“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
The Mission Statement of the United Methodist Church.
I am an ordained United Methodist clergy and I have a confession to make. I have a love-hate relationship with the United Methodist mission statement. As a Wesleyan, I love it because it is grounded in the biblical witness of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…” My heart is warmed by the succinctness and sincerity it expresses, that as agents of God’s grace in this world Christian disciples can be a part of building the kingdom.
At the same time, however, I am frustrated that so often we turn this statement into a mandate for church programming. In many ways, we reduce discipleship to programs in order to engage people in ministry and mission. Typically, discipleship is another name for educational ministries or spiritual formation courses in which persons participate. In some congregations, discipleship ministries include mission and outreach that members engage in on behalf of or with the community. And all of that is great – these are good things for people to do and worthy programs for congregations to provide. But discipleship in the Wesleyan spirit cannot and should not be compartmentalized to what a particular ministry of the church does. Discipleship is a way of living. It is as much about being a disciple of Jesus Christ as it is about doing the things of Jesus Christ.
John Wesley preached that persons who do the good works associated with Christian discipleship without being like Christ, were “Almost Christian.” He maintained that more than doing good things, Christians needed “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:5). This means that as Christian disciples, we need to seek the perspective of Christ, to have his character and conviction within ourselves that motivates our outward actions. When Paul directs Christians to imitate Christ in Philippians 2:1-5, he urges readers to be like Christ so that they may do as Christ did. He associates having the mind of Christ as having the love, the humility, and the focus that Christ had (v.2). When we imitate Christ’s humility our interior selves are consistent with our exterior actions. Reading the Philippians passage further, we discover that in being humble as Jesus was, in being compassionate and loving, our regard is not for ourselves, but for others (v. 4). Thus, in attitudes and actions, our focus on others demonstrates what it means to love God and neighbors.
As Christian disciples, we do not serve a meal at a homeless shelter or sign up for a Bible study because it will count towards our good works or help a church program succeed. We engage in mission and outreach because it is centered on others, because it is what Christ did and we seek to be imitators of Christ. Through serving others we demonstrate love in tangible ways towards our neighbor because Christ’s humility has taken root in us.
Make no mistake, engaging in outreach and service to persons in the community is a valid way to be a disciple – as long as the interior life is being attended to at the same time! When questioned by teachers of the law, Jesus responded that we show our love for God and neighbor with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). I find it particularly relevant that three of the four facets listed; heart, soul, and mind, refer to specific interior aspects of our being. Our discipleship is more than just participating in mission or attending a Bible study that is offered in our local congregation. Our discipleship is lived out when we attend worship, when we take time for a spiritual retreat for renewal, when we pray with one another and for the needs of the world. True Christian discipleship does typically mean we are doing things but only when we are being disciples and cultivating our interior selves to be like Jesus so that we can do as Jesus did. In order to make disciples, we need to be disciples of Jesus Christ and let our discipleship be a way of life that attracts others to be a part of God’s good work in this world.