Deconstructing Discipleship

Just google ‘discipleship.’ I dare you. I’m guessing you’ll find – (these were the top three hits that I came up with).

  • https://www.allaboutfollowingjesus.org/what-is-discipleship.htm- A process designed to help you be better Christian, filled with ideas on how to grow in areas that you are weak in. You can even get into the 8 areas where you are weak and find ways to be strong in those areas. There are even a few bible verses peppered in to the write up to convince you that you need to grow in an area that you are weak!
  • https://www.cru.org/us/en/train-and-grow/help-others-grow/discipleship.html – You can make a career out of discipleship. If you scroll to the bottom and click on career, you can do it! Full of resources of how to grow in areas that are your weaknesses, CRU has made several thousands of dollars producing material for churches, college students, and student ministries to use to better their discipleship processes.
  • https://downlineministries.com/5-principles-discipleship-colossians-128-29/ – Downline will help you build the right processes, to get the right results. Downline is a ministry that I was familiar with back in my day of trying to find the silver bullet of discipleship. You can pay to get the right materials, for the right price, so you can magically make disciples, finally.

As much as we might want it to be, disciple making is not widget making. And in the quest to measure our ability to make disciples, we have convulated and, dare I say, mitigated the actual disciple making that could be happening?

A simple search of the internet will bring up all sorts of resources for someone to use in their quest of disciple making. Whether they are trying to grow as a disciple or whether they are trying to grow someone else (because that’s what really makes a disciple…) these resources are concocted to best serve you, the Christian!

Very few of the resources provided actually offer insight into discipleship. They point out that processes are lacking and that weaknesses are clearly a part of a Christian’s life. Very few of them reference the very few verses that talk about disciple making. And none of them make the argument that discipleship is actually a biblical term or concept.

A search of “discipleship in the bible” brings up a few of the standard verses from scripture. But I still don’t see ‘discipleship’ in the verses…

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – In this verse, it is often argued that we are mandated to go and make disciples. Which seems to be very true. Then, it’s argued that it gives a plan, a strategy, and a clear directive on the way to do that. Baptize – means to help someone identify themselves as a learner of something/someone. Teaching – Because they are now identified as learners, they need to be taught. Obedience – All the things that are learned are to be obeyed. While I agree with the premise that this is a strong verse to articulate disciple making as a mandate, the way that we interpret the ‘how’ is often misconstrued and misguided. For instance, there is no mention of any organization called the church. There is no mention of small groups, bible studies, or large group gatherings. If you remember the contexts, Jesus is saying these as the parting words to his followers individually. He isn’t giving a roadmap for church strategy.

“He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’” Again, seems simple to me. Preach the gospel. Then one must determine what the gospel is. The hearers of the statement by Jesus would have heard “Go and deliver the good news to someone else.” I don’t think they would have heard “go and deliver correct, right, and straightened theology to those that are ignorant and aren’t saved.”

“‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” I notice that in this verse there is no ‘preparation’ for the Holy Spirit coming upon them. They don’t have to know enough, be enough, or act a certain way. The outcome will be dictated by the coming of the Spirit not by great strategy or certain pathways. The Holy Spirit will come, and then people will be moved to be witnesses, sharing what they have experienced with someone else. Again, there is not a clear roadmap for being qualified to experience this.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” So, belief is a prerequisite. But what else? What else does someone have to have to be a good news bringer? Do they have to be discipled by Navigators or Stumo? Do they have to have all of the latest evangelism tactics down and ready to share? Do they have to be a preacher or a teacher to be a multiplier? The text doesn’t seem to indicate any of that. It simply says preach (or open your mouth).

“‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.’” The age old question of whether God chooses us or not, comes out clearly in this verse. But if we stop focusing on whether God chooses me or not, and start focusing on the outcome of being chosen, we can see that this is the roadmap to living as a disciple. Chosen = Fruit Bearing. I don’t see any indication of perfection or even a sliding scale of learning more and become more ‘fully devoted.’

“From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” 

“‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Huh. I don’t see where they agreed to the four spiritual laws or the 7 characteristics of a disciple or where they went through a membership class. They just left their nets, identified as ‘his’ and followed. Not a great strategy, if you are part of a North American church interested in developing disciples that are fully devoted and fully engaged. They didn’t even sign a giving commitment! What the Hell?

“Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.” This verse is often pointed at as a mark of good Christians. When you are older, and more mature, you will be ‘reverent’ in the way that you live. Not slandering or talking bad about others, and not an addicted (at least to much wine) and teaching. Wouldn’t that be the natural outcome of a learner, that they would become a teacher with others learning from them? Did they have to go through the Sunday School class on becoming a nice old woman? Probably not…

Good Works = Successful Discipleship, No Works = Failed Discipleship

Recently, I was able to watch one of my former churches “state of the church” address, where, at the beginning of each school year, the Lead Pastor would get up and let the church know where things had been in the last year and where things were going. The moving target of ‘disciplemaking’ was once again on the docket as the goal of the year. The church was now going to be a disciplemaking church, then a multiplying church, because it would have the ability to create followers of Jesus who could then create more followers of Jesus.

I have heard it before, year after year, after year. The state of the church address at several different churches was the same message about not living up to the standard that God had for his disciples. We have weaknesses and we need to grow in those weaknesses so that we can be ‘fully devoted’ and ‘really following’ Jesus. As if to say, maybe we need to be more like Jesus because that would make me more fully devoted or more mature in my faith. Discipleship had become a measuring stick to figure out how close we were to perfection.

As a Professional Pastor, this was the heartbeat of every decision that I made.

My entire performance review was based on the ability to create programs that would make disciples. There was measurements and markers that were put into place to determine whether I was a success or a failure as it related to discipleship, when I was a professional Pastor in a local church. Discipleship is what the church was and needed to be about. And yet, there was not a single person who could define succinctly what discipleship was for me or for our church. The folks that tried often ended up talking about more programs, more groups, more bible studies, more curriculum materials that could be produced. They might end up talking about creating environments for 1 on 1 disciplemaking or they might talk about small groups. They might talk about the importance of the large group, or they might talk about what short term missions would bring to the disciplemaking table. The measurements of whether we were successful or not were summed up in 7 very broad categories of ‘biblical living’ and were taken from ‘all of scripture’ in one chuch that I was a part of. The elders had studied scripture from front to back and come up with clear marks of a disciple. They were to be implemented as markers across the board as a means of measuring success.

We built everything around the 7 markers. We built our environments, our worship services, our sermon series, our websites, all around the 7 marks of a disciple. And at the end of the day, we were no closer to being able to measure what we had set out to do, then when we didn’t have the 7 markers. We couldn’t tangibly come up with progress and movement forward. In fact, it became a point of contention during staff review time, because the folks that were being reviewed, were reviewed pretty harshly on their annual marks. It became a source of contention at an elder level, because elders were squabbling about the most important mark of a disciple. It became a point of contention in services, when it was talked about ad nauseum. There were parishioners who were experiencing deep guilt around the areas that they were completely failing in, and weren’t able to participate in the label of ‘disciple’ because obviously they weren’t fully devoted.

We implemented a ‘test’ to determine what mark of a disciple was a strength and what was a weakness in someone’s walk with Jesus. We spent an entire sermon having people take the survey. It was one of the few times that I had invited a guest and they had actually attended. I didn’t realize that would be the week that they would decide to agree to come. Needless to say, they never returned.

All in the name of discipleship.

All in the name of church growth and multiplication. Maybe if we could somehow make better disciples, then we would make more disciples, and therefore our church would grow. More butts in the seats. More dollars in the coffers. The endless cycle of church survival was at play, but wrapped in a very spiritual cloth of discipleship.

But maybe discipleship isn’t that spiritual. Maybe it’s just that, a cloth. A veil that wraps our eyes and ears and suffocates those that genuinely seek to follow Jesus.

Looking at what discipleship is currently in our North American churches, or more appropriately, just in my own short experience with a few North American churches, is there a way that it can be deconstructed to understand what exactly it is and what exactly it is not? Is there a more ‘biblical’ approach to discipleship than just knowing the right things and behaving the right way? Probably not. Here I’ll insert a few caveats about this particular rant…er…post.

Discipleship itself is not found in scripture. Look for it. Search for it. Find it and we can certainly have some sort of discussion about it. It’s not there. There is no blueprint for ‘how to do it.’ There is not a construct for what the best ways to do ‘it’ are. Because it doesn’t exist. Making disciples is clearly mentioned in scripture. Dare I say, discipleship has been a concept that multiple authors have made multiple millions of dollars on trying to entice the local North American church to try something that they aren’t already doing, to produce the results that they crave and aren’t experiencing?

Listen, I dedicated almost 15 years of my life, wholly to ‘discipleship.’ And it left me with a sense of loss, a sense of lack of fulfillment, and honestly brought me to the brink of belief crisis. I certainly am unashamedly writing from a bias. I am writing with a backdrop of alcoholism and tremendous life choices that were devastating to me and those around me. I am not a biblical scholar and don’t claim to be. I only know what I have experienced and what I have not seen as working, with no basis or biblical muscle. I have and will rail on disciplemaking because it is a damaging North American construct that is anti biblical, at best. Suffocating at worst.

First, you have to realize that ‘disciple’ is a cultural term that is borrowed from a different culture, a different time, and a different place. There are people much smarter than myself that have done all of the research on all of the etymology of the word but at it’s simplest root, it means to be a learner. That’s it. That’s pretty simple. If I am a learner of a concept, a philosophy, or of a trade, I am a disciple. I don’t need to have 7 marks of behavior in my life to be called a disciple. I don’t need to be cerebral or actively on some sort of path to be a disciple. If I am learning something, I am a disciple. So, you might argue, “Jesus says to ‘make disciples’ of all nations. So, how are we going to know when we have these disciples?” Jesus didn’t have an annual review while he was here on earth. He didn’t look back and evaluate all of the people that were following him around and determine their depth of discipleship or their ‘growth areas’. He wasn’t concerned with whether his church was ‘strong spiritually.’  He didn’t offer a pathway, a roadmap, or a construct to becoming a disciple. His learners were just with him. Learning. Seems sort of simple. Why would we want to dress that up more? Why would we want to hypothesize the death out of that? Why would I want to do that?

I did it because I thought it was something that could be attained. Making disciples of others was a process, in my mind. Making disciples required programs, information, behavior, and making sure that holiness was followed carefully and closely. Maybe it was my draw to produce something tangible, with results that I could point to. Maybe it was because the system that I was a part of demanded the results be tangible, and so creating measuring sticks that could be explained was promoted. Maybe there was a season of my life when I really believe that discipleship was a deeply ‘biblical’ concept and that I needed to dedicate my entire life to it. I’m not exactly sure why I focused on this so deeply. Why did I push this conversation? Was it all self preservation and other’s perception of me that mattered? Or was there something to wanting this to happen, so badly?

When I left the church that ascribed to the ‘discipleship’ push, I wrote a letter to the elder board begging them to consider pushing forward in their disciple making practice and strategy. I desperately wanted to see it succeed and yet, deep down, I knew that it would be hard pressed to actually be successful. When I arrived at the church years before that, there were two phrases on the wall indicating that the church was focused on disciple making. We weren’t close to living out the words on the walls. And we weren’t much closer when I left. Maybe it’s because disciple making really isn’t the point. Maybe strategy, discipline, right living, and behavior moralism aren’t really the main idea. Maybe the main idea is to discover what it means to be a learner, rather than try to live by a set of behaviors.

I no longer think those things. It’s not that I have been ‘enlightened’ or know more than my former contemporaries. In fact, it probably means that I am a failure and an outcast, at least to those that would be called the former. I’m not better because I no longer think discipleship is a fake construct that is not the point. I’m just in a much better spot, not living in the artificial construct of discipleshipping.

What if God’s power could be unleashed in our world? What if we could experience a relationship with God that was no longer predicated on what I do and don’t do, my strengths and weaknesses, how I lived holy or unholy, or whether I was part of a small group or not? What is a relationship with God was just simply identifying as a learner? John Bunyan wrote a book called the “Pilgrim’s Progress” and captures the heart of what I am trying to communicate (to you and to myself). Life is tough enough as it is. Adding in a bunch of man made and God forsaken ways to ‘be a better Christian’ is not going to allow more fluidity in the navigation of life. In fact, shedding these things thing, becoming a learner of God and the hardships around us, and simplifying may be more powerful than any program could be. The path to discipleship is not through a new bible study or a small group. It’s not through the best sermon series or a new book that has been authored. Sure, those may be good tools for the learner to access, or they may be damaging and damning to the core to those that would participate. You’ll find Jesus, Paul, and Peter going to the temple when they entered the cities that they visited. They went there to continue their learning. But at times they rebuked the damning activities that were present. They railed on the religious leaders for their stiff neckedness. What if God’s power and the growth of ‘the church’ was not predicated on the value and shininess of the programs at the church? And what if we saw church as just another means of growth rather than some mechanism of growth. Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek church in the late 80’s and is famously known for coining the phrase ‘the local church is the hope of the world.’ This mindset has manifested itself within churches across America and has brought about significant tension. Stunted growth in learners. Mass exodus from the very church that we think will be the hope of the world. And yet, the church continues to replicate the thing that has caused powerful damage. Discipleship.

I am clearly not living the 7 marks of a disciple today that one of the churches I served at held so closely to and yet, I am genuinely a learner of God and theology more  than I have ever been. I am experiencing and growing without specific evaluation, tracks, roadmaps, classes, or institutions. I’m a learner. Simple. A disciple.

It’s the first time that I have identified as such. Before I was a constantly failing follower of Jesus. I was weakly wobbling along in the discipleship path because I wasn’t part of a small group, or reading the latest discipleship book. I wasn’t discipling someone else one on one and I wasn’t discipling men to be men. I clearly was not a disciple as defined by the churches that I was a part of. I might have been a fan, but certainly not a disciple.

Let’s try ‘what if’ for just a few moments. What if the local church as we know it in North America isn’t meant to exist from a biblical perspective? The question has to be asked and is asked by alot of leaders in the local church at least in  the isolation of their own minds. Did Jesus really say, “Build an organization, hire professional staff members, task them with the impossible task of ‘making disciples’ and then count butts in seats and dollars in the plate.”? I think no. What if the church was not meant to be a place where people come and enjoy a show, but rather group of people that lived their identity? What if the church was not a tax bracket of exemption, but rather a group of people that paid their taxes, and helped out the people that couldn’t? I think Jesus said something about paying taxes. The church in America, and frankly, many of my former contemporaries see the tax brackets, the exemptions that could be lost, and worry. If we lose our exemption, they say, we will lose our ability to make disciples. Is that really the case? What if the church was not a four corner structure with millions of dollars spent in upkeep and construction, but rather a group of people who spent their time trying to give away those millions of dollars in aid? What if Pastors didn’t have to keep up their persona? What if they didn’t have to have the pressure of having the personality that built the organization in the first place? Might this mitigate the recent swell in suicidal tendency that we find in the pulpit? Is making disciples really about money, more people, and bigger auditoriums? Or, if Jesus were walking the streets of America, might he come in and say, “You have made my church, my family, and my children a den of thieves?” I don’t know if he would or not. But, what if?

You might read this and have all sorts of questions, arguments, and quarrels with me. I think the discussion needs to be had. And it certainly isn’t being had within the walls and the paradigm of the local churches, at least, that I was part of in the past.