Discipleship: The Christian’s Forgotten Calling

Written by Commissioner Philip D. Needham

March 10, 2020

Once upon a time, there used to be disciples of Jesus. Oh, there still are, but it’s more and more difficult to detect them. There are an ample supply of church members who identify as followers of Jesus. They have confessed their sins and are often faithful supporters of the church or corps they attend. They may tithe diligently and participate in church or corps activities. They may consider themselves to be ‘good Christian people’ who behave themselves and live respectable lives. But they are unaware, or have forgotten, that being a Christian actually means more than receiving the wonderful forgiving grace of Jesus through His death on the Cross. It also means being graciously empowered through the Spirit to be like Jesus.
You will remember that Jesus was known as a rabbi or teacher. In His day rabbis were Jews who gathered around them a group of disciples whose job it was to perfect their way of living by learning from their rabbi’s teaching and imitating his life. Jesus expected the same from His disciples. What this means is that all Christians – no exceptions! – are called to imitate the way their Lord and Savior lived. When Jesus said to someone, “Follow Me” (Mt. 9:9), He meant for them to go in an entirely different direction by loving Him supremely, carrying their cross as He did His, losing their (old) lives for His new life (Matthew 16:24-25), and doing the things He did for others – like loving each other as He loved them (John 15:12) or washing each other’s feet as He washed theirs (John 13:14).
Our early Salvation Army knew this well. They not only conducted large gatherings in rented facilities to preach the gospel and bring people to accept Jesus as their Savior, they also followed this up with holiness teaching. This was often done in smaller weeknight sessions called ‘holiness meetings’ where converts and soldiers learned about living the life of Jesus. Here they sought the holiness of heart that motivated and equipped them spiritually to live as credible disciples of Jesus in the world.
The humble converts of the evangelistic meetings had returned to the Army because the churches to which they were referred had made them feel less than welcome. So, the Army accepted them, made them feel at home, and became their worshiping community, their church. Though the term ‘church’ was rejected for another hundred years, we, in fact, did become a church, only by a different name, a name that spoke of spiritual warfare: a salvation army at war against the forces of sin.
What happened to the weekday ‘holiness meetings,’ where the focus was on a cleansing and empowering holiness that enabled the convert to live in the likeness of Jesus? Since the Army had now become a church, a Sunday morning worship service was needed. While retaining the holiness emphasis, the weekday holiness meeting was transferred to Sunday morning, where it became the weekly worship. This larger gathering, however, did not have the intimacy and personal accountability of the smaller group.
Personal accountability to other Christians is crucial to our growth as disciples of Jesus. Twelve disciples lived close to Jesus, learned from Him, were accountable to Him, and grew in grace sufficient to launch His church in the world. In the early centuries of the church, when large Christian gatherings were illegal, followers of Jesus gathered in homes and discipled each other. These cell churches grew like a virus during those years! One cell church would birth one or more other cell churches. It was multiplication out of control!
The Wesleyan revival of the 18th and 19th century and the church communities that grew out of them were fueled and formed by small groups the Wesleys called class meetings and bands. These were largely lay-driven accountability groups. The class meetings—which were not ‘classes’ in the sense we usually use that word today: a group of students being taught by a teacher—had a maximum of twelve participants, one or two of whom were facilitators. A facilitator was responsible for keeping the meeting on track while at the same time also being accountable to the group for his or her growth in grace and spiritual depth. The main agenda of the meetings was for each member to give an account of their own discipleship since their last meeting and share how Scripture was speaking to them or challenging them. Then the members prayed for one another. The bands were smaller, even more intimate groups of the same gender, where accountability was even greater, personal confession of sin by each member was typical, and prayer was usually more extended.
For a long time in our Southern Territory, there was a strong emphasis on Sunday School. The Sunday School was a wonderful means of drawing in new people and teaching all ages Bible-based truth and living. Its strength lay in its teaching (when we did it well) and in the relationships that were created. Students were taught Christian faith and doctrine, and some came to faith through that ministry and were nurtured by caring teachers.
The Sunday School, however, is primarily informative: We learned important things which we were encouraged to apply to our lives. What the Sunday School did not do was provide a place of ongoing accountability. It simply was not set up to do this, especially amidst the busyness of a corps Sunday morning! Jesus and His circle of twelve, the early church and its small home cells, and the class meetings and bands of the Wesleyan movement teach us—along with other similar expressions of effective discipleship groups– that the best way forward to deep spiritual growth leading to meaningful numerical growth is small groups of Christians meeting regularly in a relationship of mutual trust, prayer, and accountability. Such groups are poised to be transformative.
Because of the nature of such discipleship groups or teams, they should not be seen as ‘corps programs.’ Each group would be fully accountable to the corps officer(s) and the facilitators would be properly trained. The groups themselves, however, would be voluntary and mostly lay-driven. Discipleship is a lay movement, or it will have little effect. The goal is transformation of people–and ultimately of a corps!

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