Developing Discipleship at St Mary’s Church
19 “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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28: 19 – 20.
This passage from Matthew is often seen as the great commission to the church to carry out mission. One aspect of this passage is sometimes overlooked and that is the call to make disciples. This involves much more than just reaching out to people in mission. It is also about making and growing disciples, and this includes growing ourselves. This becomes a more demanding command and means more involvement by individuals and the church. It raises the question for us today about our motivation as a community of Christians. Are we seeking to be, make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ?[i] Or do things simply get in the way? This is something we need to consider at St Mary’s as we look to develop our church members’ spiritual growth and carry out the new vision for our church. In doing so we will join the recent conversation that the Church of England has begun about developing discipleship in the wider church.
What do we mean by Discipleship?
A simple definition could be described as this:
Discipleship is the process of devoting oneself to a teacher to learn from and become more like them. For the Christian, this refers to the process of learning the teachings of Jesus and following after his example in obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Discipleship not only involves the process of becoming a disciple but of making other disciples through teaching and evangelism.[ii]
What should be noted is the key idea of developing disciples who will then be able to make other disciples. The call Jesus gave in Matthew was to carry out mission. To be able to do that successfully we need to ensure that we are also developing others and ourselves as Disciples of Christ. The two things work together as you ‘cannot truly grow as a disciple without a context for mission’.[iii]
What follows is that we should not see discipleship as a separate thing that is done before mission or ministries happen. Neither should we see it as something we do once to train for a role or ministry and then never return to. Rather we should see discipleship as an ongoing process that will help all of us to develop and grow more like Christ, with the aim over time to become more Christ like. In effect we need to go deeper with Christ.
In the bible there are many characteristics of a disciple.
- Comes to Christ and follows him (Matthew 4:19-20)
- Learns from him (Matthew 11:29)
- Receives him (John 1:12)
- Trusts him (John 14:1)
- Confesses him (Luke 14:27)
- Reflects him and glorifies him (Matthew 5:16)
- Denies themselves (Matthew 16:24 and Mark 8:34)
To be a disciple means we are called to a whole life of ‘learning and formation in the likeness of Christ’.[iv] This means that there is a cost and it will affect our whole life as we look to serve God. This demand on our lives also means that we need sustaining. In church we provide many avenues for this: we worship; we come together as a community; we have bible studies and home groups; and we take part in mission and evangelism events.
One of these things alone cannot fulfil all our needs and will not help us to become a better disciple. We need the whole range.
What does this mean at St Mary’s?
An area that is missing at St Mary’s is a more developed and regular programme of courses that church members can participate to help them learn and grow as a disciple. Over the next few years we are going to put this discipleship programme in place with a range of different courses. This will be an addition to the work that is already being done and will be delivered by people from St Mary’s (or other places) where we will utilise the depth of experience we have in our church.
Courses can sometimes seem a challenging prospect, especially if these are an addition to work already being done for God. In one sense we should see these as a step up from a regular bible study such as those done in home groups. The courses should stretch our learning but not be too difficult to make us struggle. They will probably range in size from one session to six sessions depending on the type of course. This will mean that they are suitable for all members of the church.
As this is a new initiative we can be flexible in how we deliver these courses with the possibility that in the future we could even put some materials online for members to work through in their own time.
Learning comes to nothing if we don’t allow it to change our lives in some way. The point is for us to learn new things that can help deepen our faith. The courses are there to develop the whole self. This might mean challenging ourselves to take a course that normally we wouldn’t dream of doing.
We need to remember that Jesus covered quite a lot of different areas when equipping his disciples: he taught them to pray, to worship, to heal, to meditate, to carry out mission and evangelise. He also taught them what the scriptures meant and how they related to the past and to the future.
To understand what this means in practice we should see the courses in two strands.
The first type of courses will help to develop our inward self. These courses will provide an opportunity to look at the things that will help us grow as individuals in a number of different areas, such as prayer, spirituality, the bible, the creeds, doctrine, church history, worship, or even understanding Anglicanism.
The second type of courses will help to develop our outward self. These courses will be more about training for specific areas that will enable us to put things into practice in helping others. For example, prayer ministry, pastoral care, mission in the workplace. Or these might link to specific ministries and provide an understanding as individuals consider where God is calling them to work, such as working with children or sound and vision.
These are just some of the ideas that we have. I’m sure there are many more. These courses are not aimed at any group in particular. Instead they are going to be there for the whole church, for those who are interested in an area or for those who would just like to try something new.
The new discipleship programme is not just about doing courses as these alone will not help us be, make and grow Disciples of Christ. Instead we need to see the new programme as a way to add to what we are already doing as a church, helping all members to grow both inwardly and outwardly. It would be great to see all church members being able to take some courses over the next few years as we provide for the needs of our church community and help all grow as Disciples of Christ.
Director of Discipleship
[i] Philip Meadows, Wesleyan DNA of Discipleship (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2013) P.27
[ii] Byrley C, Discipleship in D. Mangum et al., eds. Lexham Theological Wordbook. 2014
[iii] Cotterell T, & Hudson N, Leading a whole-life disciple making church (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2012) P.9
[iv] Sheffield, S. Developing Discipleship, Accessed on May 12, 2015 at https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2144200/gs%201977%20-%20developing%20discipleship.pdf P.1