Discipleship is a popular subject in many church circles these days. There is a lot of talk about the subject, but not much real activity; and the activity which does take place can, at times, seem quite problematical. And, for all the talk and the activity, there is little evidence that the people of God are growing in their faith – even in most of the churches which are gowing numerically.
I believe all these problems stem from one simple cause: we are approaching the subject from completely the wrong direction.
We are interested in discipleship. We want to set up programmes to teach and train people. But Jesus did not tell us to set up a Discipleship Programme: He told us to make disciples.
When we consider the subject of discipleship, the conversation inevitably goes in a certain direction. Certain questions spring to mind.
Typically, other questions do not spring to mind. They just get answered as we put the programme together.
The result, of course, is a course or programme which we set up. We recruit people to take part - often young, enthusiastic Christians for whom discipleship is a new and exciting concept. The teaching is fairly structured and mostly Biblical, so the participants do gain from it. It is often the first systematic Christian teaching they have received, which itself can be quite an exciting revelation when it is done well.
So everybody is very enthusiastic about this new venture, and they feel the whole exercise was very worthwhile. But after a while people start to notice that the way they are living now is pretty much the same as the way they were living before the course. They learned a lot but... so what?
One assumption in all this is, of course, that we - the people running the programme - know what you should believe and how you should live. We are the experts, and the purpose of the programme is to enable us to pass on what we know to you people who need to learn. You don't need to think about it for too long before you start to see one or two problems with this starting point.
And as for the practical details: it is obvious that setting up a discipleship course is a very tricky business - if we need to answer those questions listed above. It is hard to get two Christians to agree on the answers; it is even harder to get enough Christians to produce and run the course, and the leaders you need to endorse it, to agree on these points.
Or so you would have thought. In reality, a multitude of discipleship courses exist. Over the years, I have taken part in many discipleship courses, and not taken part in many more.
Why so many? It appears that we don't really mind too much about getting the right answers to these vital questions. Presumably this is because - despite the enthusiasm we have to bring to any new discipleship course - we don't really believe that they will make much difference, so it doesn't matter much what they cover.
Telling people how to live is deeply problematical. If you are unclear, the whole exercise is a farce - acting out the appearance of guidance while saying nothing helpful at all. On the other hand, if you are clear, then the whole thing becomes heavy, oppressive and spiritually unhealthy for both the leaders and the led.
And, if we are honest, we really don't believe that the people running the programme know what you should believe and how you should live. We feel the need to give clear guidance to young Christians, but we don't really believe the guidance we give.
Every way you look at it, the traditional approach to discipleship does not work. Do we have to forget about the subject? No: Jesus commands us to do it. Our familiar approach does not work but, fortunately, Jesus' own words point us in a completely different direction.
Jesus told us to go and make disciples of people from every nation.
He did not tell us to institute a discipleship programme, but to make disciples. These two things are completely different.
He told us two key things.
Actually, He didn't tell us to do it - not directly, anyway. He told His first disciples to make disciples. That makes sense: you can only reproduce what you are.
And we are told something important about the disciples He gave this command to. We are told they were not perfect. We are told that "some doubted". You don't have to be perfect to be a disciple, you don't have to have 'arrived' - in fact, it's important that you have not arrived, and you know it.
A disciple is someone who keeps on learning – someone who knows that they don't know everything yet. The starting point of every journey is the recognition that you have not arrived yet.
A disciple doesn't have to be on a training course all the time - being a disciple is a frame of mind, not a subscription to a course, not membership of a programme. Being a disciple is not a matter of studying for a qualification. Of course, if you are a disciple, you may well want to do any or all of these – but learning in the Bible is not primarily about academic teaching: it is about doing things and making mistakes, failing, and learning from your mistakes, ideally with a more experienced person to guide you to do better next time. Learning is more about life than it is about classrooms.
And a disciple is someone who obeys Jesus. Jesus only says two things concerning the disciple-making process. We are to be baptising the new disciples (we can come back to that later), and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. Again, the focus is on how we live. What did Jesus command us to do? Love God, love your neighbour, love your enemy. Even the commandment to “remember me” was in the context of an activity – taking a meal together.
In passing, teaching people to obey Jesus is completely different from the laid-back teaching of most of the church: God loves you no matter what, so how you live really doesn't matter (as long, of course, as you try to avoid the obvious sins). And it is also very different from the rigid approach of those churches which teach people to obey their church leaders.
What does this mean for the church leadership? If they are not here to tell us how to live, what is left for them to do?
Actually, quite a lot.
There are three basic things the church leader has to do.
For many church leaders, this is a challenging prospect. It runs directly contrary to almost all the ministerial training they have received and contrary to the culture of most churches.
In order to model discipleship, you have to be seen to be learning – which means you have to be seen to be making mistakes and learning from them. This is hard for most church leaders, and even harder for most congregations: they tend to like the idea in theory, but in practice punish the leader for any perceived weakness or failure. Churches often need help to negotiate their way through this tricky change in their culture and practice.
One final thought: what does success look like? What are we aiming for?
If you build a discipleship programme, then success probably looks like lots of people on your programme. After a while, you may find you need to create a phase 2 of your programme to cater for the needs of the people who completed phase 1, so even more people will be taking part.
On the other hand, if you seek to make disciples, then success is when you help people grow to become mature followers of Jesus, who know how to keep on learning. They will need you less and less, until they don't need you at all.
The thought of not being needed is both the joy and the anguish of every devoted parent. You fear the day when your children don't need you, as that will feel like the end of a precious relationship.
But the end of being needed opens up the possibility of your relationship growing into something else - a friendship with an adult who you like, trust and respect, with whom you have the bonds formed by a lifetime of care; not just the memories of a childhood, but also the shared challenges of exploring adult life.
Much the same transition is possible for the church leader who aims to grow disciples.