Some Elements of Discipleship in Christian Community
– by Bob Tedesco
In our network of communities in the Sword of the Spirit we have an “Entering Formations Seminar.” The third presentation in that series is titled “Elements of Discipleship.” It deals mainly with men’s and women’s small groups, keys to making them work well, working with a pastoral leader and getting the most out of pastoral care.
This article covers some elements of Christian discipleship, the ones that I have chosen to highlight in an effort to give a “snapshot of discipleship” in our approaches. There are other approaches and we know that there are many disciples of Christ in congregations, parishes and groups around us. We think that our approach has something to offer the broader church, and we continue to learn and refine.
Most folks who are drawn to Christian community wrestle with the decision to become a member … a big question. But really, who would not want to join a pleasant social group with good people and membership “perks” as well? In many ways, the decision for discipleship is really the question. Discipleship is a discipline, and the Lord wants to train us, and form us to be effective in mission, a good brother or sister, as we take on more of his character and nature. We rightly wrestle with the cost of discipleship, and there is a cost.
“He went out beside the sea, the crowd gathered around him and he taught them. And as he passed on he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax office and he said to him, “follow me.” And he rose and followed him.” – Mark 2: 13-14
The call is, “Come follow me.” The best response is to stand up and follow the Lord Jesus. I is likely that the biblical examples had some preconditioning and earlier exposure to Jesus. It is unlikely that a stranger would walk by a person and say, “Come follow me”, and get a good response.
There are at least two broad difficulties with the call: 1) the cost (mentioned earlier), and 2) the call is no longer from a physical Jesus, but it is a call that we experience internally. How are we to respond? Who gets to say what “Follow me” means?
The right response to “Follow me”, has a wide range of expressions across the broad spectrum of Christianity. On the one end you have parishes and congregations that have some form of initiation (usually with children) and then the adult is left to personally discern where the Lord is leading and to respond as an individual. On the other end of the spectrum would be a religious order with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Together they follow the Lord, often with some form of leadership council that discerns where the Lord is leading.
Between those poles of discernment, are many different approaches: movements, prayer groups, communities, settlements (Amish, Bruderhoff, Menonites), etc. In the Sword of the Spirit communities we are called as a people, we follow the Lord together, and we struggle to have our personal lives and families be subordinate to that decision to follow the Lord together. We get pastoral help and assistance in living out that decision. So, you can say that the threshold of community is the step into corporate discernment for our lives. In our experience, it’s safer and bears more fruit for the kingdom of God.
Community and Discipleship
In the “good old days” we were often trying to build community with some folks who had not yet decided to be disciples. Some embraced community but not discipleship. We were often at crossed-purposes and it was two steps forward and one step back.
The experience of entering into a relationship with the Lord should result in: discipleship, community and mission.
Discipleship is a new way of life, different from the world and many Christian models.
Some Elements of Discipleship
Again, these will be some of the elements, not necessarily the most important and not in any particular order. These particular elements need to be occasionally emphasized and they can drift into indifference or misuse. The key word or phrase will be italicized for those who desire shorter lists.
Teaching: Take your initiations courses seriously. We are not just getting our card punched, but topics of value to a disciple are being explained.
Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” John 13:7
Training: Receive pastoral care and input about the application of teaching whether initiations courses or at the gatherings. The real life experience of trying to live a new way of life as presented in the teaching needs to be reflected upon, improved and perhaps re-learned for each stage of life.
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. John 13: 17
Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me he will keep my word and my father will love him, and we will come and make our home with him. John 14:23
You are my friends if you do what I command you. John 15:14
Support: We should attend our small group faithfully and get support, encouragement and correction to help our personal lives conform to scriptural teaching.
*As a disciple of Christ in Christian community, when you choose a spouse, you choose family, children, extended family, small groups, shared purposes. When we choose to be the spouse of Jesus…
Body life: Regularly attending community gatherings, retreats and conferences faithfully is a key element of our corporate life together as a people. We come together to corporately hear the Lord speak to the wider body and get a more complete view of what the Lord intends for our people.
Tithing: We practice tithing in the Sword of the Spirit with some kind of split between our community and our denominational body. Perhaps more importantly, we teach an approach to our finances which supports certain financial practices such as tithing, almsgiving, supporting our outreaches, and generosity.
“The Lord says, ‘Put me to the test if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour down for you overflowing blessing.’” Mal. 3:10
And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasure. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “ Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty ahs out in everything she had, her whole living. Mark 12: 41-44
Service: Do some service for the Christian body (or bodies) that you are a part of. Each member should be making some substantial contribution of service (time) to our mission.
Spiritual life: Prayer, scripture study, fasting and spiritual reading are all a part of our spiritual life. We should have a plan for all of these: personal prayer, family prayer, scripture study, etc.
Corporate discernment: As mentioned earlier, depending on the body that you are in, discernment of life’s path and decisions can fall somewhere between, “Do as you see fit,” and the vow of obedience. Most folks that are in some kind of community will get some pastoral input and help with life’s decisions. I’m building a small, two-seat airplane in my garage. I just passed a first preliminary electrical inspection. I would never move on from one stage to the next without a “second set of eyes” signing off on my most recent work. Similarly, life’s decisions, which can affect my near or long-term future, can benefit from a second set of older or wiser eyes.
A Few Purposes of Discipleship to Prepare for Life in the Body of Christ
We are probably well acquainted with life in our part of the world, but Christianity is a new way of living. If relationships are closer, as in a community, the need for training in how to apply scriptural principles in a modern setting is even more important. In general, high exposure, close relationships as in a family or some sort of Christian living situation, requires more clarity as to expectations and responses to various situations.
To Grow in Commitment to the Body of Christ and its Mission
A young couple entering into marriage makes a few general vows at the ceremony. Most of us would agree that many other commitments are implied but never mentioned. We don’t normally promise to come home each night, or to have meals together or to share a common “purse”. These are implied. When we give our lives to Christ, certain commitments are implied and one purpose of discipleship is to help us to understand what it means to be a committed member. One of our members lost his job as a manager in a company that was cutting back on its way to eventually shutting down. In his search for another job, he had options that required him to move to another city. Yet, he was committed to this body and to this mission. He was out of work for quite awhile before he took la lower paying job so that he could stay in this body. That’s inspiring commitment!
To Learn to Love the Lord on His Terms
The earliest stage of Christianity is rightly a celebration of our new life in Christ. We celebrate his mercy and forgiveness. We go from brokenness to being a new creation. We love the Lord for what he has done for us. Eventually, we begin to wonder what he requires for us beyond, “Sin no more.” Slowly, he trains us and reveals how he wants to use us in his body. He intends for us to be useful and to bear fruit.
To Give Glory to the Lord by Modeling the Relationship
The world needs to see people living in relationship with the Lord. The world needs to see Christian marriages. I call this ‘prophetic’ modeling. It’s almost as if the Lord is speaking to the world through good Christian lives and good Christian marriages.
To Learn to Make Decisions for the Kingdom of God
Once we have made a decision for the kingdom of God, discipleship helps us to make smaller decisions that support that decision. Just as Gulliver was held down by tiny strings, our decision to be set apart (holy) for the Lord can be paralyzed by many smaller, selfish (unholy) decisions.
To Grow from Being Selfish to Selfless
As an older person (76 is the new 75!) I think that one way of describing the Christian life is this: we are born totally selfish where only our food and comfort are important. If we progress well under the influence of parents, family, teachers, etc., we slowly grow through stages of empathy, compassion, etc., to where the needs of others grow in importance. So, we progress from being almost totally selfish to being purified into an other-centered life. Jesus on the Cross is the perfect example and symbol of a life well-lived. When we embrace the Cross, we embrace the path to other-centered living…and discipleship helps us with that.
To Grow in Love for the People of God
Whatever body we are a part of, discipleship helps us to grow in love for the people we are a part of. Not just fuzzy, warm feelings kind of love, but committed love, faithful love, loyal love that endures hard times.
Bob Tedesco is past President of the North American Region of the Sword of the Spirit. He is a founder of the People of God community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, and has been one of its key leaders for the past 45 years. Taken from Living Bulwark, August/September, 2018 issue. Used with permission.