It seems that in some current literature and discussions, there is something of a competition as to which should be placed first: church, mission or discipleship.
In this competition the order is important because that which is named first is posited as the prism through which the other two are to be understood and configured.
The argument seems to go that one of the problems of the church is that historically it has also thought about the church first – what it was and what it should be like and how it should organize itself.
This was maybe OK in the “old Christendom” days but will now simply not do.
The concerns about this perceived model are genuine and important. Thus, came the challenge of “mission.”
Mission, it is argued, predates the church, at least the mission of God does and as a consequence the church should be shaped by a prior commitment to participating in the mission of God.
Thus, the valid concern for churches to be missional communities.
The priority place of mission, however, has faced its own challenge from “discipleship.”
In contrast to talking first about the church or, indeed, even mission, we need to focus on discipleship. Basically, the argument goes we are never going to get missional communities unless people are being properly discipled.
I think that each of these emphases rightly brings a corrective to the other two. Indeed, that is the point: They belong in an integrated relationship where none can really claim the priority.
Indeed, this might be the problem: that we keep separating that which belongs together, prioritizing one over and against another when they all need to be integrated under something greater.
I would argue, therefore, that each of these – church, mission and discipleship – is an expression of journeying on the way under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus calls someone, he calls them to be with him, into the community of others who also respond to his call, and to be involved in his mission.
The late Athol Gill, a Baptist New Testament scholar from Australia, argued this is the pattern we find in the narrative of Mark’s journey.
First, last and center is the living Jesus Christ (Alpha and Omega).
The rest revolves around and lives under his Lordship, taking specific shape and form as people seek what he is saying to them through Word and Spirit, where he wants them to go, thus working out and seeking to faithfully practice what it means to be church, do mission and look like a disciple in context.
The problem with this is that it is a bit unpredictable, uncertain, dynamic, changing – kind of like following the carpenter, not sure where it would lead and ever learning on the way.
Stuart Blythe is rector of International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam, Netherlands. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Politurgy, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @StuartMBlythe.
Stuart Blythe is associate professor of the John Gladstone Chair in Preaching and Worship at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia.