Missional Discipleship – trendy trend or vital idea?
Something new and exciting is happening across the Church in the west, and that is a fresh emphasis on missional discipleship. Before, good reader, you raise a quizzical eyebrow wondering ‘So what’s new about mission and discipleship in the Church?’, let me share some Biblically-based thoughts and reflections on missional discipleship with you, which may shed light on how we can be energized by the concept and current debate. Might I add it resonates in a very timely way with our congregations adjusting to a future with fewer stipendiary ministers of word and sacrament among us, where missional activity and discipling is suddenly becoming everyone’s agenda, and not mainly that of ‘The Minister’.
‘The term missional discipleship describes a disciple as someone who is engaged in God’s mission in the world. Missional disciples are on a journey, becoming more like Christ, investing their lives in others, and embodying lives of love for the sake of others. This view puts the church in a new light and sparks a movement dedicated to engaging every context, particularly local situations, with a mission-shaped heart. A missional disciple is a follower of the life and teachings of Jesus and is committed to being a witness. Too often, this missional language has been divorced from the local church because it was seen as something only missionaries did—not what Christian disciples do. However, missional discipleship reconnects the relationship of the church to mission and provides a theological and practical approach to discipleship.’ (Jonathan Dodson, pastor, Texas)
A good exercise is to look at Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples. Jesus’ words when he sent out his disciples to engage in mission in the four Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, help us develop the above understanding.
In Matthew, when Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) he was commanding a primarily Jewish group to a multi-ethnic commission: not calling Christians to Christianize nation-states, but to evangelise ethnic groups. Christ did not advocate Christendom, a top-down political Christianity. Instead, he called his followers to transmit a bottom-up, indigenous Christianity, to all peoples in all cultures. It’s all about forming disciples within their natural habitat, not taking them out of it. This makes for a discipleship of many colours and nuances, with each mission context being slightly or radically different from others. This means our missional discipleship in Byker will be different from that in say Belford or Billingham.
Turning from Matthew’s commission to that in Mark’s Gospel, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), Jesus speaks of taking the gospel into the whole of creation: in other words the gospel is not only to be culturally relevant (as above), but also is among us to renew creation itself. Synod will soon be hearing more from a soon to be appointed Green Apostle from among our number, who will among other things help us all consider becoming eco-congregations. The Church has every reason to be at the forefront when it comes to exercising a prophetic voice regarding humanity’s impact on our planet if we take stewardship and God’s creation to heart.
Luke’s commission also emphasizes preaching the gospel: “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:27-48). In this third instance, repentance and forgiveness of sins form a key part of the commission. But a forgiven and repentant person is not idle; they are compelled to witness— to tell the story of their transformation. Where Matthew and Mark respectively emphasize distinctive discipleship and preaching a worldly gospel, Luke calls us to witness — to tell our distinct gospel stories. No two stories are alike, but all share the same Saviour. As a tradition, the United Reformed Church has had plenty of story-telling from the pulpit, but it’s a different matter when it comes to across the board. I feel we need to find the courage for each and every one of us to share our own personal stories of our faith journeys, and to share the significance of our faith in our lives with people around us. Anecdotes and personal testimonies are both powerful and memorable for all, and not being formulaic, contain an inherent integrity.
Fourth and finally, Jesus’ commission in John’s Gospel is short and sweet: “As the Father sent me, I am also sending you” (John 20:21). The stress is on disciples being sent. As the text continues, Jesus makes plain that the disciples are sent as a forgiving community, offering the grace they have received from him to others.
It leads us to immerse ourselves into the humanity of our neighborhoods and cities in order relate the gospel to people and their needs. Being a local missionary demands humility of heart to listen to the stories of others, to empathise with their frustration, suffering, and brokenness and to redemptively retell their stories through the gospel. Through chaplaincies I have served I learnt it is paramount to listen first before ‘earning’ the right to speak and reflect on what has been heard.
To sum up, as missional disciples we are called to work within our local, distinctive context; to not only focus on individual lives but through acting local and thinking global address brokenness in the whole of creation; to witness through telling stories (including our own); and to humbly listen before we have the right to speak.
I wonder, what does any of the above lead you to think and feel? Let me know!
As ever, and in Christ,