A few weeks ago my church held a service to send out one of our own to an unreached people group in North Asia. I was powerfully impacted at that moment by the journey Josh* has been on.
One of those laying hands on him was a workmate, who was part of one of our Baptist churches in Sydney’s south west. He had led Josh into a living relationship with Jesus 12 years ago and then committed to help him find a local church. That church ended up being Bayside Community Church, where I pastor. Josh arrived at Bayside taking first steps in his faith. He plugged into community, eager to learn and glad in the freedom and purpose he had found in Christ.
In the years that followed Josh’s faith grew. It was not without challenges (as there is for every disciple) as old habits were confronted and he learned to live out the Lordship of Jesus in his life. His gratitude for how Jesus had changed him led him to undertake a mission internship at Bayside and take the plunge to study at Morling College to be better prepared for what God might have in store. Over time God impressed on his heart an unreached people group in North Asia. That sense of call grew, he followed it and now here we were, sending him out into a new phase of what being a disciple of Jesus looks like for him.
In this moment I was struck with the privilege it is to impact and be impacted by the discipleship journey of others. It’s also caused me to reflect again: If Jesus says the main game is to make disciples (Matt 28:19-20), then how’s the game going?
A disciple-making church?
Disciple-making is Jesus’ strategy for changing the world. He commissioned his disciples to make disciples, who by definition would in turn make disciples. Consequently, an obscure group of 100+ followers grew to about 6 million believers in the Roman Empire on the eve of Constantine’s conversion roughly 300 years later.
It has been said that the spiritual anaemia currently gripping much of the western church is not due so much to a lack of missional impulse, though this may be the case in some quarters. The underlying challenge is that we are not habitually producing disciplemaking disciples. Dallas Willard in his book The Great Omission sums it up this way: “For at least several decades, the churches of the western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress towards or in discipleship.”
A disciple is both a learner and a follower. The gospel writers make clear that to be a disciple of Jesus meant primarily to go with him, in an attitude of observation, study, obedience and imitation.3 To be a disciple is to spend our lives becoming like Him, and investing ourselves in others such that they do the same. Thus, to be committed to discipleship is to be committed to mission.
Discipleship and Mission – you can’t have one without the other
One of the benefits of the ‘purpose driven’ models of church that have been popularised in recent decades is the clarity they have brought to the driving purposes of Christ’s body – Worship, Discipleship, Fellowship and Mission (both evangelism and service). However sometimes this clarity has come at the expense of appreciating how much these purposes interconnect and overlap.
Too often in practice we have reduced disciple-making to a curriculum of learning and a process of positive behavioural change that happens once a person makes a decision to ‘accept Christ’. In the gospels we see Jesus calling all people to a closer following of him, wherever they are at. Being discipled incorporates being evangelised.
James Engel helpfully represented this paradigm in what has become known as the Engel Scale.
Fulfilling the Great Commission involves discipling ourselves and others along this continuum. It has been said that there are only 2 types of people in the world; those who need to know Jesus and those who need to share Jesus. We disciple them both.
A corollary of this is that integral to growth in discipleship is a practical, lived out commitment to mission – both evangelism and service. If you were asked to describe the key marks of a mature Christian, what would they be? A primary one is that they are reproducing other disciples. There is no such thing as a mature follower of Jesus who is not ordering their lives so as to live out a commitment to Christ’s mission in both their words and their deeds. We need to honestly ask ourselves the question: “If a key indicator of spiritual maturity is making disciples…then how mature am I?”
So, what can this look like?
The perception often is that surrender to Christ and growth in discipleship do not come easy in the Aussie context. Without wanting to minimise the challenges, I believe it is not as complicated as we are sometimes tempted to think it is. For sure it takes sustained commitment and creative effort. But then, was it really any different for the first disciples?
There are inspiring examples from among our churches of what this can look like.
Pastor Steve Troyer leads the gang at New Vine Lakes Baptist Church near Newcastle, a church that is only three years old. Their aim is to have as many people in their church as possible engaging in at least one spiritually significant spiritual conversation each week with someone far from God. The church leadership is intentionally equipping people for this challenge. Steve himself is leading by example through actively looking for spiritually open people, both within the extended network of the church and through other means such as doorknocking. This year around 25 people have become new followers of Jesus and Steve is asking God for more in 2013!
Hawkesbury Valley Baptist is seeing the fruit of intentional discipleship from the earliest stages of people’s faith journey. It’s youth are stepping up with energetic commitment to Christ’s cause. Mark Chapple, HVBC’s Senior Pastor, also leads a network of pastors & churches in the greater Penrith area under the name Greater West for Christ. Among other things, GWFC has commenced a training college in partnership with Morling College. It uses an apprenticeship model which is discipling and releasing key leaders for Baptist churches in the Western Sydney region.
At Narwee Baptist church, intentional discipleship happens through involving people in ministry and mission both locally and abroad, while providing clear grounding in God’s Word and targeted training and reflection opportunities.
At Nyngan Baptist, the congregation has together taken part in key community events such as the local show and Relay for Life, seeking to make these opportunities of witness. They are committed to their community and living out openly the message of Jesus in the midst of it.
At Bayside Community Church, Bob & Chris have invited spiritually open pre- Christian friends into a simple Discovery Bible Study in one of those friends’ homes. They are opening God’s Word together and sharing its impact in their lives; learning how to share what they learn with others while they themselves are still discovering who Jesus is. Simple and reproducible, Bob’s vision is to see 100 of these home based groups begun in the area in the years ahead.
Many other stories are out there. We need to share these, encourage one another with them, and spur each other on to build cultures of intentional, missional disciplemaking in our churches. In Jesus and through the power of His Spirit (2 Peter 1:3, Eph 1:19-20) we have all we need for the task!