Nurturing, Discipleship, and Chaplaincy

Here’s a seminar I did for the Sheffield Diocese Development day. I worked with Pete Allen who is Sheffield Sport Chaplain. I am a part of that team and use a little of my time being with the good folks at Sheffield Shark’s Basketball. Beginning to engage with a chaplaincy role helped me to ask questions about evangelism, nurturing disciples and such things. Here it is with some questions for reflection at the end:

I grew up in the evangelical tradition where there was an implicit or explicit culture of working hard to convert people to Christianity which would be reflected in increased numbers on a Sunday morning.

There is a temptation to react against this…unless you are an evangelical too, yet when we consider Acts 2, the biblical narrative can say that 3,000 people were baptised that day. That figure may have been rounded up slightly, or maybe rounded down, but there was an expectation that people would become Christians and that this would be quantifiable in the numbers of people who attended gatherings in the early church.

On the other hand you have the words of Jesus that are often alluded to as the church seeks a balance: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations…’ We are called to make disciples and not converts. It is harder and more time consuming to make disciples than it is converts. So whilst numbers may be a guide, they are not the whole story. Dallas Willard once said that there are two questions that every church leader should be able to answer – what are you doing to make disciples? And is it working?

Let’s go back to Acts 2. About 120 people are gathered in the upper room to pray. The Holy Spirit descends; Peter is obedient to the unction to explain what was happening and does so by referring to Scripture, and making it contextual for his largely Jewish audience. There are lot of lessons and things that could be drawn out from that narrative.

But here’s one lesson that might help us think about ministry and nurturing new Christians or those exploring faith. 3,000 converts divided by 120 disciples gathered in the first place to pray equals 25. In other words everyone of those 120 within the twinkling of the Holy Spirit’s eye became a small group leader of 25 brand new Christians. We can imagine the early church did not ask that group of disciples: do you want to nurture and welcome some new converts into your home and teach them the truth of Jesus Christ, i.e., will you be a home group leader? They said: ‘Hey folks, you’re all home group leaders now.’

There wasn’t an option.

Some of those disciples were a little bored in the prayer meeting in the upper room, some of them had not been followers for long, some of them had serious doubts about who Jesus was, some of them were old, some of them were young, some were male, some were female, some of them were not working, some of them worked every day light hour that God gave, some of them were intelligent and knew the Scriptures well, some of them were just learning themselves. It is very likely that all of them had a responsibility of nurturing new converts.

In our context there is neither enough time, money, or resources in the church for us to think that we don’t have to be involved in nurturing people to faith. All of us, every person who is a follower of Jesus Christ, need to be a chaplain to a person or group of people.

This thought has caused me to think about nurtuting faith, about making disciples, based a little on the chaplaincy model as opposed to trying to evangelize. Some of this is just a question of semantics, and I don’t want to draw too firm lines that define the terms ‘chaplain’ and ‘evangelist’. I am also aware that the term evangelist is explicitly used in the Bible. But I do think that some of what happens in chaplaincy work is a little more like the evangelism that happened in the Bible.

There are a few key points about chaplaincy that are sometimes different from us sharing the gospel and then giving up and looking for someone else to share the gospel with, or at least not spending time with the person or people we have shared our faith with.

Chaplaincy involves long term self-sacrifice

In 2 Timothy 1:8 Paul says,So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.’

The point he is making is that, in his context more than ours, there was the very real danger of suffering and personal sacrifice when it came to sharing the gospel; Paul knew this because he wrote the letter from a prison cell.  This is something that makes us nervous: personal sacrifice.

When we imagine chaplaincy we might imagine something that we like doing. Football fans think ‘I’d love to be chaplain to a football team, I’d get free tickets.’ Or perhaps we might think of a way that we could become chaplain to the local music scene, some kind of pub chaplain might be good. Free tickets might be a bit of a perk of the job, but one of the things that isn’t is the amount of time that it requires, and the realization that you are not the chaplain of a particular football team so much as chaplain to the people of that team. Here we might reflect on the words of the French philosopher Sartre, words I don’t wholly agree with, ‘Hell is other people.’ We can picture giving up a Saturday afternoon to watch the game, but people make demands on your time. And probably the biggest demand on your time is being there when people don’t need you, but might need you.

It can take years to earn the trust of a person before they finally turn around and say, ‘I have a problem, would you pray for me?’ We want it to happen, but we might not be ready to make the personal sacrifice of hanging around, giving up one of our free evenings a week, year in year out, when all we want to do is go home, or have an evening to ourselves, or take it easy on our lunch break.

What would it take to disciple the most unlikely disciple?

We could look at it another way, and think of the one person we know who we think is least likely to be saved, and ask ourselves the question of what would need to happen for that person to turn to Christ? You might imagine someone who has lots of issues, someone you know whose lifestyle is a long, long way away from that of a follower of Christ. You might just think about someone who you know, but not very well. The person in your office you see everyday but don’t know much about, the Saturday girl in your local newsagents. The reason they are not likely to be saved is because you don’t know them, so there is little chance of them coming to know Christ through you.

For that person to encounter Jesus it requires the Holy Spirit at work in you, and in them; it also requires you to give up something: that could be time, reputation, or both.

When it is the lunch break in your office you may well want to put some music on your iPod and read a book, go into your own little world for a well earned break, but instead you make a commitment to be this person’s chaplain, to build relationship with them; it could take one week, it could take one year.

What if you are a shy person, you have to make the self-sacrifice of being open and friendly. For people for whom that does not come naturally it uses up emotional energy. You finish your lunch break more tired then when you started it.

And one of the keys in all this is that you keep going at building that relationship and being there for the person or group of people even if they don’t need you. This leads on to a big potential difference between chaplaincy and evangelism…


You can only save someone who wants to be saved

This seems to be pretty obvious, but is one of the toughest lessons to learn.

It leaves us with a difficult question, and one for which I am not going to give the answer but will depend on your theological point of view: do you serve people anyway because you believe them to be made in the image of God, or do you go and look for someone who does want to be saved and leave the rest to their own devices?

The chaplaincy model suggests that you hang on in there, that you meet with God in all kind of unexpected places, that you should be a friend and serve for the long haul. The urgency of some people’s needs and demands on our time suggests that we first and foremost save those who want to be saved.

If all of us are called to be chaplains, then I think that the likely answer is that we do both. We don’t focus only on those who are aware of their need of God, but that we also serve those who don’t want to be saved, and with no prerequisite that it is likely the people we are serving will suddenly become a disciple, or even come to church and boost average attendance.

The obvious example is that Jesus laid down his life because he loved the whole world; he died for everyone even if everyone doesn’t believe.

– Can you think of biblical evidence to suggest one course of action or the other? What’s your gut reaction? See Luke 5:30-32, is the fact that the people mentioned here are diagnosed as ‘sick’ from their own understanding (i.e. they want to be saved, or is it because the physician Jesus has seen they are sick and wants to minister to them whether they want to be saved or not?)

– What are the implications of this?

– Where are the places that you are already that you can serve God’s creation as well as seek to nurture new disciples of Jesus?

– If you were one of the disciples in the upper room in Acts 2 how easy would you have found it to lead and nurture newly baptised?

– How can you be strategic in seeking to nurture disciples?

– Where are the places that you are willing to be a ‘chaplain’, to serve, listen to the people, listen to God? Are those places different from the places you are in now?

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