I find it hard to avoid the contemporary discipleship conversion.
And I don’t think it’s just because I’m doing a PhD on discipleship. As soon as I edge towards any discussion on Christian living, mission or evangelism, I’m either taking part in it or eavesdropping on it.
It’s certainly bubbling away in the missional church movement.
Take Mike Breen’s famous article, ‘Why the missional movement will fail’, for example. (At the time I wrote this, the article had been shared 9500 times on Facebook. So it’s pretty influential.)
Breen begins by contending that discipleship is the engine of the church — and mission: “If you make disciples you will always get the church. But if you try to build the church, you will rarely get disciples.”
As a sidebar: I am 100% on board with the sentiment here. But I’m more hesitant about the precise formulation.
I totally get that ‘building the church’ particularly through pragmatic church growth techniques doesn’t always/often yield mature, proactive Christians. But I wonder if it would be different if we followed the biblical game plan for building the church — speaking the truth in love, using our gifts in love to serve and build each other up, stoking the fires of faith in Christ and joy in him, etc.
And I’d also question whether making disciples does in fact always yield the church. I’ve seen too many ‘sold out disciples’ who struggle with and ultimately give up on belonging to an actual flesh-and-blood church because it’s not radical/missional/whatever enough…
But according to Breen, the priority of discipleship is both true and pragmatic.
On the one hand, it’s true as a matter of simple, biblical definition. In the New Testament, disciples do mission. But mission is only “one of many things Jesus taught his disciples to do well”.
(Of course, we will need to contend at some point with whether ‘disciple’ should be our go to way of characterising those who belong to Jesus. And even if it is, we’ll need to be aware of where it has limits and needs supplementing with the other possible contenders for this crown: ‘Christian’, ‘child of God’, ‘believer’, etc)
On the other hand, as Breen shares from his own experience of the messy, challenging, protracted, spiritual war zone of mission and missional community, it doesn’t work without discipleship: “Without a plan for making disciples (and a plan that works), any missional thing you launch will be completely unsustainable”.
So when he concludes with this stirring cry, I can’t help but nod in agreement:
The missional movement will fail because, by-and-large, we are having a discussion about mission devoid of discipleship. Unless we start having more discussion about discipleship and how we make missionaries out of disciples, this movement will stall and fade. Any discussion about mission must begin with discipleship.
Maybe the discipleship conversation I can’t avoid is something I shouldn’t try to!