Friday, July 08, 2011

Some Quick Thoughts on Church, Mission, Discipleship

Christians are disciples.

Disciples follow Jesus, learn from him, and are charged with the mission of continuing to do so, and to draw others to the same kind of life ("go and make disciples").

The original disciples were called by Jesus and in answer to that call they followed Jesus. But when Jesus departed, he charged them with the mission of making other followers and learners like them, so somehow the ability to follow Jesus and learn from him did not come to an end with his departure. It continued through the disciples. They continued to be disciples (followers of Jesus) and in so doing they made new disciples.

The church is the coming together of such disciples. When they come together they might be expected to sing the praises of the one to whom they have dedicated their lives, or to discuss their mission (the ups and downs, the troubles and triumphs), or to pray for one another as disciples (or you might say, to pray one another into their missions). Jesus said he would be with them when they came together, even just two or three of them. To be with him and to have him be with them is the desire of their hearts.

If you conduct church as if your congregation is not in fact a gathering of disciples on mission but simply a needy crowd, then that's what you will have.

If you, as church leaders, funnel your definition of mission entirely through a church-activity grid, then you're failing to teach the true nature of discipleship or the true nature of mission. It is almost entirely outside the walls, along the highways and byways.

If when disciples come together they choose to listen to someone preach, that preacher probably should preach what Jesus preached. They're Jesus followers, after all, not Bible-worshippers.

And when, after coming together and learning from one another, praying for one another, singing the praises of Jesus together, they go their separate ways, they are going back out to their missions as Jesus-followers. Their mutuality is in their love for Jesus and their shared mission as his followers.

The alternative to this vision of church is one in which the church is merely a dispenser of help (Biblical or not) and the congregation is merely a crowd of needy people. There can be a lot of comforting at such a church, but often very little calling. Leaders in these churches see their primary mission as attracting more needy people and dispensing the help they need, but seldom calling (and even re-calling) people to the mission the way Jesus did ("follow me, and I will make you fishers of men").

The congregation then takes on a two-tiered aspect. The handful that "minister," and the many that need "ministry." This set-up becomes entrenched by one-hour repetitions each Sunday morning. But it does not make disciples nor does it strengthen and encourage disciples, nor is it, I would suggest, even church.

On the other hand, a church that is the gathering of the called disciples will be all about sending not attracting. It will be all about mission, not about finding new way to get more people in the building.


Erin Hope said...

good stuff!

DebD said...

I've pondered this post in my mind quite a bit over the last week or so since you posted it. I keep wondering though - why does it have to be either/or. Why can't it be both/and. In my tradition we see the church as a hospital (now you have to understand that the EO's understanding of sin is quite different than Western Christians - we do not see it in the juridical sense). But, I think all Christians realize their need for healing - inner healing...not just going out and calling people. I agree with you that pastors and leaders should not be concerning themselves with "getting new people in the building"... that is a terrible distraction from their mission to be Shepherds to their flock. Besides, Jesus himself said that the way is narrow and few will find it - I've never been one for numbers games in church. But I still keep wondering if you don't think the church should have both ministry within and without (as it were).

You may enjoy the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. He was believed to be a disciple of John and almost certainly knew some of the other disciples. Perhaps you would find it helpful to read how those 1st Christians "saw" church.

Anyway, just my own muddlings as I think about what you've written.

Bob Spencer said...

Deb, I definitely agree that it doesn't need to be either/or, but what I have found is that in the church as hospital template (and I agree that a church should be that at times) there turns out be a kind of pandering to the congregation. We are encouraged to self-define as broken--and there is certainly a place for that--rather than self-define as Jesus followers. And there doesn't even seem to be a lot of real healing in all this, just a lot of people (dare I say it) going back again and again to the reasons they're depressed or wounded or whatever. Our wounds become our primary subject, and we are more like the people at the pool of Bethesda (was it?) waiting for an angel to stir the water, than like the disciples following Jesus, being trained by Jesus, and sent by Jesus to do the things Jesus did.

I've always had a positive sense about the Orthodox tradition generally. You're right, I should read some of the church Fathers, like Ignatius of Antioch. I will give that a try soon.

DebD said...

Thanks for responding. I didn't mean to take so long to respond back, but I've been under the weather.

I appreciate what you have written and I do remember that church as a hospital in my Protestant days did tend to have troubles with "pandering to the congregation". But, I guess I just don't see that where I am. Oh sure, there's some very dysfunctional parishes where the parishioners are having a field day- but I don't think that's what you're talking about. I think it must boil down to: we see Church differently, and so the emphasis is a little different. We see Church and Her sacraments as bringing healing to body and soul. We don't have a problem with a "handful of ministers and many who need ministry". We would say: "Of course!" Christ only had a handful of disciples (who later became Bishops) but a multitude of people who needed healing of soul and body.

But, finally many Orthodox (especially converts like myself) will readily admit that the EO church hasn't done a very good job of witnessing about the faith - oh yes, a lot of witnessing through martyrdom in the 20th century, but not the everyday, share my faith and love of Christ with my neighbor. Much has been written about the whys and wherefores of this American Orthodox phenomenon, so I won't bore you... but it is a problem.

I like what you've written. It really made me think how we are/are not doing this in my own church - both local and national.

Bob Spencer said...

Good conversation, Deb. I think our difference comes down to--as you suggest--how we perceive the church. To my way of thinking, believers are disciples. So the idea that church should model a scene from the gospels were Jesus and his small band minister to thousands odes not quite fit. I would say rather that church should model those scenes were Jesus and his disciples get away from the crowd--into a boat, say, or out to a desolate place, or to an "upper room"--where Jesus teaches his disciples, molds them, revealing to them more and more of who he is and why he came.

With that model in mind, you see there is still a place for the ministry to the many, but that is not church. That is service to the world at large.

These differing models, based on differing assumptions about who it is that makes up the church, will result in a very different tone in the preaching. Preachers who see themselves as speaking to primarily needy people will sound quite different than those who think they are speaking to disciples.

Anyway, I think your questions and comments have helped to clarify this difference. If believers, all of them, are disciples (rather than just the few who take leadership positions in the church), and if a disciple is by definition a follower of Jesus who listens and learns and is "sent" by him on a disciple-making mission, then the church-as-hospital model is not serving that mission well. Giving people a lot of advice about their depression is not disciple-making. The model for disciple-making is in the teaching sessions that Jesus had with his disciples. Finally, Jesus left his disciples with the command to make more disciples, not to "go you into all the world and heal as many as you can."

DebD said...

This was very helpful and I definitely agree that Jesus did asked His disciples to make disciples. But, someone shared a youtube video titled "drive-through church" and it made me wonder - is THAT what you're talking about when you talk about "needy people"? If so, I totally agree... that is sad and it's not church either, IMHO. So, that along with your comment about Jesus' command made me wonder if we're not looking at the same thing, but using different language (because this happens often with EO/Protestant discussions). So, what do you think it means when someone is a disciple (beyond learning from Him and going and making more disciples)? What does becoming a disciple look like?

I apologize if I'm belaboring this too much... feel free to drop it and move on.