Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall shares thoughts on the challenge of "Bold Discipleship."
In this series of blog posts reflecting on The United Church of Canada's Call and Vision: Deep Spirituality, Bold Discipleship, Daring Justice — we will explore each line and the insights they offer for our personal faith experience and our witness as Christ’s church. (These reflections could be used as inspiration for your own. Please let us know if you have sermons, reflections, or ideas to share to animate the United Church’s Call and Vision statements.)
One of the concerns I have been hearing from almost every congregation, and every level of church administration, is the lack of volunteers now available to carry out the church’s work. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was said that 20 percent of the congregation does 80 percent of the church’s work. That 20 percent did not seem problematic when the average worshipping population was between 60 and 100. Things have changed some with the pandemic. The challenges did not occur because of the pandemic. But, as in most things, the pandemic highlighted things we often ignored. It highlighted the issues so that the problems could be ignored no longer. This is true of the number of persons who are willing and able to do church work. The number of people coming out to in-person church has decreased significantly, and this has affected every aspect of the work of the church.
It could be easy to give up hope to think that death and decay are around the corner for the church. Yet, for me, that is not an option. The question is, however, how do we have hope and maintain hope in incredibly challenging circumstances? One such source of hope for me has been the “Calling and Vision” for The United Church of Canada adopted in October 2021 by the General Council. Our Calling, “Deep Spirituality, Bold Discipleship, Daring Justice.” In these three statements, the General Council sought to encapsulate the church’s aspirations in the present age. You could read the statement saying that we strive to be a church where deep spirituality, bold discipleship, and daring justice are to be evident. Given the polity of the church, it is now up to each regional council and congregation to incorporate and reflect this statement into their statements of calling or mission statements.
I was a General Council Executive member recommending this statement to the General Council. I commend the church leadership that worked assiduously to consult, gather information, and forge this statement together. Yet if I am to be honest, each time I read “Bold Discipleship,” I have an experiential disconnect. There is nothing wrong with the statement. However, my experience in The United Church of Canada has made me wonder if the understanding of discipleship is part of our church’s DNA. Since entering The United Church of Canada, my experience has been that we hardly ever spoke about being a follower of Jesus. So, speech about being a disciple of Jesus has not been a frequent experience for me. Therefore, the calling to bold discipleship is not daunting. Instead, it reveals a challenge that each church member must confront as we move forward.
If we were to study the origin of the word ‘disciple’ it would reveal that it has its roots in the Old English word “discipul” (fem. discipula), which means “one who follows another for the purpose of learning.” The disciple, then, is a student who learns from a teacher. The disciple not only stores information but also puts into action and lives what the disciple has come to know. The question which comes to my mind is, “a disciple of who?” That question may seem redundant, yet it is a fundamental question that we must answer. If we say, Jesus, we must think of what that is saying. To be a disciple of Jesus suggests that we must study his life and teaching and reflect on what we have learned in our life and living. This understanding calls into question any belief that coming to worship service alone once per week is sufficient to learn about Jesus. It also begs the question of the state of Bible study and other such gatherings in the church.
At the same time, the word bold describes the type of disciple we aspire to be, not timid nor cowardly. The bold disciple does not claim to have the ‘direct hotline to Jesus.’ Yet the bold disciple is willing to attempt to live what they have learned. No, this is not easy, but it is an ongoing challenge. We commit ourselves knowing that we are not alone in this endeavor. We are not alone because the Holy Spirit is always with us. At the same time, if we are a church, then ‘iron sharpens iron’ (Proverbs 27:17, NRSV), none of us are in this by ourselves, and we must be able to rely on each other as we seek to be bold disciples.
There is the thinking that action should be more important than belief. However, our efforts must arise from something and be guided by fundamental principles. The church is not called to be a group of good people in society. The church is the “called-out community” of Jesus. Each member of the church is called to follow Christ (thus the word Christian) and, in doing so, to be a disciple of Jesus. In looking at us, the world must be able to see the work of Jesus continuing through us in what we do, how we relate, and what we say. If this is so, it behooves each church member to make the time to learn about and from Jesus. We cannot follow that which we do not know.
So, part of my hope for the church is for us to be bold disciples. As I end this blog, I remember the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman from Samaria in John 4. Near the chapter’s end, the Samaritan woman returns to her town to tell the people about her encounter. The people later say to her, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (John 4: 42, NRSV). They believed because they learned for themselves. In many ways, this is what we are called to do and become.
—Rev. Dr. Paul Douglas Walfall is the ministry personnel in the Fort Saskatchewan Pastoral Charge in Northern Spirit Regional Council. This blog post was originally published on his blog, Just a Thought.
The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.