For a few years now I’ve been hearing that the Church in the West has a discipleship problem (here, here, and here just to name a few). If I’m being totally candid, I agree that many churches are trying to crack the discipleship nut as we speak. Some are doing so very successfully and others unsuccessfully. In both cases, however, church leaders are quick to admit that this discipleship problem is pretty complicated. As with any other problem, the place to start is by clearly articulating the issue.. But in the discipleship conversation that’s easier said than done, so let’s try to bring some unity to our understanding of discipleship
We don’t have to look hard at the story of the Bible in order to find some recognizable examples of disciples. We read the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and observe story after story of Jesus interacting with a group of followers - most well known are the 12 men many learn about in Sunday school-type settings - who live alongside and learn constantly from Jesus through word and deed. Jesus led, they followed. Jesus died, they were sent out; case closed, right?
Not so fast.
There is always some mystery about translating the 12 who followed Jesus into a contemporary context, and rightfully so. But as we examine more broadly historical accounts of discipleship we find that discipleship was quite common in the Ancient Near East, including both Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures. In these cultures a disciple was someone who followed after and was constantly learning from their master, with the goal of eventually becoming a near copy of the person leading them. So for Jesus to call the 12 who followed Him disciples tells us something of His intention for them. He wants them to become like Him so they can do what He did.
Becoming like someone in this way takes a great deal of time and effort for both the master and the disciple. It takes effort from the master to reveal the “why” behind their “what,” and it takes effort from the disciple to listen, learn, and implement both the theory and the practice of becoming like the master. It requires discipline to become something different than what you are; it requires repetition, failure, patience, grace, and time. That means that we need to reframe the expectation of discipleship as less a one-time activity, or even a semi-frequent occurrence, to a continued redirecting and affirming of activities to make us more like someone else.
Have you ever attempted to learn a language before? In high school I studied German for four year. By the end of my fourth year of putting in an hour every day to learn the language I thought I was pretty good at speaking and understanding German. That summer I traveled with my school’s German club to Europe to visit places in Germany and Austria. I was so excited to put all of my German skills to the test.
When we first arrived in Salzburg, I realized that I would need to buy another battery for my camera. So I traveled to a local camera store and attempted to purchase a battery from the clerk by speaking only in German. He responded to my Deutschefrage (or German question) with a question: “You’re not from here, are you?” I was devastated! I thought that I had disguised myself so well as a German teen, and it took approximately 10 words for this man to out me as an imposter German. We chatted for a little while and eventually told me that my accent and my grammar gave me away, two things which would take years of living with and around German-natives to develop.
In a similar way, the call of Jesus of Nazareth is for a total-life transformation so that we would resemble Him. Recall in John 3 the story of Nicodemus. Jesus tells an intrigued holy man of nearly the highest order what it would take for him change: “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Sounds like a total renovation to me.
If we return to my German example for a minute, we find that there’s still one aspect we’ve yet to discuss. In order to become different than we are, we’ve got to have a goal of what we’re shooting form. For me in that moment, it was the camera shop owner. I wanted to blend in like any other Austrian who might wonder into his shop. But according to Jesus’ example of calling the 12, Christians (which literally means, little Christ) are to become like Jesus of Nazareth, the real God-man that walked the earth, healed the sick, raised the dead, freed the captives, shamed the strong, and established the Kingdom of Heaven in the court of the earth. In order to do that we’ve got to create some space to be with Jesus, just like the 12 did. But how?
This post is the first in a series where we’ll look at some practical things people attempting to be with Jesus and become like Jesus can do to accomplish those goals. We’ll look at a few tools we can use to create that kind of space in our lives, trusting that the Holy Spirit will draw us in and transform us. You can find more links to those posts below.