What do you think of when you read the word “discipleship”? If you were dyed-in-the-wool as a member of a baptist church in the 1960s – like my grand-parents, you might think it was a class you attended Sunday afternoons at 4:30. “Discipleship Training” took place before the evening worship service at my home church in Greensboro; I think during children’s choir and youth choir practices that my mother was forced against her will to attend. The older term some of you might still be familiar with: Training Union! Discipleship Training, or Training Union, was a good program of Christian education teaching the importance of a personal prayer life, bible study, and evangelism. There is nothing bad about it as a program, but it was just a program.
This is not a criticism of generations past; I am keenly aware that we stand today upon the shoulders of precious saints that have gone before us and it is them that get credit for their faithfulness to God; it is their good stewardship that caused out church to be where it is today. Though not a criticism, I do want to observe a few things about established churches like ours, and perhaps provide a gentle critique. Discipleship was a program, evangelism was a program (remember meeting to go knock on doors?), music was a program, youth and children’s ministries were programs, Sunday School was a program, Royal Ambassadors and the Girls’ Auxiliary were programs. Programs are good; if we get the right people volunteering, put them in the right room, and purchase the best curriculum, results will follow. Programs are systems that work. This is not a bad thing. We have made fine musicians, bible students that could excel at seminary tests, and kids that are excited to come to church. Programs also provide a vehicle through which we love one another. I am so thankful for my R.A. leader, and his willingness to teach me, and encourage me, and live out godly leadership.
However, programs can ring hollow when they are an end unto themselves. If young people are excited to attend events because they will be well entertained, hang out with their friends, play some games, and perhaps eat a few Goldfish crackers, that doesn’t mean we have made Christians. If young – or old – people are taught how to play instruments, or sing well, together, and the music on Sundays sounds better than the Brooklyn Tabernacle, that doesn’t mean we have made Christians. (One of my saddest experiences was to hear a Choir sing songs of the faith, but evidence suggests that they don’t believe much of what they were articulating.) If we understand the stories, know the characters, authors, timelines, and themes of all ____ books of the bible, that’s great! If you know the number in the blank, you’re well on your way toward being one of my beloved “seminary pin-heads”! Just because you would win a bible trivia game, or even pass a Systematic Theology III exam, doesn’t mean you’ve been made a Christian.
Think of this word “Christian”. Acts tells us that this word was first used in Antioch to describe folks within the Church. It was – like many terms – making fun of the ones the label was thrown upon. “Look at all those Christians (little Christs)” bullies would jeer as they hurl insults at the meek servants just trying to make the lives of others a bit better. To be “made a Christian” is to be “made a little Christ”. For us, if we’re doing it right, we are being conformed into the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29) – day by day – through the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2) and the sanctification of our spirits. So, do you look more like Jesus today, or this week, or this decade, than you did last week, or last year, or when you were ten?
To be a disciple is to be a follower of Jesus. As a missionary friend once told me in Africa (because the term “Christian” carried a LOT of baggage), the natives refer to us as believers with this phrase: those who “accompany the way of the Messiah”. Do you accompany the way of the Messiah? I confess to God and to you, that if I am walking where Jesus walked, I am WAY behind Him. This expression helps me to consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus, to “accompany His way”, to be a disciple. Discipleship is not just something we do; it is who we are. We cannot afford for discipleship to be viewed as a just a program in our church. Rather than an “application” we “run”, it has to be the “operating system” upon which all the other apps run!
How do we do Sunday School, or education, or small groups, or whatever else we call it? By being disciples that make disciples of one another. How do we do evangelism? By being disciples that make disciples of our lost friends. How do we do next generation ministries? How do we do music ministry? How do we do Hope Kitchen? How do we do guest services? By being disciples that make disciples. Discipleship is a lifestyle, and it is the very foundation of what makes us a church. Why? Because we have met the Healer, and have experienced His work in our lives. He has redeemed us, cleansed us, credited us with His own righteousness, and given us the hope of eternal life. Experiencing this healing causes us to want to worship Him, obey His commands, and honor Him with our lives. One of these commands is to make disciples (Matthew 28:16). As we actively follow this mission He has given to us, we will indeed be helping broken people find healing in Christ!
Like a mighty army moves the Church of God;
brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod;
we are not divided; all one body we,
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity!
Rev. Andrew J. Reynolds