Beyond Buzzwords: Following Jesus Rather Than Saving Ourselves

image by E. Rowe in Canva

Does it seem like every so often, the Church finds a new buzzword to talk vaguely about? Once upon a time, it was “stewardship,” or “fresh expressions,” then “missional” or just “mission.” All of these are good ideas, but when we talk about them only vaguely, they lose their meaning and wind up doing more harm than good.

“Mission” comes to mean whatever you want it to. Rather than rediscovering what the Church is called to be, people engage in mental gymnastics to rebrand what they were already doing as a “missional project.” Others get cynical and assume that this latest trend will soon be replaced with some new flavour of the month. We wear out traditional words and then struggle to find new ways of talking about timeless concepts. And we’re getting ready to do the same thing with “discipleship.”

The idea of discipleship is based on learning, because a disciple is simply someone who learns. There are elaborate discipleship programs to teach the basics of Christianity to new converts or to those who are rediscovering their faith. However, these people can sometimes seem few and far between. So we tend to focus on those we already have. We offer whatever program is currently in vogue as a small group experience for existing parishioners.

Some people have never learned anything new or questioned their beliefs since they were confirmed, and have never grown beyond a very simple, childish faith. Members of small groups like these usually grow and mature in their faith. But these programs are often inward-focused, targeted towards the people that are already part of our faith communities. They’re based on the assumption that if people learn enough about Christianity, they’ll become better disciples. And the unspoken expectation is that this will save our dying institutions.

But that’s not at all the way that Jesus made disciples. Watch what he does in the first chapters of Mark’s gospel. After his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, he starts roaming Galilee, announcing that “the Kingdom of God has come near.” He invites fishermen like James and John, Peter and Andrew to follow him, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time directly teaching them (and they usually misunderstand what he does tell them).

In fact, most of what those first disciples do is follow and watch Jesus. Eventually he tells them the parable of the sower, and I always imagine it’s an object lesson inspired by something they’ve seen in their travels. “Look at that guy!” he says. “See how he’s scattering handfuls of seed everywhere? Do you see how much of it will never grow, but what does grow will make it all worthwhile? That’s what the kingdom of God is like!”

Christian discipleship is not just about learning things you can find in a book. It’s about learning to see things from the perspective of the kingdom of God, and this is something that we can only learn by doing. What do we see God doing in the world around us? Don’t forget that God is not just limited to working within the church, whether ours or anyone else’s. What can the natural world tell us about God’s love and care for us? If you’re not sure, consider the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.

When Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations, he is not necessarily expecting us to make converts. He’s expecting us to invite others to notice how a new and better world is already breaking into our own. He’s expecting us to see where we have missed the kingdom altogether and repent and return to the ways that give life instead of our own self-centred focus. Discipleship might not save an institution or a parish—that ship may have already sailed—but it is an invitation to become more faithful followers of Jesus, and to share what we have found with others.

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