts us to the fact that holiness is only ever created in company with others. Small groups of a size where people can be known, and where an intentional focus on the development of personal discipleship can be maintained, are critical. Our work with Inspire is reclaiming the heritage of small ‘band’ sized groups (of three or four people) in which mutual spiritual direction and accountability can be shared. Such very small groups provide a vital balance, not only to the congregation but also to larger home groups, study groups or cell groups. In the fellowship band a level of trust can develop, significant time can be given to each person and a simple focus can be maintained, all of which are beyond the reach of the larger groups.

Churches need to advocate the essential practices of disciple-making. The root responsibility for authentic discipleship lies with the individual, not with the church. The church’s role is to help people understand and shoulder their responsibility. They do this by training people how to hear God for themselves (through using the means of grace); how to support others on the discipleship journey (through participation in small groups); how to engage in mission (by spotting the opportunities that God sends to share his love in daily life).

Disciples need to develop the rhythm of life that Jesus modelled for his disciples: time alone with his Father, time relating with other disciples, and time responding to his Father’s call in everyday mission. This cyclical rhythm (which we in Inspire label Reflect-Relate-Respond) is the fundamental rhythm of discipleship formation and needs to be explained and taught as the essential breathing pattern of a discipleship movement shaped for mission.

Reaching OutL~

The urge to control and re-trench, needs to be replaced by the impulse to create and release. Discipleship does not respond well to systematisation, but rather needs to be afforded the space to follow the wind of the Spirit wherever He might lead.

Small groups of disciples need to be able to multiply and reform without the constant micro-management of church leaders. Mission projects need to emerge from the interaction of disciples, listening carefully to Jesus-in-the midst, rather than being organised and controlled by ‘the church’. Leadership gifts need to be encouraged, practised and recognised as they arise within small groups and mission projects.

All of the natural energy that is inherent in a discipleship movement does not always fit tidily into existing forms of church life, and so potentially it could even result in new expressions of missional community appearing. Such creativity ‘from the margins’ is sometimes felt as a threat to leadership. Indeed fear of losing control is often cited as a reason for not even setting out on this stage of the journey: but this fear risks impeding the very impulse for renewal that the Spirit breathes through normal discipleship. As Roland Allen tellingly notes, “when the spread of the gospel is controlled out of fear of error, both error and godly zeal tend to be suppressed” .

In his book, Movements that Change the World, Steve Addison notes that ‘in the renewal and expansion of the church, the breakthroughs always occur on the fringe of ecclesiastical power – never at the centre’ . Discipleship groups need to be free to occupy that creative marginal space in church life from which renewal can flow.

With Inspire we actively encourage and support bands to take the initiative to reproduce themselves, to network together with other bands and groups, to discover and deploy gifting and to seek creative missional opportunities.

Moving OnL~

Discipleship is a relational journey, not a religious destination. The processes that release long-term discipleship need to be robust and honest enough to support people through the major transitions in their lives. Our lives are kaleidoscopic in that the various parts that make them up are constantly shifting, and as they shift new pictures emerge: a job changes; a new baby arrives; new perspectives on faith emerge; self-understanding grows. All these – and many, many other changes will make an impact on the way that we pursue our calling to be disciples. We need processes that are dynamic, not static and we always need to keep in view that the processes are there to support our discipleship, and not vice versa! Sometimes the group that nurtured our faith, now doesn’t. Sometimes the engagement with the means of grace that had warmed our faith, now leaves us cold. We should not feel guilty about being human and admitting that, God is ‘doing a new thing’ in our lives.

With Inspire we are trying to help people handle these moments of transition with creative faith, rather than feelings of failure or guilt. When a fellowship band reaches the end of its lifespan (for whatever reason) we want people to end well, by celebrating all that was good in the former fellowship band. We want them to know how to sustain life in the ‘inbetween moments’, before their new band is formed, and we want to offer support in establishing the new thing that will sustain their walk with God as a mission-shaped disciple.

In conclusion then, if everyone is talking about discipleship, and if everyone is serious about forming mission-shaped disciples (perhaps even serious about forming a discipleship movement shaped for mission!), serious thought needs to be given to the long-term processes that enable the life-long development of people whose every breath is given to perpetuate the ministry of Jesus until he 

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