I have been a participant in many different discipleship programs since childhood. Starting with Training Union when I was a small child living in Alabama (only life-long Southern Baptists know what I’m talking about) I have tried a lot of things, some very intense, some not so. All have been variations on the same thing. They have all tried to instill in me certain habits—daily Bible reading and prayer (the two were invariably linked into one activity), consistent witnessing, weekly attendance in worship and Sunday School, and tithing. I was taught that doing all of these things would “bring me closer to Christ,” which sounds really good but, when you really examine it, is both fuzzy and circular. What does being “closer to Christ” really mean? Fuzzy: it’s when you have warm feelings of affection toward Jesus. Circular: a person who is close to Christ is a person who has a daily “quiet time” which involves reading the Bible and praying, who witnesses to non-believers, who attends worship and Sunday School every week, and who tithes.
At some point it occurred to me that all of these activities are more likely to result in a person who is a good and useful church member, a person who is loyal to and helps to build up the local institution of the church. The churches I’ve been involved in all my life have never had enough Sunday School teachers, and the best Sunday School teachers are those who read the Bible and pray, not just in church activities, but on their own, at home, preferably on a daily basis. A person who witnesses and wins people to Jesus is constantly feeding the church new members and, even better, people who get baptized. They give awards to churches whose memberships grow the most and who baptize the most people, did you know that? At the annual meeting, the pastors of these churches will get called up to the platform and given a nice little framed certificate, their picture in the state Baptist paper, and invitations to speak at church growth and evangelism conferences. Finally, it’s rather obvious how weekly attendance at worship and Sunday School and tithing support the institution, so I won’t say anymore about that.
Is that being too cynical? Maybe. But notably absent from that list is any kind of missional action—serving others outside the church. That never made it to the check-off list. Perhaps it was omitted because the benefit to the church is not obvious. In fact, it could take away from the church if a person became too involved in Christian activities outside the church—you’d be too busy to teach Sunday School or serve on a committee, and you might give some of your money to that cause, money that could have gone to the church. I was actually warned about getting involved in what are called “para-church” Christian organizations for this very reason—it would take me away from the church. Hmm.
There is nothing wrong with these activities—I advocate them for all Christians, but not as ends unto themselves, and not merely to support an institution. That can’t be what discipleship is about.
So I’ve had to try to come up with a new definition of what it means to be a disciple, and what that means that I need to be doing. Disciple means learner, but not in the sense of a person sitting in a classroom learning facts. More along the lines of an apprentice learning skills from a master craftsman. It involves learning a body of information, but more than anything it is about learning to do something. An apprentice learns information not just to know stuff, but to be able to do something with intelligence. So, for me discipleship has come to mean at minimum two things: 1) doing the things that Jesus told us to do, and 2)talking about the things that Jesus talked about in the same proportion in which Jesus talked about them.
Which means one of the things I need to do is spend a lot of time reading the Bible, but not just the Bible—reading Jesus, paying attention to what he talked about and what he didn’t talk about, what he did and what he didn’t do, what he told his followers to do and what he didn’t.
That’s just basic. So why wasn’t I told to do this before? I mean, I was, but wasn’t.
More on this to come.