Discipleship encompasses a variety of practices, such as catechesis, the teaching ministry of the church, spiritual formation, and mentoring other believers. Discipleship includes all of these aspects, but it also includes missional engagement, particularly since acts of compassion and service shape and form people as they grow in grace.
Christians often struggle with understanding how discipleship is related to evangelism. Evangelism is viewed as the process of getting someone converted, and discipleship is the process of educating and equipping new believers into becoming faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Those who emphasize evangelism are often concerned primarily about a person’s decision of faith. The focus is on ensuring that person is saved. What sometimes suffers, however, is the longer-term growth that takes place through the process of discipleship.
The term missional discipleship is used to reflect on the role of a disciple as someone who is engaged in God’s mission in the world. Missional disciples are on a journey, becoming more like Christ, investing their lives in others, and embodying lives of love for the sake of others. This view puts the church in a new light and sparks a movement dedicated to engaging every context, particularly local cultures, with a mission-shaped heart.1 A missional disciple is a follower of the life and teachings of Jesus and is committed to being a witness. Too often, this missional language has been divorced from the local church because it was seen as something only missionaries did—not what Christian disciples do.2 However, missional discipleship reconnects the relationship of the church to mission and provides a theological and practical approach to discipleship.
Followers of Jesus Christ are called to be disciples. If we take seriously the missional agenda of the church, we simply cannot be disciples without being missionaries, or, sent ones. Missional discipleship includes both engaging in mission and being intentional about faithful discipleship. Given this reality, many congregations are refocusing to embed the gospel through acts of compassion, justice, and love of both neighbor and community. This missional church movement is deeply connected to a theology of the church that is expressed in the very nature of God as mission. The very heart of the triune God is mission. In fact, missio Dei simply means “the mission of God.” The missional pattern of the triune God is captured in the words of Jesus, who tells his disciples in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” God the Father sent Jesus Christ to redeem all of humanity and creation; Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to empower and guide us; and the triune God sent the church into the world to participate in the new creation. God’s mission in the world calls, gathers, and sends the church into the world to participate in God’s mission. The nature of the church remains to seek and follow wherever God is active in the world. Thus, Christians are instruments of God’s mission as redemptive agents in the world. Through our participation in God’s mission, God seeks to restore and redeem all of creation.
A definition of missional discipleship focuses on the missionary nature of God, the role of the church in forming disciples, and the engagement of missional practices that usher in the kingdom of God. Missional discipleship represents the missionary nature of the triune God with the purpose of forming congregations to embody the gospel and to equip Christians to participate in the restorative and redemptive mission of God in the world. Mission begins as God’s people gather for worship around Word and Table, to receive healing and renewal, then continues as we participate in God’s redemptive mission in the world.
Often, discipleship has largely been concerned with defending matters of belief or doctrine. While doctrine is important, missional discipleship hinges on practices more than upholding a particular body of ideas or propositions. People share meals, serve others, discuss issues of culture in relation to their Christian convictions, and pray—without beginning with specific invitations to accept the gospel. In practical terms, evangelism in many circles has stressed belief before belonging: One must accept the gospel before becoming assimilated into the church. Missional engagement reverses that trend, stressing belonging first (often tempered by Christian practices), trusting that belief will follow.
The lives of missional disciples are marked by their engagement in practicing discipleship in their everyday lives. Discipleship is a lifestyle that is deeply embedded in the practice of faith. Missional discipleship often begins with simple acts of hospitality, inviting people to gather and engage in service as well as discussing broader social and cultural concerns. In order to be effective in reaching one’s neighbors and engaging the culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ, missional Christians understand our essential need to engage in missional practices that are a witness of the good news of the gospel.
MISSIONAL DISCIPLES ARE ON A JOURNEY, BECOMING MORE LIKE CHRIST, INVESTING THEIR LIVES IN OTHERS, AND EMBODYING LIVES OF LOVE FOR THE SAKE OF OTHERS.
Christian practices are a dynamic union with God’s mission in the world. They carry an evangelistic weight as a witness to the reality of the reign of God. Missional discipleship is not something that is an add-on to or byproduct of the Christian life. Mission is the essence of discipleship. As Kenda Creasy Dean states, “To be little Christs means allowing God to become incarnate in our lives as we smuggle divine grace in the world. Mission simply means translating God’s love in human form, putting every cultural tool—stories, symbols, attitudes, language, practices, and patterns of life—at the gospel’s disposal.”3 Christian practices are signs of the kingdom of God. They point beyond themselves to the living Jesus, who is the kingdom personified. These practices are a means of grace that provide healing and restoration.
A variety of missional practices help to bring about a faithful witness to the reign of God. These are more than evangelistic outreach, and include acts of compassion, creation care, community development, social justice, and acts of mercy. At times, missional disciples challenge larger social concerns, taking on projects that merge both global and local domains. These so-called glocal concerns can include such things as child abuse, modern slavery, ethnic reconciliation, advocacy for the homeless, and creation care. Such activities, often associated with the terms peace and justice, reflect a mindset that engagement against social ills follows after a God who seeks to redeem all of creation—from the social policies that shape human communities to the very fabric of the environment. Missional discipleship invites different people into these struggles, recognizing that both followers of Jesus and those outside the church can be changed as they see Christlikeness borne out through their efforts.4
MARK A. MADDIX is dean of the School of Theology & Christian Ministries, and JAY AKKERMAN is professor of pastoral theology, at Northwest Nazarene University. Originally published in a slightly different form in Missional Discipleship: Partners in God’s Redemptive Mission, ed. Mark A. Maddix and Jay Akkerman (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2013, 16-26. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
1See Milfred Minatrea. Shaped by God’s Heart: The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).
2Conner, Benjamin T. Practicing Witness: A Missional Vision of Christian Practices. (Grand Rapids: W. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 22.
3Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. (New York: Oxford Press, 2010), 93.
4Blevins, Dean G. and Mark A. Maddix. Discovering Discipleship: Dynamics of Christian Education. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2010), 211-212.