Jesus said in Matthew 10v16: “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.”
How should individual Christian disciples react in regards to a life of Discipleship in an age where church attendance is rapidly declining? It is by being a radical community of radical individuals, which will help stop this decline. The Church needs Christian disciples to be living a radical Discipleship, engaging with the culture, counting the cost of Discipleship and reflecting true humanity while not compromising core beliefs.
Firstly, the church needs to be a community that is seen to be radical by the surrounding society. At Pentecost, the church began when the Holy Spirit filled the Disciples (Acts 2v4). This momentous occasion started the Discipleship process of how Christians were to live as God’s people. The hallmarks of this community were commitment and transformation. This community was radical. It was where people’s lives were being changed as the Holy Spirit filled them. Instead of being a withdrawn people filled with fear of retribution from the Roman government and Jewish leaders, they became a people filled with boldness and joy. The New Testament church grew by being a radical community imbued with radical individuals engaging with others.
Today’s church will grow by building a strong community. A community which involves joining together isolated and solitary individuals where people are imbued with love, showing care to each other, particularly the frail, elderly and young, with what Moltmann calls a “creative passion for the impossible.” An inherent human need is the need to belong, and by fulfilling relational needs, the radical community will become relevant to the people within it. It will then also become relevant to those who are on the outside and looking in.
This involves improving present societal conditions, rather than remaining a conservative community, which merely repairs the status quo. In doing this, today’s church will be emulating characteristics of the early church (Acts 2v44-45). As individuals became Christian disciples, they were added to the church. Discipline helped ensure that the community was being seen as a holy community. To be excommunicated from the community for gross sin was a severe punishment. However church discipline is not primarily about punishment, but rather a “formative and corrective” service as part of Discipleship. Church discipline is foundational to Discipleship making, because it concerns the community’s spiritual health, and strengthens the community bonds.
The church must be a community of Disciples, willing to be holy. It is by being holy, that the church will grow. The role of the community engaged in radical Christian Discipleship is to help people to be holy and not merely happy. Happiness will flow from holiness, but holiness will not necessarily flow from an induced ‘feel good factor’. The radical community needs to be making Christian Disciples who are trained, equipped and developed in order for them to make Disciples themselves. Whereas in the past, Discipleship processes and programmes have emerged after people have joined the church, it should be foundational. The best way is for the leadership to set the example, and show a way forward. Good leadership has good accountability to each other and to the whole community.
Radical Discipleship & Radical Leadership
A radical community requires radical discipleship. Radical discipleship commences with compassion, similar to that of Jesus when he looked over the crowds, and commented that they were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9v36). It should be a compassion driven like that of Jesus towards the woman at the well (John 4vv1-26). With compassion as motivation, and a contrite heart, the radical church community can reach out to those emerging who primarily see Jesus and the church as irrelevance.
A radical Christian Disciple needs also to involve the voices of others by engaging in dialogue with trusted others. This will involve having a diverse team in the Church who are both willing and empowered to give advice. This team will require an individual leader to have relaxed grip on control, with power delegated to others, which is radical in that it goes against current strains of leadership.
This radical leadership style requires a pursuit of relationship in order to work, rather than a pursuit of aims and outcomes. This will enable trust to form and helps establish the community on a firm relational foundation. Once relationship has been formed, then the spiritual gifts of the Christian disciple can be used in order to serve the community. By exercising gifts and being functional enables the Christian Disciple to grow, be used by God and to flourish with confidence and support. Radical leadership and radical Christian Discipleship encourage the fringe members.
Finally, Jesus recommends that Christian disciples be wise like serpent and innocent as doves (Matthew 10v16b). The means Christian Disciples are to be skilful and shrewd in making decisions that are characterised by intelligence, patience and cunning. Additionally, Christian Disciples are to be gentle and harmless, like doves. This would make Christian Disciples and leaders who are accountable to live a life of integrity worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1v27). This is a life, which is seen to be as holy and blameless. In order to do this, dependence on the Holy Spirit for strength and care is a vital necessity. By relying on the Holy Spirit, the Christian Disciple is perpetually connected to Jesus Christ, who is after all, the Head of the church community.
The Christian Disciple is to be a shepherd leader rather than a manager, so that guidance and nurture are central, rather than merely feeding the community. A Christian Disciple who cares and loves is one who goes out to find the lost rather than waiting for the lost to come. This shepherd is also involved in the training of other Christian Disciples so that care is disseminated. This does not mean however that a radical Christian Disciple leader becomes a subordinate to the community, catering to every whim and fad suggested by others. The Christian Disciple leader needs be a servant but also requires discernment.
Discipleship at most churches these days is organized around their programmes of small groups, Sunday services, prayer groups, leadership group and opportunities to serve. Discipleship in these churches usually involves some form of leadership accountability in four key areas: Mission, Maturity, Outreach and Leadership. Mission involves helping people become Christian and nurturing their faith diligently. If Western churches and Christian disciples started to take radical steps, both in being and making Christian Disciples, then growth would systematically increase. The Church would no longer be seen as irrelevant but as a thriving community where Jesus is glorified and transformation sought.
For more to think about please do read Acts 2v42-47. Ask yourself the following questions, writing them down if you can, and see how you respond or react to them. Then why not share your answers with your spouse or a close friend, so that you can pray over any issues together.
Q1. How, and in what ways, were the early church community creative?
Q2. What creative ways can I serve the community I live and work in?
Q3. How can I help my church be more relevant in the community, without compromising?