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Raising The Bar Of Discipleship

20150131_082738I’ve often wondered. If Jesus was walking the streets of America today, where would He look for disciples? As Christians, we assume He would want to recruit from our Church. Maybe even plug in to  our discipleship class. After all, He couldn’t help but be impressed with the workbook and DVD series we’re going through. Right? Well . . . probably not. Personally, I think that in His quest to find potential disciples, Jesus would stop in at the local men’s shelter. O.K., I’m biased. Because that’s where I met Carl and the gang. And that, of course, requires a story.
      At the time, Gale and I were serving on the Board of a local men’s shelter. I had finished the first edition of our discipleship book, And They Dreamt Of A Kingdom. I invited several men in the shelter to join me on Saturday mornings. I would cook breakfast and we would go through the book together, chapter by chapter. And, yes, in case you were wondering, ten men could easily plow through four pounds of bacon, three dozen eggs and a couple dozen pancakes (and still ask “Is there any more?”)! 
      It was an “eclectic” group, to say the least. An atheist (whom I once called on to open in prayer. We both got a good chuckle out of it), a couple of sex offenders, a couple of homeless vets (one of whom was in our shelter because he had “mooned” the staff of the previous shelter where he had been staying – gotta love these guys!), and other assorted homeless guys. And you thought your house church was a challenging hand full! And then there was Carl, a recently released ex-felon with a wry sense of humor. Very few things slipped past Carl. During one of our discipleship meetings he asked a question that cut to the heart of contemporary discipleship. “Maurice, do you enjoy talking above our heads,” he asked with a grin. “You see, I don’t think so,” Carl continued, “I believe you’re trying to get us to think more.” Like I said, very few things got past Carl. In a single question and observation, Carl had summarized both the goal of my discipleship book and the challenge of contemporary efforts to make disciples.
      I can only speak for myself out of my own experience, so my perspective and sphere of reference is admittedly limited. But from what I have personally witnessed in my 40+ year sojourn as a disciple of the Kingdom, my conclusion is that we do people around us a tremendous disservice by dumbing them down. We spoon-feed people “reduced fat” truth in the hope of making biblical  truth more palatable. We put it on DVDs because we think people need to be entertained. We put it into fill-in-the-blank workbooks because we think they need it “simplified.” But the end result is a generation of professing believers who are unable to “think beyond the spoon,” or the workbook. Don’t believe me? Then you missed out on the whole Bill Gothard video presentation/workbook craze. Trust me. I was there. As a church, we love this kind of stuff, in the mistaken belief that it somehow produces multiplying disciples. It doesn’t. 
      In our attempt to quickly produce “reproducing disciples” we ask what are the bare essentials we need to teach them in order to equip them to become “disciple-makers.”  What we actually produce are nominal believers who scarcely understand what it means to BE a disciple of the Kingdom, much less how to pass their faith on in a meaningful way by sowing the seed of discipleship and the Kingdom into the lives of others. As my ex-felon padawan disciple, Carl, observed, it’s time to think. It’s time to raise the bar of discipleship to where Jesus placed it. 
      Discipleship in the school of Jesus and the Kingdom was not unlike the high jump bar or the pole vault bar in track and field competitions. When was the last time you watched a track and field competition where they lowered the bar until everyone could clear it?! No. The bar is continually raised and made more challenging for those competing. So it is in the discipleship school of Jesus and the Kingdom. In their walk with Jesus, the disciples discovered that the bar of discipleship was constantly being raised, not lowered to accommodate those unwilling to strive. With Jesus, discipleship lessons grew harder and more challenging over time. Faith must become personal, not borrowed, and it must grow as opposed to remaining static. Entrance at the narrow gate requires seeking and striving (Luke 13:24). And “hard sayings” require that disciples choose between turning back or continuing on with Jesus (John 6:60-69). Jesus never taught down to His disciples. On more than one occasion, He taught above their heads (as Carl noted) and insisted that they wrestle with the lesson until they understood it. Why? Because Jesus knew that, in the Kingdom of God, spiritual growth and maturity are the product of spiritual truth experienced over time. For this to happen, Jesus insisted that His disciples think, wrestle and grow. Three points and a snappy application (or a poem) were not His forte. 
      In the discipleship school of Jesus, discipleship is a lifelong journey into the Kingdom of God, punctuated by significant moments and filled with eternal truth which will not fit into a spoon and which requires a lifetime of daily obedience and discovery to fully embrace. It’s hard to put that into a PowerPoint slide, or into a 140-character tweet on Twitter.
      For all of the Carls among us, it’s time to think higher thoughts about our discipleship.

Another Great Discipleship Quote

20160815_085444[1]Another great discipleship quote from Robert Coleman and The Master Plan of Evangelism“We should not expect a great number to begin with, nor would we desire it. The best work is always done with a few. Better to give a year or so to one or two men who learn what it means to conquer for Christ than to spend a lifetime with a congregation just keeping the program going. Nor does it matter how small or inauspicious the beginning may be; what counts is that those to whom we do give priority upon our life learn to give it away.” 

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.

The Joy Of Jesus

20160815_085444[1]Writing on discipleship this AM. Second Volume of And They Dreamt Of A Kingdom is 2/3 done. Writing on Luke 10 today, particularly 10:21-22 with this thought: “As disciples of the Kingdom, it is important for us to understand that Jesus experiences joy in our spiritual growth.” May Jesus find joy in you today.

William Barclay On Discipleship

20160815_085444[1]“Once someone was talking to a great scholar about a younger man. He said, ‘So and so tells me that he was one of your students.’ The teacher answered devastatingly, ‘He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students.’ It is one of the supreme handicaps of the Church that in it there are so many distant followers of Jesus and so few real disciples.” (Barclay on Luke 14:24-33)

Caught Or Taught

20160815_085444[1]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. 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.
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