Many years ago the Whole People of God Sunday School Curriculum had a song called Who Is a Disciple? (JimStrathdee ©1991). The opening lines said:
Who is a disciple? Look and you will see
Those who follow Jesus, learning what to be.
And the chorus was:
Jesus, Jesus, teach me how to be
a disciple of your love for all the world to see.
The verses told of various folk from the Christian Scriptures who had chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, who became disciples.
Almost 200 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus a (or maybe the) primary task of the church is to grow and nurture disciples. Our task is not to offer spectacular worship, or to have grand theological discussions, though both of those can be key pieces of growing and nurturing disciples. The primary task of the church is not even to support those in need, though both Jewish and Christian Scripture name that as an important part of what it means to be a community of faith. The task is to recruit and train new followers, with the expectation that people whose lives have been transformed by encountering God will then do things like help to support those in need.
What does it mean to be a disciple? A disciple is a follower, a learner. A disciple is one who follows the teachings and philosophy of a teacher. In Christian terms a disciple is one who follows the teachings of Christ, who opens themself to be transformed by an encounter with the Living God and the Resurrected Christ. A disciple is someone whose life has been changed, whose priorities have been altered to put God’s plan ahead of their own. A disciple is someone who tries constantly to answer the question “what would Jesus have me do?” before acting. A disciple is one who keeps learning and exploring, going deeper in faith as time goes by.
In my experience, I am not sure how good a job the church, particularly the United Church, is at creating and nurturing disciples. Sometimes what we do works really well. Sometimes it doesn’t.
The practice for a few generations has been that discipleship was a function of Sunday School and Youth Group, culminating in Confirmation. Those things, it was thought/hoped would give the foundation for a life of faith. In fact, for a few decades now, Confirmation seemed to have become seen as graduation from Sunday School (and often from the church) instead of a step along a continuing life of faith. At the same time, we are now in a Canada where there are whole generations of folk with no church background. When these folk find themselves drawn to the church we have a duty to find a way to bring them into the path of discipleship.
What to do?
There are likely many answers – all of which are elusive. If I had a way to keep young people interested and engaged in church life I could probably retire from the book proceeds. However I think that we have a duty, if we think being part of a faith community is an important thing, to work on that. There are plans afoot for a teen confirmation program this spring, and I hope we can talk about the “what happens after confirmation” piece.
But discipleship is an ongoing thing. And to provide a place where we can continue to explore what it means to be a disciple I am offering a study group called Immersion: Investing in God’s World. This is an 8-sesssion study developed by a couple of United Church ministers in BC. It leads us through some basics of Christian theology in the first few sessions and then Part 2 leads in discussions of what discipleship could look like in the 21st century church. This study will be on Wednesday evenings at 7:00 starting mid February. Please let me know if you are interested so I know how many copies of the resource book to order.