A theology of discipleship has been lacking among evangelicals in the last 100 years or so. We (evangelicals) are now grappling with this “gap in discipleship” (Richard Lovelace’s term) and moving forward to a more robust theology of discipleship. That’s a good thing. It’s about time. To quote Victor Hugo: All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come. Discipleship as a pervasive occupation of the church is here. I pray it stays. I pray its momentum will increase. It’s time has come.
Specifically, a theology of discipleship must address the relationship between discipleship and salvation. This is where we, as evangelicals have fallen behind. The network of interested pastors and leaders that are gathering monthly is taking seriously this call to address apprenticeship to Jesus as the life of salvation.
At our recent meeting, the question was asked: What insight do you have or can you share about the way Jesus went about making disciples? My takeaways (now that I’ve had time to digest a bit of our conversation) from this meeting reflect some of the sharing the group has done. I list the take aways for me. Others would have their own take aways. I am reflecting on the deeper implications of the conversation in hope that it may be helpful to continue mulling it over in our minds and sharing with others until the next time we meet. I’m thankful I get to be part of this conversation about what occupied Jesus’ time and energy for three years of public ministry.
First take away: We talked much about doctrine and its importance in the discipleship process. My take away here is what our discussion was pointing to that undergirds the rationale for including teaching doctrine in discipleship: Namely, shaping the thinking of disciples. Jesus was not simply passing on teaching nuggets or giving his disciples an understanding of certain points of theology. More than that, he was rebuilding the way people thought about God, his kingdom, themselves in relationship with God, their character, and their practice of living for God in their daily lives. In short, Jesus was shaping the thinking of the next generation of leaders in the revolution he was founding. He taught about God and many other ideas that we have collected under the term theology. But the crucial part for me, my take away, is that Jesus was in the business of shaping the thinking of this disciples wherever it needed reshaping. We must be about the same thing and do so in every intentional way possible. Certainly their hearts needed reshaping. Certainly their minds needed reshaping. Thus he used two terms to address this need: Repent (change your mind about everything related to God and the Messiah and God’s plan) and Trust (that is, let all the decisions you make be made in accordance with the will or kingdom of God in total reliance on him). And in everything he said and did he was reshaping their thinking and encouraging their trust in himself and his Father.
My second take away is this: We must find practical ways to deal with the practical sides of discipleship. That is, we set time aside to be with people as Jesus did. Whether that be in our homes, or under a tree, or at a well, wherever, we each must look at our activities and ask ourselves: Who am I discipling, when am I doing it, what context suits that person best for us to walk together as apprentices of Jesus. Intentionality is key here. We mentioned that much of the pastor’s time is spent on administrative responsibilities of ministry. The same intentionality must be present in spending time with people in discipleship relationships, however that suits the disciples we are making.
My third take away is related to my second: Intentionally invite others into your own life of discipleship with Jesus when the Holy Spirit calls upon you to do so. Jesus picked his disciples after praying. He thought long and hard, prayed all night long, then based on his holy understanding of those who showed interest, he asked them to follow him into the way of doing life in the kingdom of God just the way he was doing it.
My fourth take away is graceful and was brought out by a few of us: Persevere with people. Christians take time to assemble! The instructions for assembly come just as needed and in the crucible of life. Discipleship or apprenticeship to Jesus is hard. In fact it’s impossible without the enabling power of God or grace. And grace cannot be cheapened by no effort on the part of the discipler or the disciplee.
My fifth take away is hugely important. The assumption in the room was that small groups are an excellent vehicle to promote discipleship and actually make disciples. Groups are a necessary form. But the nature of the content, of the conversation, and of the relationship and their end goal of transformation matters just as much. In other words, for me, what transpires during times with other disciples, in any context, public or private, is just as important as the kind of groups we have or even if it’s one-on-one. The subject of discipleship is concerns mostly our lives with God, the transformation of our character to be like the character of Jesus. This for me is what makes for discipleship even more than the format of our gatherings of discipleship.
My sixth take away is this: Discipleship can occur in the natural rhythms of life just as much as it does in organized times for discipleship. Hallway or vestibule, or the frozen food aisle, the gathered worshippers, are all contexts of discipleship because that is our natural rhythm of life. This means discipleship is more than an activity. It’s a way of being in the world, it’s a status we never move out of. There is no check in card to punch that says now it’s discipleship time. There is no check out card that says we’re not on the job.
My seventh take away goes like this: genuine interactions are necessary. In other words, discipleship is about sharing life with others as we do life with God openly. We are ourselves. We don’t pretend, we don’t presume, we don’t manipulate in order to get others to do anything or think in ways about ourselves that make us look better than we actually are. Rather we share in the work of God in others’ lives and in ourselves. We are open books willing to be read and found out for who we are (that is a life of repentance). We don’t have it together in every area of living for God. We mess up. It’s good for disciples to see us at our worst as well as at our best.
My last take away has to do with capacity. Given the responsibilities and obligations of ministry and life we have, how many people should we be discipling? Jesus discipled the 12 in a more intimate way that the 500. He discipled three in a more intimate way than the 12. And perhaps even the one more than the three (John?). No matter, the way the Christian life works, including our discipling efforts, is that we do what we can not what we can’t.
This has been a rich experience for me. Rich because it surfaced all these issues that are on our hearts and reflect our understanding of the ways and means Jesus went about practicing in the discipleship making process. I look forward to a further deepening of our conversation.
Loving God, loving you…