Mission and discipleship: training for the kingdom


Rev Dr John Squires

About the Author

Rev Dr John Squires has been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia ever since Union, and an ordained minister since 1980. Throughout his ministry, he has served the whole Uniting Church in many different roles and capacities, including as Biblical Studies lecturer at United Theological College (Sydney), Director of Education and Formation and Principal of Perth Theological Hall and Presbytery Minister—Wellbeing of the Canberra Region Presbytery. In retirement, he continues to be a prolific blogger and poetic writer of liturgical resources, and functions as the Editor of daily devotional With Love to the World.


This paper follows on from an earlier paper that I wrote for the Act2 process that the Uniting Church is currently undertaking: “Fostering a culture of ‘an informed faith”. In that paper, I set out how the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union provides us with a stimulus to foster a culture of “an informed faith”. In this paper, I am focussing on an extrapolation from that basis, into an area that is of vital concern for the contemporary church—developing disciples who are well-equipped to engage in the mission of God.

Underlying this paper is an observation that my friend and colleague Craig Mitchell made last year: “When the ‘missional turn’ began to take hold in the Uniting Church in Australia, we somehow made an either/or choice to resource mission instead of discipleship. We stopped resourcing local faith formation and education. Today most churches lack a plan for these, yet discipleship is one of the key aims of most councils. It’s like bemoaning the quality of preaching while cutting homiletics or biblical scholarship.”

Craig’s comment is undergirded by the important research he undertook in the course of completing his PhD, written up as (Re)forming Christian Education in Congregations as the Praxis of Growing Disciples for a Missional Church.1

In this work, Craig explored a number of “intentional learning communities” within the Uniting Church. (The context where I was involved in team ministry with my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, was one of the “intentional learning communities” that Craig explored.) Craig has made available his conclusions and many resources relating to this research through his website.

I begin my own reflections with our current context. It is widely recognised that we are in a changing context for the church. The Christian Church now occupies a new position within society; no longer do we find that the church is considered to be at the centre of society. The old Christendom model of the village church in the centre of the marketplace, where people were to be found each day of the week, where the priest or vicar was the most educated person in the village, is no longer who we are as church.

Indeed, the view of church held by many in society is changing. There are various reasons for this. Certainly, the media has played a role, especially in the years when the Royal Commission has been in the spotlight, and many people in society have lumped all denominations together and tarred us all with the same brush as certain Roman Catholic and Anglican Dioceses and individuals. That’s not fair, to be sure, but it is a reality, unfortunately.

Such stereotyping is easy to do and proves to be the first port of call in many situations. Further steps have been taken by individuals and groups in society, who move from seeing the church as irrelevant, to taking a more antagonistic view of religion, and the church in particular. So we find ourselves in a changed and changing context.

The key questions for many congregations at this time, then, are these: what is the most faithful and most effective form of mission, today, in this changed and changing context? what is the way that we are being called, as the church, to demonstrate that God loves the world—the whole world—and that we are here to serve others at their points of need?

During the years that I served as Presbytery Minister—Wellbeing in the Canberra Region Presbytery, I worked to a set of five key commitments which the Presbytery had identified as key goals. The first two of these were Resourcing Congregations to function in healthy ways and Working with Congregations to discover new futures. Both of these proved to be important for developing a robust understanding and an effective practice of mission.

A fundamental element in the process of strengthening the mission of the church, is to encourage the development of a missional imagination amongst the leadership of each congregation. Such an imagination will approach the life of the congregation in two ways; it will enhance the existing missional commitments of congregations, but will also be working to ensure that local leadership pushes into new areas and adopts new methods of missional engagement.

To have missional imagination means to see, at every step, how the church can be on mission: in the traditional ways, in fresh expressions and new initiatives. This takes some work; I have found that I needed structured experiences to prompt me along the pathway of “developing a missional imagination”.

So I have learnt much about this by taking part in the Mission Shaped Ministry Course, developed in the UK but now widely applied in Australia. And I learnt more about God’s mission and fresh expressions of church as I prepared and led sessions designed to inform, challenge, and develop the missional imagination of those taking part in the course.

This course encourages the learning of new skills (community engagement, community development, creative missional activities). It also requires congregations to consider a re-prioritising away from the established paradigm of “being church”. In the current paradigm that is practised by many churches, Sunday worship and aged care worship enjoy high priority; maintaining established church groups and activities has a medium-high priority; and developing new initiatives is regularly perceived as too difficult and too threatening. This course challenges and invites people to re-order those priorities, and focus on developing new initiatives.

Teaching, they say, is the best way of learning. As a teacher, in tertiary contexts as well as with lay leaders of Congregations, I know that I have learnt much from all those times when I have undertaken preparation for, and then facilitation of, learning experiences for others. And the Uniting Church’s commitment for its ministers to be “lifelong learners” feeds directly into those experiences. I know that I learnt by teaching.

Experiencing, also, is a key element in learning. Reflective practice works best when a person is immersed in a experience, and then steps “outside” of that experience to consider what took place; to reflect on how they felt, how they acted, how they responded to others, what they did that was helpful, what they did that they might do differently next time.

I am grateful that I was taught long ago to be a “reflective practitioner”, and that I have been encouraged—and required—to practise those skills throughout my ministry. Regular supervision with a qualified professional supervisor is a great discipline for developing and extending those skills!

Alongside the importance of teaching and experiencing for the learning process, then, I want to place a further dimension, which encompasses both structured learning opportunities and reflection on experience. That dimension is one that ought to be familiar to anyone who listens regularly to the stories about Jesus that are collected in our Gospels: it is the matter of discipleship.

I fear, however, that the church today has “dropped the ball” with regard to discipleship. Worried about our declining numbers, our ageing buildings, our lack of outreach, our fixation on certain matters of doctrine and church practice, we have overlooked the fundamental element of being a follower of Jesus—a disciple.

The earliest written account of the life of Jesus, which we know as Mark’s Gospel, emphasises the necessity of following Jesus; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is met each time with an immediate response: Simon and Andrew follow him (1:17), then James and John follow him (1:19), and then Levi the tax collector follows him (2:14). Each leave what they are doing and follow Jesus.

What is involved in this “following”? The Gospel narratives make it clear that it involved walking along the dusty roadways alongside Jesus; sleeping in the homes offered to the wandering group by sympathetic villagers; eating at table with whomever happened to be present; witnessing the “deeds of power” that Jesus was equipped to undertake; and listening carefully as he taught in parables, offered succinct, pithy sayings, and gave extended discourses as opportunity presented.

“Have you understood all this?”, Jesus asked his followers, impertinently confronting them after having offered a series of parables (Matt 13:51). It’s my favourite question, amongst all the questions that Jesus asked. The response of the disciples (“Yes”) needs surely to be heard with a grain (or more) of salt. Clearly, there was more work for Jesus to do (see Matt 14:26; 15:23; 16:5–12, for subsequent examples of times when the disciples clearly did not understand).

How do we understand all that Jesus offers? The words he speaks after asking that impertinent question (Matt 13:51) contain a vital clue. He speaks about “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” in these words (Matt 13:52). The Greek word translated “trained” is mathēteutheis, from the root word manthanō, meaning “to be a disciple, to be a learner”. And that root word also morphs into the noun, mathētēs, which is regularly translated as “disciple”.

At the heart of discipleship is learning. This is why the first disciples were to follow Jesus—to learn. They learnt by listening (but we know that most learning doesn’t happen from simply listening). They learnt by watching (which has a better success rate—but is still not optimal). They learnt by being involved (which brings an even better result). And then, they learnt by doing, as Jesus sent them out, two by two, “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2)—to do, for themselves, precisely those things that he had been doing, and they had been observing.

And, of course, after they returned from this practical experience, “they told Jesus all they had done, and he took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10). I imagine that this was a very vigorous debriefing session as they recounted and reflected on their varied experiences during this period. This is precisely what we now recognise to be excellent pedagogical practice: some orientation, an immersion experience, and then in-depth reflection on what was learnt in that experience. (And then, repeat, and repeat, and repeat!)

Last year, I co-authored an article on mission with my wife, Elizabeth Raine (Minister at Tuggeranong Uniting Church in Canberra).2 In that article, we write as follows:

“We believe that mission is something that anyone can do, but it is not something that comes easily and naturally to most people. Training in mission is essential. Being prepared to step outside the familiar and comfortable “box” of church is an essential element—so the right mindset is the first step.

“After that, training can inspire, encourage, refine, and develop missional sensitivities and lead to strong missional practices. But without that commitment to do something different, to reach out of the predictable, to experiment and explore, no mission will occur. Business as usual is a big temptation to many church people; and business as usual can quickly stifle mission (unless mission itself is the “business as usual”).

“So, training in the “how-to” of Messy Church, Godly Play, Fresh Expressions, GodSend, and Mission Shaped Ministry, can indeed inspire and equip people to become missional in their orientation. These courses don’t provide any guarantee, but they do each offer a set of stimuli, challenges, and resources for people to consider how to “do church differently” and hopefully also “engage in mission”.

“There is a clear principle that is often articulated, with which we agree, and which we feel should be stated again and gain. Mission is about the world, not the church. Mission means knowing the community we live in, the society of which we are a part, and the culture(s) that shape(s) us, the expectations and patterns and customs of people.

“Mission means shaping and reshaping the way we “do church” in the light of these matters. The Mission of God is God doing things in the world, and we, as the people of God, joining with that activity. It means going out to others, not expecting others to come in to us. A missional church is not simply a church that opens the doors and expects people to flock in to the wonderful programmes that are on offer. A missional church is one that is always oriented outwards, a church whose people are dispersed, engaged in communities, actively involved in the various needs of people across these communities.”

In the context of the Act2 processes, and also in the light of what I have earlier written regarding the “culture of an informed faith”, I think it is imperative that we incorporate within our thinking and planning the essential element that each Congregation (re)commits to being an intentional learning community in which “the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr” is valued, explored, and acted upon.

Learning from the voices of experience, alongside times of learning from being immersed into experiences and then reflecting on them, provide a rich way to develop discipleship and foster a missional imagination. May it be that one of the outcomes of the Act2 process is just such an outcome—a network of intentional learning communities in which missional imagination fostered, from which fresh expressions of church emerge, and through which the kingdom of God is proclaimed and enacted in contemporary Australian society.


  1. PhD Thesis, Flinders University, 2018. ↩︎