I’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.