Leaders, Tasks and the Mission of Making Disciples

The Bible is nowhere near as interested in the abstractions of leadership theory as contemporary organizational theorists, but there may be some value in looking at the church through that lens.

I spent more more than a quarter century in an organization where mission accomplishment was central to all that we did. To plan operations, we learned to receive the mission, analyze the mission, restate the mission, develop and evaluate courses of action to accomplish the mission. Units of the organization trained repeatedly on their “mission-essential task list” (METL). Leaders led the organization using the principles of “mission command”.

Leaders lead organizations to accomplish their missions. Insofar as the church in the world shares the characteristics of all organizations, church leaders lead the church to accomplish its mission. The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The UMC mission statement is a Wesleyan riff on Jesus’ “Great Commission” that closes the Gospel of Matthew.

Then Jesus came to [the eleven disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

The church needs its leaders to direct their energies and talents to accomplish that mission.

Having said that, I also need to frame the mission of the church within the mission of God. Before disciple-making is human work, it is God’s work. “I will build my church,” Jesus declared. All authority in heaven and earth belong to him, and he will be present with his church until he comes in glory at the end of the age. The Book of Acts portrays the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church as the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel of John reminds us that the wind of God blows where it wills.

As a Wesleyan Christian, I also see this  work of God through the lens of the Wesleyan order of grace:

  • Prevenient Grace: God’s work to prepare his way in the human heart and open the way to repentance and faith.
  • Convincing Grace: God’s work to convince people of sin and lead them to repentance.
  • Justifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from guilt and restore a right relationship with God.
  • Sanctifying Grace: God’s work to deliver those who put their faith in Jesus from the power of sin, restore the image of God and perfect believers in love

Within the Wesleyan framework, discipleship is always communal or social. Making, baptizing and teaching disciples is the work of the whole church, takes place within the church and unites people to the church. Discipleship is not a solitary endeavor or experience.

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Whitfield, Wesley and a Rope of Sand

John Wesley was not the greatest preacher of his day. His occasional friend and sometime nemesis George Whitefield was that. “My brother Wesley acted wisely,” Whitefield said. “The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” …. Wesley himself used the image to describe the Christianity against which his people reacted in eighteenth-century England: “Those who were desirous to save their souls were no longer a rope of sand, but clave to one another, and began to watch over each other in love. Societies were formed, and Christian discipline was introduced in all its branches.” …. There are no Whitefieldian societies now. But there are tens of millions of Wesleyan believers around the world.

Thus write Jason Byassee and L. Gregory Jones of Duke Divinity School in a 2009 article at First Things. The article focuses on Wesley as the inventor of what is now known as the micro-loan or the micro-credit movement. It begins, however, by describing the difference between John Wesley and George Whitfield’s approach to evangelism and discipleship.

The authors use the word “organize” to describe the secret of Wesley’s success. I would prefer to use the word “community.” Organization is a method; community is the product, and organizational leadership is not the only key to its existence.


Who Was the Real Threat to the Kingdom Community?

Mark 9:38-50 is a strange passage. At first reading, it appears to be a collection of disconnected sayings and anecdotes tied together by an arbitrary string of keywords highlighted below. Mark may have indeed received these sayings as stand-alone logia. Together, though, they answer the question, “Who was the real threat to God’s work in the life of Christ, and to the community that formed the seed of the coming kingdom?” It wasn’t the tangentially connected or the marginally aligned, those who saw and responded to only to part of what God was doing in Jesus. It wasn’t even really the evil men who would put Jesus to death, for God promised to raise his messiah from the grave. God’s victory over evil is certain.

No, the threat that most concerned Jesus was the internal threat. Those who followed the worst examples of religious piety were concerned only with themselves. There were believers within the messiah’s own fellowship who aspired to worldly greatness. Moreover, some members of the Christian community were leading their brothers and sisters astray, taking them away from the saving life of faith and causing them to fall.

How they were causing their brothers and sisters to fall, Jesus does not say. Was it false teaching? Was it worldliness, a lack of commitment or setting a bad example? Was it hypocrisy or insincerity? Was it a lack of love or a failure to build a fellowship that incorporated all believers? All can be deadly.

If the church’s mission is to seek and save the lost, every apostasy – every case of falling away from the kingdom – is a kind of mission failure (one which the church should never seek to remedy by force or threats).

Instead of looking at the threats outside the church, Jesus’ followers should look at their own lives and the quality of  the fellowship within their own community.

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Eucharist and Discipleship

Two recent posts on Eucharist and discipleship, one enthusiastic and one more cautious.

At Seedbed, Steven Bruns writes:

For these early Christians, the Eucharist was the main form of discipleship as well. It was the climax of every service they celebrated. For the entire portion of the service leading up to the Eucharist, the people were being raised up to the throne of God in heaven. Their prayers focused them on God, petitioning God to create the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The reading of Scripture and expounding upon it showed how God had been acting throughout history to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ, and how Christ was still present in the world through the Church, his Body. Finally in the Eucharist, as the people have been ascending to heaven, heaven comes down to earth as the Holy Spirit eucharizes the bread and wine so that the people in Christ actually receive Christ. In Holy Communion, heaven and earth meet.

What this did for the Christians was to give an objective reality to the Christian experience. Not every worship service was an ecstatic journey into the third heaven. Not every presider was skilled at preaching, or even praying on behalf of the people. Not every Christian felt like they were in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe every week. But in the sacrament, the Christians knew, whether or not they felt it, that Christ was present. They knew they were standing in the presence of the God of all who gave all for them. And they knew that by receiving the sacrament, they were receiving more of that God within them for their transformation and empowerment to be the faithful disciples they were called to be.

On the other hand, Kevin at Many Horizons recently asked, “will liturgy save us?”

One could look, for example, at the ideas of James K.A. Smith, who has talked about how our world has “liturgies” that form us (such as the liturgy of the mall), and so how we need rich liturgies to counter these destructive narratives. Other thinkers have similarly argued that liturgy is necessary to save us from secularism and the practical atheism it entails.

This kind of thinking has also led many people I know, including myself at times, to have a sense of spiritual growth in having moved from “non-liturgical” backgrounds into Anglicanism or other “high church” denominations.

Yet, there is a problem with all of this theory—the facts don’t match it. One needs look no further than England or Quebec, two deeply secular societies who were not all that long ago dominated by strongly liturgical churches. If liturgy is supposed to form us into better Christians—how did this happen?

Vulnerable Disciples: The Least of These My Brethren

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

The Parable of the Judgment of the Nations
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
Matthew 25:31-46

When Christians live vulnerable lives in order to fulfill the mission of Christ, God will hold the people of the world accountable for how they receive them.

Jesus’ teaching on the Son of Man’s coming judgment of the world has had a tremendous impact on the church for thousands of years. For the most part, I think we’ve only understood a fragment of what Jesus intended to tell us in these verses.

The Future Judgment

Some interpreters have focused their attention on the first few verses.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33)

A day of final judgment is coming. Eternal life and death hang in the balance. As we read on, we discover that some will inherit the kingdom of peace and blessedness prepared for them from the creation of the world. Others will face annihilation – the eternal destruction from which there is no escape – the “fire” that will ultimately consume even the devil and his minions and rid God’s creation of every menace.

The cathedrals of medieval Europe frequently portray this scene from Matthew 25 in carvings over the doors of the sanctuary. Jesus is seated on his throne. The people of the world are gathered before him. The saved are on his right; the damned are on his left.

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