As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Heard the parable of the instructor who was hired by a group of people to help them get fit? She organized weekly classes and taught them the benefits of exercise and good nutrition, modeling what she taught. The group began enthusiastically, joining in all the exercises with gusto. Over time, however, the group spent more time enjoying wine, cheese and each other’s company than exercising. Eventually they fired the instructor on grounds of incompetence.
When we don’t understand the full meaning and implication of Jesus’ strategy for making disciples, our churches could easily pattern this parable. In fact, depending on our context, perspective, theological training, and history, disciple and discipleship are some of the few words that evoke a wide range of meanings in our Christian vocabulary.
Who is a disciple, and what does a disciple do, or how does a disciple live? What is meant by discipleship? Is it different from the notion of being a disciple?
And who better to go to than Jesus himself to help unpack its meaning? By modeling what it means, he gave us glimpses of what it means to “make disciples.” Jesus spent three years with just 12 men who talked and walked with him, learned from him, imitated and obeyed him. That was how he invested his time in his brief ministry. Jesus could have done what other religious leaders did—lived long, had large crowds follow him, and entertained them. But that was not the strategy he knew would work to begin a movement in which martyrdom was a natural consequence. And to think that we could grow disciples with less!
Jesus had many followers but only a few disciples. What’s the difference? You might say it this way: Every disciple is a follower, but not every follower might be a disciple. Followers can do so from a distance. They can leave when they want to and join again. The missing ingredient is the willingness and commitment to obey, to walk closely behind and model ourselves after the leader/teacher: in this case Rabbi Jesus, the Christ. And this means sitting up close and personal with Jesus.
In our present context, it means a long-term commitment to obey the commands of Jesus: to model our lives after him, allowing ourselves to be changed as we journey so that we may become like him in character.
When Jesus gave the commission to “Go, make disciples,” he did not mean the priests and clergy. It was a commission given to every disciple. Jesus meant that in our everyday, ordinary walks of life, we are to invest time in other believers and followers by modeling and teaching so that they, in turn, can reproduce themselves in others. The strategy was and still is sound.
Think about it as spiritual parenting. Our goal as parents is to help our kids to grow into mature, responsible adults. The problem is that we have strayed so far away from this as a church and abdicated our God-given mandate by handing over the commission to make disciples to a few “trained” specialists—a.k.a. ministers, some of whom themselves do not take this commission to heart. Instead we have substituted a weak, “I’ll take what I like” attitude to discipleship that has the potential to turn converts into mere consumers instead of reproducing disciples. The call of the church is to return to the strategy that Jesus modeled and spelled out.
What then is discipleship? It is how to live or be a disciple, just as leadership is about being a leader. It is about learning to walk closely with God, learning to love and please God more each day, and doing what God has laid on our hearts with the gifts and resources we have been given for this purpose. How do we learn to love God? By reading Scripture and finding out what pleases God and what kinds of things, if obeyed, would make us more like Jesus. It means learning to talk with God in prayer, seeking guidance and becoming more intimate in our relationship. It means understanding the physical and social context in which we live and applying biblical principles to the world’s problems. It means being able to share our story of faith with others authentically and sincerely and investing our lives in people so that they too can become fruit-bearing disciples of Jesus.
Where do we look for an example? Jesus, the one who proclaimed, taught, and walked the gospel. Matthew 9 describes a few days in the life of Jesus. He forgave and healed a paralyzed man, raised a girl from the dead, taught about the Sabbath, challenged Matthew to follow him, healed a sick woman and some men who were blind and mute. At the end of the chapter, here is what is written about Jesus. “ Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Jesus taught, proclaimed, healed, and had compassion—all in the person of one man. There was just one Jesus, not one who healed and one who proclaimed. That is the type of discipleship Jesus is inviting us into. Working for justice, loving mercy, and bearing witness in word and deed are all integral to every disciple’s lifestyle.
We unfortunately have boxed ourselves into a corner. We have self-identified as liberals, evangelists, justice workers, social gospel champions, to the detriment of living as disciples in the fullest possible meaning of the word.
What would it take to change? Honest conversations, candid assessments, and intentionality might be good places to start.