I remember running a community building festival in a northern town of rural Ghana a few years ago. There were hundreds in the centre participating in games and races and another couple of hundred having a go at the various activities that encircled the games. To the untrained eye, it was utter pandemonium, to those aware of social processes in crowds things were going well; either way that sort of setting can be fairly stressful. I recall a particular moment where I needed one of my colleagues to direct the centre games, as I scanned the crowd, I eventually found him rummaging through the trunk of one of our vehicles whilst things unravelled in the centre! Some of us react to stress of chaos by burrowing down deep into some detail that we can manage, others of us take a step back trying to contextualise the mayhem and catch the patterns by viewing the big picture. The trouble is that if we get stuck with our heads in the trunk we may find what we were looking for but have missed the real danger that was approaching and is now upon us!
I have now run seven discussion workshops in various parts of the country looking at discipleship, mission and transformation of society. It’s been a chance to step back and get a bigger picture (more of a thumb-nail sketch!) of where things are at. To start us off I get participants to pair up with someone they don’t know and share their story with each other focusing on those things that have helped them in their discipleship journey as well as those things that have been a hindrance. I also get them to reflect together on what a mature Christ follower looks like. Just 10 minutes of this yields some rich fare for discussion and reflection in the bigger group!
With varying strength, and through different stories the following things have come up each time:
1. Something significant, hopeful and strengthening happens in the process of sharing and hearing each other’s story, even for just a few minutes.
2. Having others to share the journey and encourage us in our walk is the single most significant, almost universal thing that contributes positively to our discipleship. This is closely followed by spiritual disciplines (prayer, bible study, worship etc) in the context of the church community.
3. The biggest hindrances to our journey are isolation or negative relationships (especially when life is challenging) and Christians who lived a double life.
4. Maturity as a follower of Christ is more about living out our faith in everyday life, than about knowing all the right stuff.
A few minutes of reflecting on our own and each other’s narrative enables these and other pretty simple patterns to surface. We then move to Jesus and his disciples and see the same things echoed there. They shared life together for three years and when he left he told them to keep on sharing life together with him in the centre. It was only after he left that the disciples begun to understand the truths, and doctrines started to fall into place, and by this time the doctrine was simply an articulation and explanation of all they had experienced and heard in their three years with him, and now, with his Spirit.
It is then an odd experience to engage with the question of how the church is ‘doing’ discipleship and what it is we are inviting people to in mission. Because it’s quickly obvious that what we are doing bears little relation to what our own narrative tells us is important, what Jesus himself did and what we intuitively know works. Much of what we call discipleship focusses instead around teaching people stuff, we have our series of courses that people do in a particular order, failing that, Sunday sermons might suffice. Then there are a bunch of external behaviours that serve as measuring sticks of maturity. These externals will vary depending on the church and tradition…. the list and hoops and yard sticks grows and changes but keeps going on. And what does it all produce? Well that’s a whole other discussion!
It appears we got stuck in the trunk and forgot what we were really trying to do. If we come out and look at the bigger picture, is there another way?
Perhaps there is another way that’s at least worth giving a go. What if it is the shared life of disciples that revolves around Christ himself, that in turn, makes disciples? If faith happens and grows where the rubber hits the road, as life comes at you, then let’s embrace life in all its complexity and pain but with each other and Christ – and if we don’t know how to do that, let’s work out how to do it! Isn’t that what discipleship is? This then becomes a faith that is relevant whoever you are and wherever you are, it’s not just a fair weather faith, it’s a gutsy, earthy, courageous faith with a real life, gutsy, compassionate, just and present God at the centre, with his sleeves rolled up, face leathered and gentle hands roughened. And that there, that group of brothers and sisters doing real life together with Christ at the centre, that there is what’s going to change the world.