COMMUNITIES MAKE DISCIPLES
Written by Doug Ponder on December 1, 2012
The Trouble with Individualistic Discipleship
A popular slogan in the world of sports says, “Players win games; teams win championships.” Even those who are unfamiliar with sports understand the truth of the saying: some things require more than the effort and skill of one person in order to be accomplished.
We tend not to think this way, however, because we have grown up in a Western culture dominated by individualism. This is true even in the church. When we read commands in the Scriptures, for example, we read them as instructions given to individuals instead of instructions given to groups. Thus it never occurs to us that Jesus might have wanted us to fulfill his commands together.
This oversight is especially common when it comes to the area of the Christian life called “discipleship.” Discipleship refers to the process of making disciples. The word disciple itself means “learner” or “follower.” But it doesn’t refer to learning like you’d find in school classroom. And it doesn’t refer to the kind of “following” that a kid-sister does to her big brother. The word disciple, when used in the biblical way, is closer to our word apprentice. So to be a disciple of Jesus is to be an apprentice of Jesus. Just as an apprentice blacksmith learns the trade from the master blacksmith—by instruction, observation, imitation, and correction—in the same way Jesus’ disciples learn from him how to live life as God intended. (Which, of course, is only made possible because of the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.)
Clear Instructions from Jesus
Just before Jesus ascended into the heavens (after his resurrection), he left his followers with some clear marching orders: “Go make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). The trouble is, as we’ve already pointed out, far too many of Jesus’ followers have taken it upon themselves to fulfill this commission on their own.
There are probably two reasons why this has happened: First, the individualism we’ve already talked about has crept in once again at this point, and so we see disciple-making as an individualistic endeavor to be carried out by ourselves. The second reason is that we have overlooked the clear teaching of the Scriptures about the context and the means of discipleship: the church. By God’s design the local church is the primary context for our conformity to the image of Jesus. Paul makes this quite plain in the book of Ephesians, where he explains that the whole church, working together, is responsible for the growth and maturity of its members (4:15-16).
This makes sense when we think more about many of the other commands in the New Testament. These commands make it plain that all of the apostles assumed that Jesus’ followers would be active members of a local church, since so many of the commands they give involve caring for “one another” in a close-knit gospel community. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that most of these commands are impossible to fulfill apart from regular interaction and involvement in each other’s lives.
The Power of Community
There are many benefits that come with seeing disciple-making as a community project. It teaches us to rely on the various strengths and gifts of those in our church in order to see God’s mission accomplished. As Paul the apostle wrote, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). What this means, practically speaking, is that you don’t have to feel all of the pressure that comes with an individualistic approach to fulfilling Jesus’ commands. This way of thinking is not some kind of excuse to “let ourselves off the hook.” Like voting in an election, if everyone relies on someone else to vote (or, in this case, to make disciples), then it won’t actually happen. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about seeing the church community as the context in which disciples are made. The word “context” here refers both to the diverse people in the local church and to the collective life that they share together. Some people fill certain roles, and some fill others. But together everyone ought to be working and serving in the name of Jesus. Thus, far from decreasing our responsibility, this way of thinking takes seriously the idea that the local church, as the body of Christ, is full of “hands” and “eyes” and “noses”—all members of the same body, but with varying gifts and varying strengths.
The helpful takeaway from all this is that Christians shouldn’t feel hesitant about inviting their friends to church services, community gatherings, or hang-outs with friends. The disciple-making process happens both formally (when someone specifically asks to be discipled) and informally (when someone learns by observation from you or those in your church community). Jesus said that one of the key things that would set his followers apart from the rest of the world would be their love for each other (John 13:35). When you invite someone into your church community, you’re really inviting them to witness the love of God, the mercy of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit “in action.” An when they observe your community trusting Jesus and following him in faith-filled obedience, then they will know what it looks like for people to be “born again” or “converted” or “redeemed” (all of which are biblical descriptions of our inward transformation). To see that many lives changed and renewed is powerfully persuasive, which is why it continues to be true that communities make disciples.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.