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Angela Tilby: Discipling is not a matter of business

19 August 2022

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“McDONALD’S makes hamburgers,” the Archbishop of York said at the Mission and Evangelism Plenary of the Lambeth Conference. “Cadburys makes chocolate. . . Heineken makes beer. . . The Church of Jesus Christ makes disciples” (Quotes of the Week, 5 August).

Everybody talks about making disciples these days. In the background are the words of the Great Commission, in which Jesus commands the Eleven after the resurrection: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28.19-20).

It is a problematic text, very different from its Lukan parallel (24.45-52), and often thought to be a late addition. It is difficult to imagine Jesus using the Trinitarian formula for baptism when other scriptural evidence suggests that early baptism was in the name of the Lord only (Acts 10.48).

Nor is it as obvious as we might assume what “making disciples” means — a phrase used only this once by Jesus. The Greek imperative matheteusate means “teach”. This is how it is translated in the Authorised Version, implying that Jesus is commanding the Eleven to teach, bringing all nations into the sacramental life of the Church.

This would then present the essential task of the Church as catechesis rather than evangelism: the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the baptismal promises, the Christian life. All the kind of thing that you might once have expected in confirmation classes and that can still be found in courses such as “Pilgrim”.

It was not by accident, however, that the Archbishop compared the “product” of the Church to that of a global business enterprise. This is the language of American Evangelicalism, and it has come to dominate contemporary understandings of Christian mission. Andrew Atherstone’s recent book Repackaging Christianity: Alpha and the building of a global brand (Podcast, 22 July) shows how Alpha has not only become a trusted global brand, it has also cleverly evolved to meet a changing market: for example, toning down its earlier anti-gay teaching and more recently playing up the social gospel.

But it is still selling a curated experience rather than “teaching the faith” in the Jewish, rabbinical, person-to-person sense that Jesus adopted. In a C of E context, it suggests that clergy and lay ministers might not need expensive training or discernment, because they can always rely on the “product”.

I cannot believe that this is what Archbishop Cottrell really thinks. Perhaps he was setting up a rhetorical case only to subvert it. But what he demonstrated, whether intentionally or not, is how easily the business metaphor can distort and depersonalise the faith. Disciples are not cut to a pattern or made to order. Spiritual experience cannot be produced by a formula. But there is a danger that some Anglicans, trying to reverse decline, are coming to believe that it can. McDonald’s sells burgers; but those who try to sell Jesus end up betraying him.

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