3 steps to whole-life discipleship

Whole-life discipleship is a bit of a mouthful, and what does it mean? It’s far from the first time he’s been asked that question, says Neil Hudson, of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and pastor of Salford Elim. Rather than giving a theoretical answer, he says it’s easier to tell a story...

David and Jane were running four businesses – a farm, a car dealership, a property rental company and a renewable energy initiative – employing around 400 people. But their frustration was feeling that somehow they were failing at what it meant to be a Christian in their context.

They felt they were letting their church down by not being able to be fully involved with all the various ministries.

What they didn’t lack was passion: “We were really wanting to serve God, really wanting to be good Christian ambassadors but you always feel that you’re a failure, you’re not witnessing enough, you’re not having enough chats at the photocopier.

All our staff knew that David was a Christian but we never really had huge opportunities. You can’t preach directly. We were often disappointed in our lack of opportunity to show our faith.

“And it wasn’t being addressed in the teaching we were receiving in a big city church. We very much had this sense that we were doing it alone and that, as Christians, we were working things out on the hoof all the time.”

What they did lack was a way of seeing how their business linked with God’s widest sense of mission, but all that changed with a lightbulb moment: “We heard teaching on God’s big mission and his purposes for work and we realised that by running a business employing 400 people and putting wages in our employees’ pockets, we were feeding families, preventing poverty. Then you backfill and we realised that the four core values on which we were operating our business were the most biblical values you could come across.

We hadn’t actually sat down with the Bible and drawn out some verses, but it came from an awareness of what salvation means when it is played out in the business world.”

It made all the difference to how they saw the significance of their lives. What they were doing, even though they hadn’t recognised it fully, was living out what it means to be a whole-life disciple.

What is discipleship?

Everyone has their own definitions of discipleship. Let me offer you mine: a disciple is someone who is learning the way of Jesus in their particular situation at this particular moment.

Of course, there’s more to it than just this, but at its heart, it assumes that Jesus is Lord, that his ways need to be learnt, and that we will always need to learn them because the situations we face will keep changing.

In order to grow as this kind of whole-life disciple, I need three things:

1. A big picture of salvation

I need to be aware that salvation is not just about God personally saving me from the consequences of my sin so I can live with him for eternity. It includes this, but it is far more than that. God’s intention is that this whole created world is to be transformed, and from the moment I surrendered my life to Jesus, he wanted to use me as a signpost to all that will be renewed by God.

So as Jane and David organised their businesses under the Lordship of Jesus, God was able to use them as an advert of what full life in the kingdom of God can look like.

2. An awareness of the Spirit

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ first sermon highlighted the freedom that he was going to bring to people trapped by social and economic forces. He would be able to minister in this way because the Spirit would anoint him. That same Spirit is the one that is promised to those who follow Jesus today.

The Spirit will be the one reminding you of Jesus’ ways, strengthening you as well as giving you wisdom as you make the difficult decisions in your own contexts, including the tricky areas of work, employment and economics. The Spirit will help you live as a disciple. For Jane and David, it was only as they stopped and looked back that they realised the Spirit had been leading them all along.

3. A whole-life discipling church

There was a lightbulb moment for David and Jane and it came through other Christians. We underestimate the life-changing effect we can have on one another. Our churches are the places that offer a vision of what a life of discipleship involves. I need to be surrounded by people who know that working for the church is not the only way to ‘really serve God’. I need people who will walk alongside me as I am learning the way of Jesus. I need people who are ahead of me in the path of life who can encourage me to keep walking.

I need those who will share their own struggles as together we work out what it means to live this discipleship life. I need worship that stops me collapsing God’s plans down into my wants and needs. I need preaching that will equip me to live wholly as a disciple of Jesus.

What’s at stake?

Whole-life discipleship is not a luxury. Nor is it something in addition to all the other activities that we are involved with. It’s an absolute fundamental necessity. In the UK, the Church has set apart two per cent of its members for leadership.

If we don’t take whole-life discipleship seriously, 98 per cent of the church population will feel that they have to settle for second-best lives. Any business that elevated two per cent of its workforce and then made the rest feel somewhat surplus to requirement would be regarded as stupid.

Whole-life discipleship takes everyone seriously.

There is no one that is not called to follow Christ in every context, at every stage of life. There is no area of our society where God has not placed his people. Police, politics, fashion, media, education, health, business, government, retail, the arts – each of these have Christians involved at every level from top to bottom. As they live out their discipleship, they shape policies, battle with unhealthy cultures and wrestle with the most difficult of situations.

Only as we all take seriously the call to follow the radical Jesus, will we be able to demonstrate that his Lordship is the only hope for the world. That can only happen as we allow the gospel to affect every area of our lives and we grow together as whole-life disciples.

And the good news? It is happening – all around us. Just ask people like Jane and David.

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