One of the mysteries of life is human speech. Because we human beings talk all the time, we take for granted this amazing ability. I think that we should approach all of our speech with reverence because we are beings who are able to make sounds which become symbols of meaning. Even if we do not strive for beauty of expression, we should always aim at truthfulness and meaningfulness.
Sometimes it seems that there is only so much meaning contained within a word, and the more it is used, the less meaning it retains. It is as if each word contains the air of meaning, and the more that air is inhaled in our speaking, the more deflated the meaning of the word becomes. It is a tragedy whenever an indispensable word becomes corrupted from overuse or misuse.
I worry about the deflation of the meaning of the word disciple in The United Methodist Church. Because this word is a part of our statement of mission ("Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World") and it appears in all our official speech and printed communications, we are always in danger of losing its meaning.
There is no problem with our using the word disciple. It is the word used in the synoptic Gospels to describe persons who followed Jesus of Nazareth. I assume that it is a historical fact that Jesus' followers were known as his disciples.
If we use the word disciple today, we should use it with an awareness that its meaning grows in the New Testament as the story of what God does in Jesus moves beyond his ministry as an itinerant teacher. The Jesus who had disciples was crucified by Pontius Pilate and raised from the dead as the Messiah (Christ) of Israel and Lord of the world. Following his resurrection, the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples and commissioned them to become apostles. On the Day of Pentecost, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and made them into something new, the church. As the apostles went forth to proclaim what God had done in Jesus the Christ and to gather people into the church, the disciples of Jesus became known as Christians.
While the name Christian was probably just a tag to identify those who were always talking about the Christ, those who were in the church accepted it as a very appropriate name since it has the connotation of participating in the life of Christ, especially since the apostle Paul defined the meaning of discipleship as a life "in Christ." In light of the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the meaning of the word disciple is utterly transformed. No longer does being a disciple only mean following the teaching of Jesus or learning from his example, but it means participating in the life of the Spirit of God in a community whose ways of living are being shaped by the whole paradigm of the coming of Jesus Christ.
When we reflect upon the way the meaning of being a disciple grows in the New Testament beyond the historical sense in the synoptic Gospels, we can understand how it is not too helpful for us to contrast discipleship and membership. We often say, what matters is disciples, not members. I have said it. You have probably said it.
What we are trying to emphasize is that the Christian life has a content and, therefore, has to be more than merely being a member of the institutional church. But, notice how shallow and misleading this contrast can be. Membership is a precious word. The very idea of membership probably originated in the apostle Paul's great discussion of the church as the body of Jesus Christ: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." Others have since borrowed the idea of membership from the church (and, in borrowing this Christian term to refer to "joining" a club or group, they secularized it and flattened its meaning).
I do not think it is wise for us to speak as if we do not understand the distinctively Christian meaning of membership. It is nothing less than deep communion with Christ and one another as fellow participants in Christ's life. So then, once we have made our point about the contrast between disciples and members, we need to move on to reclaim the true meaning of membership and make it mean what it means in the New Testament and in the Christian tradition, rather than tolerate some merely institutional caricature of this word.
When we talk about being disciples, we are talking about something which can be understood finally only through the lens of Easter and Pentecost. But also, we are talking about something that has to do with the stuff of ordinary daily life. It is about daily living according to the way of Christ by being a spouse or parent or child, or relating to people at work, or making decisions about how to spend money, or taking a position on public issues in which justice, peace and righteousness are at stake, and preparing to die. It has to do with needing to come together with others to hear again the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to experience his presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and to give support to one another who have to live in a world which is blind to the Gospel.
If this is what being disciples is all about, then, when leaders of the church talk about making disciples, this is what we are talking about. We are talking about our living a particular way of being, and inviting and helping others into this way, which is our salvation from the lies and the distractions from real life in our culture. I admit that often it does not sound as if this is what we are talking about. Often it sounds as if we are speaking institutional jargon. I doubt that we can avoid sounding like that sometimes, but it is absolutely imperative that all of us in the church try to keep our speech about disciples and disciple making connected to the mystery of the Gospel and the reality of ordinary life.
The mission of The United Methodist Church is defined as "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." I think this is a wonderful way of defining the mission of the church, or, at least, the mission of that part of the church which has come out of the Wesleyan heritage. In order for us to work on our continuing agenda of fulfilling our mission, I think we need to watch our words and remind ourselves and others of the realities to which our words point.