“If you make disciples, you always get church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.” — Mike Breen
When the traditional elements of parish, church and neighborhood are stripped away, as they have become for so many, and when the primary context is a network or a third place, we are forced (and perhaps this is good) to clarify what it means to become a disciple of Jesus and to make disciples of others.
But discussion on discipleship can be institutional and theoretical. This reflection will be more fundamental, constructive and offer a helpful set of practices for participants in Fresh Expressions and spiritual guides of these communities.
How Are Disciples to Be Made?
So how are disciples being made in our own time and place? Here I sketch the outlines of a response. Most church people are exposed to sufficient information: texts, curriculum, sermon series. These are valuable resources and God uses them to teach us.
Over the last generation, many have been formed through studies like the Disciple Bible Study. Other high-commitment bible studies are offered in local churches. Increasingly, the worship service itself is the setting for adult formation, particularly through the use of sermon series.
These are highly visible examples of information, and in an increasingly biblical-illiterate culture information is necessary. People should not have to attend seminaries in order to be exposed, for the first time, to basic teaching about scripture, church history and doctrine.
Imitation is a bit murkier. As a culture we are more committed to the reception of information than to the practice of imitation. This is where we learn from a role model who invests time in us; and many of us have been blessed by mentors along the way. Having a spiritual mentor of the laity prepares us to in turn to give guidance to others in the Christian journey. We learn to imitate those that have gone before us in faith. Imitating the clergy leader can result in discerning a call to set oneself apart for ministry of some sort.
In a highly committee-based structure, there is much apprenticeship in what Ken Callahan called the “functional” areas of ministry, as in when the incoming trustee chair might shadow the present chair. It may be that we are stronger in discipling leaders for the administration of the church than in the more foundational areas of prayer, scripture reading, service and justice ministries. At least these latter ministries are perhaps more hidden and contextual.
Through immersion we make connections between the information we have received, the role models we have watched, and in the process discover ourselves to be in environments that are transformational. Immersion has happened chiefly in camping settings, short-term mission teams and in retreats such as Walk to Emmaus. It is emerging in forms of new monasticism and in the work (theory and practice) of Elaine Heath. For many, immersion happens as students are formed (liturgically, intellectually, communally) in theological schools.
So how do we become disciples, and how do we make disciples?
I will sketch answers to these two questions in the next two reflections.
To Learn More:
Mike Breen and 3DM Team, Building a Discipleship Culture
Kennon Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church
Samuel G. Freedman, “Secular, But Feeling a Call to Divinity School,” New York Times (October 16, 2015)
Steve Harper, The Way to Heaven: The Gospel According to John Wesley
Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience
This article originally appeared here.
Ken Carter is the United Methodist Bishop appointed to the Florida Episcopal Area. He hails from Georgia with an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a D.Min. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Ken and his wife Pam live in Lakeland, Florida.