the contemporary discipleship conversation

Photo: Devan Foster, 'pieds' 3 of 20

Photo: Devan Foster, ‘pieds’ 3 of 20

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!

a storm in an Anglican teacup

Photo: 'pieds' 2 of 20, Devan Foster

Photo: ‘pieds’ 2 of 20, Devan Foster

During the week, some friends drew my attention to a debate about discipleship that’s currently troubling teacups in the Church of England.

Here’s the article I was alerted to — ‘Is “discipleship” Anglican?’ by Ian Paul.

Let me try to break down the debate as I understand it:

  • A bunch of reports on the future of the Church have recently appeared. Apparently, they and their recommendations are laced with the language of ‘discipleship’ and ‘disciple-making’. (I know. Anglicans who are on-trend! Astonishing. Although, not unprecedented.)
  • Two high profile Anglicans — Linda Woodhead and Angela Tilby — then publicly questioned this. Specifically, they questioned all the discipleship talk.
  • Since then there has been at least one round of responses — like Paul’s — all pushing discipleship front and centre in various ways.

I don’t want to jump the gun on this. And I definitely can’t claim to fully grasp the context of this debate.

But I’m fascinated by the following features:

One. There’s an obvious political dimension to address.

Woodhead’s worry that “the reason that the theologically peripheral concept of “discipleship” is made to do so much work in these reports is that “following Jesus” is being used as an analogue for leadership (Jesus and clergy), and followership (laity)” is yet to receive an adequate response.

While Ian Paul has plenty to say about the claim that discipleship is a ‘theologically peripheral concept’, he doesn’t appear to adequately tackle the suggestion that it is being used to smuggle in a particular model of church — and church leadership.

To me this is a particularly important question.

It’s important formally because my experience has been that evangelicals aren’t very good at addressing the power dimensions in any particular discourse. So while we may be all over the meaning and truth of discipleship discourse, we struggle to do justice to more political question of how it’s being used and abused (and who’s benefiting).

It’s also important substantively because one of the hunches driving my own research is that emphasising discipleship affects our doctrine of church — tending to eclipse the (solidly biblical) metaphor of the body, for example.

Two. There’s also a hermeneutical question to tackle.

Tilby raises this question when she proposes an alternative master image for the Christian life:

There’s little about disciples in the rest of the New Testament [outside the Gospels and early chapters of Acts]; certainly not in Paul’s letters, in spite of his missionary passion. Scripture might therefore suggest that discipleship is not the best description of normative Christian life. Life in the Spirit or life in Christ are obvious alternatives, bridging the Fourth Gospel and the Pauline letters, both of which are concerned with the Church’s life in present time rather than with the earthly history of Jesus (where the language of discipleship really belongs).

The final half sentence is the key. We must grapple with the relation between what the Evangelists describe in the Gospels (and Acts) and what is proscribed for us as Christians on this side of the resurrection.

As I’ve begun gently probing Calvin’s doctrine of the Christian life, I’ve been struck by how develops an account of the disciples as types of Christians. Disciples display deep continuities with post-resurrection members of the Church, to be sure. But they’re still ‘on the way’ and not quite there yet.

Three. Those advocating discipleship have a point we can’t evade.

Discipleship talk does a good job of fostering a concrete and serious concern with holistic holiness of life (which includes the call to mission). The more ‘societal’ approach to church/faith favoured by Woodhead and Tilby struggles to sustain this.

If we don’t want to go with discipleship as a key image for the Christian life then we’re going to have to find something else that does the job at least as well.

In other words, when it comes to our thinking about the Christian life we may have to get beyond discipleship — but we can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, we can’t go around it; we’ve got to go through it!

Four. In fleshing out what discipleship means we inevitably go beyond what the Gospels present.

In fact, as Ian Paul fleshes out discipleship in terms of “decision, learning and community”, he is forced to develop his doctrine of the Christian life beyond the bounds of merely being a disciple as it was known and practiced prior to Jesus (the Rabbis had disciples) and even in the Gospels.

At one point, he even admits this, describing discipleship as the ‘root’ from which the more widely observable language of decision, learning and community spring up.

And this is where things really start to get interesting.

Because thinking of discipleship as the root of full Christian character and living actually invites us towards the theological maturity and balance Woodhead and Tilby crave — the tree is so much more than the root (even if it’s all latent in the root).

But, as it does so, it calls us to guard against sacrificing the sharp edges of our evangelical preference for discipleship language.

rethinking idolatry

I feel like I’m only just catching on, but idolatry’s kind of a big deal right now. It’s the new black when it comes to thinking about evangelism and Christian cultural engagement.

Everyone wants to identify and expose the idols of our hearts and culture.

And there’s a lot going for this approach. Not only is idolatry a major theme in the Bible but as Tim Keller points out, it can have real traction in raising the topic of sin with postmodern people:

Instead of telling [people] they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their careers and romances to save them, to give them everything that they should be looking for in God. This idolatry leads to drivenness, addictions, severe anxiety, obsessiveness, envy of others, and resentment.

That’ll certainly preach!

But I’m starting to wonder about what it means to identify contemporary Western idols. And what our method is for doing that. (I’d like to claim this as why I never finished my series of reflections on consumerism — but the real reason is that I got caught in the holiday whirlpool of consuming!)

What’s prompted my rethink is the repeated pairing of ‘eating meat sacrificed to idols’ and ‘sexual immorality’ in Revelation 2-3.

We were chewing over this in my church Bible study group last week. And I think we came to the conclusion that applying this to us might be a little more straightforward than Keller (and the Biblical Counselling Movement among others) may have us believe.

We began by questioning the typical method of ‘translation’ from one culture to another.

I’m sure you know how it goes. First we identify the deep spiritual/emotional needs first century pagans were (supposedly) looking to meet through their idol worship — e.g., a sense of security, acceptance, control, or power.

Such idol worship is idolatrous, we suggest, in so far as it involves treating good things as ‘God things’ — relying on them for the satisfaction or salvation that God alone is meant to provide.

Then we pick out our own culture’s array of illegitimate means of meeting these same deep needs. And voila — our contemporary idols!

The problem is that when it comes to something like consumerism or materialism in our own culture, it’s not immediately clear that these things really are ‘idolatrous’ in the sense described above (although the biblical equation of greed with idolatry may indicate that they’re idolatrous in some other sense).

As one member of our Bible study group pointed out, I could find myself at a shopping mall not because I’m deeply involved in some religious devotion to finding satisfaction and ‘life’ in the stuff I buy, but simply because I need some new work clothes.

Does this mean I’m swept up in idolatry by default? I’m not so sure.

It hardly parallels the situation in most ancient idol temples — where it seems fairly unlikely that you’d find yourself accidentally swept up in worshipping another god when you’d actually just turned up for some other more mundane reason (making due allowance for the dark objectivity of idolatrous practice — where ‘mental reservations’ don’t get you off the hook).

Of course, my capitulation in the dynamics of consumerism at the shopping mall may still compromise my confession of faith. After all, Jesus did talk about the impossibility of serving both God and Mammon.

The energy and concern I invest in clothing myself may well put the lie to one key way I’m meant to be different from people who don’t trust Jesus — just as taking part in eating idol meat and sexual immorality would have put the lie to one key way the recipients of Revelation 2-3 were supposed to be marked off from their non-Christian contemporaries.

These things do run against the grain of our identity in Christ. But I’m no longer convinced it’s true or helpful to characterise them as idolatry.

What do you reckon? Has this got legs?

if it’s big in Japan…

Yesterday, I heard a Christian missionary speak about the challenges he’s facing in Japan. One of the big ones is that, apparently, in Japan to become Christian is to become un-Japanese.

It’s seen as a massive betrayal. Giving up on what’s most essential and distinctive to the Japanese culture and way of life.

And from what I hear this is a fairly common theme — especially in non-Western cultures.

But it’s got me thinking…

Why don’t we assume something similar about becoming Christian in Australia?

If it’s big in Japan, why isn’t it so big here?

Or, rather, why don’t we expect it to be so big here? (I’m less interested in a historical or sociological account of how Australian culture and Christian ‘values’ have become intwined. And more interested in why Christians in Australia are likely to find the thought that being Christian means becoming un-Australian in some essential sense.)

Is it perhaps that we’re too engaged — too deeply embedded in and complicit with the Australian way of life? Too uncritically accepting and unable to imagine any other possibility than being here, fitting in, belonging?

Are we too unprepared to own the kind of identity the Apostle Peter hails his readers with: “elect exiles of the dispersion”, “temporary residents”, “strangers”?

And if I’m onto something with these hunches, then I’d want to know what it is that’s got us here. Even if all I’ve got is questions. Questions like:

How helpful is our popular evangelical emphasis on ‘just praying the prayer’ and not standing on ceremony?

Not that calling people to conversion is a bad thing. But I worry about what happened to urging people to count the cost. Or to baptising people into the radical new identity and life-course Jesus launches us on — where we’re summoned to observe everything our Lord teaches…

Please don’t misread me. It’s not that I’m looking to place (or avoid) blame here. But I do think it’s worth trying to tease apart the matted ball of contributing threads.

Otherwise I doubt we’ll never disentangle ourselves from our culture long enough to meaningfully engage it with the gospel.

is God calling me into mission? (in place of a conclusion)

I’m going to leave off (I won’t say conclude, because I’m not sure I’ve reached any hard and fast conclusions) these reflections about the language and experience of calling.

After framing the issue, I explored Jesus’ general call to belong to him — the characteristically divine ‘commanding invitation’ to recognise reality and to discover our truest and best selves in trusting and following him. If you’d like to take this thought much further, I can highly recommend John Webster’s 2005 Scottish Evangelical Theology Society lecture on call and discipleship, which you can listen to HERE.

Then I suggested that it’s a necessary implication of heeding this call to be swept up in God’s mission in the world — to ‘Go’, leaving our comfortable and settled lives and going, ultimately, to the ends of the earth.

Then I tried inconclusively to weigh up the pros and cons of the way some people speak of being called to a specific mission field or work. There were lots of loose ends here. And I haven’t resolved for myself how helpful it is to speak this way.

But maybe it’s oddly fitting that my thinking about ‘calling’ resists being conclusively settled and having all its loose ends tied up. Perhaps I find myself disoriented by the epistemological echo of Christ’s own irruptive call — a call that for all its out-of-the-blueness also speaks of the tantalising prospect of peace and rightness in treading the difficult path our Saviour holds before us.

In that vein, I can hardly think of a better way to finish than to share with you a prayer our congregation prayed together a couple of Sundays ago (it’s from the Anglican collection of liturgical resources, A Prayer Book for Australia):

Christ, whose insistent call
disturbs our settled lives:
give us discernment to hear your word,
grace to relinquish our tasks,
and courage to follow empty-handed
wherever you may lead,
so that the voice of your gospel
may reach to the ends of the earth, Amen.

is God calling me into mission? (vi)

I’ve almost finished this series exploring the language of ‘call’. Read from the beginnig HERE.

In my previous post, I moved from God’s general call on all Christians — to belong to him and to be swept up in his mission — to considering the way some people sometimes speak of a special call (or ‘burden’) God places on them to serve a particular place, people-group, or project.

I suggested that there were some things this way of talking can help us safeguard. But I also need to highlight some of the reasons why I’m hesitant to talk this way.

To begin with, I wonder if such language can lead us to overspiritualise decision-making, leading to a pervasive and soul-destroying anxiety about ‘missing out on God’s will for our lives’.

All our decisions are spiritual in some sense. And they should be shaped in response to God’s grace to us in Jesus. But one of the key — and most frequently overlooked — aspects of this is Christian freedom. Let me explain:

I could worry away about what I choose to eat for breakfast every day, weighing up how it will help or hinder me in caring responsibly for my own body, the planet, and the people God has given me to love and serve. But I’m not sure the gospel encourages such paralysing introspection — and certainly not on a daily basis.

Instead, it tells me (a) that I can and will blunder in this regard — failing to care responsibly for myself, God’s world, and God’s people — and (b) that God graciously accepts me without regard to my success or failure in this.

So, in my view, to expend considerable emotional energy on this amounts to a refusal to trust what the gospel says about me. (I could also go on to speak about how it also romantically and individualistically refuses to trust what God says about the good gifts he gives us in our decision-making faculties as well as in the community of his people and the wider giftings of ‘common grace’ — all of which both stand in need of redemption and sanctification and can and are redeemed and sanctified in Jesus Christ.)

What’s more, the kind of obsessive introspective worry talk of a particular ‘call’ sometimes invites tends to treat our actions and motives as transparent to us in a way that I don’t believe is possible. As Jeremiah says, ‘the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things — beyond finding out’.

By contrast, we take hold of our freedom in Christ when we’re bold and prayerful not only in trivial, everyday decisions but also in apparently more significant decisions (and who of us knows ahead of time which of our decisions will prove truly significant and life-shaping?). This includes decisions we make as we seek to respond faithfully to Christ’s call to ‘Go’ to the ends of the earth in his mission.

Rather than trying to sound the impossible depths of our own hearts, we should listen to Martin Luther and ‘sin boldly’. That is, we should get on with our lives, prayerfully entrusting ourselves to the God who enables us ‘to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2.5) — and confessing our mistakes as and when we inevitably make them!

is God calling me into mission? (v)

I’m part way through a series exploring the language of ‘calling’ — especially in relation to Christian mission. You can read from the beginnig HERE.

So far I’ve suggested that the God who meets us in Jesus Christ calls his people — all his people — into his mission. He asks us to step out of our comfort zone and ‘Go’ — ultimately to the ends of he earth. This, I’ve argued, is part and parcel of his call to belong to him.

But what about the way some people speak of being called to mission in Africa or with a particular people-group (e.g., Buddhist nuns in Timbuktu)? What sense can we make of this?

I should probably warn you: because this is where the rubber really hits the road, I’m planning to take two posts to cover this. I’ll explore the positive things that can be said for his way of speaking in this post before registering some of my hesitations in the next.

So, what can be said in favour of speaking of being called to a specific mission field or work? Briefly:

  1. Speaking this wa can help keep in view God’s soveignty in our planning and decision-making. In particular, rather than speaking purely naturalistically about our background, gifts, and opportunities, it attempts to discern the work of God the Holy Spirit — often with an admirable reverence and urguency to please the living God
  2. In refusing to allow our decision-making or its results to be reduced to a rational, mechanical calculation — in which we simply crunch the numbers on personal gifting vis a vis need or opportunity — it perhaps recognises that our decision-making faculties (our hearts in biblical terms) need redeeming and sanctifying by the Lord Jesus.
  3. Best of all, it often expresses a willingness to take risks, step out of our comfortably settled and self-contained lives, and entrust ourselves to the same Heavenly Father who sent his Son for the sake of the world.

There’s obviously a lot to be said for speaking of a particular ‘call’ — to a place, people, or project…

is God calling me into mission? (iv)

I’m in the middle of a series exploring the language of ‘calling’. You can read from the start HERE.

In the last post I made the controversial suggestion that when God calls all his people into mission, he calls us to ‘Go’ — ultimately to the ends of the earth. But I guess this might leave you with a few questions. Questions like:

  • What could this possibly mean in practice? Should we all pack our bags and get on planes bound for mission ‘over there’? What then are we to make of the often-sounded caution that you can’t expect to ‘flick the mission switch’ when you get on the plane?
  • How does this fit with the insight of contemporary missiologists that mission today is “from everywhere to everywhere”? I.e., that it’s no longer merely a matter of ‘us’ in the materially rich, sophisticated, enlightened West sending people to bring light to the poor, backward, and primitive?
  • Equally, how does it fit with he observation — increasingly common since the likes of Lesslie Newbigin began making it — that the secular West now needs ‘re-evangelising’? I.e. that mission has come to us? (And all the associated ‘missional church’ stuff?)

Rather than tackling these questions head on, I want to come at them sideways and make two suggestions.

First, a theoretical suggestion. When God calls us to ‘Go’ to the ends of the earth, he’s summoning us to reject what some theorists call a ‘sedentary metaphysic’. A sedentary metaphysic is in play whenever our very real physical, geographical limitations as creatures become an excuse to valorise things like staying put, being rooted or grounded, and settling down (something that often seems to be equated with ‘growing up’).

How easy it is to find it too risky to listen to Jesus’ call to ‘Go’ — across the room, across a cultural barrier, or across the world — under cover of being ‘tied down’ with our comfortable burdens! I seem to recall Jesus had stern words for those who wanted to follow him but wouldn’t let that reshape their comforts and obligations.

It may suit us to turn the volume down on God’s call to ‘Go’. But it does no honour to the one who calls us (who was also the one who not only sent but went — or came, depending on your perspective).

As for my more practical suggestion, I’m sure there have been hints of it in what I’ve already said. But I think the call to ‘Go’ means taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zones — starting … wherever you are!

We’re called to ‘Go’ into every level of society as well as every corner of the earth. But that’s got to start with us crossing that barrier of awkwardness to talk with the neighbour whose name we never caught. Or that internal barrier preventing us from listening to that person who’s hard to understand (because they don’t speak the language, don’t approach the world like I do, or don’t smell like something I’m comfortable with).

Our God calls us to ‘Go’ to the ends of the earth. Let’s make a start instead of twisting it into an invitation to stay put…

is God calling me into mission? (iii)

I’m in the midst of exploring the language of ‘calling’ and the question of whether God calls people to specific fields of tasks in his mission. The series starts back HERE.

So far I’ve suggested that to be called to belong to the Christian God simply is to be called into his mission.

This raises the question: To obey God’s call, do I have to pack my bags and buy a one-way ticket to somewhere far away where I don’t speak the language and may have trouble digesting the food?

Well, let’s hear what Jesus has to say:

Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28.18-20)

Now, I’ve often heard Christians blunt the radical edge of this by saying something like:

When Jesus says, ‘Go therefore and make disciples’, he’s not actually telling all of his disciples to ‘Go’. Rather, he’s saying ‘As you go…’ — that is, as you go on doing whatever you were doing — ‘…make disciples’.

This reading is typically bolstered by telling us that the only formal imperative (ie. command) in the sentence is the word behind ‘make disciples’, with the word translated as ‘Go’ playing a supporting role — as an adverbial participle, for those who care about such things.

But this is stupid for at least two reasons.

First – the nerdy reason: Greek doesn’t work that way. (In fact, no language I know of works that way.)

In Greek, meaning is made by the way the words are used — and especially by the way they’re used in combination with each other.

Any Greek textbook can tell you that one very common and defensible way to translate the combination of words behind ‘Go … and make disciples’ in verse 19 is … you guessed it, ‘Go … and make disciples’! (For those in the know, it’s a coordinate construction — with a participle of attendant circumstance and an aorist verb. Check out Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics page 645 for a brief but very lucid discussion of Matt 28.19-20.)

Second – the less nerdy reason: Even if Jesus said ‘As you go, make disciples’, that assumes we need to ‘Go’..

Everything Jesus says about following him, and everything we see of the earliest Christians doing this (e.g., taking the gospel from Jersusalem into Judea and Samaria and on to the ends of the earth), indicates that Jesus can hardly be saying, ‘Pretty much continue as you were; just tweak it a little.’ His call is far more revolutionary than that!

Our God calls his people to ‘Go’ in his mission — into every corner of the world and every level of society…

is God calling me into mission? (ii)

I’m in the midst of exploring the language of ‘calling’ and the question of whether God calls people to specific fields of tasks in his mission.

Having established that our God is a calling God, this still leaves open the question:

Does God call people into mission (or any specific vocation for that matter)?

My answer I think is ‘Yes’ … with a twist. You see, I don’t think the call to belong to God can be separated from the call to take part in his global mission. So God doesn’t only call some people into mission; he calls all his people.

Let’s stay with the calling of Jesus’ first disciples for the moment. Their call to leave their work (their fishing nets, tax booths, etc) and follow Jesus was at the same time their commissioning to a new kind of work. “I will make you fishers of people”, Jesus says. If I may speak this way, conversion and commission happen at once.

The pattern is no different with the Apostle Paul. Meeting the risen Lord Jesus led to his conversion and his commission as Apostle to the Gentiles (complementing Peter’s comission as Apostle to the Jews). And although his specific commission is unique, the fact that his conversion and his commissioning went together aren’t.

What implications are there in this for us — especially as we wrestle with whether or not we’re called into mission?

Well, to begin with, we must recognise that our conversion brings with it a commission. God doesn’t simply turn us to himself for our own sake. He plans to use us in his worldwide mission. All of us.

This is inevitable given the message — or perhaps better the person — we’re converted to. Jesus is not just the Saviour who came to die for my sins. He’s the Lord who lays (rightful) claim to God’s world — every single person and power, all are reconciled by his blood shed on the cross.

And the work he’s doing now, by the powerful agency of his Spirit, is implementing this claim and this reconciliation. It’s mission!

So while we may be genuinely converted and yet still take us a while to work this out, this is reality. And if we belong to Jesus, then we’re part of his mission.

Our God calls his people into mission.