Discipleship: A Class Or A Journey

     My wife and I had just finished breakfast with friends at a local neighborhood restaurant. Leaving the restaurant and driving through the neighborhood we spotted a yard sale. You should understand that the only thing I enjoy less than holding a yard sale is attending someone else’s yard sale. But on the spur of the moment, I suggested that we stop and look around (much to my wife’s pleasant surprise, I might add). Rummaging around in someone else’s discarded stuff, I spotted it in a box of books. “It” was a “discipleship training manual” produced by the founding Pastor and staff of a local mega-church ministry. I had heard about their “discipleship program” from others, but I had never actually seen the manual. There in a box of miscellaneous books sat two unused copies for sale, along with the accompanying DVD set (O.K., I’m not even going to ask why they were unused, and being dumped in a garage sale). It’s against my religion to pay good money for bad books, but there it sat begging to be negotiated for. After some quick haggling, we settled on the outrageous sum of $1 (Just the book, no DVDs. Blood pressure.).
     Flipping through my newly acquired treasure confirmed my fears. Listen to the lecture, look up the verses, answer the question by filling in the blanks. Congratulations, you’re now a disciple. You know, the same way Jesus did it with the twelve. And that is sort of my point.
     American/Western Christianity seems determined to define discipleship as a class and a training manual, combined with participating in Church activities. In the process, we have traded depth for breadth. Big numbers. We’re very wide. We are also very shallow. One could say that we are as “deep” as a training manual can make us. Our discipleship classes operate on the assumption that we can turn nominal believers and religious consumers into committed self-denying disciples by teaching them “stuff” in a classroom, something even Jesus never tried to accomplish. Discipleship they way Jesus modeled it with the twelve represented the Company of the committed, not a class for the curious.
     But there’s more.
     A flood of articles in recent years has highlighted a disturbing reality. In our efforts to make disciples, we are combating profound biblical illiteracy. People both inside and outside the church do not know what the Bible teaches. That illiteracy extends to what Jesus taught about being a disciple of the Kingdom. We will never overcome that illiteracy in any meaningful way with a DVD set of lectures and a fill-in-the-blank workbook.
     But there’s more.
     A training manual – any training manual – embodies someone’s agenda, and is structured to generate a pre-determined outcome. I’ve been a theological curriculum writer. I know how to formulate “learning objectives,” to write a curriculum to achieve those objectives, and then to devise a test to determine if the student has achieved the desired objectives. Tell me what outcome you want to achieve and I can write a training manual (complete with Bible verses to look up and nifty diagrams) to achieve it. It’s done all the time.
     But biblical discipleship embodies a journey of radical faith and radical obedience in the Kingdom of God, resulting in personal transformation and Christ-likeness, not a class engineered to produce a particular kind of worker. We need to stop and ask ourselves an honest question: What are we doing? Are we equipping disciples for their journey in the Kingdom, or are we simply training worker bees for our programs? Jesus never manipulated and cajoled disciples into a training class. He invited them to join Him on a journey of faith and obedience, and to discover the Kingdom of God. Is your goal to reproduce a class, a curriculum, and an outcome? Then go to Bible school. Classes produce and reproduce students. Yokes, crosses, and journeys produce and reproduce disciples. Too much of what passes for discipleship in American/Western Christianity is the product of a classroom, where lessons are taught, but never caught.
     But there’s more.
     In American/Western Christianity, discipleship discussions tend to emphasize methodology and classroom instruction. Jesus focused on relationship and on truth experienced over time. We offer a class. Jesus offered a yoke, a cross, and a journey. American/Western church leaders pride themselves in their supposed knowledge and understanding of methodology. After all, church growth methodology produced the mega-church movement. And who can argue with the success of having 2,000+ people attending your church every Sunday. Unfortunately, the mega-church movement has produced countless religious consumers. But it has produced few disciples, as their own studies “Reveal.” Beware of embracing a “discipleship methodology” devised by the same methodologists who created mega-churches filled with religious consumers. Biblical discipleship is not an exercise in religious consumerism on steroids.
     In the Kingdom of God, certain truths cannot be taught. They must be caught. In this sense, discipleship is more of a yoke than a book . . . or a workbook. In the discipleship school of Jesus, genuine discipleship is about accepting Jesus’ yoke of obedience to the call of the Kingdom and following that yoke wherever He and it lead us. Jesus yoked His disciples to Himself and refused to release them until their religion-shaped spirituality had given way and been replaced with a spirituality shaped around Himself.