Reclaiming Loaded Words: Discipleship and Evangelism

The church in Canada exists in a changed world, a society that is increasingly secular, with many “Nones” (no religious affiliation); “Dones” (who have a church background, but are no longer interested); “SBNRs” (Spiritual But Not Religious); and those who are fervently atheist, anti-religion (Richard Dawkins et al). We are a “sideline denomination”—small, and on the margins. In many ways there are parallels to the life of the early church, and we might do well to take a deeper look at the book of Acts.

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Given this context, I want to lift up two very traditional Christian words in a three-part blog post: discipleship and evangelism, which I think might help us as we explore again who we are and what we are about. Now, I realize that these are “loaded” words, in part because they seem to be defined and used by particular branches of the Christian family, and understood by the public, in ways that make us uncomfortable. On those occasions when I do talk about my faith in non-church settings, I am usually quick to say, “But I’m not that kind of Christian.” I have friends in the LGBTQ community who say it’s easier to come out as gay or lesbian than it is to come out as a Christian. I wonder if you have sometimes felt the same way? I wonder how we might reclaim our Christian language? So let me offer a few random thoughts about discipleship:

  • Discipleship is a journey; it takes time. A couple of phrases offered by colleagues: “Discipleship takes me on a journey I wouldn’t take alone.” “Discipleship is a long journey of obedience in the same direction.”
  • Discipleship is entering into a deepening and widening relationship with Christ, with God. It’s an apprenticeship, discovering what it means to follow Jesus; it actually requires discipline (perhaps parallel to the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at any serious activity).
  • I want to talk about the joy of being a disciple, which isn’t the same as being successful, prosperous or even happy; it goes far deeper than that. I want to avoid the stereotypes of straight-laced, no-fun discipleship as a burden, with a guilt load. I want to laugh as I imagine Jesus laughing – it’s all about new, transformed and abundant life.
  • At the same time, I want to talk about the cost of discipleship – about this being a way of life which in today’s Western world is counter-cultural, which sometimes calls for sacrifice, and makes me uncomfortable, at dis-ease… and that’s not a bad thing.
  • I have encountered some congregations who have determined that their central mission is to nurture and grow disciples. There is a willingness to welcome people wherever they are in their journey – no barriers. And, there is the recognition that many people have no Christian background or memory, and so education, formation, even catechism need to be available. There is an invitational intentionality in helping people begin the journey, to explore and go deeper. An interesting book, Bullseye: Aiming to Follow Jesus by Jamie Holtom and Debbie Johnson has emerged from the ministry at North Bramalea United Church in Brampton, Ontario. It names six markers for disciples: Using Spiritual Practices; Worshipping Together Weekly; Discovering Authentic Community; Serving; Giving Generously; Sharing Christ. (See the Bullseye video playlist for Debbie and Jamie’s short reflections on each marker.)
  • I know that discipleship needs community, where one can find support and encouragement for the journey; where one can practice, and perhaps, in love, be held accountable; where there is an acceptance of diversity, and a lot of love and forgiveness; where there are mentors, and people whose lives model what the journey might look like.
  • Discipleship is all about being shaped, formed, re-made by the Spirit. Sure, there is work that I must do… a decision to follow, to persevere, to practice, to risk… but it’s ultimately all about grace. As St. Augustine said: “Without God we cannot; without us, God will not.”

So, as we journey together on this prayer pilgrimage to Corner Brook, I invite you to ponder what it means for you to be a disciple. And what does it mean to nurture and grow disciples as part of your congregation’s mission? Is this a conversation that matters?

Art: Cassandra F, First United Church, Fort Saskatchewan, AB. The United Church of Canada.

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