To Sharpen our Thinking
As you start reading the New Testament you frequently confront the word disciple in the first five Books where it’s used around 250 times. Once you move out of Acts in the Epistles, the word isn’t used again. In Acts 11:25-26 when Paul is introduced as the one who would proliferate the Gospel out into the Gentile world an interesting transition is revealed. Paul and Barnabas were meeting with the church in Antioch for a year or so and, as they did, the believers began to be known as Christians, those who belong to Christ.
It seems that this word ‘Christian’ overtook the word ‘disciple’ to describe the Christ-follower. As Paul’s ministry matures and he gets into writing, he uses the term, “in Christ” more than 70 times, and not the term disciple. He was, however, constantly discipling people and ‘on the job apprenticeship’ became his model of ministry. It is not difficult to come up with a long list of people who were apprenticed to him.
When we arrive at 1st Thessalonians 1, we see him still ‘discipling’. Four phrases stand out related to this. The first is in verse 5 with “You know how we lived among you for your sake.” The second is in verse 6: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord….” By the time we get to verse 7 it has become, “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia,” and by verse 8 “their faith in God had become known everywhere.” This “living among them”, within a relatively short period of time, had become a movement that had spread, founded on the basis of discipling.
I think there is enough evidence to suggest that, practically speaking, the words disciple and Christian became synonymous. Understanding what it means to be a Christian has its roots in the term disciple. This raises personal questions for me, as it should. Do I turn up, every day, like an apprentice to learn on the job? Am I willing to do whatever the boss says? Am I willing to take instruction and correction when I make a basic error?
I wonder if our current ways of doing church are counter-productive to developing disciples. I wonder if we’ve got into a mindset that produces ‘clones’ and ‘robots’ rather than ‘artisans’ and ‘craftspeople’. We’re into mass production and standardisation, and quality is being sacrificed. External conformity is often valued over inward transformation.
Another question: am I following Christ to the point of helping others to follow Christ? Who are the people I’m discipling into Christ-likeness?
I wonder if we’ve missed out on a major emphasis in Paul’s ministry. He wasn’t merely starting a church, he was developing a movement. The way you go about these two things is very different, as can be observed from close study of Acts and the letters Paul wrote in the context of Acts. It is so easy to become trapped by the needs of a few people in a local church and lose sight of all those ‘out there’ who still don’t know that relationship with God is possible, let alone desirable!
Could it be that we tie up our resources and people up in meeting their own needs and have lost sight of the great narrative of God that the whole world needs to experience?
Bright Hope World has been partnering with a church in India for almost 20 years. They have what they call ‘Ashram training’. Young people come in for training and live with a ‘guru’ (discipler) for a year. They then go back to their own communities and become the hub of a new movement in that place. Typically, for every two people trained, a new group is formed and, since 2005, more than 15,000 groups have been planted.
What’s the secret? Is it their understanding that the role of every Christian is to be planted in their community for the purpose of producing more Christians? Probably. Simply warming a pew is not an option. There’s no room for fear, only faith. There are no professionals to do the ministry for them; each one of them is a disciple, each one in ministry. Prayer is the breath they breathe and Scripture the bread that sustains them. There’s little time for entertainment; fasting and persecution is their context.
The beauty of disciple making is that its transforming power and energy comes from the Spirit and capacity of the discipler, not the inadequacy of the disciple. That’s the heart of being a disciple of Christ. Christian.