Can we talk for a minute about community and discipleship?
The two ideas, often discussed separately, must be married. Church is a fellowship, a collection of diverse individuals unified under the gospel of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is the process by which a believer learns to follow Jesus better. A more distinct connection must be made between fellowship and followship. One cannot disconnect the two concepts as our followship forces fellowship and our fellowship develops from our followship. Given that scriptural truth, recognize that we learn to follow Jesus better by helping others follow Jesus better.
In Romans 12, Paul writes about differing gifts of grace which are given for the life of the body. He speaks of service, teaching, giving, exhorting, leading, and showing mercy for the building up of the church. Each of these are to be used in the context of the church and for the church. Inherently, the building up of believers in the local church is the job of the local church. We are to serve each other in such a way that others are encouraged and released to engage in the gifting which God disburses and empowers. This means we are to help each other figure out how we are to use the gifts we have been given. To Ephesus, Paul writes of Jesus gifting the church with what it needs, “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Ep. 4:12-13, NASB) In His provision for His mission, God gives first His Son, Jesus, to create for Himself a people, then, second, God gives gifts to His people in order to cause them to grow as individuals and as a group.
When you are growing, you knock over glasses of milk because your arm is suddenly longer than your brain is used to it being. You stumble around more and more because your femur is growing at a rate which your synapses have not yet made the fine adjustments for. It takes practice, yes, but it is a team effort. Your body must work in unison and it takes time. The summer between sixth and seventh grade, I couldn’t hit a baseball to save my life for a while as my eyes adjusted to lengthened limbs; I grew SIX inches in two and a half months. Once my 13-year-old gangly self figured it all out, my swing regained stability and I achieved a modicum of success.
So it is in the church. Individuals, being separate from one another, growing at different rates, must be able to figure out how the entire unit works together. And the crazy part is that individuals should never cease to grow and mature in Christ and as such the unified body of Christ is somewhat amorphous, ever changing as more members are added to the body.
Because of this reality, the two concepts of fellowship and followship must be interdependent. It sounds easy to say, but it is harder to quantify. A small group which promotes growing in faith will certainly emphasize the necessity of Bible study, prayer, evangelism, worship, and service. But in those emphases, one must remember the togetherness aspect of them. So much of discipleship culture speaks to personal spiritual disciplines and individuals engaging in the process of following Jesus better. Much of it even stresses the importance of being involved in the community of believers. But in keeping the two apart, we minimalize the connection between spiritual practices and spiritual community.
Jesus was not a loner. He taught, healed, rebuked, encouraged, and lived in community, demonstrating both the method and importance of living one’s life with others. Growing in faith necessitates participation in community in a meaningful way. Authentic gospel relationships include admonition, confession, encouragement, teaching, burden-sharing, and so on. These pieces of discipleship, practiced in the context of gospel-aligned, -centered, and -focused community, flow from the “one another” commands of scripture. So as a church fosters community, it must also foster discipleship as one of the purposes of that community.
This is not a knock on developing a culture of discipleship within the church. Faithful churches take the Great Commission seriously, as they should. God commissions His church to make disciples of every tribe and tongue in Matthew 28:18-20. In the process of drawing in, training up and sending out God-commissioned disciples into the world, churches must remember that discipleship is about more than the individual learning to follow Jesus better; it’s about the entire body working together to follow Jesus better.