Being Disciples in the Twenty-First Century

Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn bring their book Disciples: Reclaiming Our Identity, Reforming Our Practice (Chalice, 2009) to a close with a series of challenges, a call to action, and suggestions as to how the church might reform itself so as to be a witness to God's grace and purpose in the 21st century.

Before they get to the challenges and the suggestions they offer what I'm going to call a confession of faith that defines who we are in their mind. I find the litany compelling, for it affirms who we are and makes it clear that we do have an identity:

We believe we are Christians only but not the only Christians;

We believe unity and diversity coexist;

We believe the biblical message is accessible to all who desire to study it;

We take statements of faith seriously without insisting they define
the content of the Christian Gospel for everyone;

We believe no one has the right to judge the worthiness of another who professes commitment to the Lordship of Jesus;

We come to the Communion table at the Lord's invitation, not the church's;

We believe outward symbols can witness to inward transformation, chief among them baptism;

We believe in the ministry of all Christians while ordaining and licensing some who have been called to the more specialized task of teaching and preaching the Word;

We understand that we can do together many things none of us can do alone;

We believe the visible unity of the church is constitutive of credible witness to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. (p. 127-128)

These statements, together with that offered by the Disciple Vision Team --

We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord's table as God has welcomed us.
suggest that we are a Big Tent people, "open to all who claim the name of Jesus.

This being the case, how do we live out our identity? This question comes at a time when at the General level (I know that level isn't the correct word, but it'll have to suffice), work is being done to revision and revise how we live and work together. They hope to offer some guidance to this process -- from outside the process. With this in mind they offer two primary questions: 1) "What kind of church do we need to be to express who we are as a people?" 2) "What are we who are part of this church willing to do to build it up?"

Under the first question -- "what do we need to do?" -- they offer several suggestions, being with the ordination of homosexual candidates. At this point ordination policies vary from region to region. They would like to see a national policy affirming their place in the church. They would like attention given to licensed ministry -- soon to be called commissioned ministry. Again requirements and standards vary from region to region -- they would like to see educational standards strengthened. Another area needing attention is the use of financial resources -- we have gotten away from a unified budget, and thus agencies/divisions/regions are all going after a shrinking pie. Then there is the issue of new congregations -- while it is great that we are well on our way to establishing 1000 new congregations by 2020, many of these new congregations have only a tangential understanding and relationship to the Disciples -- they'd like to see this strengthened (and I agree). They address the status of the General Minister and president, suggesting that it be strengthened and that the various ministries of the church become more centrally located under the GMP. In difficult financial times, it's not surprising that the status of our seminaries is addressed. As a church we are organized as congregations, the General (essentially national church), and then regions. Our regions too are struggling financially, and thus some attention needs to be given to the way in which they are organized, funded, and purpose.

The first question has to do with areas needing to be addressed. The second question is addressed to us: What are we willing to do? They write:

The old adage that says there's no free lunch could not be truer than when it comes to the kind of church we want to be. As living organisms, churches grow and change according to the influence of their members. The way a congregation grows and what it becomes are the result of what all its members are willing to contribute to that end. Good church life doesn't just happen. It takes effort. Any member truly active in a church finds no neutral ground. Each is a member of a living body with something to contribute to is health and well-being. (p. 138).

It is not enough to simply point out areas of concern. If reform and renewal are to happen then we must commit ourselves to this task. Disciples have traditionally defined the movement in rather individualistic terms, which is no surprise considering the context of its formation and the influences that guided its formation (the American Revolution, John Locke, Common Sense Realism). While the individual remains honored, it's time to embrace a more organic understanding of church -- where we all hang together, so to speak!

The Disciples have an important message for the church at large. It is a reminder that unity is central and that we all have something to offer. Let us, therefore, reclaim our heritage and identity.


Steve said…
Bob, this suggested "confession" is a wonderful starting point. However, I'm a little disappointed that Kinnamon and Linn didn't include a positive interfaith statement in it. Perhaps it could follow, "We believe we are Christians only but not the only Christians;" "and that, as Christians, we are a people of God but not the only people." What do you think?

They actually make that confession elsewhere in the book -- in the chapter on unity. Good call though!
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