Alison Morgan, of ReSource, a Church of England charity dedicated to serving the church in renewal and mission, gave this challenging and inspiring talk at Anglicans Ablaze on 4 October 2012
Committed to God’s mission - Living as disciples of Jesus
Good morning! This is my first visit to South Africa, and I am very glad to be with you.
About 10 years ago I did something which changed my life. I prayed a prayer. I had been a university lecturer and I had been ordained as an Anglican minister, but then I had had three children, and my daily life was about being a wife and mother. And as the children became more independent I was feeling I wanted to do more than I was doing. So I prayed the prayer of Jabez. Jabez was a descendent of Jacob, and all we know about him is that he prayed this prayer. Nothing else. It’s in 1 Chronicles 4 and it goes like this: “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” I prayed that prayer each day for several months. And then one day God spoke to me. He showed me an eagle in the sky, and he said You are down there on the ground. Are you ready to fly up here with me? I’d no idea what he meant, but I remembered my prayer and so I said yes I was. It turned out he meant two things – was I willing to try and see the world as he sees it, to help him speak his word to his people; and was I willing to be sent to new places in order to do that. Well, I’ve now been to so many places and crossed so many borders that I need extra pages in my passport, and here I am in South Africa! You have to be careful what you pray…
I start with that because we are talking this morning about mission. The word mission isn’t actually a word we find much in the Bible. We use it as a kind of summary word, a word which sums up a concept which we do find there. It’s a Latin word, and it just means being sent.
When a person meets Jesus, two things happen. First of all we are called to come to him and to be with him. This is what happened to the first disciples, recruited one by one to leave their normal occupations and travel with Jesus. But for each one of them there was then a second moment, a moment not of calling but of sending. The same is true today. For us, commitment to Jesus means both being called and being sent. Calling, and sending. Coming, and going.
We can watch this pattern unfold in Luke’s gospel. In Luke chapter 5 we see Jesus calling the first 12 disciples, inviting them to come. By chapter 9 he is sending them out, telling them to go. In chapter 10 he calls 70 more disciples, and then he sends them too. Come; go. Come; go. It’s the beginning of a constant process. By the end, in chapter 20, he explains that although he is now going to be with the Father, nothing has changed: 's the Father has sent me, so I send you.' And then he said one more thing. He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ So we are called, we are sent, and we are equipped. And these are the three elements of the ACSA vision statement.
So we are sent. That begs the question, sent to do what? What was Jesus sending these first disciples to do? Well, he was sending them to do exactly the same things that they had seen him doing. So mission isn’t just about going, it’s not just about having the bus ticket or the dusty shoes or the border stamps in your passport, it’s about what you do when you get there. This is how Jesus understood what he was sent to do: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ And this is what he was sending them to do too. He was sending them to do the works that he had done.
So if we are committed to mission, this is what we are committed to. The Anglican Consultative Council has summarised it like this. These are the Five Marks of Mission, five things which we are supposed to do as people who have been sent by Jesus:
1. To proclaim the good news of the kingdom
2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
3. To respond to human need by loving service
4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain the life of the earth
This list is helpful, because it reminds us not to fall into a narrow and incomplete understanding of what it is that Jesus is sending us to do; it helps us maintain the same whole-life understanding of mission that he had. But when Jesus wanted to explain what it was he was sending us to do, he used a different word. We’ve already mentioned it. The word he used was disciple. A disciple is someone who is called by Jesus and then sent to do these things in the name of Jesus – just as the first disciples were. Discipleship is the key to mission; if we get our discipleship right, we will find ourselves doing all these things. They are the natural outcomes of a life of discipleship.
We actually find that this link between discipleship and mission is made in another biblical word. The New Testament usually refers to the followers of Jesus as disciples, but sometimes it refers to them, as Jesus himself did, as apostles. And the word apostle means guess what? It means sent. Mission is what disciples of Jesus do. Let me share with you something said by Bishop Graham Cray, who will be speaking to us later this morning: “Mission will never be effective without authentic discipleship. Discipleship will never be taken seriously unless we engage in mission.”
What is discipleship?
So let’s think a bit more about what it actually means to be a disciple of Jesus. Let’s turn to Matthew 28, and the words of the Great Commission. This is what Jesus said to his disciples as he prepared to return to the Father:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
He actually said make disciples of all people groups, which is especially helpful here in Africa I think – Jesus is looking for disciples not just in every nation, but in every people, every tribe and every community. We are sent to the other side of the world, and we are sent to the people next door.
Now often we tend to see mission and discipleship as different things, different aspects of what we do as followers of Jesus. But I want to challenge that. I think words are a bit like clothes. I come to Africa each year, and people are very kind, and sometimes they give me a shirt made from beautiful Tanzanian or Zambian cotton. Like this one. And I take it home, and I wear it, and I wash it. And often I wear it and I wash it so much that the shirt shrinks or it fades. And gradually it stops looking as good as it did.
Now I think that happens with words too – we wear them and we wash them so many times that they shrink and they fade. And because it happens gradually we don’t even notice. I want to suggest to you that this has happened with the word disciple. When Jesus said go and make disciples, he was talking about something new and big and radical, something profound, something that had never been seen before. And yet often what we are left with after we’ve worn this word disciple, and washed it and passed it down from one generation to another, is something more like this, something shrunk and faded. And what happens? People look at us, and they see this small and faded shirt, and they are not impressed, and they do not come running to join us. Our new clothes have become old clothes. Our discipleship has become less than it should be. Instead of being the core of our identity as people called and sent by the living God, it has become just one of the things we do.
So what is discipleship? What did Jesus mean when he said, go and make disciples? If this word has shrunk and faded, what have we lost? I think two things.
First of all, when we think about discipleship today we tend to think about some form of study. The English word disciple comes from the Latin, disco, which just means to learn. And we know all about learning – for most of us, certainly in the global North but I think here in Africa too, learning means classrooms and colleges. Learning is about understanding, it’s about what we know. So we help people to become disciples of Jesus by inviting them on a study course – perhaps a Bible study programme to start with, then maybe a certificate or diploma in theology.
And yet this is not what Jesus meant by discipleship at all. The biblical word for disciple is not Latin but Greek, and it’s mathetes. Mathetes is not a classroom kind of word – it doesn’t mean student, it means something more like apprentice. Something like this. Christian discipleship is not theoretical, it’s practical. Jesus did not teach his disciples in a classroom, and he did not teach them to engage in theological debate. He taught them, apprenticeship style, to do the things which he did; he taught them how to live and how to minister. And then he told them to teach others to do these things too. So we see him not so much teaching them as training them, in the same practical way he’d been trained to be a carpenter. “Watch me,” he said as he healed the sick, freed the oppressed and offered good news to the poor. Then he said, “You go out now in pairs, try it yourselves, and we’ll go through it when you get back.” Then finally, “I’m off now, and you are to keep on doing this, and teach others to do it too.” Jesus wasn’t training theologians; he was training practitioners. It seems that for Jesus you can’t get to be a disciple by going on a study course. In fact I want to suggest to you that discipleship is not about what you know at all. It’s much bigger than what’s in your head – it’s about your whole life, everything that you are and everything that you do.
So what about our Bible study programmes? Bible study is very important, of course it is; but it is not enough. If we are to make disciples, we must do more than help people study the Word of God. Our task is to get it off the page and into their lives. Like this.
The Bible itself often tells us this. “Don’t read it, eat it,” God said to Ezekiel. “Don’t speak it, live it,” he said to Hosea. “You know what it says, but you have no understanding of its power,” Jesus said to the Pharisees. “The Word of God is living and active,” said the writer to the Hebrews; it is meant to change us and change the people around us. American theologian Dallas Willard puts it like this: ‘there is absolutely no suggestion in the NT that being a disciple consists of reading your Bible and praying regularly.’ It’s much, much bigger than that.
Let me tell you a story, told to me by Isaiah Chambala, now the Bishop of Kiteto in Tanzania. A Christian was living in a village near Arusha – she was the only Christian in the village. She was known for her faith, and one night some people came to her house with a sick girl. No treatment had worked, and they had been told that Christians know how to pray for healing. This woman was an Anglican, a churchgoer, baptised and confirmed – but she had absolutely no idea how to pray for healing. Desperate to help, she did the only thing she knew how to do. She recited the 10 Commandments. Nothing happened. She prayed the Lord’s Prayer. No result. She said the Creed. Still nothing. She reviewed the sacraments, she confessed her sins, she said the grace. The girl was as sick as ever. In frustration she burst into tears; what use was her faith? When eventually she raised her head, the girl had been healed. This experience changed her life. Determined to make her faith effective in practice, the woman joined a discipleship group. Soon she had led the whole family to Christ.
The point, Isaiah says, is this: discipleship is like football – knowing the theory is all very well, but it’s not enough to know the theory, you are supposed to win the game. It’s no use us just knowing stuff in our heads; being a disciple of Jesus was never meant to be about that. It’s about whether we can put it into practice, whether we can live it. Discipleship is not about information. It’s about transformation.
But there’s a second thing I think we have lost too, and this is not the shrinking but the fading. We tend to see discipleship as an individual thing – particularly in the global North, but I think increasingly here too. I have a son and two daughters. They are all at college or university. They chose what to study according to their own interests – Ed is studying engineering, Bethy is studying dance and Katy is studying classical literature. This is good for earning your living, but it is not the right model for discipleship. For Jesus, discipleship was not an individual process but a community one. His disciples didn’t choose a subject or a syllabus, they chose a person; and they learned not as individuals attending classes but as part of a new, living community. Their discipleship was embedded in relationships. For them, discipleship was about leaving their families in order to travel together in community with Jesus. It was about loving one another, learning to recognise one another as brothers and sisters irrespective of background or status. It was about learning not to compete with one another or judge one another. It meant thinking we instead of thinking me. Jesus told them they were meant to be like branches of a vine, people who were conspicuous for the fact that they loved one another. Paul told the Romans, Corinthians and Ephesians that they were no longer individuals but members of one body, the body of Christ. We cannot be disciples alone. We can only be disciples if we are disciples together.
So I’d like to unshrink and unfade our concept of discipleship, and offer you a new definition. Here it is: Discipleship is a form of apprenticeship undertaken in community. To recognise this changes everything. It means that the focus of our discipleship will be not on what we know but on who we are becoming. And we aren’t becoming engineers or dancers or teachers, though all those are good things to be. We are becoming like Jesus, the Son of God, growing into his likeness day by day as we learn to obey him. This is why the first Christian disciples were called Followers of the Way. They were following Jesus. They were going on a journey that no one had ever been on before; and they were going on it together. They were so good at going on it together that people rushed to join them, and the church was born.
In the 2nd century a Roman Christian called Minucius Felix explained it like this: ‘Beauty of life causes strangers to join our ranks; we do not talk about great things; we live them.’ You will be pleased to know that Minucius was African.
So that is why people want to join us. Because we are living in a different way from those around us. Because we have been baptised in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and because Jesus is with us and ministers through us as we commit ourselves to obeying him. Just as Matthew said he would.
I am the Director of a discipleship programme for Africa called Rooted in Jesus. It’s a programme which gathers people into small groups and helps them to become apprentices of Jesus. Group members learn to apply their faith to their whole lives, and to live it out in practical ways, supporting and helping one another as they do so. Intellectually it is not a difficult course – group members do not even need to be able to read. But spiritually it is very challenging, and it leads to radical change in the lives of those who take part. This is what one group leader in Zambia wrote to me recently, and it’s fairly typical: “Many people have been healed, demons are cast out, broken marriages are brought together, lost items are being recovered. Therefore the group is encouraged on how Jesus Christ is answering our prayer requests and people are changing in their lives.”
The plural of disciple is church
Some time ago the Bishop of Carlisle in the UK invited me to speak to a gathering of archdeacons and rural deans about discipleship. As part of my preparation I decided to do a Bible study. I found that in the Old Testament the word disciple is used only once. In the New Testament it is used a lot in the Gospels, and sometimes in Acts, where it describes the followers of Jesus. But to my astonishment I found that the word disciple does not appear at all in the Epistles. Peter, Paul, James and John do not use the word disciple. Not even once.
Now I was very surprised by this, and I began to think about what the explanation could be. It could not be that only these first followers of Jesus were to be called disciples, because according to Matthew Jesus was quite clear that he wanted them to go and make other disciples, and he said that this was a task which would last until the end of the age. Discipleship did not stop with Jesus.
I thought some more. The first thing I concluded was that it is absolutely clear that when we are thinking about discipleship we are thinking about Jesus, and only Jesus. If it’s not focussed on Jesus, it isn’t discipleship.
But then I realised something else. The word disciple is not used by Peter, Paul, James and John, but there is another word which they use in their letters all the time, and which we don’t find in the gospels. Anyone guess what it is? It’s church. What does that tell us? I think it tells us this: the plural of disciple is church. A church is nothing more or less than a community of disciples, a gathering of people who have been called into relationship with God. The English word ‘church’ in fact carries this meaning beautifully: it derives from the Greek kurios, or ‘Lord’.
This is how Archbishop Rowan Williams defines church:
“Church is what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other.”
So I find it helpful to remind myself that a church is not a building, or an event, or an institution. A church is a group of people who are helping one another to deepen their relationship with Jesus. A church is, or should be, a community of disciples. If discipleship is not at the heart of what we do, then we are not a church. And that means that the health of the church depends on the depth of our discipleship.
This is what Tanzanian Gaspar Kassanda writes about the church in East Africa:
“If the church would revisit the biblical teachings on discipleship it would revive its life and many of its problems would be rectified. Note that simply teaching the Word is not all there is to discipleship. There must be personal involvement, practical training, practical experience and positive role modelling.”
In my view this can be done only in the way that Jesus did it: by gathering people together into small groups and training them to live a different way. It’s how Paul did it too, gathering little groups of people together in different places, helping them to learn what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus in the context of their daily lives and in the midst of their communities. These were the first churches, formed all over the Roman empire. We know the names of their leaders, we know they met together in homes – we know in fact that there were no church buildings for 250 years. It was all about small groups of disciples meeting together, learning to love Jesus and love one another. Apprentices of Jesus, gathering together in community, learning to live in a different way.
Community with a purpose
So a church is a community of disciples of Jesus, committed to him and committed to one another. But is that enough? If we get our relationships with Jesus and our relationships with each other right, have we done all that Jesus is asking us to do?
This is what Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…
Peter is talking about the church, and he is comparing it to a temple. The cornerstone of the temple, the stone which holds the whole building up, is Jesus. The stones from which the temple is built are the believers. They are living stones because they have been made alive through Jesus, and they have been built together into a spiritual house. But a temple is not built just to stand there and look good, it has a purpose. So the believers are to be not just a spiritual house, but a holy priesthood – they are to do something. They have a purpose. Peter explains what this purpose is:
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.
Their purpose is to proclaim the gospel to others. They have a job to do. So first we come to Jesus, and we are changed from dead stones to living stones. Then we are formed together into new communities, spiritual houses which we call churches. Finally we are given a job to do; we are sent to proclaim the gospel to those who are still in darkness.
And this is the third point I want to offer you this morning. We began by defining discipleship as a form of apprenticeship in community. It starts there, but it doesn’t stop there. The community has a purpose which reaches beyond itself. This comes as no surprise – right from the beginning Jesus taught his disciples to minister to others, to do what he himself said he had come to do: to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. What is our purpose? It is to do the things that Jesus did, to minister to those around us. Our purpose is mission; we are sent to share with others what we ourselves have received.
So as disciples we are apprenticed to Jesus, we are formed into communities and we are sent to reach out to others. Discipleship is about apprenticeship, about community and about mission. It’s about being salt and light to the people among whom we live; it’s about making a difference. One church in the United States summed it up like this: our mission is to offer living proof of a loving God to a watching world.
Now if we embrace this fully, if we unshrink and unfade our understanding of discipleship and we restore it to its rightful place as the centre of everything we are and do, we begin to see some remarkable things happening. We begin to see lives being changed, churches being renewed and communities being transformed. We begin to see the kingdom of God coming among us.
We’ve already heard some testimonies of what God is doing in the Diocese of Niassa. Niassa is a diocese where they intentionally place discipleship at the heart of everything they do, a diocese where discipleship is neither shrunk nor faded, a diocese where discipleship is at the core of their understanding of mission. They are experiencing extraordinary spiritual and numerical growth as a result.
But it seems Jesus is prepared to work with little groups of disciples even in places where there is no strategic support from the diocese. This is a group in Mansa, Zambia. They meet daily, and twice a week they go out to pray for people in the community. Their leader is a lay man called Robert. He’s using Rooted in Jesus, and he has been sending me reports as they travel together through the various books. This is what he wrote after the group had completed a module on prayer for healing: “The group gives spiritual support to individuals, families and groups depending on their requests. The group gives counselling, healing prayers, casts out demons and encourages those who are spiritually weak and have stopped attending church meetings. The group has received people from far villages for healing. The group is very much encouraged by the people’s response and how they are with the power of prayers.” More recently, after the group had completed the modules on evangelism and prayer for the community, he wrote this: “I am proud in Jesus name to inform you and your team that our group has started charity work in the community after learning the word of God on ‘Salt and Light.’ After the lesson, members of the group contributed financially and materially. The group raised 24kg of maize grain, 6 bars of soap, salt, and second hand clothes.” Keen to reach out to others, they travelled to a village 35 km from Mansa to teach about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This is what happened: “I am proud that many Christians surrendered their lives to Jesus as Lord, and demons, evil spirits were cast out in many people during the altar call healing prayer time. I thank the power of God by releasing many people from the power of darkness to light.” They are now planning to plant groups in 8 new places by the end of the year. Discipleship makes a difference, and these ordinary group members are being to sent to places both spiritually and geographically in a way they never dreamed possible.
Rooted in Jesus
So we have three threads. Discipleship is about apprenticeship to Jesus. It is about the formation of small groups where people can grow together. And it is about mission, about bringing something completely new to the communities in which those groups are set.
I’d like to close by telling you a little of what I have seen in one of the places where discipleship is understood like this. Rooted in Jesus was developed 10 years ago now, with and for the Diocese of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, with whom our diocese in Leicester was linked. When the first generation of groups completed the course, we went to ask them how they had got on. We hoped to hear they’d found it very helpful. What we actually did hear took us completely by surprise.
Firstly, we noticed a change in the group leaders themselves. Being with them was like being with a completely different bunch of people from the nervous and shy ones we’d met with 4 years earlier. They looked taller, stronger, more determined. Here they are. One after another they said they now had great confidence in God, that he was now with them and working powerfully through them. Many said they used to read the Bible ‘like a newspaper or magazine’, but now read it and pray over it daily and find that it speaks to them. Some said that they had lost their fear; that they feel power in preaching; that they feel a love for their group members. Several said their churches are now full. They were keen to share their experiences, keen that we should use their testimony to encourage people in other places.
Then they began to tell us about the changing lives of group members. A man called Simon, known for his quarrelsome nature, had turned to God and been released dramatically from his anger; astonished to see him transformed by inner peace, his wives (he had 12) had all joined the group. Abraham had been freed from his overwhelming fear of the local witchdoctor, who he thought would destroy his animals. Leah, barren, had discovered you can pray to Jesus about your personal needs; the group had prayed, and she had conceived. A man who had left his wife and children for another woman had repented and returned home.
Many of them said that their whole group had changed as they had met together. One said that on the 4th lesson he had taught his group the memory verse John 1.12, which says ‘to all who received him he gave power to become children of God’. He said they hadn’t known that. They were just churchgoers, and they’d not heard of the Holy Spirit or realised any act of commitment was necessary. He explained the verse and the whole group was filled with the Holy Spirit. Other leaders said their people had stopped worshipping the wrong god, had stopped using drugs and smoking, and were no longer getting drunk. They were only beating their wives occasionally (!). They were now praying for the sick and seeing healings. Some had been inspired to learn to read and write so they could read the Bible. All the leaders said their churches had stopped being impersonal Sunday gatherings and become active fellowships of people committed to God and to one another.
Finally, they told us about the impact the groups were having on the local community. Prayer was becoming normal in the villages; in one Masai village the elders were still meeting under the tree to take decisions, but they were now praying over those decisions. People were sharing their faith and others were coming to Christ; illiterate people were teaching others from the memory verses. People in the community were being prayed for and many had been healed; the sick were being cared for. An evangelist called Japhet told how one day as his group was meeting in the church a passing Muslim rushed in, overcome by the sudden sensation that his feet were ‘on fire’, and saying he had no idea what they were doing but could he join in? Everywhere group members were speaking out against witchcraft and had stopped putting ‘medicines’ on crops, and many witchdoctors had been saved. A woman who had been bitten by a snake came to the group for prayer instead of visiting the witchdoctor; and was healed. A child who used to fall down all the time had been prayed for until he too was healed, with the result that the whole family came to Christ and joined the group. Teachers were now teaching about Jesus in the primary school. One leader said his whole village had been transformed, another that his village had changed dramatically. The testimonies were extraordinary and unexpected; I was so overwhelmed that I cried.
Well, that was a long time ago. Since then we have worked in many other places. We have never advertised Rooted in Jesus, but everywhere the Lord seems to be speaking to his people about discipleship, and it has spread from one place to another, including of course here in South Africa where it was first adopted in the Diocese of St Mark the Evangelist. It is now in use in 43 dioceses in 14 countries, and we have learned so much through our partnerships with these dioceses that we have actually adapted Rooted in Jesus for use in more Western contexts as well, under the title The God Who is There. I think this is probably the first time that a programme developed in Africa has been adapted for use in the UK. I suspect it will not be the last!
Tomorrow afternoon I will be leading a workshop with Bishop Martin Breytenbach on making disciples who make disciples. This talk has been quite theoretical – in the workshop we will be very practical. We will look at Rooted in Jesus as a tool for whole life disciplemaking, and Bishop Martin will talk about what that they have been learning as they have tried to place discipleship at the centre of what they are doing in the Diocese of St Mark’s.
But for now I will leave you with a quote from Bishop Graham Cray, who will be speaking to us later this morning: ‘Mission will never be effective without authentic discipleship. Discipleship will never be taken seriously unless we engage in mission.’
God bless you.