This is Part 6 of the series "A MISSIONARY ECCLESIOLOGY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY". Originally presented in 2005, the relevance is current.
by R. Bruce Carlton
Major Emphasis 5 - Discipleship As Lifestyle
The sign of a true disciple is obedience – to follow the example of his Master, to imitate the One he follows. For centuries the church has so focused on orthodoxy that discipleship has become primarily a process of imparting doctrinal truths and theological understanding. Such a discipleship emphasis has created a gulf between belief and obedience, something never seen in the Biblical message. However, we have fallen short in the area of orthopraxis, weak in helping disciples live their lives in obedience to the Word. The result has been a lack of authenticity in the witness of the church. A relevant missionary ecclesiology in the twenty-first century must include a more balanced understanding of discipleship.
As the Western church faces postmodern society, it is discovering that simply presenting salvation in terms of acceptance of prepositional truths about God and Jesus Christ is no longer compelling. What people are searching for is a credible, authentic witness. As Bosch reminds us, “The only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it!”
In discussing the need for a change in missionary ecclesiology in the postmodern societies of the West, Bjork argues for a shift from formal models of evangelism and discipleship toward more relational models. Simson discusses this in terms of a shift away from a mechanical process of transferring knowledge towards a life transfer, where one’s life is “literally breathed and rubbed into others…caught over a period of time, not just taught.”
To accomplish such a shift, the church needs to move discipleship out of the classroom and into daily life, focusing more on one-to-one mentoring relationships or small groups.
Not only is the shift toward discipleship as a lifestyle needed for the Western church as it engages postmodernism, it is an understanding of discipleship that is required in the Two-Thirds World cultures as the church seeks to engage those of other major world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Each of these world religions lay claim to truth. In such an environment, how does the church express credible witness? Early followers of Christ were called people of the Way because they believed they had discovered the way to live. As the church encounters adherents of these world religions, the most effective witness will be an obedient and sacrificial lifestyle that convinces the world that indeed we have discovered the way to live!
Bosch asserts, “The more we emphasize the church as a unique community, indeed, as the body of Christ, the more legitimate it becomes for the world to demand of us what we claim to be.” Burrows expresses it this way, “We live in a world of such verbal and noise pollution, of claim and counterclaim.…In that context then, if one is Christian and believes the Gospel is Good News to all humankind, it could well be that embodied manifestation of the Good News will enjoy priority.”
Only as discipleship becomes lifestyle will the church of the twenty-first century be able to formulate an effective missionary ecclesiology that will rise up to the challenges presented by postmodernism and other expressions of faith. Such discipleship will be costly, because it will demand that God’s people fully acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives, individually and corporately. It will demand a call to genuine humility and servanthood in a hostile world. Only then will the witness of the church be found relevant, authentic and credible.