Where ever you go in the Church of England at the moment it seems someone will want to talk to you about discipleship. We are urged to grow in discipleship, grow more disciples and get involved in discipleship courses. The “D” word is everywhere and no church meeting is seemingly complete without it.
It seems such an obvious and good thing. To speak against it would be as strange as being critical of motherhood and apple pie. But discipleship was not always on everyone’s lips and perhaps there were good and valid reasons for that.
The present emphasis on discipleship can come across as a recruitment drive by any other name, drawing people into membership of a religious organisation yet the Church of England has never been a members organisation. This change of emphasis runs the risk of the Church retreating into a religious sphere instead being engaged in the very warp and weft of society.
The call to grow in discipleship must be careful not to imply the judgement of a religious elite that others need to be “better” disciples; that their existing faith is somehow inadequate or insufficient. It can even run the risk of suggesting clergy “good”, laity “bad”. Or perhaps growing in discipleship is another way of saying we don’t have enough clergy so let’s get the laity doing more.
The emphasis on discipleship courses also suggests a loss of faith in our liturgies, that worship cannot make disciples only courses can. Are we formed in our faith on our knees or in the lecture hall? Worship at its bests, feeds us, shapes us and moulds us. We gather to have the Word of God broken open before us, we share in the very Body and Blood of our Saviour, dying to sin and rising to new life to be sent out in the cause of the Kingdom. What could be more discipleship forming than that?
And to busy and burdened members of congregations we demand that they must attend more and do more, ignoring the discipleship they are already living out daily. In their places of work, caring for mum with dementia, supporting an over-worked partner, trying to love wayward children, helping their struggling neighbour, they are already living out their discipleship. When they come to Church they come for rest and refreshment not to be made to feel guilty because they are not growing in discipleship.
The point of the Church of England is to be the Church for England, to be there for the people in their moments of need, to be a gift to them and not a demand upon them. When we are engaged with people’s lives, when they see we care, when they notice the difference we make, then they are more likely to want to know more and the faith conversation can begin. It begins with relationships and not a course on discipleship, with the pastoral and not the missional.
In the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come” is not a call to evangelism but a call to build a more just and equitable world, it is about our engagement with unjust structures and the overcoming of the inequalities that blight society. When the Church is seen as making the community a better place then disciples will not need to be called they will want to come.