Theology of Discipleship

A Theology of Christian Discipleship
Nurturing Christlike Disciples through Christian Practices

A recent survey at Bethel suggests that nearly 70% of those attending Bethel have been part of the congregation less than seven (7) years. Many of these new participants are young adults and young families. The task before us is critical. We must nurture these young adults and young families to love deeply; to care genuinely; and to live Christianly. Thus, a theology of Christian Discipleship must guide the congregation’s life.

Practicing Theology

We Nazarenes articulate a clear call and commitment to nurture and shape “Christlike disciples in the nations.” Implicit in this commitment lurk numerous additional questions. If we dared to practice theology we might ask ourselves questions such as: what does it mean to be human?, what does it mean to be changed or transformed?, what does it mean to be Christlike?, and how does transformation occur? It seems questions like these must be considered if we are to assess our effectiveness in nurturing “Christlike disciples.” Once we begin down this path, questions about sin and redemption, the person and work of the Triune God, and the holy life rise to the surface. A lot is at stake in our congregational life!

Our work as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ demands we theologize upon questions of deep meaning. Theologizing is the practice of theology and is to be a way of life for the minister. Practicing theology is not just an “ivory tower” exercise! Theologizing happens in the everyday nitty-gritty stuff of life and is hard, gut-wrenching work. Learning of a daughter’s diagnosis of scoliosis or receiving news of the death of a loved one throws one into the practice of theology. Expecting clergy and congregations to engage in the art of theologizing prevents us from separating theory from practice. Good theology is lived theology.

Practicing theology creates space for pastors and congregations to reflect upon the narratives and practices shaping their identity and formation as the People of God. Since we are a people committed to nurturing a particular expression of Christian discipleship we need to articulate a strategy for assessing our discipleship strategy. If we are not getting the kinds of disciples we intend and desire, we need to investigate the narratives we are telling and the practices we are using. Broken practices result in malformed disciples.

Nazarenes ask a very important question: are we nurturing and shaping Christlike disciples in the nations (or in this local church)? It is often assumed that the life of Jesus is our framework for the type of disciple we intend to nurture. Taking Jesus as our Pattern, Nazarenes will need to study the congregation through a lens reflecting love, patience, hospitality, generosity, self-control, and gentle speech.

Perhaps a helpful way of getting at an answer to the question – are we nurturing and shaping Christlike disciples – is to observe a congregation’s shared life together. A critical first step is to affirm a belief that God transforms human beings. A subsequent step is to explore how God uses the means of Christian narratives and practices to nurture a Christian disciple. Study and meditation upon Scripture, prayer, service, testimony and hospitality are illustrative of a long, rich history of Christian practices employed in the formation of the Holy People of God. Employing these very narratives and practices place people and congregations in contexts through which God transforms them and ought to be made visible in a congregation’s life.

For example, the use of the camp-meeting setting and revival meetings rehearsed a particular narrative with an invitation to respond. People often responded with the practice of “going forward to kneel at an altar.”

Together the narrative and practice shaped a particular kind of Christian disciples. The practice of giving public witness to God’s transforming grace is another example. Listeners were invited to consider the narrative of God being played out in the individual’s life as to both its credibility and transformative power. Responses of “Amen” as well as the offering of prayers for one another became the congregation’s shared practices.

Through the means of such experiences, God’s redemptive work was affirmed. The way the people recounted God’s activity and how they lived out God’s Story in their shared life exhibited their particular way of theologizing. Even today congregations live out their testimonies and practices of faith in specific ways. These narratives and the practices offer a vision of how God’s people are to live an alternate new way of being in the world. The question remains . . . are we nurturing Christlike disciples in the nations?

A Sample Assessment Strategy

Too much is at stake for us to be timid in this project. In fact, our attention for the next few years will focus upon that question . . . are we nurturing Christlike disciples in the nations? It is critical to nurture safe space for honest, frank conversations. Below is series of open-ended questions to begin a quick and easy way to study our practice of Christian discipleship:

1. Identify Christian practices being utilized for the formation of the holy People of God.

How is the reading and study of Scripture a practice deeply shaping our lives?

In what ways do we practice service of neighbor and hospitality as a way of life?

In what ways does the practice of prayer punctuate our shared life?

In what ways do we share generously with one another and contribute to God’s mission in the world?

2. Listen for stories of faith which conjure a way of being for the People of God.

How is the Christian narrative formative for us?
How are testimonies of God’s grace shared for the congregation’s edification?

3. Observe the rhythm of the congregation’s life.

Where and when do we meet together regularly?

What do we do and say when we’re together?

How do we interact with one another and with guests among us?

Are we loving? Patient? Hospitable? Gentle in speech?

Are we helpful to one another?

Do we share our resources with one another?

Asking the Right Question Regularly 

Are we nurturing or shaping Christlike disciples? is the question we must ask regularly. I’ll be the first to acknowledge the difficulty to measure one’s “Christlikeness” in quantitative categories. Yet, our failure to ask the question may only result in nurturing malformed disciples. The quest to make Christlike disciples is not only important to our families, churches, and communities, but it is also what makes us salt and light in a hopeless world.