As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the globe, and as top scientists, policymakers and world governments continue to search for solutions, my attention has been increasingly turning to the issue of discipleship.
The crucial question I have been wrestling with is this: If suffering and sacrifice were central to Jesus’ way of life, how can our discipleship revolve around them too? Often we want to be followers of Jesus but only when it is convenient, or only when we are benefitting from the relationship in obvious ways. However, Jesus’ imperative call to His disciples was that if anyone wanted to follow Him, then they must deny themselves and carry their cross. Denying ourselves involves suffering, and carrying a cross means sacrifice.
One implication of this is that if our discipleship programmes don’t introduce people to the idea of suffering and sacrifice, then their experience of following Jesus will not last. Sure, they will follow for a while, but when things get really tough – when the suffering comes and the sacrifice is required – they will bail out.
Another implication is that it means we must follow Jesus as being the only ‘lifestyle’ option, not merely as one of several we have pooled. After Jesus gave some serious teaching about what it means to believe and follow Him, many of the Jews left – but then He asked the disciples an important question: ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6: 67, NRSV). Peter’s answer to that question is very important for our discipleship. ‘Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life”’ (John 6:68, NRSV). Peter’s answer is conditioned by the understanding that following Jesus, even when it is rough and difficult, is not merely an optional lifestyle choice but the key to his very survival. This changes everything. Only when we see discipleship not as some form of smorgasbord option but know that our very survival depends on it, that we must give up all other options whatever the suffering or sacrifice involved, will we truly experience what it means to follow Him.
COVID-19 can be seen as a paradigm shift that will change everything we know, from politics, business and sports, to society, healthcare and medicine, and to travel, tourism and entertainment – and even to the Church. These changes will last not only for months but, according to all current projections, for years to come. So, as coronavirus has exposed that life is temporal and that suffering is real, what sort of disciples do we need to be to disciple others in this new world?
The characteristics of our new ‘normal’ are economic uncertainty, emotional despair, physical suffering, isolation and loss. It may now be that the followers of Jesus who have been prepared through suffering and sacrifice are best placed to reach out to people and help them follow Jesus faithfully. Christians who have held on to their faith through the experience of seeking asylum or economic migration, or long-term illness, or personal loss, or other life-shaking trials will be well placed to encourage and witness to those whose foundations have never before been so tested.
If we are to do discipleship and mission well in the new COVID-19 normal, we will all need to grasp Jesus’ perspective of suffering and sacrifice. We will have many, many months to grow in this. Let’s start today, so that, like Peter, whatever the suffering or sacrifice we face, we will not draw back from Him because we know He alone has the words of life that we and our ailing world need.
Rev Israel Oluwole Olofinjana is the founding director of Centre for Missionaries from the Majority world and the Minister of Woolwich Central Baptist Church. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at Queens Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham. Israel is on the Executive Team of Lausanne Europe and a member of Spurgeon’s College’s Academic Quality Advisory Committee (AQAC). He is the author of numerous books including World Christianity in Western Europe: Diasporic Identity, Narratives and Missiology (2020)