I started to talk, think and pray about the subject of discipleship in the mid-1970s, and have continued this exploration ever since. I was convinced then, and am even more convinced now, that discipleship is the central challenge facing the Christian Church in the Western world.
Jesus commands us very clearly: make disciples (Matthew 28:19). But we can't do it. I cannot make anyone a disciple, any more than I can heal anyone.
I cannot make you a disciple: you have to choose it. What I can do is encourage you, and offer you a good example. Now that's a challenge ...
Discipleship has got a bad name in some circles, with stories of 'heavy shepherding'. This is not what Jesus had in mind.
We do need to recognise that the human temptation for any leader is to give the followers enough to demonstrate the leader's superiority without giving enough to enable the people to do the job themselves; to use teaching to reinforce the status quo rather than enabling change. Paul teaches us that the purpose of every ministry is to do yourself out of a job, but we rarely see this lived out in practice.
We are sinful creatures: we can twist, distort and mis-use anything, no matter how good it is. But the possibility of mis-use does not justify us ignoring it. If we are not very good at following the Biblical pattern of discipleship, we need to learn to do it better.
When Jesus told us to 'make disciples', He was telling us to adopt the Hebrew Rabbi-Disciple pattern, not the Greek Teacher-Student pattern. Despite this, the Church adopted the Greek model of education early on, and has rarely questioned this choice or the consequences of it.
In the Greek model, the learner decides what he wants to learn, and pays to attend the appropriate lessons being delivered by a qualified teacher. The teacher will generally teach anyone who is willing to pay.
In the Greek model, the learner attends lessons taught by the teacher.
In the Hebrew model, the disciple decides who he wants to learn from - who he wants to become like. (Sorry about the sexist language, but I think it is appropriate, given the historic context.) It is about character, not content; aboout relationship, not lessons. The disciple chooses the Rabbi, but then the Rabbi has to accept the disciple. It is a mutual choice, a mutual decision, a mutual commitment.
In the Hebrew model, the disciple spends as much time as possible with the Rabbi, observing the Rabbi's life and getting involved in the Rabbi's work. This involves living near, and sometimes with, the Rabbi. We see this model being lived out in the lives of Jesus and His disciples.
The aim of discipleship is maturity: the disciple learns to become like the Rabbi, which enables them to live as a mature person. Maturity, in this context, has a number of characteristics, including the following:
Discipleship doesn't start with a church leader deciding to create a plan or programme: it starts when I recognise that I need to learn, to grow in my faith, and I can't do it alone.
Discipleship is the job of the community, not an individual: it takes a village to raise a child.
Discipleship is voluntary, not imposed.
Discipleship is about all of life, not a few religious aspects.
Discipleship is more about developing good character and good judgement than about learning rules and principles; but the rules and principles are an essential part of getting there.
Discipleship is a journey, not a destination: we do not know where it will lead, but we trust that where God leads us will be good.