(Part 4 of the Dumbing Down Faith? series. Previous posts are below.) Evangelical. Mainline. Conservative. Fundamentalist. Liberal. Green. Bible-believing. Progressive. Traditional. Contemporary. Creationist. Calvinistic. Arminian. Catholic. Protestant. Politically active. Post-modern. Emerging. Missional.
All of the above are used to describe Christians in our culture. These terms are used by Christians and non-Christians alike to describe the approach, agenda or beliefs of various groups of Christians. Do you notice one word that is conspicuously absent? It is the simple word “disciple”. As in, the centerpoint of the church’s assignment from Jesus. As in, “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.” (Matt. 28:19-20)
While there are many places where “disciple” has been re- articulated (most often as some version of “Christ-follower”), the concept remains fuzzy. Disciple-making is everywhere and nowhere. Every church has something that flies under the banner of discipleship, whether they call it that or not. But the making of disciples-in which the lives of Christians are apprenticed to Jesus (Dallas Willard’s phrase) and increasingly resemble Him in thought, character and behavior – seems rare. Even if there had never been a single Barna survey, it is blatantly obvious that if there were as many lives being transformed by Christ as claim to follow Him, then our families, communities, cities and culture would be radically different.
So, with all the Christian DVD curricula, books, radio and television broadcasts, music, conferences, retreats and events, why are we having such apparent difficulty fulfilling Jesus’ assignment? We’re trying really hard to encourage people to take another step in their walk with Jesus. We work to put spiritual things in everyone’s reach. But paradoxically, the very methods we have used to pursue accessibility, simplification and ease (what I refer to as “dumbing down”) may actually keep us from developing disciples who follow Jesus with increasing passion and effectiveness.
Why? It seems we have confused disciple-making with discipleship programming. Discipleship programming includes the activities, classes, and emphases that churches organize to encourage spiritual growth. It is administrative and tends to think in macro terms-let’s involve as many people as possible. Disciple-making, on the other hand, happens at the micro level, one person at a time–the way Jesus made the first disciples. It is about developing a certain sort of person, one who is pursuing God’s purpose that he “be conformed to the image of His beloved Son” (Rom. 8:29) or that she will “walk as Jesus walked” (1 John 2:6).
If we confuse having disciple programming on our church calendars with disciple-making of individual Christians, we may dilute our disciple-making so that genuine life transformation is made more difficult. Let me show you what I mean:
+ We dumb down disciple-making when we communicate that the gospel is only for saving sinners. Yes, the gospel of Jesus is good news for weary, soul-sick sinners. But what Jesus accomplished on the cross and in His resurrection is also at the core of living the Christ life. Everything we have and are flows from a cross and through an empty tomb. That’s why Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, the Christ died for no purpose.” (Gal. 2:20-21). The cross is not first grade for disciples; it is the whole curriculum.
+ We dumb down disciple-making when we reduce it to classroom-based education in which Christians spend time with Beth Moore or Henry Blackaby or Andy Stanley or whoever is the latest evangelical “it” person. People sit in rows and watch a DVD for 6, 8, or 13 weeks, and as soon as that one is over, they sign up for another. We have made Bible study junkies who spend all their time in church classrooms, but disciples are not made in classrooms alone. A disciple is a student of Jesus and that requires the incarnational, life-on-life element to have any integrity at all.
+ In a similar way, we can dumb down disciple-making when we reduce it to completing a series of fill-in-the-blank studies. While such studies are helpful for learning some things, they can leave the impression that following Jesus is as simple as having all the blanks filled in with the ‘right” answers. If the blanks say the right thing, it will all flow easy. But they tend to leave out the fact that the life of faith is full of mystery, complexity, unanswered questions, and times when no words fit the blanks.
+ We dumb down disciple-making when we reduce it to merely learning Biblical facts or theological truths. That’s too safe and leads to Christians with an antiseptic view of faith that is largely disconnected from real life. It skirts around the messier parts of living as a disciple, like dealing with people and relationships, shaping attitudes, corralling emotions, adjusting opinions, following the Spirit’s promptings and developing Christ-like character. Those things only happen when knowing Scriptural truths is wedded to practical, measurable, accountable, real-world application of those truths.
+ On the other hand, we also dumb down disciple-making when we reduce it to having certain feelings or emotional responses. There is some thought that “I’m really in the zone spiritually when I can feel a certain sense of peace or excitement or positive affirmation or…” It tends to make life as a disciple very subjective and based on however I interpret my current experience. Thus, the faith of many Christians is held hostage to their feelings or somebody’s definition of what they should feel. But it’s like a sugar high-it always fades. So they spin on a constant quest for a fresh spiritual buzz that will keep them pumped for Jesus. In fact, faith has an unchanging object (God in Christ), and an unfading source (His Word) that provides substance beyond emotion and a certain level of stability. Again, the life of a disciple must include both deep emotion and deep thinking.
+ We dumb down disciple-making when we reduce it to mere busy-ness in church-related activity. This one is epidemic among our Southern Baptist tribe and concerns me as much as any of the others. So many think being a disciple is about attending, showing up, doing, serving, committees, teams, checklists and on and on. Usually, it’s centered at the church building and has to do with running the activities of the church. We have so many people who just exhausted in trying to do all the things they think they are supposed to do as a committed Christian. But I just want to ask-does this mask a subtle disbelief in the gospel of grace? Do we really hold onto some subconscious belief that if we’ll just work a little harder for Jesus, God will like us more and maybe bless us better? Are we developing “disciples” who have forgotten that their sole acceptance is in the cross of Christ and that their primary mission is not at the church building? Is the Pharasaism, legalism and anger that marks many churches just the outworking of souls desperate for rest? Just wondering…
+ We dumb down disciple-making when we reduce it to niche markets. I’ve grown increasingly suspicious of specialized approaches to disciple-making, i.e.,for women or men, married or singles, adults or children, boomers, builders or millennials and on an on. There are Bible editions geared for those market targets, along with music, curricula, and more. Now, I understand the need to put materials on different levels and that there are different sorts of ways people learn. But, I fear this is crippling Christians’ ability to process life as a disciple in a wholistic way. Life doesn’t happen in market niches; it happens all at once, with multiple perspectives and people we’re not like or with whom we may never agree. So we have to equip disciples to deal with all of life, not just a personalized version of it.
+ One more. We dumb down disciple-making when we reduce it to what’s easy and safe. So much disciple-making material is about living more happy, healthy, productive and wise. All of those things are fine-even if they do sound like Ben Franklin. But remember what Bonheoffer said? “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Jesus was very clear, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel’s will save it.’ (Mark 8:34-35) Honest disciple-making cannot stop with having a better life. Being a disciple of Jesus is not safe. It involves sacrifice, risk, pain, discomfort and rejection-all joyfully embraced for the sake of faithfully representing Jesus and introducing Him to people who don’t yet know Him. This adventure is what emerging generations long for-and is the only sort of disciple who will reach unreached peoples in our community and among the nations.
It’s critical that we recover this disciple-making mandate and place it at the core of the church’s life and mission. We must help individual Christians embrace their identity as disciples and chart a path for their progress as disciples of Jesus. This is the whole point of Victory’s i4 strategy.
As we lean into this adventure of following Jesus with passion and integrity, maybe all those other terms would be replaced and we Christians would simply be know as disciples of Jesus-the ones who are turning the world upside down.