Not a week goes by that I don't interact with someone concerning the need for discipleship in the local church (not least of all my own local church). Often, the sentiment gets expressed this way: "Our church doesn't really have anything in the way of discipleship- something needs to happen." As someone who values the Great Commission and who aspires to the pastorate, I take these types of comments seriously. I try to regularly give thought to how I can help meet the need for greater and more effective disciple-making efforts in my local congregation. Recently, I've been pondering the following "two-pronged" approach to discipleship in a local church.
First, we need to see everything we do as a church as part of the discipleship agenda. Often, what happens in many churches is that the preaching is thought of in terms of preaching, the worship in terms of worship, the small groups in terms of small groups, children's ministry in terms of children's ministry, etc. Discipleship, then, is thought of as its own separate category- just one band in the spectrum of what the church as a whole does. The first step- and the foundational one- for building a healthy discipleship-minded church is to dismantle these walls of segregation between the differing facets of the church's practices and begin to see everything the church does as disciple-making. If we think of discipleship in the broadest sense as helping people follow Christ and become like him, then everything we do that influences them in that process falls under the category of discipleship. Our preaching, then, as it informs and directs the minds and hearts of the hearers, is discipleship. Our worship, too, as it informs people as to how to praise and honor their God, is discipleship. Our small group ministry, as it connects individuals to other members of the body of Christ for encouragement and spiritual friendship, is discipleship. And so it goes for every aspect of the church's activity: as it all impacts the way in which people understand and actually proceed with following Christ, it is all discipleship. This is foundational.
Once we grasp that everything we do is to be thought of in terms of discipleship, we can then turn to the second "prong" in my approach to discipleship in the church. This involves engaging in the church in those sorts of ministries that people typically think of (at least that I typically think of) when they hear "discipleship." I have three different "levels" in mind.
First, I think of one-on-one mentoring. This is the classic vision of discipleship I suppose, the "Paul and Timothy" model, wherein an older, more mature saint takes a younger, less advanced Christian under his or her wing and helps that Christian along in their spiritual progress.
Second, I think of what might be called "gospel groups". In this approach, one Christian leader picks up a handful (in my way of thinking, two or three) of willing persons and bands together with them for a year or two, and together they spur one another on in not only their individual growth but also in their skill and resolve to make disciples of others. I've been part of such a group over the last year or so and it has been a wonderful approach to discipleship (though there is still much room to grow!).
Lastly, I have in mind so-called "gospel communities." These are, in my way of thinking, similar to gospel groups, though different in one important respect. In both gospel groups and gospel communities, there are inward and outward aspects. That is, both types of groups seek to build up the members of the group and also reach others outside of the group. The difference, though, to use a metaphor, is "which leg more weight rests on." In gospel groups, the weight rests upon the inward aspect: the group is designed to provide communal learning, mutual encouragement, and shared training. The outward aspect is there, but not as strongly as in gospel communities. In gospel communities, the weight firmly rests upon the outward aspect. The whole group is led by the vision of bringing the gospel through crucifixional lifestyles to the community, culture, and cosmos around them.
One-on-one mentoring, gospel groups, and gospel communities are only some of the ways a church can be involved in fulfilling the Great Commission. In fact, as we've seen, everything a church does should be viewed as part of the overarching agenda to make disciples. So let's stop talking about discipleship as though it were just one aspect of the church's mission. It is our mission.