Intentional Discipleship Systems: Creating pathways to make disciples of Jesus Christ
November 1, 2019 / By Rev. Dr. Aaron Bouwens, UNY Director of Vital Congregations
As Bishop Webb mentioned in the introduction to this issue, the mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Upon sharing this mission statement, a few questions arise, and usually the lead question is something about defining what is meant by a disciple of Jesus Christ. There are many ways a disciple of Jesus Christ can be defined; this can create confusion. So, let me offer a definition that we have been using for several years now to understand what is being talked about when talking about a disciple of Jesus Christ:
A Disciple of Jesus Christ is a person who confesses faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, continues to be transformed by the grace of God, engages in life-long practices of learning and spiritual formation to follow Jesus, while boldly connecting with the world around them to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and serve like Jesus, with urgency and love for the transformation of the world
This description provides a great framework to understand what it means to be a person following Jesus. But how do faith communities help people live into being a disciple of Jesus Christ? Presenting a definition or telling people they need to grow as disciples will not result in having more disciples. Intentionality is the key to helping everyone grow as disciples. Having a system in place that helps people understand what it means to be a disciple and offers opportunities to practice the behaviors of disciples, is essential to developing disciples.
Several attempts have been made to come alongside faith communities to help create understanding and systems of discipleship. In the resource section of this edition, multiple resources can be found. One of these resources is by Phil Maynard, and he offers a helpful way to think about discipleship. He lifts up six aspects that make up the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ:
• A life of worship
• A life of hospitality
• A life of opening to Jesus
• A life of obeying Jesus
• A life of mission
• A life of generosity
These lifestyle attributes need to be cultivated through the system of discipleship within a faith community. Furthermore, in order for the discipleship system to be fruitful, these attributes need to be accessible to people no matter where they are in their faith journey. For example, someone who is exploring Jesus, whether they know it or not, will not approach a life of worship the same way as someone who is living as Christ-centered as possible. A person who has recently responded to God’s offer of grace in Jesus Christ to receive forgiveness will have a different understanding of obeying Jesus than a person that has more experience following Jesus.
Maynard also highlights five practices a congregation needs to have as part of a system that helps a person grow as a disciple:
• Biblical engagement
• Accountable relationships
• Spiritual disciplines
• Missional life
• Weekly worship
While the aspects of the life of a disciple focus on the attributes of a disciple that is growing in understanding, grace, and love, the five practices of a congregation are the behaviors that are reinforced through programs, teaching, behaviors, modeling, and stewardship. These are not identified as mere values to place on a discipleship system in print; these are behaviors and practices that are woven into the life of a disciple. The greater engagement with the Bible, the greater likelihood that a disciple will grow in their life of hospitality. Likewise, the greater opportunity a disciple has to practice spiritual disciplines, the greater likelihood they will be increasing open and obedient to Jesus. The practices are the pathways by which the life of the disciple can grow in depth, and in the sanctifying grace of Jesus.
The mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world can become an empty slogan unless the church puts into practice a clear path for disciples to be grown, formed, even transformed. Transformation cannot be caused or forced by human hands; however, through an intentional discipleship system, an environment can be created that is ripe for the transformation of people, and the world. For this reason, all of us are invited to engage in the ministry of putting into practice an intentional discipleship system.