Is your congregation as good at developing mature followers of Jesus Christ as you are at cultivating new members? Would your leaders say there is a difference between fully devoted disciples and good church members? Can you be a disciple and not be a church member? What about the opposite? Can you be a church member and not be a disciple? Should we have church members who aren't disciples?
Most of us would agree that "good church members" ought to be maturing disciples of Jesus Christ, but the truth is that many of us are clearer about the characteristics of a "good church member" than we are about the characteristics of a "Biblical follower of Jesus Christ." And because of this, we often assume that if someone is "active" in are church, they are being discipled. So we focus on getting people to participate in our programs, believing that if they come to worship and Sunday School and maybe Bible Study then we are helping them become a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. Well, maybe you haven't, but that's pretty much the way I operated for years.
And then I heard some people push the distinction between a "good church member" and a "Biblical follower of Jesus Christ." You would think that defining what a disciple is would be simple, but I discovered that it was like defining "excellence:" everyone thinks they recognize it when they see it, but find it difficult to define.
Four years ago, I invited about two dozen people from around the conference to help me nail down a definition. We worked on it all day and shared it with many different people afterwards. We did some word-smithing and tweaking as a result of their feedback, and here is the definition that we have been using since then.
In response to God's gracious invitation,
A disciple of Jesus Christ is someone
Who makes life-time commitments to:
-- Being in community with other disciples,
-- Becoming more like Jesus, and
-- Joining Jesus on mission in the world.
Biblical disciples are people who accept the forgiveness offered them through the cross of Christ and allow it to reshape their lives in at least three fundamental ways. (1) God's grace draws us into community with persons who regularly celebrate and open themselves to what God is doing in Jesus Christ. (2) The Holy Spirit begins and continues a sanctifying process which blesses our efforts to become increasingly like Jesus in our attitudes, thoughts, actions and relationships. (3) We take Jesus up on his invitation to join him in continuing God's mission in the world to spread God's Kingdom and to renew our broken world.
You could say a whole lot more than that, but I doubt you can leave any of this out and still have a Biblical description of a follower of Jesus Christ. When Jesus said in Matthew 28:19-20 to "go and make disciples . . . and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you," I can't image that he meant any less than this.
Does this sound like theological nitpicking? It isn’t. Unless we have a pretty firm idea what being a disciple means, how are we going to know if we are fulfilling the mission of the church, as we United Methodists describe it, "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?" We can’t hit a target we can’t see.
Only if we are clear about our target can we begin to think about questions like:
· Is it okay for an official leader in our church only to come to worship every couple months even though he or she is in town and otherwise able to come?
· What does it say about our congregation’s discipling process if there are long-term members who act as if it is okay to carry a grudge, to gossip about others, to treat others spitefully, or to act as if someone is somehow less because of their ethnicity, accent, education, politics or economic standing?
· Ought we to be concerned if our Sunday school or small group leader does not have a regular spiritual discipline of prayer and Bible reading?
· Should we nominate persons to key leadership positions who do not tithe or at least give proportionally and are committed to stepping toward a tithe?
· Is our children’s ministry a success if it is growing and children are having fun, but not learning to become life-long followers of Jesus Christ?
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence