Lessons in Learnership

Writer and Broadcaster, Rev Dr Joel Edwards CBE, shares our Reflection of the Month for December 2020.

More than any other year I can recall, 2020 has been a global year. We all sat in a global pandemic-induced isolation to watch a black man saying, “I can’t breathe”, being murdered by a white man in a police uniform.  And the world became intoxicated with the idea of justice. 

So, of all the virtual meetings this year, meeting with the CTE family to explore the idea of being missionary disciples in a Covid climate was one of my most meaningful events.

To be sure, lockdown has presented Christians with challenges and opportunities for vibrant witness and we have seen more news items of churches doing good than I can recall in a long while. Learning to Zoom will be important for years to come, but I am fascinated by a bigger picture.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, whatever you make of ‘mission’ and its association with ‘discipleship’, you simply cannot ignore the fact that all Christians, everywhere have a global mandate to witness to Jesus across all the imaginable ethnic and cultural communities.  Jesus did say that we are to go everywhere making disciples of all ethnic peoples.

Secondly, missionary discipleship presents us with a tricky task:  how do we do missionary discipling across the kaleidoscope of cultural distinctives without some people dominating other people and running the risk of new forms of colonial or cultural control?  This has always been the challenge of the global task. And we have not always done it well.

Much of our witness has been tarnished by a kind of ecclesial discipling which means we have been inclined to spread our own Christian brands while spreading the good news about Jesus. But as the theologian Dallas Willard said, what Jesus meant was, ‘Go therefore into every ethnic group and help them become my students.’

In the heat of stifling injustices where Romans oppressed the Jewish people and the Jewish authorities were often indifferent to the common people, the search for justice was all around them.  And as they talked about Jesus beyond Judaism, the early disciples had to grapple with unfair treatment of its Hellenistic widows, a Roman centurion, and Gentile Christians from the new power base of Antioch in Syria. 

Similarly, 2020 has been an important setting for our mission because, in the popular mindset it has been supremely about how crushed people experience justice.

Diversity and injustice were big issues for disciples from a small town who were learning to be global witnesses. When you think about it, the disciples were learners helping other people to learn about Jesus. 

So thirdly, discipleship was a kind of ‘learnership’. They had to come to terms with the fact that God was teaching them through people who had a very different cultural and theological backgrounds. Samaritans, a Roman soldier called Cornelius, and a group of gifted people in Antioch where disciples were first called Christians.

I suspect that what kept them on course was that their discipleship was shaped by the fact that they had been close to Jesus.  That’s what the people said about them.  Which leaves me asking, how do we discipleship people in such a way that they feel they really know Jesus?

But equally, they had learned about dealing with otherness from Jesus.  Jesus was always at the centre of their global enterprise.  So, when they started calling disciples ‘Christians’, I suspect it was another way of saying, ‘Anyone can be a disciple, but only the people who know him and learn from him can be Christians’.

Rev Edwards is freelance broadcaster with the BBC, a writer and international speaker on a wide range of areas including bible teaching, issues of justice, leadership, faith and society. He is a Visiting Fellow at St John’s College, Durham and is also involved in a small number of consultancies and personal mentoring.

Joel’s wide range of experiences includes 11 years as General Director of the Evangelical Alliance UK and 10 years leadership in Micah Challenge International – a global faith based response to extreme poverty.

Watch Rev Edwards’ keynote speech at the CTE Learning to be Missionary Disciples conference in November 2020.