Picking up from last month’s introductory piece on how MB preferences and behaviours shape our understanding of discipleship, I’d like to now focus on how MBs value Discipleship happening in community for the benefit of the community.
Much of the general evangelical understanding of discipleship focuses on personal growth. It calls an individual to develop and sharpen their personal understanding and relationship with God for the sake of their own spiritual development. Although Mennonite Brethren believe in personal growth, we see that it happens best in community context. Moments of quiet contemplation that lead to insights are welcomed and encouraged, but clear discernment and direction occurs in community.
Our general inclination in this direction is exemplified by how we shape our programs. From our leadership development to mission programs, we embed elements of community discernment and team dynamics. It is less about “what is Jesus teaching you?” And more about “what is Jesus teaching us through your experiences?”
I believe that three key elements have contributed to our understanding of discipleship to be a communal experience. They are:
- Ancestry: Today, our denomination has a global and multi-ethnic presence but it started as a close-knit single-ethnic group. Common ancestry, common history (including geography) and language, made it easier for communal discipleship to occur.
- History: Shared events in the earlier life of our forefathers and mothers, such as religious persecution, familiar patterns of migration and entrepreneurial success, have also contributed to a continued emphasis on community.
- Colony living experiences: The founders of the MB movement came out of colony-style living and therefore were accustomed to sharing life and accomplishments in a more integrated way than most.
The above early conditions of our faith movement led us to gravitate towards a biblical interpretation that values community discipleship. We identify with the early Church and the type of development expressed in the first few chapters of the book of Acts. The praying-learning-sharing in community lived out by the church in the book of Acts becomes a pattern to emulate.
Convictions, of course, must become actions and actions in turn form behaviours. If we truly believe that discipleship is best done in community then there must be tangible examples of that conviction. Here are some of the ways I think we have lived this out:
Community interpretation: We define and refine our theological beliefs in community. It is the gathered body and not individual experts who are called to interpret biblical teachings to shape our confessional convictions prayerfully.
Leaders’ plurality: We believe that God gifts different people with different leadership skills and abilities; we tend to lead in teams. We are less inclined to seek after a superstar leader and gravitate towards a plurality of leadership.
We decide together: We create systems that allow for community discernment and decision.
Community calling: Although this is less prevalent in the present, our history indicates that it was the community that called out its leaders. It was common for the MBs to call out people into ministry placement from appointing missionaries to teachers and pastors. The community that sees the gifts in an individual helps to nurture those gifts and provides the opportunity for them to utilize those gifts.
We value the gathered church: There is a strong call and emphasis on gathering and serving at a local church. Our discipleship convictions encourage the individual to belong and become part of a mutual accountability with a local church.
Community Accountability: Less prevalent now but a part of history, community accountability led to both discipline and restoration.
I can say much more in this area, but I intend for these articles to be a conversation starter. I want to thank those that submitted their thoughts so far and invite others to engage with me on the subject. So, let’s talk.
Mary Martha House, Winnipeg, Manitoba c. 1945
Like many people groups, Mennonites have a story of migration. Today, in Canada, many care worker jobs are staffed by newcomers. It was the same in the 1930s to 1950s, as Mennonite newcomer women worked as domestics in wealthy urban households. These Mennonite women did what they could to help their families resettle in Canada.
Learn more about Mary Martha Home here.
Reader response to part 1:
Clear connection to the Confession
Elton, I agree that the nuances of discipleship in the MB family that you named in your article set our denomination apart.
One nuance of discipleship I hope will set us apart in the future is a more clear connection between discipleship and the shared beliefs of our Confession of Faith.
At our local church, we’ve developed a tool called The 10 Year Disciple—a framework of 15 discernible traits that we would hope to see in the life of a disciple who has journeyed with us for 10 years.
When we consider defining our discipleship on a national level, I think many of the topics we address in Article 10 of the Confession of Faith (discipleship) are important: following Jesus, united in a distinct community, and demonstrating true faith.
I believe that each denomination brings something to the beauty that can be found in the body of Christ in Canada, as together we represent Jesus to the world around us. As someone who has been grafted into the MB family, I really see the beauty of the distinct understanding we have in our confession of faith of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. So, I hope our confession can become one of the formative documents in discerning an end goal of discipleship that we might all share as MB churches. For instance, we might consider an end goal of discipleship for the MB Church to be to actively take a stand for justice in our land—justice shaped out of our confessional stances on the sanctity of human life (Article 14), peace for all people (Article 13) and dealing with systemic evil (Article 4). Or might we consider an end goal of discipleship to be becoming a people who profess our faith in Jesus because we understand the need to reach people of other faiths in our land and around the world (Article 17) because Jesus is returning (Article 18).
Lead Pastor, WMB
Elton, thanks for starting this great discussion on discipleship. I look forward to the subsequent articles and related discussion. Discipleship is at the core of who we are as an MB family and yet as you mention, still tends to confuse us. It seems to me that the basic ideas of discipleship, such as following and becoming more like Jesus, are simple to say but really hard to do. They are messy because people are involved. One of our unique approaches to discipleship is that we are relentlessly community-focused, which includes our community hermeneutic, our team-based mission work, and our collaborative leadership approaches. I value these very much, but they are complicated and hard to do. I think that’s why we try to program and systematize discipleship. We create ‘leadership pipelines’ and ‘discipleship systems’ – which are fine and can be helpful, but they sometimes take away the organic nature and mess of a discipleship ecosystem. We somehow need to find our way in that tension of having adequate systems and structures that help clarify and focus us in discipleship, while not taming and domesticating the organic, communal work of the Spirit among us.
One key area of interest and focus for me in our future work and thinking in this area, is the future role of the old foundational functions of the church from Ephesians 4 – the increased leveraging of a more balanced apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherd and teacher functions for the church.
Lead Pastor, Forest Grove Community Church
In A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church, (Board of Christian Literature, 1975) Dr. John A. Toews quotes the following record of an October, 1523 debate in which “a basic schism began to develop between [religious leader Ulrich] Zwingli and the Radicals [who 15 months later founded the Anabaptist movement. The issue was whether the Zurich city council had the right to tell church leaders not to abolish the mass]. The record of the debate states:
Conrad Grebel rose and thought that the priests should be given instructions, since they were all present, as to what should be done about the Mass;….
Zwingli: My Lords [the Council] will decide how to proceed henceforth with the Mass.
Simon Stumpf: Master Ulrich. You have no authority to place the decision in the hands of My Lords, for the decision is already made: the Spirit of God decides.
“This kind of unreserved commitment to the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God led the Radicals inevitably to a new concept of the church as a voluntary association of true believers and to a new concept of the Christian life as Nachfolge Christi, or discipleship.”
The words Nachfolge Christi translate as “following Jesus.”
It’s a lived-out thing
I completely agree with you, Elton, that discipleship in contemporary religious settings is often ineffective for many of the reasons you’ve said. Disciple-making is really about journeying with others seeking Jesus in their lives the same way you and I are. It’s not a ‘top-down thing’; it’s a ‘lived out thing’… so creating a program, while sometimes helpful, doesn’t get to the heart of the matter in and of its own. Why is it that so many churches seem to focus on the program end of things? Is it because, as you say, quantitative over-rides qualitative even on the discipleship front?
Engaging with others in discipleship begins with an understanding of what we believe scripture says about Jesus. Therefore the life people are called to when they decide to follow him. I agree that if we allow the culture to shape the discipleship journey, rather than biblical principles, we may well make disciples who fit well in the world but who follow someone who doesn’t look much like Jesus.
What I am hearing in this discussion is that we deeply believe that we need each other to be able to follow Jesus. Our ancestors (ethnically and/or spiritually) shared much in common — including many difficult experiences — that perhaps made community discipleship both necessary and natural. It seems like discerning God’s Word/Spirit together was also both necessary and natural. When we take time to study the Word, pray, share, learn and discern together does this not also give space for the Spirit to be at work ? Without the Spirit could any people group even come to a unified confession? And when space is given for a diversity of voices to be heard (and listened to ) does this not also more naturally lead to greater mutual accountability? Our culture around us doesn’t seem to make community discipleship seem natural or necessary and we no longer share the common experiences of our ancestors (persecution, forced migration, etc.). I admit community is not always an easy choice for me, in part because of my own story and personality. But also because the pull for leaders to discern on behalf of the community seems strong as does the desire to leave the decisions to the superstar leader – both of which give less space for the Spirit to guide all members in the community into further obedience to the Word. Community can be good, a Spirit-led community is what I think we all long for. I do think most people still desire community, but will our communities choose shared experiences (even the difficult/messy ones) that lead us collectively to follow Jesus in the ways of our ancestors?