by The Rev. Christy Thomas
I was in conversation last night with a good friend about the nature of discipleship. She’s been placed in charge of discipleship for her large church, a United Methodist congregation.
We chatted about the history of discipleship plans there. Mostly they involved making sure the Sunday school classes were properly structured with presidents and program people set in place.
We looked at each other, a shared moment of despair hanging in the air between us.
Tears sprang to my eyes.
We asked, “What IS a disciple of Jesus?” “What does a disciple do?” “How do we know if we have actually made a disciple?” Until we have actually defined our goal, we’ll never know if we’ve reached it.
Definition of Disciples
As we talked, it dawned on me that real disciples are highly disruptive by nature, and are not necessarily terribly knowledgeable. Certainly, when Jesus set his followers free to head into their entire known world, they were a pretty unformed, motley group.
The early church, as depicted by the book of Acts and from what we can glean by the Epistles, was a chaotic, conflict-ridden place. New theological understandings arose as the Gospel began to spread into areas that were primarily non-Jewish in background.
Context shaped the message (see Acts. 17). People argued their positions passionately, agreeing on occasion to go their separate ways or simply agreeing to disagree over items of significant importance. They chose to maintain overall unity while sustaining significant doctrinal and practical diversity.
Radical inclusion became the norm. Those formerly with no place in the covenantal life of the community found themselves not only included, but placed in positions of leadership and authority. Gentiles, women, slaves, the previously unclean, were suddenly made clean by new understandings of what it meant to live in a kingdom of heaven way.
That is chaos. That’s what happens when we make disciples and set them free.
A possible working definition of disciple: one who has had a life-changing encounter with the Living God. Then, while staying connected to some sort of local community, s/he sets forth to offer to others the same life-change.
No lumbering bureaucracies here. No multi-layered hierarchical authority deciding who may and who may not announce the good news with authority. Aged wineskins burst open, spilling the carefully stored fruit of the vine everywhere, staining clothes, spreading into rivers and valleys, being caught and imbibed by those not formally deemed worthy to taste it.
Disciples flame with life and passion for God, frequently discard old structures in favor of new and untapped missions, ignore many of the rules and openly break others, and leave unsettledness in their wake.
Definition of Good Church Members
Good church members gather in worship frequently, give regularly, serve faithfully on various committees of the church, attend some small group gathering and periodically engage in mission of some sort to those not so comfortable in life.
They are knowledgeable enough to vote competently at congregational meetings and to teach Sunday school. They often step up to serve in the larger and very complex denominational structures.
They support the pastor(s), and die gracefully, often leaving a substantial portion of their estates to further the work of the church that they have so loved over their lifetimes.
They are genuinely good people, wonderful friends, and solid members of their communities. We can’t do church or have a healthy community life without them.
John Wesley and His Methods
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, became a disciple after years of being a good clergyman/church member. He ultimately left chaos in his wake, broke rules willy-nilly, and passionately taught about God.
I am finding it more and more fascinating that Wesley’s methods, now tightly encoded and overlaid with centuries of rules, regulations and top-heavy structures, ended up creating primarily church members, not disciples.
Even so, the Spirit of God continually births new disciples, untamed and passionate. The church, no matter what it’s beliefs or organizational structure, will do its best to tame them, slowly suffocating the passion.
The institutional church that creates good church members can and often does grow solidly. Roman Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are good examples.
Everything is tightly coded. New revelations must come only through a tightly held, all-male, self-perpetuating power structure at the top. The rituals designed to initiate newcomers and bring people in and keep them there are well-prepared and succeed well in the goal of indoctrination.
Free-thinkers are either shut down or expelled.
But disciples have this annoying tendency to be free-thinkers. Again, think John Wesley and others like him. Their lives have been too radically changed by their encounters with the Holy One to have assurance that all that is from God can be contained in one human institution.
Disciples breathe the freedom of grace; they swim in waters of forgiven intimacy with God and with each other.
The United Methodist’s church tagline reads, “Making Disciples for the Transformation of the World.”
I love the tagline. Unfortunately, it is just not a true representation of what the UMC is about. A more accurate tagline might read, “Making Church Members for the Survival of the UMC.”
If we want real disciples, we have to throw open the door to the holy chaos and fresh air of the Spirit of God. It’s frightening, uncontrollable, upsetting, and rule-breaking. It’s what happens when the angel shows up and immediately says, “Don’t be afraid” because we are instinctively afraid of that which is radically different from what we know. It’s also how the world is actually transformed.