Thursday, March 11, 2010

How to Tell a Disciple

Last week I was at another meeting of pastors held by Dr. David Lee, Executive Director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware.

I get a free lunch. Hard to pass that up.

The topic of discussion was discipleship, and at one point the discussion turned to how we measure discipleship growth both in our churches and in the individuals in our churches. 

I stayed silent, because I have no idea how to measure discipleship in a person or in an organization. I’ve thought a lot about it, I’ve read a lot about it, I’ve researched what other churches have done, and at the end of it all, I remain clueless. And it really aggravated me.

And as I sat there listening to these other guys talk about what they did at their churches, I just grew more and more agitated, because I was hearing the same answers that I’ve heard before countless times, answers that leave me cold and unimpressed. Sure, these are good things to measure—the number of people attending discipleship classes, the number of people who have a daily quiet time, the number of people attending small groups, etc.—and they might tell you something, they might tell me how well I’m publicizing the programs of the church or something, and they might, maybe, kinda sorta tell me something about a person’s spiritual growth, but I don’t know. Maybe these things just tell me how much time a person has on their hands for activities such as these.

I know that part of what bothered me was the modern fixation on measuring everything and basing our evaluations on these metrics. That’s all right in a lot of areas, because a lot of areas are suited for metrical evaluation. But a lot of areas aren’t, and discipleship and spirituality just don’t lend themselves to easy measurement.

Part of what bothered me was the continual mistake that churches make of using activity as a measurement of effectiveness. Activity—or rather, the lack of it—can indicate ineffectiveness. For instance, a person who never practices the piano is most assuredly not going to be a very good piano player. But a person who practices an hour a day still may not be a very good piano player. They may be no good at all, either because they have no musical aptitude and/or fine motor skills, or because their practice is just an hour of fooling around without any clear goals or focus. As the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. So in the same way, a person who never engages in any activity for spiritual growth is not going to grow, but activity in religious-type things is no guarantee of growth. I have known any number of people who have gone to Sunday School all their lives and taken any number of discipleship classes who are no more mature now than they were when they were young. Maybe less so, because they think that they are mature just because they’ve done all this stuff.

Right now a lot of college football players are taking part in the NFL Combine, where they will be measured in how fast they can run 40 yards, how high they can jump, how long they can jump, how many times they can bench press 225 pounds. Every year some guy will come in and blow all the scouts away with impressive metrics, and someone will draft them very high and pay them millions of dollars, and they will not pan out as a good professional player. Then when you go back and look at their college career, you see that they were good, but not really all that great. 

And here’s the thing: what matters is how well a guy plays football. I’ve never seen an NFL player bench press 225 pounds during an NFL game. I’ve never seen them perform the high jump or the long jump. I’ve only seen NFL players playing football. Being strong, running fast, jumping high, all this matters—but only if a guy really knows how to play football and plays hard.

Pro scouts call this “eyes on the field.” In other words, they have learned what a good football player looks like by watching him play football, not run a forty-yard dash in controlled conditions.

I sat silent through most of the meeting, but I finally had to say something. I’ll tell you what I said, and then I’ll tell you what else I wish I had said but didn’t think about it until later.
What I said: “Being a disciple is about loving God and loving people, and I don’t know how to measure that. Here’s what I know: I have been married to my wife for almost 29 years, and I love her to death. I can’t measure that love, and neither can you, but if you watch me long enough you’ll know that I love my wife and have a pretty good idea of how much I love her. And the same is true with Christians: hang around with a person long enough, and you’ll know if they love God and if they love people, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how much, and all this other stuff is pretty much a bunch of junk.”

I had to pay for my own lunch after that. (Just kidding.)

What I wish I had said: “We’re followers of Jesus. He is our Master, he is our example to follow, right? So, how did Jesus measure discipleship?”

How would you answer that? I’m not sure that he had any metrics (as we know metric), but I’ll tell you this: he knew a disciple when he saw one.

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