THE CHURCH AS A DISCIPLING COMMUNITY

Presented at Vision Columbia, a church plant in Lancaster PA
January 14, 2012

One of the fundamental challenges the church faces in the United States today I believe, is faithfully carrying out the dual calling to be both a dispenser of God’s grace as well as to develop a community of disciples of Jesus whose lives tell and embody God’s Good News in the world.
The church is seen at its best in this context when it is perceived as a Compassionate and Caring community that demands nothing from the people it cares for. Caring compassionately while also demanding behavior that is consistent with the church’s story of redemption, a sort of “go and sin no more” approach that we find in Jesus is where the tension is located.
But from the popular perception in the larger culture, any attempt to demand certain conformity to the ethos of the community seem to contradict the very notion of church as a compassionate and caring community. As a result the care the church gives, while often excellent and compassionate, lacks the rationale to build the church as a community that tells and embodies the Good News of God’s kingdom, a community of character. This, I believe is the challenge of discipleship.
Given this reality, it is not surprising that by and large the church has adopted the consumer mentality of pandering to the needs of the people much more than helping to form them by challenging them to be a disciplined people. Therefore any suggestion that being a member of a church requires that people be transformed by opening their lives to some kinds of discipline is almost impossible. But this is the purpose the church exists in the world, to be an alternative community of disciples.
Studies show that churches that are characterized simply by compassion and care are no longer able to retain membership, especially that of their children or younger generations, whereas churches that demand moral conformity and/or discipline and consider them their primary focus continue to grow. Why is this the case?

It might help us to define the church at this point as we continue to reflect on discipleship. The church is a countercultural community of discipleship charged with corporate obedience to Christ’s commission. In it’s corporate life, the community embodies an alternative order that stands as a sign of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Thus, the church should be considered as a social manifestation of God’s people mandated by God to embody God’s healing and redemptive purpose for the entire creation (Eph. 3:10; 1 Pet. 2:9)

Biblically speaking, Salvation is never simply a “me-and-Jesus solo-relationship”, rather it is an invitation into a discipleship community; not only is God saving individuals, but he also is forming a people. Author Greg Ogden writes, “Our identity as believers is found and shaped in community. In the church our individual identity is maintained, yet at the same time we don’t have an individual identity apart from the church…The Christian life is inherently communal. The church has allowed the trend toward privatized faith to undermine the tight-knit community that is needed if disciples are to be formed.”
The Apostle Paul presents it so well,
“Present your bodies (plural), as a living sacrifice (singular), holy and well pleasing to God.. And do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” From this passage, we can say that the body of Christ, in its corporate life, is called to embody an alternative social order that stands as a sign of God’s redemption of God’s creation
Those who form this body must now no longer live in conformity to the old Adamic age (Gen. 3) but must walk in the newness of life by being transformed according to the pattern of Christ, the first born among many. Those who are in Christ must be conformed to his life having their minds renewed by the Holy Spirit so that they are able to discern God’s will, his good, acceptable and perfect will for them (Romans 12:1-2).

Implications for Discipleship:
When our minds are renewed, we are able to think straight, instead of the twisted thinking that the world forces upon us, and act accordingly. Through the gracious power of God, those whose minds Christ has captured and made new are changed in such a way that their lives conform not to the world in which they now live but to the will of God.
A renewed mind does not have an exaggerated sense of its own importance, but instead it assesses itself constantly and considers views itself in proportion to the faith or faithfulness that God has assigned. A renewed mind also does not see itself as an isolated individual around which the world revolves but rather as part of a larger community of disciples with needs that are mutually met by others.

Possible Ways to shape new disciples:
-Call and demonstrate for them a Christ-centered life (the greatest commandment- Matt. 22:37-40)
-Demonstrate and teach them what it means to live in the world as a resident-alien, not conforming to the world and its standards even if such a move means persecution and hardship.
-Lead them by serving them as Jesus demonstrated to the disciples (John 13)
-Show them that you take the bible seriously as God’s word and the authority in matters of faith and life
–Constantly talk about the church as a discipling community and live as such
-Create both invitational and practical paths of discipleship (small groups etc)
-Be hospitable communities that accept people as they are before demanding that they shape up first or even believe right first.
-Engage them in formational practices such as foot washing, breaking of bread, scripture reading, worship, prayer etc
-Be willing to be stretched beyond your comfort zone
-Be willing and vulnerable to share our stories with them as well
-Eat and fellowship with them
-Share the gospel message and provide opportunity to engage and respond to the message in non-intimidating format e.g. around the tables in smaller groups

Final Thoughts:
• The church must continue the dual role of both caring compassionately for people while at the same time calling people to live as a community of disciples that engages in practices, which helps them to develops their spiritual muscles to live as disciples of Jesus who are capable of living out their faith in this strange world.
• We must be willing to do ministry from the margins of society as a minority instead of from the center as our Anabaptist forbearers did. Our minority position ought to lead us to creativity rather than restrict our ministry. We must adapt and find ways to be relevant without watering down the Good News.
• We need to continue the practice of reading scripture together, “dwelling in the word.” This practice enables all of us to be encountered by the Scriptures in transformational ways with the gathered community.
• Our sense of superiority as Christians needs to be deconstructed because we are all sinners constantly needing God’s grace and the journey of discipleship never ends until the Lord comes to finally make all things right.
*Abide in the vine because apart from him we can do nothing (Jn. 15:4-5)
(Some of my thinking in this presentation was informed by
Richard B. Hayes’s reflection on the church as well as
Stanley Hauerwas’s reflection of the nature of the church)

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