This is now the tenth and final post on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.
We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
The Church disciples and nurtures God's people.
If the Church's most important task is worship and if the Church as it faces outwardly participates in the mission of God to reconcile the world, the Church as it faces inwardly is charged to disciple and nurture God's people.
1. It is common to think of the Great Commission narrowly as a charge to get people to come to faith (Matt. 28:19-20). As we hinted in the previous article, this is even a narrow understanding of evangelism, for evangelism is to proclaim the good news, the gospel, and the good news is bigger than "getting saved." The gospel is even more about the lordship of Jesus Christ, which calls for a lifelong surrender and commitment to him as king. And the salvation it entails is more than our eternal destiny, including also our mission to bring healing to the unwhole.
Similarly, the Great Commission is to "go and make disciples." Making disciples is a much larger task than simply getting people in the door. It is more than "baptizing them" but also includes "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). In other words, the Great Commission is as much about discipleship as it is evangelism.
2. Discipleship is the formation of God's people into true followers of Christ. It involves not only the entrance into the people of God ("baptizing them") but also the training of individuals in "everything that I have commanded you." It involves learning the Scriptures, which are "useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Much more important than learning God's way as a set of truths is actually changing to be more like Christ. This is deep formation, where our attitudes and motivations become like Christ's, namely, by becoming oriented around love of God and others. As our hearts are formed to be more loving, then our actions become more Christ-like as well.
Discipleship is thus the primary task of the Church facing inwardly, just as evangelism is the primary task of the Church as it faces outward, and worship is the most important task of the Church not only as it faces upward, but as it engages in mission and discipleship. However, it may very well be that if a local church does not consciously focus on evangelism, it will have a tendency to over emphasize an inward look and neglect evangelism as a form of worship.
3. The Church disciples in more than one way. It disciples by proclamation, the proclamation of the word of God as it gathers together. Participation in the sacraments of the Church is a part of Christian formation and nurture. We are washed in baptism. We grow by feeding on Christ in communion. Even such activities as marriage, public repentance, funerals, and other events in the life of the Church can be instruments of discipleship.
The Church disciples very powerfully by bringing smaller groups of believers together for instruction and fellowship. The development of small groups of various sorts within churches is a very powerful tool for discipleship. Training before baptism, confirmation in some traditions, membership classes--discipleship can take many forms in a visible church. It certainly takes place outside the walls of a local church, such as in accountability groups and one-on-one mentoring.
4. Part of discipleship is also discipline. Training in righteousness involves spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, and studying the Scriptures. It involves learning how to resist temptation and to "do the good we know we ought to do" by serving others.
But discipline also has the sense of redirection when we get off course. In love, one task of the Church is to correct the person who is headed on a dangerous path. In extreme cases, the visible church may even have to expel and break off fellowship with some who were formerly part of the community. The hope in such cases is for redemption and reconciliation, as well as to protect the body of Christ.
5. We might consider fellowship to be part of discipleship in the sense that it is also Christian formation. It is the creation and nurturing of community. But we shouldn't think of it merely as another form of instruction. Fellowship gets at the heart of how God has created us as human beings. He created us to be in community with one another.
To be able to laugh together, eat together, cry together, walk together is the very stuff of humanity. We as Christians do all these things. The Church is not merely a place for learning and worship. If we have to turn to some other venue to fulfill our basic human need for fellowship, then the visible church is not fully being the Church.
In addition to worship and evangelism, the Church thus has as a primary task the discipleship and nurturing of God's people.