Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10 NRSV)
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.(John 3:16 NRSV)
What is a disciple? Well, the answer seems obvious.
A Disciple? A follower of Jesus Christ, someone who believes in God, or perhaps one of the twelve men who followed Jesus about on his travels.
And very often, when we talk about discipleship we focus on belief. A disciple is someone who believes in Jesus Christ. Fair enough, so long as we realise that what we truly believe shapes who we are. If we believe in Jesus that should tell others a great deal about us.
But I want to suggest that the whole notion of discipleship is a little more complex than just the notion of belief. And it is just because it is a little more complex that we often fail when we try to help people to become disciples, remembering that the whole point about disciples is that each one of us should be one.
But we haven’t really defined what a disciple is yet. Bear with me.
The fundamental problem with a lot of Christian evangelism is that it seeks to make converts, not disciples.
Present the facts, show people what’s on offer, talk about the alternatives (remembering to add in a few implied eternal consequences of a scary nature), tell them the rules and the sensible ones will be converted. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Ok, it’s a bit of a caricature, but that’s the underlying thinking behind a lot of evangelism. It does work, sometimes. But I think a certain combination of factors has to come together for it to be truly fruitful – because the emphasis is on making converts, not disciples. It assumes that people will believe first, and then join a church community.
But for many people faith works the other way round.
Because the best alternative word for “discipleship” is “apprenticeship”. As disciples we are apprentices to Jesus.
Now, an apprentice is someone who is on a journey, someone who is hopefully gaining in knowledge, skill and confidence as he or she spends time in their chosen vocation. Jesus’ first disciples were apprentices, as they travelled with him and learned from him.
We live in a time when it can no longer be assumed that people understand either the theology or even the vocabulary of the Christian faith. We now have generations of people, many of whom have no personal contact with any kind of Christian faith, except at the odd Christening, Wedding or Funeral.
And because of that, for most, the journey of discipleship begins not at some point of conversion, having heard some great evangelistic message. Rather, it may well begin when we cautiously and bravely find ourselves stepping over the threshold into a church, wondering what kind of a reception we are going to receive. (In truth, to get just that far, God’s Holy Spirit has been quietly working away within us for quite some time).
Discipleship begins to grow, as we find ourselves welcomed into a community, when we find that we don’t have to conform to a set of strict rules and regulations, and when we discover with a huge sigh of relief that we don’t have to switch off our brains when we come through the door.
In other words, most of us begin to grow as disciples when we find ourselves in the midst of a friendly, welcoming, supportive community where people understand our hesitation and, like Jesus, accept us for who we are.
The “belonging” comes before the believing.
That is why it is so vitally important for a local church family, to go to great lengths to meet people where they are.
That is also why developing networks of small groups is so necessary, because people feel more free to explore matters of faith in a safe, friendly environment amongst a few people they have grown to trust; and it is why the informal group discussion structure of outreach courses such as Alpha is so important.
And, I firmly believe, that is why churches need to offer a diversity of worship which engages people of different backgrounds, different personality types and different stages of life. It is not about “pick-and-mix” religion: it is about being courteous and hospitable to all who are exploring their relationship with God.
If we want people to become disciples, if we want them to know and understand God’s amazing love for them, we need to do what Jesus himself did: meet people where they are, and gently encourage them to follow.
So the starting point is belonging. For many people, it is only when they actually feel part of a community which cares about them, and understand why that community cares about them that they will start to grow in love and trust for the one who is the very reason that community exists: Jesus Christ.
In other words, belonging helps to encourage believing, and then believing has consequences of its own and which, in a virtuous cycle, can and should lead to further invitations to belong.
We are disciples because we are on a journey of growth as we learn the ways of Christ and His Kingdom. And part of that growth entails learning about sharing God’s love with others and helping them to belong to God’s family and believe in him whom he sent.
But if we approach that making of disciples with an agenda:
If we say that we must get more people in to ensure the church’s future;
If we say that we must get more people in so that we can afford to pay the parish bills;
If we say that we must get more people in so that we can still have a vicar when this one finally falls (or is pushed) off his perch;
If we say that we must get people in because we’re tired of doing all these jobs and we need some new blood;
If we say that we must get more people in so that we can preserve this service or that service, or this or that musical tradition or worship style;
If we approach the making and nurturing of disciples with our own agenda . . .
. . . then we will fail.
But if we can provide an environment where people feel able to belong, a nurturing environment where the truth is proclaimed, where people feel accepted, and their joys and pains are accepted too, then we might be able to help someone on the path of discipleship.
There is no sure-fire programme to follow in order to make disciples. But what we can do is live our lives as examples of Christian disciples – as best we can in our own human frailty.
We can be determined to grow in our own discipleship, for we meet as those who have received God’s mercy and we want others to know of that mercy, too.
We can invite people to come along and experience the life of our church family. We can follow Jesus’ example and try to meet people where they are.
And most importantly we can approach others, not with our own agenda, but with something of the deep and painful love which God has for each one of them – and for us, too.
We can help people to belong – so that they may also believe.