Okay, so I’ve got your attention with that one.
But stay with me…
A few years ago I heard someone make the observation: ‘Jesus didn’t say, ‘you go build my church’, he said ‘I will build my church; you go and make disciples’ (Matt 16:18; 28:19). I found that a helpful distinction, and one that has continued to frame and shape my thinking ever since. We’re all called to go and witness to the reality of Jesus, to sow and water gospel seeds, to engage energetically in God’s mission, but has it ever been our job to secure the growth of the church? At the end of the day for all our activity, there’s something irreducibly organic and ‘unengineerable’ about conversion and kingdom growth; it’s a subterranean miracle. Attempts to mechanise, coerce or orchestrate spiritual results tend to suffocate the very flame we’re so anxious to preserve. We’ve tended to think that way, and perhaps have been propelled into it by an awareness of the numerical decline of the church in the West. Perhaps in our presumptuous anxiety to help God along with his job, we’ve tended to neglect our own. And that is to be and make disciples.
I recently read Alan Kreider’s book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, which is a fascinating survey of writings from the first few centuries of the fledgling Jesus movement. What I found so compelling about it was the sheer confidence these Christians had that if they worked hard at making disciples, God would get on with his side of the bargain in his own good time. During those centuries, and against all the odds, there was a steady and persistent process of gospel ferment, as the message was proclaimed and embodied through the life of disciples and their patient communities, and as Christians applied themselves to discipling the next generation of Jesus followers through deliberate formative processes.
Due to persecution, the early church observed the disciplina arcani (or ‘discipline of the secret’), which meant that worship gatherings weren’t open to the public. In fact deacons stood as bouncers on the doors! All of which was not exactly conducive to a ‘seeker sensitive’ model of mission. In fact almost the opposite was the case. Christians set the bar high for entry, they had to, and they didn’t pander to people whose pursuit of God was half-hearted. Those who wanted to become a Christian had to find a sponsor who was happy to vouch to church leaders that they were genuine seekers, and, if accepted, they then had to undergo a three year discipling process before they could be baptised! This included working through a new disciples curriculum at a weekly class, the accompaniment of a sponsor/mentor, and periodic ‘scrutinies’ of their progress in the way of Christ from church leaders. Some of this might seem OTT or impractical in our context, but I believe there is more than a little here to learn. Whilst I don’t think we should throw out all that we’ve learnt in recent years about seeker-sensitivity, church growth, and culturally relevant mission, I can’t help but sense that Alan Kreider is onto something. Robust disciple-forming ministry is indispensable, and is perhaps even more so in an increasingly post-Christendom and biblically illiterate culture like ours, one that is looking more and more like Pagan Rome by the day. If we don’t ‘do the business’ for new disciples, how are we doing them any favours in a culture so blithely corrosive of Christian faith?
Our anxiety-ridden church-growth strategies in recent history have tended towards lowering the bar, of making it as easy as possible for people to enter the church and belong. But in the process haven’t we ironically shot ourselves in the foot? Hasn’t the needy quick fix scuppered us longer term? If a way of life isn’t demanding, can it be compelling? If a community isn’t disciplined, can it be attractive? Don’t people want to be called to something greater? Something beyond normal (or super-natural)? Something worth making sacrifices – even dying – for? Anaemic discipleship isn’t particularly appealing to anyone, nor the shapeless, harmless, challenge-less communities it produces. What good is salt if it has lost its saltiness? Jesus asked. The answer: nothing at all, except to be thrown out and trampled in the street.
So discipling is key, but discipling is tough. Not least because it requires us to be disciples first; authentic models of the Way of Jesus in community together. And discipling isn’t always very sexy or exciting. It can be a time-consuming, labour-intensive, one-to-one and little-by-little kind of ministry whose fruits aren’t always observable in the short term (though there are exciting surges and breakthroughs involved). Discipling is also often painful for everybody involved. The gospel bites everyone somewhere (unless we have rendered it toothless), and part of discipling someone is journeying with them through the crucifixion of the old life (Rom 8:13; Gal 5:24) and the costliness of Christian service. As we do so we’ll doubtless be confronted again and again by our own sin and hypocrisy, and realise we’re just as much a candidate for repentance as those we’re working with. Discipling requires face-to-face relationship, honest communication, openness to challenge, courageous conversation. It demands the reclamation of the lost art of speaking truth in love and the discipline of mutual accountability. In our laissez faire society, with its privatised, atomised, and superficial culture, these practices feel unnatural, but they are in fact essential.
So who is God calling you to disciple today? And what might that look like this week or over the next month? What high fidelity discipling practices do we need to embed in our personal and corporate life and then stubbornly stick at come what may? At the end of the day we can’t engineer the growth of the church, and our fixation upon doing so often serves only to compound or exacerbate the problem. God is working out his own mysterious purposes in these days, and will have his way. So rather than trespassing on his prerogative, let’s gird up our loins and reapply ourselves with gusto to our own nitty-gritty commission: that long, sometimes arduous, but always worthwhile challenge to both be and make disciples.