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Making disciples

Thu, 12/10/2015 - 07:28
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We are coming to the end of our time on the “frontline” of mission—evangelising and planting churches—and are getting ready to move to “secondary” mission—preparing, training and supporting others—and I have been looking back and reflecting on our time. What will I take away from frontline mission that will help me to prepare others?

I think the biggest realisation I’ve had is that a surprisingly large number of missionaries—trained, professional missionaries—that I have come across don’t understand discipleship. They don’t really have a good picture of what it is, or how to do it.

I’m taking it as read that “making disciples” is the goal of mission; that’s what Jesus sent us all out to do, after all. So it is quite a serious problem if missionaries, pastors, and lay Christians don’t actually know how to make disciples.

Recently I was at a conference for missionaries all across Japan, and the main talk was about the difference between church planting and making disciples. After the talk we were in groups to discuss, and I could see that some people on my table were having problems with the concept. So I invited everyone to share their own experiences of times in their life when they grew most as a Christian. Many people talked about significant relationships, people or groups of people who had sown into their lives and encouraged them to go deeper with God.

But one lady, with remarkable self-awareness, said that she realised, after fifteen years in Japan that she had not been making disciples, and she said that the reason that she didn’t have a good model of making disciples was that she had never experienced being discipled herself. Nobody had taken that time to individually encourage her in her walk with Christ. Well, it makes sense. Another attendee, a leader in a mission agency, came out of the talk saying that this idea of making disciples was all very well, “but how do you do it?” I looked at the person next to me, and we both said “you just do it!” Maybe nobody had trained him how to do it. Or maybe he didn’t have an experience of it either.

I think for many Christians and even for many missionaries and pastors—generalising wildly, but especially for Asians—getting someone into a church is the most important thing, and then they expect the discipleship bit just to happen by magic. Discipleship is normal Christian growth, so if you give someone good food and water, it should just happen. The problem is that the most common experience of church is kind of like having a bucket of water thrown over a crowd of people—once a week.

For others, discipleship is a six week programme, a set of eight lessons, a textbook to go through with the pastor after the Sunday service as a kind of post-baptism training course. Tick all the boxes, go through the course, finish the programme, and you have a disciple—or at least, a Christian who knows all the answers to the “how-to-be-a-Christian” quiz. It is very hard for people with this experience and understanding of church to grasp the idea of discipleship as an ongoing, personal, individual process of growth and development. They just don’t know how to do it.

I’ve taken a couple of isolated examples but I see them as symptomatic of a general trend that I have seen: when people shift from pioneer evangelism to the growth and smooth administration of a church, then the business of individual discipleship—the whole point of mission—becomes either secondary or not in evidence at all. When church planting replaces disciple-making as the goal of mission… well, put people into the machine, and it’s not surprising that you start to see them as cogs.

Right now a huge number of Japanese churches are struggling with the fact that their pastors are ageing and wanting to retire, but there is no successor in sight; that the pastors, despite having been incumbent in many cases for decades, have not been able to raise up a new generation of leaders to replace them. Why not? Because there has been no effort made to bring people on from pew-filling baptised believer to potential church leader, and very little understanding that this is something that needs to happen—no understanding of a deliberate progression life of faith; in other words, in most of the churches I have experienced here, there is no discipleship going on at all.

I was reminded of something I wrote nearly ten years ago, in a research paper:

The Japanese leader has arrived: he has status ascribed to him, and he is at the top of his tree. The Christian leader, on the other hand, has not arrived; he is still on a journey. His development, discipleship and training must continue throughout his life. (Philippians 3:12-14. See also the Jewish rabbi-student relationship as a shared educational journey in the sensei-deshi mode.) If many Japanese pastors do indeed end up producing `disciples of the pastor rather than disciples of Christ (JCL News, Spring 2006, p. 3),’ it may well be because they, not Christ, are seen as head of the hierarchy; it may be because they are not seen as disciples themselves.

So I am sure this is part of the problem. “Who is discipling you?” is a good question to ask missionaries. If they don’t have a good answer, they have a problem.

But I think another part of the problem is the artificial wall we have constructed between evangelism and discipleship. I have become more and more convinced that these two things refer to the same activity: bringing people to God. If someone isn’t a Christian, the role of the missionary is to give them the opportunity to get closer to God. If someone is a Christian, the role of the missionary is to give them the opportunity to get closer to God.

And how you do it is exactly the same in both cases: it requires engaging with them personally and relationally, not through a programme or a set of lessons, but in the place where they are at spiritually. Talk to them. Get to know them. Share life with them. Share their struggles with them. Share your struggles with them. Pray with them. Listen to God with them, and for them. Model Jesus to them. Invest in their life. Encourage them.

Basically, love them. Love them, as people, not as projects. Not even as church members. Just as real human beings.

If you’re a missionary, and you don’t know how to do this, stop what you’re doing now, and go and learn.

Subject tags: theologymission