When you hear the term “discipleship” what comes to mind? An educational program for adults in your church? The reflective/debriefing group sessions during a mission trip? A moment to promote a given ministry or event during the worship service? A particular pastor who serves at a multi-staffed church?
Each one of us can probably come up with three or four examples of discipleship that all look different from each other – and hopefully each example contributes to the same idea – that discipleship is how we live our Christian lives in love and service to God so that we are an example of God’s love in the world.
Wesley’s Take on Discipleship
The truth is, as much as contemporary Wesleyans talk about making disciples and doing discipleship, John Wesley rarely used the term “disciple.” For him, the term was synonymous with being a Christian or being an eighteenth-century Methodist. In his tract, “The Character of a Methodist,” John Wesley discussed what made those pioneer Methodists identifiable to the rest of the world. Wesley said it was not the things that early Methodists did or said, but rather that a person loved God with their heart, mind, soul and strength (Mark 12:30). Through loving God so completely, a Methodist found contentment in God, trusted God for every need, prayed and sought after God so that the lives they lived in attitude and action were consistent with God’s love for the world. In the next to last paragraph of the tract, Wesley remarks that being a Methodist is really nothing new to the world and was simply the “common principles of Christianity – the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction.” In other words, being an eighteenth-century Methodist means to be a Christian – to be a follower of Jesus Christ in any age or era.
According to Wesley, being a Christian disciple is an all encompassing endeavor. Using the customary gender-specific language of his day, Wesley describes a Christian disciple as follows:
[H]e is a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life. He is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God, as revealed in the written word. He thinks, speaks, and lives, according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ. His soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness. And having the mind that was in Christ, he so walks as Christ also walked.
Methodists, or Christians, are characterized by patterning their lives after Christ and being renewed, transformed into Christlikeness as they continually follow Christ’s example.
Two remarkable things stand out when reading Wesley’s tract. First, Wesley does not discuss what activities, actions or ministries early Methodists – or Christian disciples – do. Actually, the only activity he explicitly mentions in the whole tract is prayer; which is as much action as it is an attitude for preforming acts of mercy and piety in this world, i.e. by acting prayerfully. The other remarkable thing is closely related and has to do with the title itself: “The Character of a Methodist.” Notice Wesley did not title it “Programs of a Methodist” or “Ministries of A Methodist” or even “Moments of a Methodist.” The fact that he talks about the distinguishing marks or characteristic qualities of Methodists makes me wonder why contemporary Wesleyans are prone to discuss discipleship as a program, or a ministry area, or a focus moment in our worship services when Wesley saw things quite differently. To be either an eighteenth century Methodist or a contemporary Christian disciple is actually characterized by a way of living in this world which qualifies the way (or manner in which persons do things in this world) for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
Christian Character Demonstrates Our Discipleship
Make no mistake, in order to demonstrate our love for God and offer it to others, Christian disciples will be engaged in activities and actions in this world. But those activities and actions are not in and of themselves our “discipleship.” After all, many activities and actions Christians do in this world – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, offering aid in times of crisis – look just like what other well-intentioned, caring persons do in this world. Christian discipleship is characterizing how we engage in activities in this world that demonstrates the love of God to this world. Christian discipleship is about living in such a way that we distinguish ourselves as followers of Jesus from those that do similar things out civic duty, moral obligation, or humanitarian aid. Christian discipleship is not so much about doing something – or anything – at all. Christian discipleship is being a follower of Jesus and living in a manner consistent with Christ’s example even when we are hanging out with friends, stuck in traffic, or surfing the internet. We do not “do discipleship’ as much as we “demonstrate discipleship” by letting Christ’s character infuse our daily actions and lives so that others might know Christ by the way we live.