Whatever happened to discipleship?

Whatever happened to discipleship?

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.’

Matthew 12:48-50

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.

Hebrews 5:11-14

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.


Is there a distinction between pastor and preacher?

Is there a distinction between pastor and preacher?

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Acts 20:28

It isn’t so much the case in the Anglican church but theres a convention out there for the elders of a non-episcopal church community to refer to themselves sometimes as Pastor. Pastor can mean many different things practically but principally I always understood the word to be synonymous with the term that used in the passage above ‘shepherds of the church of God’. I was always warned against those who practiced ‘Sheperding’ when I was young. Yet I think the term addresses a distortion of what is meant when the term is used in the New Testament Letters.


A little while ago I was reading Charles Dickens’s ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’ and came across the account of his witnessing the aftermath of a horrific shipwreck (the Royal Charter) from the perspective of a tiny coastal village near Anglesey. The thing that stood out to me in the whole account was the actions of the clergyman in that village. He converted the church building into a morgue for the deceased, helped identify them, comforted the distressed in his own home and wrote to the families of the victims. Dickens himself wrote of the man..

It was the kind and wholesome face I have made mention of as being then beside me, that I had purposed to myself to see, when I left home for Wales.  I had heard of that clergyman, as having buried many scores of the shipwrecked people; of his having opened his house and heart to their agonised friends; of his having used a most sweet and patient diligence for weeks and weeks, in the performance of the forlornest offices that Man can render to his kind; of his having most tenderly and thoroughly devoted himself to the dead, and to those who were sorrowing for the dead.  I had said to myself, ‘In the Christmas season of the year, I should like to see that man!’  And he had swung the gate of his little garden in coming out to meet me, not half an hour ago.

So cheerful of spirit and guiltless of affectation, as true practical Christianity ever is!  I read more of the New Testament in the fresh frank face going up the village beside me, in five minutes, than I have read in anathematising discourses (albeit put to press with enormous flourishing of trumpets), in all my life.  I heard more of the Sacred Book in the cordial voice that had nothing to say about its owner, than in all the would-be celestial pairs of bellows that have ever blown conceit at me.

Charles Dickens – The Uncommercial Traveller, Chapter 2: The Shipwreck

The passage to me underscored the distinction between that of a mere leader or preacher and a minister or shepherd. This disaster had struck the parish and the priest took it upon himself  to not just to care for the living, but also the dead. It wasn’t a concern for preaching and teaching but his attentiveness to his flock, whatever its condition.  The flock itself was everyone, in whatever condition that he came across. He was a shepherd and a good samaritan. This man was genuinely a pastor in the traditional sense of the word which in turn transforms him into an icon of Christ himself.

I think we should all strive to display this love for those around us but I can’t help but be left feeling that many who call themselves Pastors today loosen the definitions of the term to something lesser. I know few ministers today who bother to visit their congregants anymore or even have the time for their congregants to visit them. I will be honest I do not know what takes up the vast majority of a Pastor’s time despite being married to the child of one and a peer to a number who aspire to become such eventually. The impression I have been left with, barring few notable exceptions, is that outside of their immediate circle many ministers have little interaction with their congregation throughout the week unless in the event of some pressing emergency. In many cases I think it far more honest for many non-‘episcopal’ ministers to be called lecturers or preachers as that is the extent of their interactions with most and occurs purely within the confines of the church building. We talk about ‘Churches without walls’ but this implies the sole intention of the church is missional, it is also incarnational and sacramental (which I think leads to mission) yet we rarely encounter this outside of the walls of our churches today. Dickens’s clergyman is a much more practical, down to earth expression of the Church truly without walls beyond any mere ‘mission’.

I do not mean to disparage, I appreciate the job is a tough one. I also think our churches have changed significantly to that which Dickens depicts, not least via the avenue of technology facilitating much higher capacity congregations which makes personal interactions with ministers difficult for the average congregant. Maybe thats an argument for smaller churches? Maybe its asinine of me to make such remarks when I have no idea of what its like to minister. The problem is I grew up in an Anglican church plant run purely by laypeople which was deeply involved in its community and shared the various responsibilities between its members. It was only later on when I moved away that I encountered elders and pastors who by comparison, to be blunt, most (not all) didn’t have any time for you. It was only later in returning to the Anglican church that I realised the fundamental difference between the Pastor as vocation and the Minister as profession. The parish model too taught me that we belong to a place, not just a people. We are always the Church in a place, not a Church in general.


If you Pastor doesn’t really know all that much about you or those around you, and isn’t interested or see any importance in addressing this – you can have access to preaching without necessarily the preacher today thanks to the internet. A seemingly increasing number of churches, particularly in the US, now take to broadcasting their teaching from somewhere else on a Sunday. I’ve known people who just opted out of attending a church in favour of watching these broadcasts and confess no deficiency in it compared to what they were experiencing prior to the change – the worst bit is the Pastor of the church they were attending never even knew they had left and the individuals actually had more time in their week as they didn’t have to support a buildings infrastructure with their time and effort any longer. Theres no accountability, no discipleship and a superficial level of community which the Pastor, as a role, increasingly plays an infrequent and distant part in.

These are just my thoughts, I have only anecdote to inform my opinion, this isn’t absolute. I haven’t seen any quantitative studies on how Elders use their time or the duties they carry out. Maybe its the demographic I find myself in, maybe young men (married or otherwise) aren’t seen as needing as much input by Elders as others. I don’t have a problem with Preachers or Teachers – I just think the word Pastor suggests more than what is often actually carried out in some cases. I don’t expect every Preacher to personally be involved in the life of those who attend the gatherings they preach at, but at the same time being called a Pastor is disingenuous then. Perhaps administrator is more appropriate. Perhaps we need to make more of a point of separating out and even delegating the role of Pastoring when required and cease to merely conflate it with the act of Preaching and Administration.

Sermons and Songs aren’t enough

Sermons and Songs aren’t enough

Several years ago there was a phase going around Evangelical circles called ‘The emerging church’. The thing that stood out to me about its adherents was (and this is a massive generalisation) they weren’t that big on going to Church on a Sunday and being a part of the audience.

There are several books and many good reasons why Church as a Sunday gathering alone is problematic. The prominence of the internet has only highlighted this. When asked the average lay person will say they go to church for..

a) Worship

b) Teaching (or ‘Feeding’)

Yet today no shortage exists of books, podcasts, feeds and album releases to fuel each of these independently. If you don’t like what you hear on a Sunday you can today simply go somewhere else, start your own thing or opt out of Sunday gatherings altogether. The boundaries between denominations likewise are increasingly porous, a person when they move town might of been attending an Anglican church will go to a Baptist church because thats what works in their new context. Their isn’t anything ultimately bad about this itself (I believe in a sense although this does present problems) but the distinguishing marks of these denominations are lessened as a result giving way to the lowest common denominator. Accountability, discipleship and the sacraments inevitably suffer as a result. We catch ourselves trending towards a theology that affirms our life choices rather than affirming a changed life. We are no longer ‘Anglicans’ or ‘Baptists’ but pragmatists who take what we need when its needed and like magpies construct our own theological nests adorned with the various baubles we find appealing. Our faith has become increasingly personalised, commodified and even commercialised.

We’re all ’emerging’ now

Most people I talk to generally state that the emerging church has failed. It was a phase, a fad and we are all past it now. Yet I believe that the ’emerging church’ was just the tip of the iceberg of a bigger change at work in the Protestant, and dare I say global Christian world. The Church is a body, a family and it always has been but it is no longer a authority. Authority instead is found in those who we find appealing, whether they are a powerful preacher, a teacher, a gifted worship leader or some other character. For many Christians they are more likely to trust and respect their favourite Christian celebrity than their local minister. The honest truth however is that even those voices don’t carry authority, they just create a space for us to form our own opinions and beliefs. In essence we are our own authority – a thoroughly post-modern and emerging tenant.

All of the above comments however come from the perspective of treating our faith as a purely intellectual, emotional or spiritual pursuit. It is those things but the question is – is it more? Is it shared? Is it public? Because our faith today seems private, tailor-made and individualistic.

Life together

The Lord’s Prayer goes as follows..

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.

It uses the word ‘our’ instead of ‘my’, ‘us’ instead of ‘me’, ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and in doing so betrays itself as a public declaration. Even if said alone its very structure reminds us that we are part of a body. The communion likewise is given and received, it is offered and accepted in the context of the body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’. The church is a body and that is more than merely being present in the same place and at the same time. Too often today we stand alone in crowded halls and rooms of people genuinely unaware of how our brothers and sisters around us are doing. We make gestures but do not move beyond the point of our own inconvenience to be there for one another.

Small groups are one way we try and address this, we meet in the week and read scripture together and pray. Yet these rarely make ground for us to really dig into the meat of the core issues affecting our growth as believers. Despite what some might say, I don’t think this is discipleship. Its also often rather generic and addresses the lowest common denominator of peoples faith due to time constraints and group dynamics. Yet this is something that will keep people coming back as it isn’t attainable online or through media consumption. It is interpersonal, it requires effort and at least is a step in the right direction.

If the Church is to grow I am of the conviction that it needs to recover its communal identity. We need to move beyond consumption to participation. Getting together with other believers a couple of hours a week isn’t enough to sustain a layperson who spends the rest of it being assaulted by the world with its own values, desires and intentions. Our faith needs its distinctives and particulars which aren’t marketable and distributable online. I’ve been challenged personally in my reading of the Book of Common Prayer’s morning and evening prayers and painfully aware of the fact that I’ve never encountered a Anglican church that offers these. I can pray the words alone, but its a pale imitation of what I imagine the real thing to be. These are treated as optional extras and I’m beginning to wonder if the rhythms these prayers offer might be more important than that.

Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

These rhythms mentioned aren’t just liturgical, although I think they can be useful in binding us together, but also those of discipleship. Our society is one that praises the individual, or at least the notion of one in principle. Discipleship or mentoring is something rarely sought out but it is precisely what Jesus called us to as his followers. If we aren’t doing this are we really being obedient to Christ? Are we really calling others and encouraging one another to obey the commands of Christ?

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:19-20

I don’t think discipleship is just exhortation or teaching, it is interpersonal, frequent, prayerful, challenging and at times an intimate interaction. It is apprenticeship and mentoring. If we aren’t willing to do these things for one another what are we really willing to give up for Christ? Preaching sermons and singing songs together on a Sunday aren’t enough – you can get that anywhere these days.

As Christians we have no external differences that set us out from the masses. We blend into the crowds and slip past unnoticed, our differences are in our actions, our inheritence, our creeds, baptism and confessions. They are particular, nuanced and consistent. Leaving one another to ‘do it ourselves’ when it comes to becoming followers of Christ is to confess to the coming of a ‘private’ Kingdom of God and that is to say arguably no Kingdom at all. We need to discover the public gospel if we are to more fully become public Christians.