Calling and Mentoring Disciples

Calling and Mentoring Disciples

Jesus was very intentional about creating a community that would continue his ministry, if and when something happened to him. The difference between John the Baptist and Jesus is that Jesus had prepared his followers to continue and extend his ministry in a way John had not. One business consultant explained it this way. John was a sole proprietorship, Jesus was a franchise. We need to also remember that when Jesus gave his final commission to the disciples, in the 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, he did not say, “go build church buildings,” he also did not say, “go create institutions with committees and by-laws,” instead he said, “go make disciples.” A theologically liberal congregation like United Church needs to pay attention to the old fashioned term “discipling.” What does it mean to help others to become followers of the way? It means helping people to transform the way they live their lives in order to follow in the way of Jesus.

One of the most serious failings of the modern church is we have failed to disciple new people into the way of following Jesus. We have programs to attract new members, to reach the unchurched, to offer radical hospitality. And all of these programs are laudable and necessary. But we often are not mentoring people to transform their lives to become followers of the way of Jesus. One reason we often miss this task of mentoring is because too many Christians have settled for being just members of a kind of religious club, rather than pressing on to become disciples, true followers of the way of Jesus in mission and service to others.

And here I would like to share with you a modern parable as told by Theodore Wedel in an article from 1953 entitled “Evangelism—the Mission of the Church to Those Outside Her Life.”

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort of the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.

Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club.

Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club’s decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held.

About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.

At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club, and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself, and if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.

At the Seven Secrets Conference in Atlanta sponsored by the Center for Progressive Renewal one of the speakers, Steve Sterner, Acting Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ said: The shift to discipleship requires greater commitment rather just membership. A higher level of commitment is required of disciples – self-transformation is required and then social transformation occurs. The shift from membership to discipleship creates the greatest struggle in congregations. Faith communities have disciples, disciples agree to have expectations placed upon them.

Most “members” in churches resist expectations and accountability. After all their participation, attendance, and giving are all voluntary. How can anyone expect anything of members. The church is there to serve them. But congregations that mentor people into discipleship have a whole different orientation. The people who join the congregation become partners in ministry. As the Rev. Susan Mitchell said, “the most important people in the church are those we are inviting into the congregation, and those outside the walls of the church we are serving not the members.”

Congregations that mentor people into becoming disciples, following Jesus, understand they are inviting people to serve. The church is not a club, where people wait around for their needs to be met. We are the followers of Jesus, who are expected to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted. As Coy James from the Cathedral of Hope said, “when visitors become members they take off their bibs and put on aprons.” 

So how does a congregation mentor people into discipleship? We begin by understanding the parable of the farmer in Mark 4:26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a farmer should scatter seed upon the ground, 27 and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The first point to understand about the parable is the mystery of the seed. Despite all of our scientific knowledge we still cannot explain why seeds sprout and grow. The seed then is like grace. God’s grace has to be part of the mentoring process. We have to pray and understand that all of our efforts will come to naught, if God is not in it. We have to be willing to mentor from the grace of God and not our own egos. When God is not at the heart of our evangelism efforts, then we are just engaged in marketing. So first, we need to lose our pride, humble ourselves in prayer and ask for God to give us the grace to mentor in faith.

The second point of our parable is the slow evolutionary progression of growth: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. We mature in faith with baby steps. Saints aren’t made in a day. The development of faith is a life time project as we change and grow in stages. Discipling is the process of mentoring people from one stage of faith to another, and having the discernment to recognize when someone is ready for the next step. Unless grace has done its work, we cannot rush someone in their development – sort of like trying to grow 90 corn in 30 days. It doesn’t work. We can plant, water, fertilize, stand on our heads but 90 corn will take just about 90 days to ripen. We can bring daffodils inside in the early spring and force them to open. But we can’t force 90 day corn. Mentoring others in faith means: having patience and a discerning eye to know when someone is ready for the next faith challenge.

The third point of our parable is to recognize the harvest. When people are ready to be spiritually fruitful, turn them loose to do whatever the spirit leads them to do. Sometimes the church needs to get out of the way so mission and ministry can happen. Again let me share with you some comments about administration by the Rev. Susan Mitchell: What does administration really mean? Administrare the Latin word means literally to serve, not to control, not to rule, not to dictate. Administration is clarity. Administration gets to know people well enough so that we know the gifts and talents of each person, so we can then invite them into the ministry of the church at the place they can be most effective. And then wise administration gets out of the way.

How did Jesus mentor his disciples? Jesus instructed them, both in word and in deed. He told them parables that left it up to his listeners to figure out the meaning for themselves. He helped them find the truth by asking them questions. He had them observe his actions in healing and forgiving. He lived with them, and showed them that the love of God was more important than the rules. He traveled with them and shared the hardships of life on the road. He taught them table fellowship by eating with them. He taught them the scriptures and how to pray.

Then he gave them responsibility. He gave them authority over unclean spirits, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. He sent them out two by two and commissioned them to preach and heal. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. He prepared them and then sent them out to minister to the needs of their world, and to invite others to follow the way of Jesus. This is our challenge. This is our mission. Go into the world and help others to become disciples.


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