Taking up the cross and following Jesus is not a once-and-for-all decision. It is a choice that we must continue to make, day after day, year after year. And the deep inward changes that come from surrendering ourselves to Christ's guidance are generally not sudden. Though many of us experience pronounced "conversion experiences," these intense moments of connection with God are not on their own sufficient to change us into the men and women that God calls us to be. Occasional moments of heightened awareness of God's presence serve either as an invitation into the Kingdom-life, or as a confirmation of God's ongoing guidance. However, as precious and helpful as these times of ecstatic intimacy with our Creator are, they are high points, not the norm.
While the Spirit is always present with us, gently guiding us and revealing how we are to walk, most of the time it is indeed a still, small voice. We need help in learning better how to listen and obey this sometimes subtle influence in our hearts. We are greatly aided by the help of experienced Christians who are able to walk beside us, accompanying us in our personal discernment and development of a more deeply faithful lifestyle. This ministry of shepherding one another as we grow deeper in the Way can be called discipleship, as it is a process of supporting each other in walking the path of present-day disciples.
As the Holy Spirit gathers us together into missional, Christ-centered communities, one of our top priorities must be developing a culture of discipleship and mutual support. Learning to be like Jesus is not a self-evident process, and though it is ultimately the Lord himself who will guide us through the fiery process of conversion, we need the assistance of spiritually mature brothers and sisters who can help keep us on track. A healthy Christian community will be one in which discipleship (or eldering) is an integral part of the group's life and focus.
Relationships of discipleship in the life of each believer are much like the role of training wheels on a bicycle. Just as the training wheels do not provide the forward momentum or help in steering the bicycle, neither do elders(1) determine the speed or direction of progress in the spiritual life of the members of the community. Instead, just like training wheels keep a bicycle from tipping over, elders help to provide balance to women and men who are seeking to be faithful to the inward work of the Spirit.
In our attempts to be like Jesus, all of us are a lot like children at a bowling alley. We have good intentions, but our untrained spiritual muscles cause us to veer off-course so often that we do not have much chance of success on our own. Like a young child hurling a bowling ball down the lane, more often than not, we misjudge and end up flying off into the gutter. Fortunately, God has given us the spiritual equivalent of "bumpers." Bumpers are inflatable tubes that are placed in the gutters of a bowling lane, so that a child can play without being endlessly frustrated. When the child bowls wildly out of bounds, the bumper nudges the ball back into the center of the lane.
The Church is like this. When we participate in Christian community, we are surrounding ourselves with "bumpers," people who care for us enough to nudge us back on course when we are clumsily pitching ourselves into dark places where, if we are in our right minds, we should have no desire to go. This service of spiritually "bumping" one another is a responsibility for all members of the community, and just as we benefit from the stabilizing effect of other followers of the Way, we are each called to help others in growing deeper in their walk with Jesus.
As Christ gathers us into community, it is crucial that we emphasize discipleship as one of the most important activities in our life together. While some are more spiritually gifted in this work than others, everyone can have a role in caring for the spiritual needs of another member of the community. Relationships of discipleship will look different depending on the gifts of the people involved, but we as missional communities need to be intentional about fostering an environment in which the spiritual nurturing of others is central to our shared life.
If we are to be like Jesus, we must make disciples like he did. Discipleship is not something that only some small spiritual elite can do; all of us have a part in this ministry. The old Quakers often used the phrase, "in measure," as a way to talk about responsibility according to maturity. They taught that each person had the Light of Christ "in measure," and that each one was responsible to minister according to the measure of the Light within them. The idea was that, while we are all at different levels of maturity in Christ, each of us has responsibilities that are appropriate to where we are in our journey. Some women and men are especially called to be elders of the Church - to dedicate themselves primarily to equipping other followers of Jesus in their walk; but everyone has some role to play. For some of us, our role may be simply to provide a listening ear for a struggling brother or sister. Others of us might be called to give guidance and counsel to those called to specific ministries. Whatever our part to play, we share freely the measure of grace and experience that God has bestowed upon us.
It is important that we remember that discipling others is not something we do once we have reached perfection. The original disciples of Jesus were far from perfect themselves, and yet Jesus commanded them to "go and make disciples of all nations."(2) He gives the same command to us today, imperfect as we are, because it is by living into Jesus' command to make disciples that we ourselves become more like him. Discipling others is a part of the process through which we grow in Christ, not an after-thought.
How can we as local meetings of the Church encourage each person to live into their spiritual gifts and become more like Jesus? How can we develop a culture of discipleship within our communities?
1. In the Quaker tradition, the term elder refers to a spiritually mature member of the community who aids in spiritual discernment and discipleship. It is not a function of age, but rather of spiritual groundedness and wisdom. Friends often use eldering as a verb, referring to giving spiritual care (and sometimes correction) to others.
2. Matthew 28:19
Resources for Further Study:
Sandra Cronk, Gospel Order - A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #297, 1991.