(Appeared first in February 2012, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.—Matthew 28:19 TNIV
Wouldn’t it be great if your congregation suddenly had an influx of mature believers who were generous givers, who humbly served as volunteers in much-needed church roles and whose convictions were aligned with your church’s deepest beliefs and practices? Perhaps it’s difficult to even dream of such an influx. It might stretch your faith to hope for a steady stream or even a small trickle. From my experience, I can safely predict that this won’t happen in your congregation on any level at all.
You might ask how I can say such a bold statement. It’s because such things don’t just happen. I know, for example, that people don’t just happen to become Christians. They are called by God and invited by others to become part of Christ’s church.
Furthermore, people don’t just happen to grow in their faith. They are formed in Christ and grow toward maturity as they are surrounded by caring groups of people who support them in their growth and hold them accountable for their actions.
Similarly, people don’t just happen to become effective leaders. They are called by God, tapped on the shoulder and trained for leadership roles through modeling and teaching.
In the same vein, people don’t just happen to become effective ministers. They are empowered for ministry by the Holy Spirit and trained for ministry through diligent study and the school of hard knocks.
Finally, new churches don’t just happen to get started. They are planted by people who are called by God and supported by sponsoring individuals and congregations who wish to multiply their witness.
In reality, nothing “just happens” in the kingdom of God. The reign of God advances through a dynamic and often mysterious interaction of call and response between God and God’s people. It develops through people who follow the call of Jesus to both be and make disciples. Disciple-making is such a deliberate and natural part of missional congregations that we can safely call it a basic identity trait of the missional church, as follows:
Missional character trait: The missional church is a community where all members are involved in learning to become disciples of Jesus.
Signpost: The disciple identity is held by all; growth in discipleship is expected of all.
Jesus invented discipleship, so to speak. The primary trait of a disciple is to be a learner, one who is formed in faith by following Jesus. Jesus called many disciples and named 12 of them apostles. He called them all to make disciples of still others.
Mortimer Arias points out that “in the book of Acts, … the name ‘Christian’ appears only twice, while ‘disciples’ is used 30 times. Even if we call ourselves Christians, in reality we are Christians-in-the-making; we are still learning, still following. In fact, ‘followers of the way’ is another name for Christians in the book of Acts.”
It’s easy to lose sight of what it really means to be a Christian. We get sidetracked in church affairs—keeping the doors open, running the program, often struggling with the difficulty of getting along with other people and their problems. But to be a Christian is to be devoted to Christ as a disciple. As Hans Denck famously said, “No one can truly know Christ except he follow him daily in life.”
Surely it must be an embarrassment to Jesus Christ to see people wear the name Christian without becoming a disciple. God has graciously called us to be followers of Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world. Let’s walk that road together into God’s eternal future.