I do take very seriously Paul’s injunction to the Roman Church that they “should not be conformed to the world” (Ch 12 v 2). However, I do not believe that he means that we cannot learn anything by observing how the world carries out some functions. Jesus drew many parallels between secular behaviour and spiritual principles, especially in respect of farmers and shepherds. Paul likened believers to athletes and encouraged them to run as if they were running for a prize (1 Cor Ch 9 v 24).
For those of us who have come from totally secular backgrounds, some biblical images have little immediate meaning. In the world I came from, anything resembling deacons and bishops was completely outside my experience. Now I do believe in study and applying myself to learning what the bible means by such terms, but I would have found it much easier if someone had compared the church to the catering industry, and explained that the Greek word for deacon was commonly used of a barman or wine waiter.
One of the biblical words that appears to have lost all meaning in the church is ‘disciple’. A common word in Jesus’ day, disciple would have been readily understood as a pupil of a teacher, but with the added element of learning on the job. The same sort of principle that would have undergirded apprenticeships where someone signed up with a master craftsman in order to learn the trade.
Jesus never told the apostles or any of his followers to make ‘churchgoers’ or to ‘get people saved’. He explicitly told them to make disciples (Mat Ch 28 v 19). It seems to me therefore, that once we have become Christians through turning away from self to God, and have sealed that with baptism in water and Holy Spirit, our next step should be to become lifelong learners or apprentices. In other words – disciples. Becoming an apprentice has never been something for the fainthearted to undertake. It is generally badly paid, and involves hard work – some of which is probably menial, repetitious and boring. Even with a comparatively exciting career, such as a professional footballer, the apprenticeship may involve an undreamed of commitment to training in order to become a master of the game. Of course, many people will play football simply for the fun of it and in such cases, competence is an optional extra.
A question we might ask; is what model would Jesus use today to convey the nature of the relationship he wants with his followers? The apostles would have known that there was no such thing as a part-time disciple. Of course, even then there were adherents to religions who did not take it seriously and who hovered on the fringes of one movement or another. But Jesus did not die to gain part-time adherents who fitted in their commitment to him around more important areas of their lives. Jesus wanted disciples and he made it plain that discipleship would cost everything.
One of the problems we have today, is that sometimes there is no expectation that there will be any measurable growth in the people who belong to a church. Leaders are expected to keep the thing ticking over, but not to engage in a meaningful way with people in order to see them change and come into ministry themselves. It is accepted that the leaders must be committed, but allowed that everyone else is only committed to the level they choose, and that may be little more than a weekly attendance and a few pounds in the collection pot. I have been considering what possible names we could give to church leaders that would encourage a different understanding of their relationship with the church.
Looking around at the world, the two terms that would seem most appropriate to import into spiritual church life, are coach and trainer. Both these roles incorporate the concept of enabling and promoting growth in the person or persons being coached or trained. No football team would engage a coach without the expectation that there would be measurable growth and improvement in both individuals and the team as a whole. No one would join a team with a coach unless they were prepared to knuckle down to some exercises and practice that would result in change.
In the early churches, especially those within Jewish or Greek cultures, people would have understood the difference between someone who believed certain facts about Jesus and someone who made the decision to become a disciple of Jesus.
I realise that many churches today make the choice not to present Christianity as discipleship. The ‘welcome one and all’ philosophy which some churches pursue, often creates an attractive environment where people can belong before they believe (and sometimes never believe). It is often a successful method of seeing numerical growth, but not of making disciples. Whilst Jesus drew large crowds, he constantly laid down the terms of discipleship and he never tried to hang on to people who were not prepared to accept those terms.
In some countries, persecution of Christians forces people to become disciples or to turn their backs on their faith. I sometimes wonder whether it is the grace or the judgement of God that holds back persecution in our country. Surely, half-heartedness is a much greater threat to the kingdom than persecution.
Though I do think it could be good to recognise and promote a coaching ministry within the church, a change of name or title alone will do little. But we do need to recover not merely the concept of discipleship, but the practice of it. Can we really be New Covenant followers of Jesus if we do not have an expectation that he will be constantly working on us to change us?
It might be interesting to consider what could happen if a church were to employ a full-time coach instead of a pastor.