How did the early church make disciples? What can a church implement to activate discipleship in its churches.
Before Emperor Constantine’s conversion, becoming a disciple of Jesus was no easy thing.
Firstly there was a trust issue. You’re a Christian and someone sidles up to you in the market place and asks ‘I hear that you’re a follower of the way, I want to become a follower too!’ Now are they genuine or a Roman Spy out to hand you over to the authorities?
For this reason such ‘seekers’ would often not be introduced to the rest of the church until they’d undergone ‘catechesis’ - extensive instruction in the Christian faith. Obviously, this was to determine their integrity but it had a discipleship focus, following Jesus placed the highest demand on your life and the early church would put people through up to three years of foundational teaching.
Three years of initiations. New converts, or 'catechumens', would receive basic theology, hear biblical preaching and be asked to confess and renounce sins regularly. There would be ritual cleansing and exorcism. Why? Most of the converts were from a culture of pagan worship that observed occult practices. There was a need to clear the ground of the old worldview, the pantheist/ polytheist way of seeing things and to smoke out the demonic before laying the foundations of Christianity. Other tangible rituals marked the novice Christian's path to maturity; anointing with oil, the laying on of hands, confession and nakedness.
Central to the grounding of new Christians was the work of the Catechist - a mature Christian who acted as spiritual sponsor through deeply relational mentoring. Only after such instruction for those initial years would the new Christian be baptised and received into the Church.
So after the briefest of overviews what can we learn? What challenges are there for our approach to discipleship today?
Time – In an age where people have little or no knowledge of Christianity more time needs to be dedicated to growing people in faith. Alpha can be the start but what’s our curriculum for a new Christian’s first three years and how and when do we teach it?
Body - As there were no individual bibles in those days, the focus was on people gathering for worship and learning rather than on individual ‘personal’ devotions. For young Christians today much of their learning will be developed in the ‘mould’ of a small group coming together regularly rather than ‘growing’ alone.
Ritual - In an extremely visual age can we make use of distinct rituals to mark a new Christians progression in the faith? It may not go without saying so do avoid nakedness.
Hoover - We pay attention to the knowledge we want people to ingest, but what about paying attention to the ‘gods’ they’re leaving behind and helping them to do that? What are those gods in today’s world? Early teaching needs to provide a worldview ‘hoover’ to clear away old schools of thought.
Catechist - Here’s a thought why couldn’t Catechists work during a Sunday morning service whilst there’s provision for Childcare etc? ‘Adult’ Sunday school? So if you’re a baby Christian, in your first three years, you learn a different curriculum to the mainstream congregation until you’re baptised!
Throughout history pioneering Christians have been radical in their approach - going back to the roots to see what we can learn: the early Churches approach shows how looking backwards can often provide a way forward.