Disciples, Not Decisions

May 21, 2019

Slogans stick in your mind. People of a certain age will remember the injunction to ‘go to work on an egg’. The year was 1981, the venue Glasgow’s Kelvin Hall. The charismatic Argentinian evangelist Luis Palau had come to town for a campaign. Counsellors were recruited under the banner of ‘Disciples, not decisions’. This winsome summary of ministry philosophy won the hearts and prayers of many to Palau.

Mission is about much more than conversion. The Lord’s last command was not to make converts; his definition of evangelism was to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). One of our retired ministers said to a younger colleague, ‘I sometimes wonder if we have had too much gospel in our preaching.’ That statement should be followed by the suggestion: Discuss. If the gospel is about the announcement of God’s plan of redemption, and if it includes both description and commendation of the beauty of the Lord Jesus, then we can never have enough. Preaching the gospel is regularly characterised by a stark minimalism geared at getting people across the line. We cannot see the Kingdom of God unless we are born again, but it would be a poor mother who was satisfied by birth alone. The baby is not left at the maternity unit, but is brought home and loved, fed, educated and cherished until and beyond adulthood.

Honesty demands that we ask searching questions about our church culture and recent history. God seems to move in a powerful way, and a significant cohort profess experience of the new birth. Fifteen years on we see that many have gone back and some have turned into major-league cynics. Churches seem to be bursting at the seams during one particular ministry but now appear to be a shadow of their former selves. Young people devour the Word at camps but find their home churches inadequate to nurture their new-found faith. This is not the whole story. Throughout the denomination we see women and men filled with the Spirit, displaying the fruit of that Spirit and growing in grace and godliness. We observe some local congregations flourishing as models of consistent health and vitality. As we look for one factor that brings health, we find it in the concept of discipleship. Our Lord calls us as a matter of first importance to make disciples.

Let me offer a definition of discipleship: Disciplemaking is an intentional process of evangelising non-Christians, establishing believers in the faith
and equipping Christians to spread the gospel so that the number of disciples will increase. The picture is of people flourishing in their faith as they follow Jesus. Discipleship results in believers who are strongly rooted in their faith, living holy and confident lives, with a natural capacity to share the gospel with others.

There are several enemies which act as tourniquets to the development of discipleship in our local churches.

Passivity is a poison which is tolerated too easily. Instead of a culture of engagement we have bought into a passive model of church where we go to a building and receive. The discipleship boxes are ticked if we attend twice on a Sunday and clock in to a highly passive prayer meeting. Of course, there is everything right about attending Sunday worship, and we love the concept of the family of God in a local context gathered to pray together. It is not for nothing that these meetings are known as ‘the means of grace’.

Non-engagement is always easier in the short term. In our privatised culture it is challenging to act upon the ‘one anothers’ of the New Testament. There 59 ‘one another’ statements in the Bible, which mean 59 injunctions to do something towards another person. We can safely say that a number of the ‘one another’ statements need to be adapted to our local cultures, unless mutual feet-washing becomes a ‘thing’. Patience, forgiveness, the avoidance of biting and devouring and many more cannot be done by people who merely sit in row s three times a week and listen to a man speaking from behind a very large wooden structure.

Discipleship cannot be done by proxy. Paul speaks of the culture of discipleship in one of the churches he was connected within these terms: ‘…so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much we were delighted
to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well (1 Thessalonians 2:8).’

Shared lives at an entry level may look like getting out of the rows at the prayer meeting and sitting around a table with six other sisters and brothers to pray, share and perhaps even laugh and cry together. Does this
sound quite threatening and even scary? It does because it is. It may look like joining other people from the church on a regular basis for a meal and sharing our lives together. The old gatherings had some value, but
many found them like watching a table tennis match as two sages pinged theological balls between each other. The women, the shy, the doubters, the guilty and the perplexed simply had to watch.

Discipleship is a community project if it is to work in local churches. Sin is pervasive and more powerful than we can ever imagine. The tantalising allure of power is always seductive, and those in church leadership
have the opportunity to use or abuse that power. Church leaders in the shape of pastor-teachers are called to empower God’s people for ‘works of service, so that the whole body of Christ may be built up until we all
reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12,13).’

What now? We are aware of the limited power of an article, but we also see potential in our modest denominational magazine, The Record. It is a record, something is written down, and if we have a note of an idea or of suggestions we can use that as a basis for a discussion.

At a recent gathering of active ministers, we discussed the need to create cultures of discipleship in our local congregations. During that discussion various suggestions surfaced. Could some of them be explored in your context? Would your church culture allow a discussion of this article at a Session? Do we have such a safe place that a mid-week group could spend a profitable hour taking it apart?

Mentorship is not simply a short-term fashion. The ultimate mentor was the Lord Jesus, who taught in word and in action. He taught the disciples how to pray after they had asked him, and after he washed his disciples’ feet he said, ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you (John 13:15).’

Mentorship leads to a high level of discipleship because it leads to teaching, friendship and accountability, all elements of a robust discipleship mindset. People say that this happens naturally; trust us, it doesn’t. Intentionality is necessary if it ’s not organised it just will not happen.

Culture is a work which comes up time and time again. It simply means ‘the way we do things’. Discipleship emerges from a culture of permission where it is recognised that the leadership are not micromanagers whose hand is upon every church sparrow. God know s about every hair on our head; we don’t have to.

Prayer is inextricably connected to discipleship. As we examine the prayer culture in our congregations we look to having more interactive prayer times. Prayer is no longer a set piece but a genuine bearing of one
another’s burdens as we speak to our heavenly Father and leave our cares and concerns in his wise hands. A lively prayer culture is the crossroads for any church with a high level of discipleship. It is at our prayer times that we receive instructions and share strategies for our mission of making even more disciples. We certainly speak to our Maker and Saviour in the place of prayer, but we also speak to each other and in some ways bear one another’s burdens.

I think of that enigmatic and flawed disciple, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who connected grace with discipleship. ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church
discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.’

The last word goes to our perfect mentor. ‘Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him (Matthew 4: 19,20).’


[This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of The Record]