Reflections on Discipleship – The Number Zero

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Well, we’re off! Last Sunday, on Jan 18th, we launched the Year of Discipleship in our diocese. Where I was we reflected on the story of the 12 spies casing the Promised Land, mixed our metaphors by talking about ‘Tiggers’ and ‘Eeyores’, and decided whether we were more keen to get our hands on the grapes (the good things promised to us by God) than we were scared of the giants (the things which might stand in our way). We prayed a liturgy of rededication at the start of the year, and ate grapes, praying that God would keep our eyes fixed on the grapes rather than on the giants.


That evening I started re-reading Vincent Donovan’s classic Christianity Rediscovered[1] which I have been meaning to do for ages. It’s the story of a Roman Catholic Mission to the Masai in East Africa in the mid-60s, and it must be 30 years since I last read it. I was struck like a sledgehammer blow at a passage in which Donovan writes to his Bishop. He reports that after his few months at the Mission, which has been around for seven years, there are thriving schools, an active hospital, with an ambulance service to bring sick people to it, financial aid for those in need, and compulsory religious instruction for children in the schools. Relationships with the Masai people are cordial. Sounds great!

But then his letter goes on:

‘Almost never is religion mentioned … The best way to describe realistically the state of this Christian mission is the number zero … There are no adult Masai practicing Christians … no child, on leaving school, has continued to practice his religion, and there is no indication that any of the present students will do so. The relationship with the Masai, in my opinion, is dismal, time-consuming, wearying, expensive and materialistic. There is no probability that one can speak with the Masai, even with those who are our friends, about God … In other words, the relationship with the Masai … goes into every area except that very one area which is most dear to the heart of the missionary …  I suddenly feel the urgent need to … go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa … and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message.[2]

This he did. His first conversation with a local chief was greeted with the puzzled response

‘If that is why you came here, why did you wait so long to tell us about this?’

a comment which he was to hear again and again. Needless to say, his new-style mission met with phenomenal results and growth in discipleship.

I had a flashback to a conversation  in the past with a rural priest who told me that ‘Of course, we’re not here to evangelise the village!’, a comment greeted by nods of agreement from his congregation.

I don’t know how you react to this story, but I wonder whether for some of us it might be the time to start of a new kind of church, which is proud and confident to talk about its Lord. If Donovan’s experience rings true, it is worth asking the question ‘What is stopping me, and my church, from simply talking about Jesus?’ Many of us, of course are already doing this, but my suspicion is that some aren’t. Maybe it’s time to begin.

[1] (London: SCM, 1978)

[2] p 15

For our Diocesan Year of Discipleship blog, click here.

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