For many years the Church has been conversing about what discipleship should look like. These conversations only buttress the truth that proper discipleship strikes at the heart of the Christian faith. Without proper discipleship, our faith is deformed. It turns into a circus, social club, dead “orthodoxy,” or worse. In my estimation, the church has overcomplicated matters. We must return to the ancient, tested, and biblical forms and enjoy liberty in the cultural expressions of these forms. Here are four essential forms for cultivating disciples.
1. Retell the Story
Storytelling has always been foundational to the Christian faith. In the Old Testament, God rescues Israel from Egypt in dramatic fashion. He could’ve entered Egypt day one and rescued His people in a variety of ways, but He didn’t. He chose to do it with plagues. He chose an angel of death. He chose to part the Red Sea. He chose the desert. Then after these chapters in His grand story of redemption, God gives His people a gracious law and as He gives it he keeps using phrases like “Do this because I redeemed you from slavery” or “When you teach your children, remind them of how I brought you out of Egypt.” Story was essential for the faith of His people. When they rejected God as their God, it was because they forgot where they came from.
In the New Testament, Jesus enters the promised land where His people are again under captivity. He comes preaching the kingdom—which includes freedom from slavery. But this freedom was not the kind people thought He would bring. He brought freedom from the body of sin. Freedom that can never be taken away. So Jesus lives, dies, rises, and ascends to heaven. Many years thereafter the primitive New Testament church was versed in the oral re-telling of the stories of Jesus’ life. Can you blame them? The majority to start were Jews who were used to re-telling stories as a way of life. We of course know that within a century we have what is now know as New Testament. But stories of Jesus were essential for maturing disciples within the covenant community. It should be no different in the church today—except now we have a sure foundation in the written Word. Do not neglect re-telling the story of our redemption in every square inch of life.
2. Church Gathered (Gospel Received)
Disciples must be made within the covenant community. The Church gathered is where God calls his people to hear His Word—sung, read, preached, eaten, and sent. It is where the one story intersects with people from every nation. This is the place where wounds are healed, friendships formed, and charity born. It is where God speaks. If these are missed than fundamentally Christian disciples cannot be cultivated. It happens in the church before the face of God and part of that speaking is Him sending out.
3. Church Scattered (Missio Dei)
God does not keep His Church gathered, but scatters her among the nations. He sends her out as light into darkness—on mission to make disciples. She goes out to “teach all nations,” to work as His image bearers, and to be fruitful and multiply. Without this fundamental sending, the Church insulates herself and burns herself—a light under a bush sets the bush on fire. Many of the cultural deformations the American church faces, for instance, are a result of her failure to go out and be fruitful and multiply. We have lost our doctrine of marriage, sex, and family and when the light fades, is it any surprise that darkness advances? Family is where discipleship starts and when that falters the other spheres of disciple making will falter as well.
There’s also something to be said for community in this scattering. We are not scattered alone. We are scattered together as a living body. This is not inconsequential. Community is necessary for our mission in the world. We need each other to survive and when we forget that we place ourselves in peril.
4. Family Worship (Liturgy for Life)
Families must imitate the liturgy of the Church in the way it worships from morning to night and specifically in its set aside times of worship. If the Church gathered misfires in her liturgy, is it any wonder that the Christian family misfires? We have a skewed liturgy in many churches and little to no worship in many Christian families. Families must retell the story from Genesis to Revelation. They must read, pray, sing, and eat together. This is what A Household Gospel is all about.
Disciples are born out of the Word—told as story, rehearsed as we are gathered, shared as we are scattered as a community, and lived out in our homes. When one of these piston misfires the engine malfunctions. However, I have confidence that in the Church: We are not those who shrink back. Even when we are faithless, God is faithful. Thomas Oden says, “The providential reason God allows heresy among the faithful, according to the ancient Christian writers, is to challenge the worshiping community to correct its exaggerations so as to bring it back into the balanced consensus” (A Change of Heart 165). Maybe in God’s providence He has allowed misguided methods of discipleship to bring us back to the tried and true methods. God the Father and King Jesus have sent the Spirit to build his Church—and He will build. Work faithfully in ordinary ways with ordinary means. No exaggerations needed.
Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the project manager for the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.