Making disciples – the messy reality!

What a mess I’ve made of this discipleship thing! On the basis that failure often unlocks learning I’ve reflected on aspects of my experience. I respectfully suggest that many approaches to discipleship for young people need to move beyond the paradigms of ‘quick fix steps to successful victorious Christian living’ and into the arena of working at the transformation of the messy realms of reality.

Three young people I worked with became Christians, I was thrilled and as I carved another notch in my bible I bathed in the knowledge of heavenly parties! The trouble started a few years later when I realised that one of the young people was in prison (again!) and that the other had come to see me to check how he could undo his decision to be a Christian as it was too demanding. The third still lives near to me and we see each other regularly – he’s stuck with it, well perhaps a 33% “success” rate is not too bad! Or is it, what went wrong?

Firstly there’s my own misconceptions at that time that I was “called to make converts” rather than disciples. Too often plans for evangelism end at the point when the words “I do” are uttered, which probably offers insight into why we have so many failed marriages too! A whole range of questions need consideration for effective discipleship, these should include:

Who is responsible for discipleship? Do they know? Is it a shared responsibility or should someone have a “primary care” role? Who is looking after the person doing the discipling?

What model of discipleship is being adopted, it seems to me that the models range from too equally dangerous extremes, the “laissez-faire” approach of leaving it to anyone else through to “heavy shepherding” which is characterised by line management type control of others!

What method of teaching is going to work best? Should it be group based or individual or both? How will teaching take account of experience? Should it be programmed or spontaneous? What resources work?

How does the discipleship process stay culturally and socially relevant? What is the balance between traditional aspects of discipleship and cultural relevance? How do you take account of issues like neighbourhood/family background, social class, ethnicity, gender, and differing learning abilities?

Secondly I’ve learnt that there is ample evidence to question much of the baggage that churches want to load onto young Christian disciples. This is not always an aspect of conscious discipleship curriculum on the part of the church, however the unwritten collective assumptions in many churches prevent even the most tentative consideration of new forms of discipleship. Many of the youngsters that I have known, including the three mentioned above, would not normally consider faith or discipleship on the basis that they could never be good enough to be Christians. Where has this misunderstanding that Christians are good come from? My fear is that for some of us Christianity has become a sanctimonious self-righteous hobby. A hobby that has replaced a poignant and humbling knowledge of the fact that we are forgiven humans, relating to a gracious God through His own costly sacrifice. Black and white judgmental morality is in danger of replacing empathetic understanding of others, comfortably numb Christianity that has no time for a theology of ongoing salvation! And the baggage goes on:

Thou shalt conform to appropriate dress codes, jeans are out and no shorts – even if we do experience summer!

Thy language shall become increasingly elaborate and unrestricted ensuring that ye have holistic and contextualised knowledge of the inter-relatedness of all things theological!

Your taste in music shall not permit ye to experience a sense of worship whilst listening to anything which has not been submitted to the rigours of community singing or passed the repetitive strain point of mindless repetition.

Thirdly I’ve learnt that discipleship shouldn’t be left to Sundays. In many churches Sunday too often seems as if it’s for the temporary shelving of reality. Like the time a minister said at a friends funeral “we rest in the knowledge that life will always get better” – at least 95% of those there to mourn the parting of a friend switched off as the theory contradicted their experience. Sunday is a time to forget the fights that you had getting ready for church and pray for the fights in Kosova, a time to listen to excellent theories on how to live and never follow them up with any kind of review or discussion about application. Perhaps beside the umbrella racks in our church buildings we should also have “reality” and “experience” racks – so that people can leave these at the door too? For some people church has become a time to be “glad that you are not like other men” as you bask in the emotion of one more victorious chorus. I’m afraid that I never joined the “keep Sunday special campaign” I was too busy arguing that we should make Sunday special! How do we need to change our use of this special day? A few suggestions follow.

We need meetings that are meetings! Too often we assume that physical proximity constitutes a meeting! Don’t neglect meeting together says Paul – I’d like to emphasise the term TOGETHER, generally the term has come to mean that a lot of individuals meet on mass with a few individuals who stand at the front. This is not to criticise leadership it is rather to challenge leadership style. We need people who understand and apply the meaning of populist terms like ‘facilitation’, ’empowerment’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘discourse’. Father Austin Smith once said, “in the church we need less sermons and more conversations” (amen!). Ways of being church need wider discussion than I can offer here, suffice to say that I believe discipleship training best occurs when we stop asking people to leave their reality at the church door and engage in more open dialogue together.

I also suggest that we might begin to see Sunday as a day of service rather than a day of services! Why is so much of our corporate church activity based upon models of worship that exclude Romans 12v2? This is your reasonable worship – to present yourself as a living sacrifice. This is no abstract statement about a posture for spiritual dance! But rather a challenge to act upon belief in costly questions and actions in the places that we seek to serve God. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a Sunday meeting when we sing a hymn, read scripture, hear a five minute sermon, pray, go into our neighbourhood to find ways of applying what we hear for the rest of the day. We could then meet to have tea together and review our day! To learn from the mistakes and praise God for any success. I wonder what impact this might have on a sense of discipleship?

In a speech given before the Provincial Synod of the Southern Cone of the Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey warned that it is easy to merely talk about mission (and I’d add discipleship). He noted that in his diocese of Canterbury there is a “wonderful, ancient Church where there is an innocent sign in the Church porch. It reads, ‘Keep door firmly shut, sheep may enter’. And, for too many years, this has been the unspoken view of many Anglican Churches – this church is not for you, keep out!”

It’s my firm belief that church doors need to be wide open with a healthy flow in and out – in the church but not of the church! I believe that many young people will be interested and drawn to discipleship alongside a people who are exploring the implications of their beliefs in the complex interface with contemporary society and life.
Dave Wiles is Chief Executive Officer of Frontier Youth Trust