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Discipleship as Formational and Missional

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, July 3, 2009

Part 7 of series: Missional and Formational?
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In my last post I showed that formational and missional realities were both present in Jesus’ own ministry, as he took time away from the crowds to pray, and these sessions of prayer guided Jesus in his mission.

One such pray time occurred just prior to Jesus’ selection of his key disciples. According to Luke,

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles (Luke 6:12-13)

Don’t you wish you could have listened in on that prayer session? I do. I wonder what Jesus talked about with his Heavenly Father. Surely a substantial chunk of their conversation had to do with those whom Jesus should choose as his disciples.

The Disciple’s Job Description

In Mark’s description of this sequence of events, he does not mention that Jesus prayed before selecting his followers. But Mark does add a telling description of the job description of a disciple:

He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)

What is the substance of the disciple’s job description? It has three elements, according to Mark’s description:

1. Be with Jesus.
2. Proclaim the message (of the kingdom of God).
3. Have authority to cast out demons.

Two of these elements are missional: proclaiming and casting out demons. One is essentially relational and formational: being with Jesus.

Mark is spelling out here what would have been intuitive to Jews at the time of Jesus. Disciples were apprentices who learned in relationship with a master. There was no learning apart from relationship, no growth in mastery except as passed on personally from the master to the disciple. So it was for those who would follow Jesus. They would learn to participate in his mission as they were with him.

Notice that the formational aspect of discipleship was essentially relational. The same is true for those of us who are disciples of Jesus today. We are formed, not by our own efforts, but through our relationship with God. As we spend time with him, in prayer and Bible study, in quiet and celebration, in solitude and in community with other disciples, we are shaped so that we might join him in his mission. For those of us who are more action oriented in our discipleship, we must remember that the core of our job description includes being with Jesus. Formation is essential for mission.

The Call to Discple-Making

Even as Jesus called people to be his disciples, so, after his resurrection, he sent these people out to make more disciples. In the classic statement of the Great Commission we read:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

In the original Greek of this text, the imperative “go” is actually a participle that is related to the main verb “make disciples” (28:19). The phrase could be literally translated, “Going, therefore, make disciples of all nations.” Of course, in context, the disciples would have to go away from the mountain in Galilee if they were going to make disciples of all nations. But the chief point wasn’t the going, but the disciple-making. (Photo: A painting by Duccio of “Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee” 1308-1311.)

Of course the disciples of Jesus faced several challenges that Jesus himself didn’t have to overcome. They were to make apprentices, not of themselves, but of Jesus. Yet they were to be the agents of apprenticeship. Thus, they would draw people into relationship with themselves so that the new disciples might “be with Jesus” and learn to do his mission.

Discipleship, therefore, has an essential formational element. All disciples of Jesus in all centuries are to be with Jesus, in part by being with the community of his other disciples. Formation in the church has to do, not only with the shaping of individuals, but also with the forming of communities that engage in the mission of Jesus. Moreover, mature disciples are to teach new disciples “to obey everything” that Jesus commanded his first disciples, including making more disciples. So discipleship also has an essential missional element in addition to an essential formational element. Formational and missional are inseparable in true discipleship of Jesus. Both are also quintessentially relational. Disciples are related to Jesus, to other disciples, and then to those they have been sent to reach with the good news of the kingdom.

If we focus on discipleship, understanding it as a kind of apprenticeship, then we will avoid the apparent tension between formational and missional. I have been in discussions with church leaders who argue about whether the church should focus on educational or evangelism. But when we see Christian education as discipleship, then the evangelistic component is built in. We are to educate our people to be disciples who have been trained to make other disciples, in part by sharing the good news.

A focus on discipleship also avoids the ostensible conflict between the relational and missional dimensions of church life. When I was Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, we began to be more intentionally a church that accepted our identity as missional church. We knew we had been placed in Irvine, not just for ourselves, but for others. This was troubling to some members of the church, who feared that their needs would be forgotten in this missional emphasis. But they failed to grasp the extent to which the relationship is an essential dimension of Christian mission. A missional church isn’t just, or even mainly, a church that does outreach programs. Rather, it is a church that is bound together by the Spirit as a community of discipleship. Members are related first to God and then to each other in Christ. These relationships, when rightly understood, are not just for the benefit of those who enjoy them. They are also a primary platform for mission. Disciples in relationship with each other reach out to draw others into the community of disciples. That’s what Christian mission is all about.

So, we would be well-served if we focused on discipleship, not only because this was Jesus’ final marching order for his church, but also because discipleship weaves together the formational, relational, and missional aspects of church life.

Topics: Missional and Formational |


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