Staying Grounded as Disciples

by Randolph C. Ferebee

Disciple at its core means learner. In today’s environment of flattened hierarchy, we are rediscovering that we are all learners – lifelong learners. Because our need for continual renewal and refreshment, we never leave the basic posture of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. This sets loose in us the desire to align ourselves with the story of God’s love engaging the world.

The context for our formation is in the community, especially in our faith community, the local congregation. Henri Nouwen wrote, “It is in community that we are tested and purified. It is in community that we learn what forgiveness and healing are all about. It is in community that we learn who our neighbor is. Community is the true school of love.” The primary way we learn to be disciples is by being around and in interaction with others who are disciples. The role of a leader is to help these interactions occur and to participate regularly in such interactions.

How do we do this? It is perhaps not so much a matter of our own doing as it is making space for God to act upon us, in us, and through us. One of the essential ways we make space for God is to interact with the story of who God is and who we are. Leadership teams will find the strength for their mission in ongoing Bible study and prayer. While this may be a feature of parish life in other contexts, it is good that study and prayer be a part of each meeting of the church leaders.

We all recognize the presence of sin in the church, that human condition that draws us away from the love of God. The disciple dimension of life in the church is a remedy for one of the common expressions of sin known as hubris or pride. The disciple always knows that she or he is a lifelong learner and is still a work in progress under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Another gift given by discipleship is the reminder that we are not a source of power or control; we are created, not the Creator. All baptized persons, no matter their ordination or leadership status, are equally disciples.

The disciple function goes hand-in-glove with being an apostle. Jesus’ first followers were described as both disciples and apostles. When Jesus called them together, they were bound together in a learning community. Those earliest days with the Master were formative; it oriented them to their base community as a source of strength and nurture. As they grew in their knowledge and love of the Lord, Jesus began to trust them to go out to teach and heal. When the time came for Jesus to return to the Father, he pronounces a general commission – The Great Commission – that his followers should “go into all the world.” The disciple is now also an apostle (a “sent person”) with a mission.

Discipleship is the ongoing formation of the people of God as followers of Jesus Christ. Apostleship is the response of all the baptized to the mission of God to be missionary people whose vocation is to carry, in word and deed, the Good News into every part of the world and by so doing call forth and authenticate the apostolic calling of all God’s people.

There is in these two roles a twinned dynamism. Discipleship takes the form of a learner and apostleship takes the form of a giver. The disciple knows that he or she needs continual formation in the way of God as it is deeply explored in study, prayer, fellowship, and worship. The apostle knows that he or she has a calling to be with a God who is on the move in the world to extend the reign of God’s redemption, of making whole, of binding up, of declaring Good News. Together the discipleship-apostleship dyad makes a whole: a place to take in nourishment and refreshment (discipleship) paired with a place to go to serve in mission to a world through one’s life and witness in every venue of life. This dyad is transformed into a triad as it participates in God’s continuing presence that we call the Holy Spirit. Especially in our Anglican context this presence is mediated through worship where “we unite ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.”

Perhaps the best interplay of discipleship and apostleship is that they provide a natural action-reflection model for our growth as missionaries. The interplay of the people of God as they oscillate between apostleship and discipleship creates a vibrant community of Christian practice with strong, mutual companionship and conversation. This oscillation is the core experience that keeps in balance the life inside the church with its divine mission outside the church. The leader calls attention to “the particular community, empowered by God’s Spirit, (which) not only lives out the gospel internally but opens up the gospel externally by the way it lives, so that others may see and respond.”

What transformative impact does attentiveness to discipleship formation have (or potentially have) in your congregation? How might you share this book with your leaders for study?

Randolph C. Ferebee co-founded Epiphany Institute + Consulting to create environments for leadership development and to assist congregations with entering into this new missional era. This article is from his recently published book, “Cultivating the Missional Church: New Soil for Growing Vestries and Leaders” (2012: Morehouse Publishing) which offers a multitude of ideas and resources for church leaders. 

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