Reflections on Discipleship – Live Life Better

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 …

If you’re one of those people who think the Sunday lectionary is a good idea, I wonder whether you were struck as I was by something from the gospel for last Sunday? In Mark 6:30 the disciples, returning from a mission trip, are invited to spend some time with Jesus to debrief and recharge their spiritual batteries. However, if spite of his efforts to get away the crowds find him, and his compassion for them takes over, because he sees them as like ‘sheep without a shepherd’.

Those of us in pastoral ministry know this scenario well. In spite of our best efforts at time management, prioritising and the rest, our hearts often take over and we can’t help but respond to real need. But what struck me was the nature of this response. Just what do these shepherdless sheep need? A visit from the vicar? A bunch of flowers and a cup of tea? A promise to pray for them? Or just money? Jesus saw things differently: seeing their lostness he began teaching them.

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It is a hobby horse of mine, but I never cease to be amazed at the poor state of the teaching ministry in today’s church. We believe that the Bible contains the wisdom of God, both the words of eternal life and common sense for good living now, but we seem to have lost our nerve in preaching and learning from it. In a sound-bite culture we have forgotten the art of listening deeply, studying, memorising and learning from Scripture, and teachers have been replaced by pastors or administrators as the default models for church leadership. I find it ironic that in many evangelical churches the Bible is never read publicly, but merely alluded to in sermons.

And yet there is a hunger among people. In one diocese in which I worked the Bishop cleared his diary one Lent, and travelled around the Diocese five nights a week for six weeks giving lectures on John’s gospel. It was standing room only, and people were deeply impacted by his teaching ministry, which of course used to be one of the main roles of bishops.

One church in which I used to minister developed as its strapline ‘Meet friends; meet God; live life better’ which pretty much sums up for me what church ought to be about. Archbishop Rowan Williams apparently said that the next stage on from discipleship isn’t leadership; it’s citizenship. Disciples are engaged in the process of becoming more Christ-like people, and this must show at every level. We need the Bible’s wisdom to grow and mature, and we need the ministry of teachers to help us do that.

Crookes

There is, I think, a cyclical thing going on here. People in our churches are seldom hungry for God’s word, until someone sets before them a feast, when they begin to realise just how starving they actually are. We need to pray, I believe, for those with teaching gifts to be raised up, and for God’s people to served up banquets of good things from his word.

Image:  “Eritrean platter at London restaurant” by Secretlondon – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Discipleship

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 …

 

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness … (Titus 1:1)

 

We so easily skip over the boring introductory bits of the epistles, yet here to begin our thoughts on discipleship is a real nugget of gold. Paul (if you believe that he wrote this letter) is saying ‘Hello’ to his friend, but hidden in here is a whole chunk of truth about how he sees his role as a Christian minister.

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 He begins with what he is, and then moves on to why. He is firstly a servant of God. The Greek uses the stronger word, doulos, which means something more like a slave than a gentleman’s butler: he is under compulsion to do what his master commands, and he has no rights of his own to follow his own agenda in life. Then he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, one literally ‘sent’ to go where Jesus tells him and to do what he’s told. These are strong callings, and as a church leader he takes them seriously, as many other passages bear witness.

But even more interesting is what he thinks he is called and sent to do. We usually think of Paul as an evangelist and church-planter, and a pretty driven one at that. The purple passage in Philippians is about his desire to keep on pressing forwards, and in Romans 15 he tells us that having ‘finished’ the eastern end of the Mediterranean he now longs to strike off west towards Spain. Yet there is much more to Paul than an itinerant evangelist, and he goes on to explain to Titus just what is important to him, in terms far more to do with discipleship than with evangelism. His calling has three ingredients: to further the faith of God’s elect, to make sure they know and understand the truth, which, in turn, will lead them to godliness. I don’t think you can have a much clearer model of discipleship than that.

Faith needs furthering: disciple-makers know that simply leading someone to Christ is only the very first tottering step of the journey of faith, and there is a vital ministry, so often neglected in the church, of leading brand-new Christians by the hand through those first bewildering months and years of seeking to follow Christ.

Truth needs teaching: I’m often struck by the number of times Paul, in seeking to correct some kind of dis-ease in one of his churches, exclaims in exasperation ‘Don’t you know…!?’ If only we knew, the implication is, we would be a whole lot less dysfunctional. Disciple-making involves the ministry of skilled teachers to help people know and understand.

Godliness needs living out: again, there are all kinds of condemnations in Scripture for those who say one thing but live an entirely different way. Once we know the truth, we then need help to make it live in us, and burst out of us, 24/7.

So there’s a good starting-point in this trawl through biblical references to discipleship: a disciple is someone who is growing in their faith, who is learning more and more about what it means to follow Jesus, and who is allowing this new knowledge to shape their lifestyle and choices.

 

How are we doing, both as disciples and disciple-makers?

 

 

Through The Bible in Just Over a Year – Intro

 

In my formative 20s I attended a church with a very strong teaching ministry, and one of the series we did took us through every book of the Bible, a week at a time. We were blessed with not one but two sermons, one on the background to each book, and one on its practical application for today (or rather the 70s!). I lapped it up, and owe so much to the teaching I received not just through that series but through all my eight years at that church.

Now that my day job is to work at Diocesan level to promote Christian discipleship I am amazed and frequently appalled at the lack of solid teaching in today’s C of E. I’m not sure how many churches value the teaching ministry, or how many clergy see their primary task as feeding the people of God with both milk and meat as appropriate. I’m struck by how often St Paul, when seeking to correct some error in the life of one of his churches, wrote ‘Don’t you know …?’ Bad or lack of teaching leads to misunderstanding and bad living. So in my small way I have a heart for seeing the teaching ministry restored to the church, so that healthy and mature Christians are produced, Christians able confidently to join in with the mission of God to our communities and nation. Working in the area of discipleship one of my key texts has become Gal 4:19, where Paul tells his ‘dear children’ that he is in ‘the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you’. I lament the lack of this kind of passion in many church leaders today, and in this new blog series I want to recreate a kind of overview of the Bible, the primary means through which God reveals himself to us and forms us as disciples. I’m going to take you through the Bible in just over a year.

 

What you won’t get from this blog, obviously,  is in-depth scholarly stuff, loads of Hebrew and Greek, and the latest in academic thought. There are plenty of other places to find that stuff, and frankly I’m not that good at it. But what I do hope to do is to help us to read each book with some understanding of why it is in the Bible, and what it might say to us today. If I gave you a train timetable and a book of metaphysical poetry you would obviously use them very differently, and the books of the Bible are like that: you have to know what each book is trying to do so that you can read it with understanding.

 

I’m also aware that whenever we read Scripture we need the help of the Holy Spirit. People who know me well and have read my books often tell me that they ‘could just hear me speaking as they read. It’s so “you”’. In the same way we read the Bible differently when we know the author well. So there’s a circularity: we get to know God through reading Scripture, and we read Scripture better when we know God better. I hope this blog series might help on both counts.

 

So – next week – Genesis, the book of beginnings.

 

 

What’s Church for? Church as Famine Zone

‘The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.’

I’m aware that when you go looking for something to prove a point you usually find it, but I have been struck just over the past couple of months by the sheer number of people who have come into my orbit who have given up on church, but not on God. Now of course this is not a new phenomenon: Alan Jamieson wrote a masterly study of the subject back in 2002 (A Churchless Faith, London: SPCK). But never have I encountered so many people in quick succession who are Christians but no longer churchgoers. So I have been conducting my own piece of market research, and trying to discern what it was that has made them neglect meeting together in church. Again and again I heard the same narrative. These are not people who have left in anger, who have been hurt or abused or who have particularly fallen out with anyone. They left because they wanted to grow in God, but were not being fed. They just couldn’t see the point of staying.

 

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My ministry has always been a teaching ministry, so forgive me if I get a bit worked up about this, but my key verse has long been Colossians 1:28: ‘admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.’ I also resonate with Paul’s passion for maturity in Gal 4:19: ‘My dear children … I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.’ Yet people are telling me that in spite of really trying hard, they simply can’t stand to remain in churches where nothing they hear moves them onward in their faith.

This famine takes a variety of forms: for some it is about an aversion to lengthy periods of singing banal and facile worship-songs at the expense of nourishing teaching. For others they are fed up with hearing the gospel preached week after week, but with nothing to nurture those who have responded to it years ago. Every sermon is about ‘Have you given your life to Christ? If not you need to do it today.’ For still others there is a diet of ‘Jesus loves you very, very much indeed, so everything is going to be fine’ every week, while others were supposed to grow in Christ on a diet of liberal platitudes (I once heard a sermon, the full text of which I give you here: ‘As long as we just love each other nothing much can go wrong. Amen.’), or political opinions. We may get homilies about Saints from past ages, or explanations (again!) of the meaning of the particular feast-day or occasion, or we may simply get a few holy thoughts on the lectionary (for which read the Gospel of the day – hence my attempt to blog on the OT passage).

So where is the systematic and strategic application of the Word of God to people’s lives where they are actually being lived? When are we going to hear something we don’t already know, which we haven’t been told hundreds of times before, and which will take us another step towards Christian maturity? I have attempted in a small way to encourage us to take the teaching ministry more seriously, in my How to Preach Strategically (Cambridge: Grove W211, 2012 – see www.grovebooks.co.uk) . But I can’t help thinking, faithful study and preaching by many leaders notwithstanding, that we are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare. I commend to you the strapline of one of my favourite churches: ‘Meet God: Meet friends: Live life better’. If only more teachers and preachers could be trained and equipped to help people do that.

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What’s Church For? Church as ‘Qahal’

Called together

Last time we looked at the NT word ‘ekklesia’ which we said suggested a bunch of people ‘called out’ from one lifestyle into another, very different one. So it’s only fair that we look at the OT equivalent word. Immediately, of course, we have a problem, since the Christian church doesn’t actually feature in a big way in the Old Testament. But we can do a bit of detective work by using the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek dating from the 2nd century). One word is overwhelming translated into Greek as ‘ekklesia’, the Hebrew word Qahal. Most of our English versions translate Qahal as ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly’, hence its common application to the ‘church’ in the OT. The term ‘Qahal Yahweh’ describes the gathering of the people of God, often for worship and/or instruction.

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But there is a subtle difference between Qahal and ekklesia: while the latter has the sense of referring to a congregation of people who have been called ‘out’, Qahal is much more about being called ‘together’, hence its translation as ‘assembly’. Of course the one implies the other, but in the OT the sense is much more about a gathered assembly. The cognate Arabic word has the meaning of ‘to speak’, so the ‘assembly’ might be people gathered to listen to a sermon or speech. The term ‘Qoheleth’ related closely to Qahal, the name for the ‘Teacher’ of the book of Ecclesiastes (interesting name!) may refer to one who addresses assemblies of people, as a preacher or teacher would. But the unmistakeable sense, which is complementary to that of the NT term, is of a crowd of people who have been called together to assemble. The Christian church could appropriately be described as people who have been called out to be called together.

We noted last week the moral dimension of having been ‘called out’, and the tendency of some Christians to want to keep a foot in both camps, rather than making a clean break with the past behind them and the world around them. But the term Qahal also challenges some contemporary thinking about church. Firstly it makes us think very hard about so-called ‘communities’ where people don’t actually meet. Various attempts at ‘virtual church’ and ‘online church’ have been attempted, but I’m not sure how convinced I am. Of course those much younger than I am would protest that e-communities are every bit as real and valid, and they certainly do have value, as I discovered when I was recovering from serious surgery and felt so encouraged by well-wishers on social media. But can they really replace the face-to-face gathering of people for worship and teaching? Discuss!

Secondly, though, the term challenges, I believe, the growing trend for what Alan Jamieson’s famous book called ‘Churchless Faith’ (2002). I can understand only too well how more and more people find that they have better things to do with their precious lives than to sit in cold and musty buildings singing dreary songs and hymns, listening to irrelevant drivel from the front, and drinking awful coffee. It used to be non-Christians who used to say ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’: now more and more it’s ex-committed churchgoers. It does, of course, behove the Qahal and its Qoheleths to be worth the bother of assembling for, but at the same time I am as concerned as I have ever been about Christians who believe that they can go it alone and still grow and thrive. We need one another, and I believe we need one another face to face.