What is Christian Discipleship?

On October 2, 2012, Scott Sundquist, former professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, gave his installation address as the new Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Below are some excerpts from his address:

“Missional church is really an unnecessary epithet. Is it possible to talk about church and not mean missional? Unfortunately it has been, and so we need to add the adjective missional to remind us what a church is supposed to be. I believe that we not only need to add the term missional to church, but to Christian. Especially in the West, we have forgotten that it is not possible to be a Christian without being missional; without being a sent one.

I suggest that mission today must return to all of our theological and biblical studies (even our understanding of pastoral counseling) as a central concern. I was taught that we cannot (or should not) read the Bible without seeing that all of Scripture points to Jesus. Jesus is the Word. I think this is true. But Jesus is also the missionary of God. He is the sent one, and so if we are reading the Bible with a Jesus trajectory, then we are reading with a missional trajectory. For example, how can we ever talk about the Apostle Paul and his great doctrinal and practical sections of his letters without noting that these were missionary letters written, as it were, on the fly? Doesn’t this shape our understanding of theology as well as biblical exegesis? If this is true, then what about the Gospels, all four of which end not with the institutional church and liturgy, but with diaconal communities commissioned with an impossible task. Ecclesial existence is missional existence, Christian existence is missional existence.

And then I might ask, is it really the task of pastoral care and counseling, or of family counseling, to leave people healthier than before? Yes, but what does it mean to be healthier? In fact, Jesus had a much higher view of the kingdom than of the nuclear family. Sometimes families pay the cost of basic Christian discipleship: Discipleship that seeks to save the lost and defend the oppressed. Sometimes families pay the cost of mission, evangelism, or of justice. In our pastoral care shouldn’t we prepare people to be healthy enough to lay down their lives for their friends? Isn’t this part of what it means for us to participate in Christ?

What is Christian discipleship? At the end of discipleship – even in the heart of discipleship – is mission. A healthy disciple is a sent disciple. Another way to look at this is to recognize that
• Sanctification involves sentness;
• Holiness requires justice; and
• Receiving Jesus means we are sent by Jesus.
Therefore we should take even more seriously Christian spiritual formation as a response to the Great Commission. Spiritual formation is not personal improvement, it is boot camp for imminent kingdom battles.

There is no other way to be a Christian. Any other way of being a Christian is a cheap imitation. Either taking up our cross, or laying down our life as a Christian is a work that is done for others. Taking up and laying down, we might say, is for going out. Love always requires others – others who will receive the love. But, Christian love also crosses frontiers.

What is needed today is innovation in spiritual formation. We need to see spiritual formation as missional formation; more like training to be a decathlete than a couch potato. Don’t you find it a great mystery, that with so many Christians in the United States, that we still have such an unconverted culture? I think it has something to do with Christian character and the unwillingness of Christians to live a consistent countercultural lifestyle.

The heart of innovation will now be the transformation of the human heart. The world needs little Jesuses more than it needs professional missionaries or even technical scholars. Those little ones who are crushed by the injustices and poverty in the cities need a person to walk with them as the presence of Jesus, reaching out with a pierced hand to cradle the crushed heart.

My goal as dean of the School of Intercultural Studies is to see that every one of our graduates will become embedded in godless communities inhabited by the unloved, bearing in their bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be revealed. They will fast and pray the heavens down and will not stop praying and loving and serving until they see the total conversion of these cultures… or until Jesus returns.

I would like people to notice that Fuller produces extreme disciples and, therefore, extreme missionaries. Fuller graduates are so consumed by the love and the passion of Jesus Christ that they love recklessly. Jesus did. Jesus says, “I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy.” In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

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