I'm fascinated by the parts of the Bible that leave us to wonder what happened when the story is over. For example, how did the formerly demon-possessed man live after he moved out of the cemetery, gave up his chains, and returned to family and community? How did Lazarus live once he'd removed the wrappings? What was Zaccheus's life like after he started giving the money back to those he'd robbed? And how did that prodigal son and his snarky older brother work out their future in their father's house?
We can all speculate on what happened next because we know that something happened next, because we know something important about Jesus: he makes disciples. Christian faith and experience take on a form in the world. That form, which we call Christian discipleship, is the next chapter, the next act, the next destination in the ongoing experience of belonging to the living Christ.
Jesus didn't invent the concept of being a disciple. The rabbis of Jesus' time undertook students and followers in a "follow, listen, imitate" relationship as a typical form of rabbinic training. John the Baptist had disciples. The graduate seminar was replaced with meals together, weeks on mission, and hundreds of hours of conversation. Disciples in Judaism were not learning three hours a week. It was a life-consuming, life-transforming vocation.
Christian discipleship grows from that historical soil, but it is distinctively shaped by Jesus. It's clear in the Gospels that many of the disciples experienced a dynamic call from Jesus to "drop their nets" and "come follow me." Discipleship with Jesus was crucially focused around coming to understand Jesus himself. The midterm exam was not "tell me what you've learned about the kingdom," but "who do you say that I am?" This reflects the primary course material in Jesus' brand of discipleship: Have you come to grips with what it means that God has come to you?
Promptly upon getting the answer to that question, the Gospels tell us that Jesus refocused his personal journey toward the cross and began to teach his disciples with new intensity the complete course of discipleship. Where their first semester homework was to get with a friend and go heal the sick, now they were signing up for classes such as "Being Servants," "Carrying Your Cross," "Washing Feet," and "Starting Over When You've Betrayed Me."
The entire discipleship experience with Jesus was ironic. Once they had captured his rabbinical teaching method and bought into his kingdom message, he became the Messiah who would disappoint those wanting a political kingdom, who would be rejected, spit upon, tortured, and killed. To be his disciple was to take all of this upon oneself willingly in a full understanding that cross, kingdom, and New Creation were joined together in and by Jesus.
In other words, the disciples were probably puzzled at times as to what it meant to be a disciple. The longer they were at it, the less sure they were as to what this meant. Were they changing the world by the power of the Spirit? Were they throwing themselves against the evil powers that ran the world and likely to end up like Jesus? Were they proclaiming something done entirely by Jesus, something to which their own discipleship had been only an inadequate prelude?
All the Gospel writers love the word "disciple," but Paul never uses it as noun or verb. How does a term that is used throughout Luke and Acts not appear in a single epistle in the New Testament? Does this mean we aren't disciples today, that the term is restricted to those who were with Jesus in the first century? That's unlikely, because one of the most famous statements about discipleship in the Bible tells the apostles to "make disciples" of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded in the context of Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 28:17-20).
Today, "discipleship" is one of the most common terms in the Christian vocabulary, but scratch the surface and you'll find confusion and uncertainty are never far away. For example, discipleship is a constant concern among Christians; perhaps one of the largest concerns among Christian leaders. But ask typical church leaders how many intentional discipleship ministries they have that are not strictly classroom shaped. The answer likely will be awkward, with the standard confession that this is an area where "we need improvement."
The contemporary model of the pastor is, on the one hand, the entrepreneur, the "vision caster," and the likable, unifying motivator. For others it is the ideal of the "Edwardsian" pastor, spending hours alone in his study to emerge on Sundays preaching sermons with irresistible theology. What about what Bill Hull called the "Disciple Making Pastor"? The Epistles and the Book of Acts show leaders taking intense interest in the process of the behavioral/devotional formation of their converts. Paul's own methods reveal an intense concern for discipleship using the methods of Jesus, investing hours, months, and years in developing relationships that allowed him to say "follow me as I follow Christ" and to use himself as a living illustration of applied Christianity.
Contemporary church life seems designed to create a kind of Christian who looks to the church itself for information, motivation, and direction. If the church can produce its own brand of disciples, then it has done its job. But are church programs imitating the discipleship we see in the Gospels, or are they redefining discipleship into church-sponsored activities?
Where is all of this going? Let me summarize: We appear surprisingly unsure of how discipleship fits into the New Testament as a whole. While we know Jesus was a disciple-maker, our contemporary versions of Christianity often struggle with or omit entirely any meaningful process of discipleship that can't be labeled as teaching/preaching or supporting a church program. As a result, the continuing emphasis on Christian doctrine takes place in the midst of a movement that is clearly shaped far more by the surrounding consumer culture and its own church-centered interests than by any recognizable process of discipleship. Obviously, this is a multifaceted subject that could be taken up any number of places. I would like to consider the question of how discipleship affects the Christian's lifestyle.
I chose this subject partially because the term "lifestyle" is a particularly American/Western term, with a number of connotations related to how we live in a variety of visible areas where the consumer culture particularly asserts itself. Lifestyle has to do with money, houses, discretionary spending, our use of leisure time, consumer spending, conspicuous consumption, clothes, money spent on children, vacations, toys, cars, and entertainment. Lifestyle intersects with our sense of entitlement. It puts our ideas of "what we've earned" on display. The phrase "the lifestyle to which I am accustomed" is often humorous, but only because so many of us don't take it as a joke.
American Christian culture often sees no problem with defining our conceptions of normal Christianity within our assumptions about lifestyle. When we discover this, the implications for discipleship are obvious and far-reaching.
In the Franco Zeffirelli film Jesus of Nazareth, there is a scene in which Peter begins the actual process of following Jesus. He has crossed the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and the other disciples. Now he is sending his boats back across the sea. He pushes the tiny vessel into the fog and watches as a lone young fisherman looks back at him, uncomprehending. In a moment, Peter's entire previous lifestyle fades into the early morning mist. His security and identity are now gone, to be found in an unknown future with Jesus. This scene captures the aspect of discipleship that Western Christians have struggled to find, value, and practice. Our lives are deeply invested in the ostentatious evidences of the American dream of personal prosperity, a prosperity so pervasive that to not have a flat screen television is considered real poverty.
On two occasions this year, I've had discussions with international students, one from Africa and one from Asia, regarding their admiration for Joel Osteen's presentation of Christianity. They were confused when I went into such detail to say that Osteen was not teaching the gospel of Jesus or the New Testament. For both students, Osteen represented a welcome fusion of their own ideas about the American lifestyle and a personal belief in a God who exists to help you find "happiness" and success.
These students were puzzled as I pointed out again and again that Osteen and Jesus had radically different teachings about money, possessions, and the relation of the individual to money as a resource. As I insisted that one could not honestly hear what Jesus said on money and not be challenged to abandon the Osteen prosperity message, they were clearly confused. They had never heard a presentation of discipleship that showed a possible collision between the kingdom of Jesus and their version of a prosperous lifestyle.
Osteen's message doesn't grow out of anything said or done by Jesus, but out of the re-conception of the gospel as a material validation of a spiritual reality. With no connection to Jesus at all, Osteen's words unite with our deeply held conviction that we deserve the best God has to offer, and where better to experience that lifestyle than in America where the best can be had for a price?
One does not have to look among the fans of the outright prosperity gospel to see this tension. In thousands of churches, Bible studies, and small groups, there is a massive disjunction between what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and what it means to have whatever possession, experience, or fashionable indulgence that seems appealing. The weakness of Protestantism on the subject of personal discipleship in an affluent culture has laid groundwork where the logic of the prosperity gospel rarely bumps into anything that seems to be at cross-purposes with being a disciple of Jesus.
The result is the Christian who feels manipulated or guilt tripped when the simple ethics of having Jesus as Lord appear anywhere near where his definition of "normal and entitled lifestyle" has taken root. Discipleship, now relegated to discussions around a class or small group, becomes not being legalistic, pious, or pharisaical. The actual processes and content of discipleship are lost in the fog between easy-believism and a too-academic version of what Jesus commands his apostles to make: Jesus-imitating disciples.
In an increasingly post-Christian world, this kind of discipleship will simply not suffice. Christians who want to define discipleship themselves within their own cultures and subgroups now find that the challenges to Christian belief are not being made by those who merely disagree with our ideas. A newly aggressive secularism, armed with the rhetoric of the new atheism and the confidence that religion itself can be portrayed as the root of all evil, now demands a response from a fully embodied, experiential, and engaged Christianity. Without demoting our response to the intellectual and rhetorical challenge, we are now called out of the classrooms, conferences, and church auditoriums to demonstrate the life that adorns the doctrine.
A disconnect between discipleship and lifestyle has created an evangelicalism that is openly siding with the wealthy. Church plants rarely happen among the poor. The spirituality of poverty sounds simply nonsensical to many evangelicals. To take the New Testament's views on economics seriously would force vast numbers of evangelicals into choices they simply are not equipped to make because they have been told they do not apply. For those who take the lifestyle and economics of Jesus as seriously as a St. Francis or a John Wesley, there are few places to find support and encouragement.
For many contemporary Christians, the call to discipleship in the post-Christian world has called them to look at the church in new and realistically critical ways. Why is the gospel of so many Protestants orthodox but not transforming? Why do our churches resemble the culture's version of organizational success rather than the culture-crossing, community-creating, church-planting movement that Jesus empowered with his very own Spirit? Why are so many evangelical leaders engaged in the promotion of doctrinal reformation and worldview articulation but not in the creation of the processes of transforming, missional discipleship?
Today's Christians often resent the fact that our previous position of influence in the culture has installed a version of Christian ethics—detached from the gospel but still surprisingly solid—in the minds of millions of our secular peers and neighbors. They wonder, and are entitled to wonder, why we can't seem to answer questions of lifestyle in ways that seem congruent with Jesus. As one song asks, "Would Jesus wear a Rolex?" Almost everyone knows that he wouldn't, but that doesn't explain why so many of us do.
You can find debates on the resurrection here and there, and Christians are excited about their skill in presenting the evidence for a risen Christ; yet this culture asks us to present not only the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus but the evidence of a resurrected Christian life, community, and ethics.
There will always be Christians who will rightly and necessarily point out that we must present Christ and not ourselves. They will say that we are running the danger of entwining law and gospel. They will warn that we will confuse our hearers if we talk about the call and substance of discipleship and not the gospel, the gospel, and only the gospel. I concur completely with the danger these watchmen see and find of great concern, but I would counter with a similar set of warnings.
We must not separate one Christ into several. The Christ who called and trained disciples is the Christ on the cross, is the mediator and Lord in the Epistles, and is the one, exalted, reigning King of the Kingdom that will triumph.
We must not think ourselves wiser than God. Discipleship is the ongoing process of sanctification, growth and maturity, all biblical admonitions. It is God who puts these components of the Christian experience into one life of faith. We cannot call legalism what God has called the power of the gospel in real time.
We must not think that we defend the gospel when we make discipleship less than what Jesus did with the months and years he invested in his disciples. He did not just preach to them or teach them. He trained them for ministry. He released them to serve. He created community. He confronted and corrected their characters. He sent them among the hurting. He taught them the reality of the kingdom of God.
But that was not all. He took them to the cross and to the empty tomb, gave them the Sacraments, and called them to build the church. His investment in discipleship was deep and ongoing. It was his constant and ongoing invitation to them to live their "yes!" to the good news. As they learned all that the good news comprehended, their definition of discipleship expanded.
We must remember that discipleship includes the dynamic processes of Christian experience: knowing, growing, building, serving, forgiving, loving, and risking. It is the transforming knowledge of God in the Spirit that experiences the transforming power of the Word.
Yes, discipleship will always be imperfect. We would be greatly mistaken to think that anything we do as Christians will shed anything other than an imperfect light on the gospel, but Jesus said we are light and salt nonetheless. We are a community on a hill. We are exemplars of a kind of kingdom that this world will only know in Jesus. As disciples, we are the first outposts of that kingdom. As our pioneer has staked out the ground and given it to us by his blood, we come to build a city that glorifies our King and live out the fullness of the Savior's gospel. Imperfect as we are, Jesus says, "Follow me."
It will be flawed, but so will be our theology, our debates, our worship, our preaching, and our teaching. In all these things, we depend upon Jesus to be what we can never be. We are properly warned not to obscure the gospel by a wrong emphasis on discipleship. I suggest we not hollow out the gospel by disconnecting it from discipleship. What can evangelicals do?
In the 1940s, Clarence Jordan was a recent graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a doctorate in Greek. Instead of teaching Greek, Jordan went back to his native Georgia and founded an interracial community farm called Koinonia. For the next twenty-plus years, Jordan and his fellow Christians were disciples of Jesus as they studied, preached, taught, worked, lived together, sold pecans, and gave a witness to racial reconciliation.
It was the church—Jordan's own Southern Baptists—who gave him the strongest opposition. Eventually the Klan and local racists began to inflict intimidation tactics and violence on the little community, but they stood firm. Without help from the government, without Focus on the Family trumpeting their situation, without whining or argument, Koinonia's Christians prayed, suffered, and faithfully followed Jesus together. It would be three decades and more before the application of the gospel of Jesus that was read in those segregationist churches made it into the hearts of the white believers in the surrounding county.
Jordan loved the Bible, loved the gospel, loved academic study, and loved the church. He also knew what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. There was no choice about living the life. Racism was not an academic challenge. It was a challenge to the life Christians claimed to be living.
It is this discipleship, a discipleship that illuminates the fullness of the gospel, that we desperately need in our churches.
Michael Spencer is a campus minister and pastor in southeastern Kentucky and can be found at www.internetmonk.com.
Issue: "Discipleship: Wisdom for Pilgrims' Progress" Sept./Oct. 2009 Vol. 18 No. 5 Page number(s): 19-22
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