The morning of writing this I watched a squat young blackbird following its parent through my cramped back garden. They’d often visited, at first the parent would leave and fetch food for its offspring, now they are looking for food together. Soon the young bird will be looking for food by itself, until it has its own children and the cycle repeats. This is natures discipleship, the elder apprenticing the younger until the disciple becomes an elder in their own right.
In the church we call our Archbishops respectfully Patriarchs but more affectionately (in some circles) Popes. Both are related to greek terms for ‘Father’. The Desert Fathers were called ‘Abba’ and ‘Amma’ aramaic for ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ which gives us ‘Abbot’ and ‘Abbess’. Jesus himself used familial language to describe believers and their relationships to one another..
He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
Paul likewise wrote to Timothy..
Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.
1 Timothy 5:1-2
Even in the community of Israel, the Levites passed their responsibility from generation to generation. The elders teaching the next generation how to administer their duties and stewarding their inheritance until it was time to pass on. Did the church, a ‘holy priesthood’, abandon this pattern or have no need of it?
We keep up this language and idea today, particularly when we focus on particular passages which place emphasis on this pattern, but I wonder to what degree discipleship is currently present in the British Church. I think the trend is more likely that many are to understand discipleship as the growth of our relationship between us and God our Father. This is important, this is our ultimate aim, but are we confusing our terms here? Aren’t we called Christians because we imitate and follow Christ? Is Christ himself not the visible image of the invisible God? Are we likewise called to be in turn visible images of Christ to the world, and one another? Jesus called us not to go into all the world and make ‘believers’, he called us to go and make disciples. Theres a distinction, that distinction is the great commission.
Brother, let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.
Verse 1 of ‘The Servant Song’ by Richard Gillard
We might agree then that it is not perhaps so general. Many places I have witnessed see the small/study group pattern as a means to discipleship. However even here they fall short. Mike Breen, an Anglican minister and discipleship advocate defines these insufficiencies as the following..
- Small groups are usually much lower commitment.
- They are usually looking to grow by adding new members.
- Anyone can be part of it.
- Challenge is not a regular fixture in most small groups because the emphasis is much more on sharing, contributing and creating as warm an environment as possible so that newcomers feel welcome.
- Small groups are usually led by facilitators who are looking to create space for everyone to share and contribute.
- Small groups multiply when they are too large, and usually it’s through splitting them (every Small Group Pastor in the world just cringed that I used the word “split”). It’s growth by addition.
- Small groups tend to lean towards the lowest common denominator in terms of spiritual content so that anyone can step into it (again, we’re not saying all small groups do. But in general, many do).
That isn’t to say these small groups are bad, its just we need to recognise that whatever is going on in these meetings isn’t discipleship, at least not within itself.
Discipleship as Guilds and Family
Discipleship I believe ultimately is a term that can be considered synonymous with apprenticeship. Their are differences but I think when you read letters like 1 and 2 Timothy, Timothy the (young) man is clearly an apprentice to Paul. Thats the relational context in which he emerges in the New Testament, we might caveat this by stating that this is the process for the training of leaders alone but I think in doing so we are drawing an artificial distinction between those who head up a spiritual community and the community itself. Paul in the book of Hebrews rebukes Jewish background believers for refusing to step into the leadership role expected of mature believers by adopting ignorance.
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Paul’s phrasing ‘by this time you ought to be teachers‘ touches on a perceived logical progression in his mind on the part of the believer. That ultimately, given time, all believers might progress to be teachers in some fashion if they are sincere and able. Likewise his use of the word ‘infant’ and his imagery of milk and solids draws on the example of child being fed over time by a parent, a Father (Abba) or a Mother (Amma).
All of this to me reminds me in a fashion of the old guild system. Timothy for me strikes me as a Journeyman minister, who having completed his apprenticeship under the Master Paul is sent out to train and educate others on his journey to become a Master in his own right by the process of training others. This sort of practice, in my personal experience, has disappeared from the Church in many places, especially for the laity. If it occurs at all I think there is a tacit expectation that such practices happen purely within the biological family, but this is often without any vested interest taken in the state of such mentoring by the broader church. Family in many ways is the natural place for such a thing, however this apprenticeship is entirely dependent on the sufficiency of the parents to ‘distinguish good from evil’ and not only distinguish it but teach others to do so. It also assumes that it is normative for Christianity to be passed generationally in a steady static fashion with no obvious provision for adult conversion, which is no longer the case in Britain. What we need is a more robust and scalable model of discipleship that isn’t based on biological familial lines but on the idea of the church as family. Our elders are fathers and mothers, our peers brothers and sisters, our children sons and daughters.
Discipleship as Sponsorship
Another parallel for Discipleship is that of Sponsorship. In my mind I’m thinking specifically of the kinds seen in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Before I lived in London, whilst not involved myself, I knew a great many people who had gone through AA and greatly respected the community it created. One outline of the role of a Sponsor (worth reading in full) details the responsibilities as follows..
- This is an individual who will usually have more experience in the program than the sponsee. This means that they will be able to share their wisdom and experience.
- Most sponsors will tell their sponsee to contact them at any time of the day or night if it is an emergency. The urge to relapse can come at any time, and having somebody to contact can make all the difference.
- A sponsor can just be a good friend. One of the things that people worry about when they first enter recovery is that they will never be able to form meaningful relationships without their chemical crutch. What they learn is that friendships in sobriety can be stronger than anything they have ever experienced previously. One of their most important relationships may be with their sponsor.
- This is an individual who will offer encouragement and provide praise for achievements.
- A sponsor should be able to provide honest feedback.
- A more experienced person in recovery will be able to spot the warning signs of an approaching relapse. They may be able to guide the sponsee back to safety.
- This is someone who can be a good role model for their sponsee
- It is often the job of the sponsor to help the sponsee work their way through the 12 steps
These principles can be adapted for education, mentoring and growth of disciples. This is a practice which requires no money from its participants and only some oversight to guard against abuse. The 12 steps in this instance we might treat as synonymous with Pauls ‘teaching about righteousness’ he mentions in Hebrews. Practically this could take the form of walking a sponsee through the Catechism and serving as an confidant as they are inducted and brought up into the faith, the life it entails and the acceptance of sponsee’s of their own. This is something easy in the sense that Jesus’s yoke is easy for us, it is only requiring the will of the parties involved. Something which I think, to be honest, is in short supply today.
Discipleship is essential, yet often missing
We ask why our young people leave church when they leave home, we also ask why men are not involved in church to the same degree as women. I genuinely believe a forsaking of discipleship is one of the major roots for this. People groups forget their native languages when they do not see a benefit in the next generation learning it. Likewise religious communities inevitably disappear when they do not see a benefit in making sure the next generation knows their faith. Talking from a pulpit isn’t discipleship no matter what the content and if we are unwilling or unable to take the time to disciple others as a community, the community will simply disappear.