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The Meanings of Discipleship

Updated: Apr 11

Back in the noughties, we had the ‘mission-shaped’ era. Energised by the seminal report, Mission-Shaped Church: Church planting and fresh expressions of church in a changing context (Church House Publishing, 2004), mission-shaped became the en vogue term. We had mission-shaped church, mission-shaped spirituality, mission-shaped children, mission-shaped grace and many other variations on the theme. In many ways this was very fruitful, challenging a church prone to insularity to look both upwards and outwards and bringing to birth the fresh expressions movement.

In their excellent book The Meanings of Discipleship, Andrew Hayes and Stephen Cherry [1] explore how the words disciple and discipleship have risen to new levels of prominence and significance within the church as the 21st century has unfolded. Does this mean that discipleship has now usurped mission as the en vogue term for the church? Personally, I don’t think so as many people, myself included, advocate missional discipleship as a way of life for the body of Christ both gathered and scattered, fusing our two focus words together.[2]


When Hayes and Cherry set out to compile their book, they originally planned to call it The Meaning of Discipleship singular. They invited a wide range of writers to contribute essays on the theme and quickly realised it was very difficult to retain the use of the singular meaning when there are so many valid views as to what constitutes discipleship. So, they used the plural meanings in the title.


I would warmly commend the book to anyone wanting to think more about discipleship. For anyone thinking about running a Holy Habits programme The Meanings of Discipleship would be excellent pre-reading as Holy Habits is all about forming missional disciples. This begs the question that the book explores, what do we mean by disciple/discipleship?


Having reviewed all the contributions the editors suggest ‘Discipleship is not primarily a matter of personal or corporate performance, or even the living out of the implications of doctrine, but something more deep-seated in desire and identity that is do with the human longing for holiness, and the form that takes under the grace of God as made known in Jesus Christ.’ [3]


The Meanings of Discipleship explores discipleship from a variety of perspectives and is comprised of four sections. The first looks at the early foundations of Christian discipleship and explores discipleship in the gospels and Acts (referencing Holy Habits!), the early church and medieval times. The second section profiles some inspirational figures who exemplified discipleship or encouraged it in others. Namely Saint Benedict, John Calvin, John Wesley, Pandita Ramabia, Mukti Mission and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Sections three and four explore a number of imperatives for today. These include more conceptual explorations of missionary discipleship, eucharistic discipleship and relational discipleship. And then there are some very practical and contemporary looks at secularisation, interfaith relations, issues of racism, ecological matters and issues of identity examined from a transgender perspective.


The essay addressing issues of racism by Anthony Reddie is particularly interesting and challenging. Anthony’s essay is entitled ‘The quest for Catholicity: An anti-racist model of discipleship’. When we recite the Nicene Creed, we say we believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church – a church brought to birth to model the love of God in the world – but how can that be when the scourge and evil of racism persists? Anthony is just one of many notable writers and thinkers to contribute to the book. Others include Loveday Alexander, Jennifer Moberly, Matthew Bullimore and Rachel Mann.


Not every aspect of discipleship is explored in the book. I am writing this on the day that Russia has invaded Ukraine and I am very conscious of peace-making as an outworking of discipleship. This is alluded to in several chapters but a complete chapter would be a welcome addition. Likewise, chapters on the beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer or prayer in general and something on an incarnational understanding of discipleship (the Word becoming flesh in us) would be welcome. But maybe I should suggest these to Andrew and Stephen as ideas for a volume two of what is a very welcome and helpful book.

 

Footnotes: [1] Andrew Hayes and Stephen Cherry, The Meanings of Discipleship (SCM Press, 2021) [2] In 2008 Martyn Atkins for example, when he was general secretary of the British Methodist Church, identified Methodism as a discipleship movement shaped for mission. A slightly clunky phrase but one that resonated well with both Methodists and other Christians. Regrettably, it was removed from official Methodist thinking some years later. [3] Andrew Hayes and Stephen Cherry, The Meanings of Discipleship ( SCM Press, 2021), p. 240.


 

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