What is a Christian disciple? That is the question we’ve been asking this fall at First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown. We’ve been exploring many answers to that question because no one answer encompasses everything about being a Christian disciple. However, the question is essential because of Jesus’ Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20). What does it mean to be a disciple? What does it mean to make disciples? With Jesus’ commission in mind, we’ve gone back and looked at some answers that Matthew and other NT writers give that inform what the church is called to be and do.
Our list of answers is probably not exhaustive, but it arises out of a discussion we have had about building a sustainable youth ministry. I attended the Princeton Youth Forum in April of this year, and one of the presentations was on that topic – sustainable youth ministry. Dr. Jeffrey Kaster, Director of Youth in Theology and Ministry at St. John’s School of Theology, presented a list, the first six below, that has helped him and others work on ways to measure the effectiveness of their engagement with youth and young adults. “Much of the problem with youth ministry today,” he said, “is that youth ministry is more event driven than discipleship driven. Too often, we create an experience that is followed by a crash. So, if you want to measure your effectiveness at making disciples, you need to have some sense of what a disciple is and does.” We at FPC Yorktown took his list added to it for our fall study.
A Christian disciple is:
- Someone interested in learning about Christ and his ways
- Someone who has experienced a call to follow Christ
- Someone who has a personal relationship or friendship with Christ
- Someone committed to continue Christ’s mission to live and proclaim the kingdom of God
- Someone committed to being part of a community of faith
- Someone who identifies herself or himself as a Christian disciple
- Someone who practices generosity as a way of life
- Someone who is a faithful steward of God’s gifts
- Someone who is lives out of gratitude for God’s blessings
I’m sure there are many more answers for this list, and I’d love to hear them. The point of creating the list follows Dr. Kaster’s attempt to measure discipleship in the youth and young adults with whom he is working. My sense is that this list is not just for youth and young adults. It’s for all people. What do we hope people will become as they join us in worship and education and outreach through our church’s ministry? Are we simply doing a bunch of good deeds in the name of Christ without naming Christ as the reason for what we do? How are people connecting their lives to their faith and desire for connection to God?
I ask these questions because of the response I’ve gotten from colleagues when I’ve mentioned that we were asking the question, What is a Christian disciple? The response that caught my attention most from some is, “Good luck with that! As if we can answer that question.” My sense is that clergy for one and maybe church members for another have an answer, maybe many, to the question, what is a Christian disciple? Maybe they are healthy answers, maybe not. My concern is that if we don’t name what it is we are working on and tell others, we end up doing church work without helping people give testimony to what they are doing to be disciples or make them.
I have heard and read many discussions about how the church shouldn’t measure its success based on church membership and even now worship attendance. More often, it seems like the answer these days is building connection to the community. I think that is a great discussion, but I wonder what happens as we meet people there. Are we ready to give testimony as disciples of Jesus to how our work, our church, our faith is an expression of God’s love in Jesus Christ? What more do people get from the Christian faith once we’ve met them where they are in the community? I’m concerned that our sense of discipleship isn’t always of multi-dimensional as Christ came to show us and therefore doesn’t invite people into the fullness of who God created them to be.
I wonder if the disciples we make will help our youth discover a sustainable faith. I wonder if the disciples we make will develop adults who live their discipleship at work and pass on the faith in sustainable ways to their children and youth. And I wonder how naming the work the church is doing “to be and make disciples” will help us see what answers we are already living and which answers need some time and attention to fully live out Jesus’ Great Commission. My hope is that we’ll keep seeking answers to the question so that we live the fullness of God’s intentions for us and share our testimony of that way of life with others.
Chip Low is the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown, NY.