As he began the three years of his public ministry, Jesus gathered a group of twelve disciples who would accompany him on the road, learn from what he did and then be sent out to make more disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey everything they had learned from Jesus himself.
When Jesus called his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, to himself, he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17) This a is a holistic call to a new life of adventure and one that we should not hesitate to call the people in our churches to share in.
I believe that at the core of growing as a disciple there are three key elements: proximity, learning and opportunity.
The first part of discipleship is proximity. As Jesus called those first disciples, he started with an invitation to follow him. This would not be a course, a program or a task but three years on the road together sharing in ministry, life and community with Jesus and with each other. This call is made even clearer a couple of chapters later in Mark when Jesus comes down from the mountain and appoints them apostles. As Mark 3:14 says, “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.”
Put simply, discipleship at a distance doesn’t work. While there can be a place for formal theological education, this cannot be at the expense of relationships of proximity in the local church. It is within a community on mission together that discipleship is worked out, and this means shared lives and proximity.
Of course, this begins with proximity to Jesus himself. I would contend that this is the most fundamental component of growing as a disciple. Having selected twelve, Jesus spent the next few years up close and personal with them. They got to witness miracles; water turned into wine, blind eyes opened, a dead girl raised. They got special extra teaching unpacking the parables. They got to witness first-hand Jesus’ relationship with his Father. Some of them even got to be there when Jesus was transfigured. Many heard about these events second-hand or observed them at a distance. The disciples were actually there, and that was because Jesus had given them proximity to himself.
As well as proximity with Jesus, to grow as a disciple we need to be living our lives in proximity with other believers. Jesus hadn’t just called each of the disciples into a personal relationship with himself but also into community with each other. The New Testament contains thirty-eight verses that instruct us to do things to ‘one another’ (for example, ‘love one another’, ‘teach and admonish one another’, ‘encourage one another’). It is clear that to grow into maturity in the faith we need one another, and each have a part to play. Our Sunday gatherings and community groups do play a part, but it is so much more than this and in each of our sites we are trying to build communities characterised by deep friendships and shared lives.
The second significant aspect of growing as a disciple is learning new things. The disciples probably heard Jesus teaching most days (and often they would have heard key messages reinforced many times in village after village). When Jesus taught hard things, they had time and space to process and ask questions. When they struggled with spiritual disciplines like prayer, they could ask Jesus and he showed them how it is done. By the end of three years with Jesus, the disciples had grown in knowledge to such an extent that when they proclaimed the gospel with boldness and clarity the Jerusalem authorities were astonished that uneducated common men could speak in such a way. The only conclusion to draw was that they had been with Jesus.
Because we know that learning is important to growing, we set up the CCM School of Theology. On one Saturday morning each month, we invite in a great quality theology speaker, who spends the morning teaching on both Biblical Theology (we are working through the whole of the Bible over two years) and Systematic Theology. We are now working on similar schools of leadership, preaching and creativity. In addition we have a fresh sermon at every Sunday meeting, meaning that there are currently six new sermons preached each week, and these sermons are all available online. There are lots of people who stretch themselves by listening to teaching from other sites as well as their own, and I know of some people who love to binge listen to them all!
Along with these front-led learning opportunities, there is also the place for personal input. Jesus knew his disciples well from spending time in proximity with them, as discussed above. This meant that we was able to help them personalise what they were learning, encourage them when they did well, and call them out when he needed to.
The third component of growing as a disciple is having the opportunity to make a difference. By trade they had been fishermen, but now Jesus was promising to make these disciples into ‘Fishers of Men’. They were being given the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and help build God’s kingdom in the world.
As the story unfolds over the next three years we see the disciples heavily involved in the ministry. They are not merely sitting back and watching as Jesus did all the work. In fact we read that they were responsible for baptising people (John 4:2), casting out evil spirits (Luke 10:17), and breaking open new ground for Christ’s ministry and preaching the gospel of the kingdom (Mark 6:7). Following the death and resurrection of Jesus they had even more responsibility as they were charged with the advance of the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Giving people challenging opportunities is not something that should wait until they have made a certain level of progress in their character development. Rather, it is through being given the right opportunities and having a go at making a difference that the progress we long for occurs.
At the heart of this invitation are three things that form the core of what being a disciple is.
Discipleship at Christ Church Manchester
At CCM we want to help people to grow as disciples of Jesus. Some of the ways that we do discipleship are:
Community Groups. Community groups are the lifeblood of the church. They are small groups of people who gather weekly (usually in somebody’s home) and share a bit of food, have a laugh together, talk about life, faith and the Bible, and pray with each other.
Opportunities to Have a Go. At Christ Church Manchester we have a ‘Have a Go’ culture. This means that we want to try lots of things, and we are always keen to give people opportunities to step out and use their gifts in new ways. We don’t think of church as a ‘spectator sport’, but something that everyone can get involved in.
Training Academy. We want to provide lots of opportunities for people to learn new skills and develop in their areas of gifting. We run a School of Leadership and a School of Theology, a preaching course, evangelism training, songwriting workshops and much more.
Spiritual Disciplines. We place a premium on prayer. CCM church-wide prayer meetings are definitely something worth experiencing, and we regularly teach on and encourage private prayer, Bible reading and other personal spiritual disciplines.