How are disciples made? The mission of The United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ.” The church believes that the local congregation is the context of disciple-making. Congregations are present in towns, neighborhoods, cities, and communities as outposts of the Church. God is worshiped, sacraments are celebrated and administered, and the gospel is proclaimed in mission and ministry in the world through the lives and witness of the people (baptized and professing Christians). The local congregation is the place where disciples are made because it is where the church intersects with the world, witnessing to Jesus Christ, introducing seeking people to him, and inviting them to give themselves to him.
If disciples are made then it seems that we can say with some certainty that there is a method or process for making them. In other words, one does not become a disciple by accident. Making something implies intention and planning. It is a process in which the materials used are shaped, formed or assembled into something new and different. For example when a factory sets out to make an automobile it begins with a set of parts and a step-by-step procedure for assembling the parts into a working automobile. The various parts are assembled by the hands and labor of several people with varying levels of expertise and training. At each stage of the process the work-in-progress is examined for quality and to make sure that all the parts are assembled properly. Each person involved contributes to the final goal of a car that works dependably and satisfies the customer who will ultimately purchase it. Nothing is left to chance or accident. Every step of the manufacturing process is well planned and executed by trained mechanics.
Making disciples is in some ways similar to making a car. However, this is probably not the best illustration. Such a manufacturing process does not apply to human beings well because the goal of an assembly line is automobiles that are identical. The first car is the same as the 100th car is the same as the 1000th. The goal of disciple-making cannot be to produce people who are identical in belief, practice and appearance. A more appropriate example for disciple-making is that of making pottery. We find this in Scripture
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)
So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. (Jeremiah 8:3-6)
The precious children of Zion,
worth their weight in fine gold--
how they are reckoned as earthen pots,
the work of a potter’s hands! (Lamentations 4:2)
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? (Romans 9:21)
Like clay in the hand of the potter,
to be molded as he pleases,
so all are in the hand of their Maker,
to be given whatever he decides. (Sirach 33:13)
The image of potter and clay is appropriate for disciple-making because people are like the clay. Each type of clay is different and unique. The potter must know the characteristics of the clay before work begins. The type of clay determines the kind of vessel that can be formed from it. The potter then applies his or her knowledge of the clay and the vision for the finished product to shape and form the clay into the desired vessel. Like the assembly line, however, the potter plans and follows a series of steps that lead to the formation of the finished product. The difference is that hand-made pieces contain individual characteristics and flaws that make each one different and unique.
God is the potter who supplies the clay and the vision for the shape and use of the vessel. God also provides the tools necessary for shaping and forming each piece. One of the tools is the community of the congregation. The people, each of whom God is forming, help to form one another. They are, in a way, like the fingers of the potter’s hands, shaping, applying pressure, repairing, and guiding the clay into the shape that God seeks for it.
This image, however, presents some problems. First, clay is inanimate. It has no freedom or choice in what happens to it. In the pottery process the clay is passive. It conforms to what ever shape is imposed upon it. After the clay is dried and baked in the kiln it will remain in the same shape forever. The only way it can change is by breaking into pieces. It can never start over. It cannot grow or change over time. While the image of potter and clay works as a good illustration for disciple-making, it is ultimately unsatisfactory.
Yet another, more appropriate, metaphor for disciple-making is that of learning to make music. Listening to music has helped me understand Christian discipleship. I have loved and enjoyed music all my life. I have even made efforts at becoming a musician by playing around with my guitar. Listening to music, watching musicians make music, and talking to them have helped me understand that being a disciple of Jesus Christ is very much like being a musician.
Making music, like discipleship, begins with love. People become musicians because they are drawn to and learn to love music. The music attracts them to an instrument such as the piano, guitar, horn, violin, or drums. They next must find a teacher who will help them learn how to make music with their instrument. People become musicians from other musicians who are seasoned and who know how to share their love of music with others who want to learn. Like discipleship, music and music-making are personal and social. It is personal but not private.
A person seeking to become a musician very soon learns the importance of study, discipline, and practice. No matter how much natural talent God has given, all musicians understand the necessity of learning and practicing the basics over and over and over again. They know that discipline and practice sets them free to make music. I know a man who is a gifted trumpet player. He plays with various groups around town and often plays in church worship services. In a conversation with him I learned he had been playing the trumpet for over thirty years. He also taught trumpet at a local university. When I asked him “At this point in your life, how much do you need to practice?” his response helped me understand the link between making music and discipleship. He told me “I know from experience that if I’m going to play to the best of the ability God has given me, I need to practice at least an hour every day. If I’m preparing for public performance, I need to practice two hours a day.” This musician understands that discipline and practicing the basics every day set him free to allow the music God has given him to play.
Making music, like discipleship, requires listening, accountability and support. The purpose of discipline and practice is to prepare the musician for public performance with other musicians. Whether music is played in small groups or a large orchestra it is essential that the players listen to one another and follow the leader.
Jazz is the music that has taught me the most about discipleship. Jazz is always played with at least two players and as many as 50 or 100. Jazz helps us understand discipleship because it is an expression of freedom and new possibilities. A typical performance begins with the band playing a familiar melody; each playing their distinct part. After two are three times through the song, one of the players begins to improvise on the melody. As he or she plays with the theme, each of the other members of the band play supporting chords. As each player takes a turn at improvisation, he or she is supported by the band. All this requires skilled and close listening to one another. This process of listening and mutual support sets each player free to play with the music and see where it can lead them. The goal is to allow the music to take them to new places and new possibilities. All the practice, discipline, listening, and mutual respect for the music and one another allows the musicians to get out of the way and allow the music to play them.
In the waters of baptism God calls us into discipleship. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is very much like becoming a musician. Certainly, God does not give everyone the gift of making music. However, because we are all created in the image of God, we are all given the same gift: the capacity to give and receive love. The goal of discipleship is to develop this gift to its fullest capacity. Along the way our character, which has been damaged by sin, will be restored to wholeness into the image of Christ. As we grow and mature in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, love becomes a natural response and way of life in the world.
Making disciples, like making musicians, does not happen by accident or happenstance. It is done with intention born of love for God and love for those whom God calls into God’s household in baptism. The Baptismal covenant provides the compass headings for how to make disciples. In it United Methodist congregations will find guidance for developing an intentional process, or system, for making disciples of Jesus Christ. Such a system will be immersed in the grace of God from which all of the respective pieces emerge. The goal of the system is a community whose form and witness in the world are defined by holiness of heart and life.