04 May 2014

preparing disciples for discipleship

It is a simple instruction: Therefore go and make disciples.  And the church has been issued a mandate for its work.  Depending on where and when you look, the church has done better or worse in accomplishing this throughout its two-thousand-plus year history.  For the most part, modern evangelicalism is on the downswing of execution, though there have been many ongoing efforts to reclaim this part of our identity.

In my own ministry I have struggled with the challenges of Christian discipleship.  There are, of course, the typical frustrations - the spiritual inertia of people who simply aren't that interested in a more committed discipleship, the difficulties that arise when trying to keep people engaged with spiritual growth, and so on.  On many levels it has felt as though there was no way of breaking through to a church that saw genuine discipleship.  This frustration has been compounded by a simple observation - these people want to grow in their discipleship.  So, what's the problem?

I admit that this can be an oversimplified situation, for we could easily say that those who want to grow will engage in the process of growth.  But that is like saying that everyone who wants to diet and exercise will simply do it without distraction or set back.  Or, that everyone who wants to give up smoking, drugs or alcohol can simply make the choice and walk in a different direction.  Some actually can do these things, but most cannot.  It is more complicated that that.

One aspect that I see among those in my context is that they have not been adequately prepared for the demands of discipleship.  Ours is a congregation that was flourishing in many ways just ten-to-fifteen years ago, but which had a major breakdown and implosion that started about two years before I came to town (and it has continued to settle down in four of the five years which I have been here).  When examining the spiritual state of this congregation I see a people who desire to be disciples of Jesus, but who have struggled with getting off the ground in many respects.  My conclusion is that they have not been introduced to the demands of discipleship.

Sure, many of our current folks participated in the days when there was a lot of people and a lot of activity.  They were part of the 'good-old-days' when our congregation had a well-established name for itself in the community and the denomination.  But if we have arrived at this point in time, without an understanding of what it means to grow as a disciple, then what was going on in this previous era of our church?

I believe that many (if not most) of our folks were sold a Christianity that was filled with what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.  Somewhere along the way, between building a 'successful church' and maintaining one, the demands of the gospel were largely forgotten.  This directly resulted in the many divisions and internal arguing that plagued this congregation, but which also kept individuals from looking forward to the possibilities of growing in the faith.  Even though our specific circumstances might be unique, I am afraid to say that the shallowing of discipleship in the name of 'successful churches' is widespread in our modern evangelicalism.

Having come to this realization, the next step has been to prepare disciples for discipleship.  What does this entail?  Well, that depends on the individual.  Some of our folks need to unlearn their previous conceptions of what a church ought to be, while others have simply never been introduced to the concept of discipleship (as though the Christian faith could exist without it).  This congregation is looking for a demonstration of God's love, the realization that it will be a life-demanding challenge, and the assurance that it will be worth the journey.

Of course, this is all part of the process of knowing your community of faith and working to make people more committed disciples of Jesus from the place where they are.  On that end, this is far from a revolutionary thought.  However, identifying and removing these barriers are vital to making a highway in the wilderness on which our God will come and meet with us.

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