By Warrick Farah
On September 30 – October 2 ABTS hosted the Middle East Consultation 2021 entitled “Towards a Dynamic Church: Making Disciples, Developing Leaders, and Engaging Society in Lebanon and Beyond.” The three-day online event invited local, regional, and global voices to consider urgent matters of faith and witness for churches. In the following ABTS Blog post Warrick Farah reflects on the MEC 2021 Day 1 discussion on Disciple Making.
For this year’s consultation, ABTS aimed to engage Arabic-speaking local congregations by focusing on ecclesiology. In other words, what it means to be “church” in Lebanon, the Arab world, and beyond.
With the number of crises increasing in the world today, what could be more important or timely than this topic?
Our three-day virtual conference was conceptually designed with an implicit framework for reexamining ecclesiology built on explorations of 1) making disciples, 2) developing leaders, and 3) engaging society. Each day built upon the previous discussion to craft a nuanced consultation.
For Day 1 on disciple making, we interacted with presentations from Moufid Tohme, Fouad Kahawaji, myself, and Alan Hirsch. Instead of summarizing the contributions of each, I will attempt to integrate their insights into the theological reflection I presented, A Theology of Multiplying Disciples: Addressing the Seedless Grape Phenomenon.
While we might prefer eating seedless grapes to normal grapes (unless for some reason you like crunchy fruit), it’s important to know that seedless grapes are artificially manufactured. Scientists have learned how to genetically alter grape DNA to produce seedlessness.
This seedless grape metaphor can be used to discuss ecclesiology and disciple making, because, unfortunately, our churches are often filled with disciples of Jesus who never reproduce. And like the seedless grape, followers of Christ who do not multiply are an anomaly.
In the Kingdom of God, it is abnormal, a spiritual irregularity, not to multiply. As we shall see, it is a far cry from the life and teachings of Jesus who showed that in one normal grape we can see a multitude of ever-growing vineyards.
Before discussing multiplication, however, perhaps a word of caution is appropriate. The focus of our ministry should be the exaltation of Jesus Christ and never a pathetic obsession with numbers or statistics. Furthermore, I do not intend to imply that the primary lens of discipleship is multiplication: the formation of Christlikeness is central.
However, this brief theological piece is specifically about multiplication. Ultimately, to choose between growing in holiness and growing in abundance of fruit is a false dilemma. In the parable of the grain of wheat (“a seed that dies produces many seeds”), Jesus tied self-sacrifice to multiplying (Jn. 12:24). Becoming like Christ should lead to witness that multiplies. For the goal of God-glorifying community transformation, we must think both/and not either/or.
There are three main theological points that address the seedless grape phenomenon in our churches. So, let’s explore this issue by asking the question, “What is the biblical teaching of those who reproduce their faith in Christ in other people?”
First of all, it is important to place an understanding of multiplication in the context of the whole Bible. Looking at the very first page of the Bible, we read the commands, “be fruitful and multiply” and “fill the earth” (Gen. 1:22; 28). God’s purpose in Genesis 1 is to share his creation with his images so they can rule it with him in harmony forever.
But of course, after the fall, they filled the earth with violence and corruption. But God aims to remedy this through his promise to Abraham and his numerous offspring, that his blessing will come to all nations (Gen. 12:3).
In the New Testament, the exact words for “fruitful and multiply” that the Septuagint used in Genesis are used repeatedly by Luke to describe how the church grew and multiplied.
We might be sometimes shy of talking about numerical growth, but Luke does not hesitate to use the words “grow” and “multiply” and “increase” to describe the spread of the gospel (Acts 6:1, 7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 16:5; 19:20). He also uses modifiers such as “greatly” (6:7), “daily” (16:5), and “mightily” (19:20) to describe the multiplying nature of the Jesus movement.
This theme of disciple multiplication movements in the grand narrative of Scripture is clearest in Isaiah 61:11 and reflected in our grapevine metaphor:
“For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.”
The biblical vision for transformation is the multiplication of disciples and churches who saturate regions and peoples with the life-giving praise of God.
We might ask, what might be the seedless aspects of our ecclesiology? Well, the opposite of the God-glorifying grand narrative of Scripture is placing individual Christians at the center of the story. This happens when we teach that the church exists simply to cater to its members – that God exists primarily for their benefit and comfort.
This all-too-common irreverence misses the beautiful transcendence of being part of something that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our churches, even bigger than our cities or countries. We must call people to join in God’s cosmic and eschatological vision to fill the whole earth with his glory, to be fruitful and to multiply. And we remember, it is only God who causes the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).
This brings us to our next theological point that addresses the seedlessness in today’s disciples.
When Jesus called his disciples, he said “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt. 4:18). This is so obvious that it is easy to miss: following Jesus means, in part, multiplying. Multiplication is tied to our call to follow-Christ. You cannot follow Jesus and not reproduce your faith.
Paul also integrates this multiplication identity in 2 Timothy 2:2, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Here we see four generations of disciples continuing to pass down their faith. 1) Paul, 2) Timothy, 3) reliable people, and 4) others.
Paul certainly expected disciples to bring forth new disciples and churches to bring forth new churches (2 Thess. 3:1). It is natural for faith to flow because it is tied to our identity. We are called to be active producers of faith, not consumers. The difference is crucial.
What is religious consumerism? This happens when church functions like it has a religious product to market. The church service, led by paid professionals, curates a type of commodity in the form of sermons, media, curriculum, and music. The most professional and attractive churches become the most popular and successful. In this framework, evangelism devolves into a marketing strategy which increases more church members who pay tithes and offerings for the religious product.
When we think of church through the worldview of consumerism, then Jesus becomes not Lord, but a label in the religious marketplace. When Jesus is no longer Lord, then we lose the impulse to multiply from our identity, which originates from how Jesus himself multiplied into his followers.
To recap, we’ve seen multiplication in the grand narrative of the Bible and in the core identity of Jesus-followers. The final theological point that addresses seedless grapes is where it all began…
When Jesus called his disciples, he had them serving almost immediately. There was on the job leadership training. It involved learning by doing. He didn’t only teach doctrine, he also emphasized obedience. He taught ethics and compassion. His kingdom was tangible. His disciples observed and imitated his activities. Jesus dealt with the head, the heart, and the hands, and all at the same time.
This contrasts with what we might call “sequentialism” in our churches today. A traditional program of discipleship often follows a linear process of prayer, then pre-evangelism, then evangelism, then conversion, then discipleship, then theological training, then leadership development, then ministry. When you operate in this sequential fashion, you delay important ministry activity, sometimes even for years.
I once had a conversation with an Arab church leader of several small groups of Syrian refugees in Beirut. He told me he would never let another Syrian lead a Bible study until they had finished reading the entire Bible first. I was not surprised that he was not developing any leaders.
It is counter-intuitive to our linear thinking to do things the way Jesus did them. It’s not that Jesus cared about speed or rapidity, but that the multi-faceted dimensions of spiritual formation occurred simultaneously in his practices. They were happening concurrently, not sequentially or linearly.
The genius of Jesus’ approach to disciple making was early and consistent activity, what we might call obedient-faith discipleship, that creates mature disciples who naturally replicate their faith into others.
As a matter of fact, there are less disciples of Jesus and churches per capita in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) than in any other region of the world. Entire groups of people have no indigenous church and little access to the gospel.
For many reasons both contextual and historical, it might be true that one could be a faithful Christ-follower and never pass their faith onto another. However, given the life of Christ and the teaching of the New Testament, including the testimony of Church history, such exceptions seem to prove the rule.
As the saying goes, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” As the body of Christ in the MENA, we have to take a step back and seriously reexamine if self-theology, religious consumerism, and sequentialism have resulted in disciples and churches that reproduce only with great difficulty, and sometimes never at all.
Instead, we need a dynamic understanding of church that embodies the transcendent glory of God filling the whole earth, joyfully obedient disciples who actively reproduce their faith, and concurrent practices of disciple making modeled on the ministry of our unpredictable Messiah.
God is a fruit lover. He loves all grapes, with or without seeds. And yet, to see disciples of Jesus multiplying disciples of Jesus in the MENA region and beyond, let us abide in him. Apart from Jesus, the true vine (Jn. 15:1), we can do nothing.
Warrick Farah is a missiologist with One Collective and editor of the new book on disciple multiplication movements, Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations.