What does Mennonite Brethren theology have in common with that of other Christian denominations? And what are the distinctive emphases of Mennonite Brethren theology? Our Confession of Faith is a short document, informed by Scripture, that names the perspectives through which we read God’s Word in order to live as Christ’s followers. This is the tenth article in a series by the Board of Faith and Life exploring the 18 articles of this formative document.
Article 10: Discipleship
Discipleship has become a buzz word. It’s popular with church leaders who believe that the way to counteract a shallow faith, lack of biblical literacy, or doctrinal and theological wishy-washy-ness in their churches is through discipleship.
The digest version of our Confession summarizes it this way: We believe Jesus calls people who have experienced the new birth to follow him in a costly life of service to God. The power of the Holy Spirit transforms believers from the unrighteous pattern of the present age into a life of joyful obedience with God’s people.
Three primary concepts mark our understanding.
First, it is about following Jesus. That is, we do as he did, and we obey what he commands. We can expect suffering and persecution (see Hebrews 11).
At Christ’s invitation, we must be ready to reject the godless values of the world and offer ourselves to God in a life of service, and, perhaps untimely death, even as many his followers before us experienced.
Second, discipleship is not done alone. We are united together as Christians with Christ Jesus as our family head (Ephesians 5:32–6:9), all under the name of the Father (Ephesians 3:14).
We have traditionally marked this birth into the Christian family at baptism, acknowledging this experience of belonging to a spiritual family with church membership.
Third, disciples of Jesus live differently than before; they demonstrate a new reality. They are no longer functioning in the world’s operating system of self-focus and unforgiveness, but under a new set of realities marked by eternal values of God-initiated forgiveness, and intimacy with the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is a radical departure from the old way and it is noticed by those closest to us (Colossians 3:1–17).
There is an important aspect of discipleship that I think gets neglected. To be a disciple is to become a disciple-maker.
Jesus’s command to his disciples before he left them (Matthew 28:19–20) was for them to make disciples. Disciples who walk in the footsteps of their master in turn leave footprints for others. We must first be discipled (by a disciple-maker), then be a disciple of Jesus, and finally become a disciple-maker.
“Whoever claims to live in him must live (or walk) as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6). In other words, if Jesus is the model disciple-maker then we too must live that out. Too often we emphasize being a disciple while neglecting making of disciples.
Think of it like a family. In a healthy family, parents nurture their infant. But it doesn’t stop there; the process continues as the baby becomes a toddler, then a young child. Gradually, parents call on children to take more responsibility for themselves, like cleaning their room, doing laundry, or making breakfast or lunch. Older children contribute to the well-being of younger siblings. Eventually, the young adult leaves home to contribute to the community as an employee, volunteer, friend, and/or parent themselves. Many find a life partner, get married, and the cycle repeats itself.
Disciple-making is like parenting. This is what Paul says to Timothy when he says, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). There are four generations mentioned – Paul’s “child” is Timothy, who is exhorted to birth other spiritual children, who in turn are to do the same. That’s disciple-making.
The idea of being a disciple without engaging intentionally in multiplying or reproducing into others is incomplete.
So how do we move forward in our discipleship? Let me offer a few suggestions:
- Let’s focus more on Christ-centred processes of helping people discover the love of Jesus and helping them to mature in such a way that they repeat this process into their friends and family.
- Evangelism never stands apart from making disciples. Making disciples is a process that starts with an invitation to “come and see” (reaching out), then a call to “follow me” (come to faith), then challenges followers to “fish for people” (sharing faith and caring for others), and finally to “bear much fruit” (multiplying leadership). (Cf. Dann Spader, 4 Chair Discipling, Sonlife Ministries.)
- We need disciple-making parenting in our churches for our newly baptised (birthed) family members. Discipleship of new believers is the responsibility of spiritual parents within the church. To not assign or affirm spiritual parents to a new believer is spiritual neglect. Who abandons an infant at birth, with the cheers of friends and family for her successful delivery still ringing in her ears?
- Disciple-making requires intentionality in relationships, Bible study, walking in the Spirit, prayer modelling, obedience to Christ, and worship of the Father. Good parenting is intentional, and so is disciple-making. Isn’t a primary objective of parenting to equip kids to become good parents as well?
Can you imagine our churches full of mature disciple-makers? This will require us to focus on helping new people come to faith, nurturing them to maturity, and then training and equipping them to become disciple-makers (see also 1 John 2:12–14).
It will mean better targeting of our programs and events to where people are at in their journeys.
We might need to call “older disciples” to ease up on their need for “being fed” in the Sunday service and instead challenge them to engage in parenting activities, like helping new people find their way around in the building, teaching a class, or investing in prayer.
And guess what? If we are becoming churches with a discipling mindset, our congregations will grow, and we’ll start new ones. We will then be collectively fulfilling our mission of “multiplying churches to see Canada transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.”
[Paul J Loewen is provincial director of the Alberta Conference of MB Churches.
Thanks Paul. I appreciate your thoughts on the topic and your use of the parenting metaphor to show how disciple-making happens.