Here, John H. Armstrong writes about the message of his book entitled - Your Church is Too Small. In Christ Jesus' High Priestly Prayer, the call is for all of God's people to be one...so that others may believe. It is in Unity in Mission that John Armstrong writes about: missional-ecumenism...so that others may believe.
One of the very best known verses in all the Bible is found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus commissions his disciples to “make disciples of all nations,” or as it is in some translations he tells them to “disciple nations.” Perhaps no text is more talked about in my own evangelical tradition than this one.
This text is almost the sine qua non of the evangelical movement. We teach discipleship, we promote discipleship, we even pride ourselves on our commitment to discipleship. But we have had more than a few debates about what all this means and how we understand the text itself.
A long-time friend, who is a regular reader of this blog and of my ACT 3 Weekly articles, wrote me an email recently about his frustration with all this emphasis on discipleship in our circles. This brother is a few years younger than me. We have shared ministry and mission for more than thirty years. We even preached the gospel side-by-side in India for weeks in the late 1980s. We are now both ministers in the same denomination, the Reformed Church in America.
Here is a part of my friend’s comment to me (italics):
Our classis meeting is coming up soon. We have a pre-classis learning opportunity before every regular classis meeting. This spring we have a couple of folks coming to speak on discipleship. The main person is going to show us the "biblical principle of threes" which is said to be critical to obeying the command of Jesus to go and make disciples. Then there will be another teacher who will talk to us about how making disciples of teens requires a special program. (John, I'm really trying to be a team player in my classis but I'm finding it hard to justify driving over six hours round trip to attend this pre-classis teaching on discipleship.)
Let me elaborate a bit further. I've been annoyed for decades with all the discipleship books and techniques we have produced. Everyone had the biblical secret for making disciples. Everybody knew how to take someone from conversion to discipleship, as if one could be truly converted without becoming a true disciple. It's just really bugged me for a long time because I believe with all my heart that every true believer IS a disciple, though not all disciples are alike in their commitment and not all disciples have the same impact in their communities for sure.
Another thing that bothers me is that so many people actually think THEY can make disciples! I can't make a person a true disciple of Jesus. I can only walk beside him, help him, support him, and point him to Jesus. When people try to make disciples they usually end up making disciples (followers/learners) of themselves! What seems to happen is they gain their own following. I don't need a program to show me how to be close to a guy, to spend time with him, to pray with him, to truly share my life with him. Also, a book can't be written about my idea of discipleship because it is just too simple for most people. (Hey, maybe this should make me think I might have really hit on something!)
In short, John, isn't discipleship nothing more than body life? Don't we help one another in discipleship when we are sharing life together in the body of Christ? And doesn't such life together always result in outreach to others and the drawing of them into the fellowship and thus to true discipleship?
I could not agree more with my friend. True discipleship is not about programming and technique. It is about Christ’s incarnational mission, a mission that results in relational friendships that allows me to share and teach what God has given to me by the Spirit. Let me elaborate a bit further.
While it is true that the Great Commission tell us to “make disciples” this text is not about Dave and John, or Sue and Jennifer, “making disciples.” It is really, if you read it in the proper context, about the church being faithful to the mission given to her by Jesus, a mission built on an apostolic foundation. It is not about me (privately) making a disciple. It is about me, as part of the missional community, serving, loving and teaching the kingdom of Christ. It is about us incarnating the love of Christ and teaching one another to faithfully “obey everything he commanded” us. The problem here is both contextual and personal. We seem to get both wrong in these multitudinous modern programs that promise to deliver the real secrets of how to make disciples of this group or that.
Truthfully, as much as I too am a team player I think I would not make it to the pre-classis session myself. I think I would be better served, as would the kingdom, to stay home an extra day and invest something of my life in another person with the goal of serving and loving them so that Christ’s kingdom will be extended and the Great Commission fulfilled.
One of the reasons that I am so committed to missional-ecumenism can also be seen in my friend’s observations. The difference between the practice of missional-ecumenism, and the practice of these various techniques, is a difference between night and day. A missional-ecumenist will focus on sharing in the unity of the Trinity with other believers with the intention that the church really becomes a community for outsiders. We exist for them! Emil Brunner once said: “The church exists for mission as fire exists for burning.” This changes the invitation to “come” to our meeting or our evangelism campaign so that we capture the real meaning of Matthew 28:19-20. The text says (literally) “as you go” into the world, day-to-day, make sure that you focus on the reign of Christ, on his kingdom and in so doing you will be a part of the apostolic community that is making disciples by my grace and power. In doing so make sure that those you get to know and love understand that there is a place where this love is real and where they too will be included in that love. (I wonder how many unbelievers think this would happen if they went to the typical church.) If an unbeliever is included in our shared (Trinitarian) love then they can begin to share in the fellowship that we already have with the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit. They get into that love as they see the Son revealing the Father in and through us. This is what Jesus prayed for in John 17. And this is how the Father “sent” us into the world to make disciples, not by program but by life. This seems to me to be a far cry from the pre-classis seminars my friend is so frustrated by.