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Doing what the Lord Jesus did

13 March 2015

Stephen Cottrell on making disciples and exercising ministry

Making Disciples: How did Jesus do it?
Tony Pullin
CWR £8.99
(978-1-78259-236-5)
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT243  )

Another Christ: Re-envisioning ministry
Andrew Mayes
SPCK £12.99
(978-0-281-07246-0)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT243  )

DISCIPLESHIP is all the rage at the moment; and, having just debated the matter at the General Synod, the Church of England is liable to wring its hands in mortified despair, wondering why it hasn't written more reports on the subject in the past. But what is discipleship? And how might it be nurtured in the Church? These two books - one specifically about making disciples, and the other about re-envisioning ministry - approach the issue in different ways.

Doing what it says on the spine, Tony Pullin's Making Disciples: How did Jesus do it? is a straightforward look at the Gospel narrative, with a particular focus on Peter. The message seems to be this: if Jesus could make a disciple out of backsliding Peter, there is hope for all of us. But there are also practical and helpful advice and suggestions for how the sort of apprenticeship scheme that Jesus ran in Palestine could also take root in our churches today. And the underlying philosophy is stated clearly in the first sentence of the book: "Discipleship doesn't come after mission - discipleship is our mission"

Another Christ, by Andrew Mayes, approaches from another angle. First of all, it is about ministry, not discipleship. Although this distinction shouldn't be made too rigidly (after all, every Christian has a vocation and a ministry), there is a difference between those who are called to specific leadership in the Church, be it lay or ordained, and those who are called to live out their Christian vocation in the world.

This book is aimed clearly at the former, and the method - again we shouldn't be too rigid - is not so much looking at how Jesus trained others as at Jesus himself. Looking through the lens of a series of provocative and illuminating images - builder, hermit, rebel, mystic, jester, etc. - Mayes leads us to see Jesus from a variety of standpoints.

The book seemed to me to be a literary equivalent of that popular home-group exercise where people are given a series of pictures of Jesus and asked what they see in them. By our looking at Jesus in these very different ways, our overall picture of him is expanded, and our understanding of ministry is reimagined.

Reading about Jesus as "reveller" was one such delightful challenge. His opponents accused him of party-going, gluttony, and mixing with the wrong sorts. He famously turned water into copious amounts of wine. But we usually pass over what such accusations indicate about his ministry; for he is indeed the one "who played the flute, but we did not dance" (Matthew 11.16-17) and who, in Mayes's words, chose a "party and a celebratory meal as the central symbol of his message about the kingdom of God".

He goes on: "The Eucharist reveals the church as it should be: a community of faith in which different gifts and ministries are exercised." Then, quoting St John Chrysostom, he reminds us: "What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger?" Fiesta leads to service. And all are invited in. The underlying message is simply this: if you want to learn about ministry, look at Jesus. Look hard and long; for Jesus is the image of the unseen God, and, once you start looking, there is lots to see.

In each book, the chapters end with suggestions for prayer and personal reflection. From their different theological traditions, both books pose challenging questions about how and why we follow Jesus, what we can learn from him, and, in the book by Mayes in particular, how he can still surprise us.

Pullin is right: making disciples is our mission. But the Church of England could do with a more nuanced appreciation that following Jesus leads, first, to ministry in and for the world, and that ministry in the church should be primarily concerned with building up the church for this apostolic vocation. These books will help. Andrew Mayes will also challenge.

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford.

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