Over the past 20 years, the majority of evangelical writing about the church and the Christian life has been intensely pragmatic. Books, conferences and web sites are consumed with “what works”. They deal with how-to’s, outline steps to success with finances or marriage or singles ministry or a dozen other topics, or serve as support material for the associated DVD curriculum kit. There has been a steady flow of this type of book, so that as one sure-fire approach arcs and then fades, another steps in to begin the process all over again. Writing has many times been reduced to a function of the marketing department.
All of that has served to make thoughtful books about the long-and-winding journey of living and making disciples exceedingly rare. Considerations of ancient spiritual practices, wrestling with paradox, taking a long view of soul-shaping, and serious biblical-theological reflection are largely missing in the catalogs of the most popular Christian publishers, including Lifeway, our Southern Baptist publishing house (see the I-Monk’s take on that here). The result has been the creation of a generation of churched adults with little appreciation for the holiness of mundane intentionality in the process of Christ-like growth.
Metamorpha is thus a welcome addition to the discussion about what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus. Kyle Strobel (yes, he’s the son of that Strobel) writes from a background of one who was fully immersed in, and ultimately disappointed by, the seeker church. He wants to explore precisely how people change by journeying with Jesus throughout life.
Strobel says that we need a new way of seeing God, ourselves and life-. “What we erroneously believe about God is often solidified and unyielding, so it is painful to break down. More often than not, we choose against decalcification. We choose instead to talk about the other Christians as the “them” and “those” who think differently. We isolate ourselves within a world of our own making. Sometimes we ignore our need for a new way of seeing.”(p.21) He provocatively calls it “rigor mortis of the eyes.”
That observation puts a bony finger on the underground issue crippling many Christians and their churches. We like how what we believe feels and sounds and are threatened when it sounds or feels differently. Since faith is mostly defined by what I can wrap my mind around, it is more self-trust than Jesus-trust. So, spiritual growth comes as I deconstruct my presuppositions and replace them with ruthlessly biblical ones. This is where it gets interesting; Strobel believes that the gospels (and particularly Mark) show that Jesus’ teaching and life-on-life interactions were intended to deconstruct our false worldview and give us a true and Jesus-faithful one: “The metamorpha life is one of continual deconstruction and reconstruction of our views. It grows out of an understanding of God’s unwavering desire to redeem us and not leave us as we are…are we really open to seeing the world in the way God has called us to see it?” (p. 35)
Metamorpha reminds us of the three “informers” that God has designed to help us lean into this sort of life: the Bible, the Spirit and the community of believers. These have been used and affirmed by Christians for centuries, but most churches don’t emphasize them because they are more interested in church growing than disciple-making. (That means that churches that follow a developmental model will look very different.) Churches that are making disciples will train Christians to interact with the Bible as history, shepherd and friend. Sadly, many Bible studies stop with content mastery. They never move on to see how God intends this word to shape the heart or the life into increasing reliance on our Shepherd – and that it is always, always good. Disciples allow God’s Word to form how we see the world.
Strobel says that the Jesus way of life is an enacted parable of the Spirit, whereby we become increasingly dependent on Him for every moment. “Jesus acted, lived, healed, preached and everything else out of the power of the God with whom he related in His inner being.” (p.94) Our relationship with the Spirit is essentially relational, and usually develops with prayer. There is an awareness that the Triune God-the source of all life-has “made a home in our hearts and that He has a purpose for being there” (p. 103.) Strobel says that the Spirit is the most important of the three informers, simply because of who He is. “Our calling is to develop a relationship with the Spirit like a dance: the Spirit leads, but that does not mean we can just drag our feet and expect to dance; we have to learn to follow, develop as a partner and grow in our understanding of the kind of dancing that the Spirit will lead us in.” (p. 106-107)
The third informer is the community of believers. “This sort of church is essentially relational, because the only way to change core beliefs-beliefs that inescapably rise to the surface of behavior and lifestyle, in private and everywhere else – is through relationships.” (p.53) This requires a learning curve that deals with confession, accountability, evaluation, hearing wisdom from each other –not things we naturally do. Strobel talks about viewing relationships with other Christians through the lens of family (in our local church), clan (our Christian community in Lexington), tribe (all Christians on our continent and the world), and even as a people (all of God’s people, from Adam, through Abraham and the other saints). All of those relationships help shape us like Jesus.
One of Strobel’s most interesting chapters wrestles with the idea of self-view and how that impacts our faith development. He recognizes the siren call of individualism that has plagued much of the church’s life in recent years, but also that the reality is that individual growth is the bottom line for all disciple-making. We know that “what we believe is acted out in what we do.”(p. 139), but we often rationalize our behavior without actually changing our beliefs. Another way to say it is that there are unconscious beliefs that can also shape our lives. We can be deceived at heart. (Jeremiah 17:9), so that “the doctrines we affirm in church rarely make it into [our] lives.”(p.147) Strobel is brutally transparent here in discussing the devastating realization that he actually didn’t believe in prayer. This is precisely where the journey with Jesus has such power. Through the Bible, the shaping of the Spirit and the influence of the community of believers, we can offer up our beliefs for change.
The final section of Metamorpha describes some usually ignored and practical aspects of living a Jesus life. We need godly wisdom-and that means we embrace both dependence on other believers and even the mystery of the unknown at times. “Wisdom is required because we have to discern-and we discern because it is more important that we learn dependence on the Spirit than we come to the right answers.” (p.183) Secondly, there is a call to life through death, for “the cross is the aim and direction of all of Jesus’ life….and represented a revolutionary way of life.”(p. 196-197). Our goal is an abandonment to trust the Lord-no matter what that looks like.
Thirdly, disciples always live with Jesus, abiding with him and “walking with Him according to the way He walked before us….doing Jesus things in Jesus ways” (p. 209-210). Strobel says we must be careful to be discipled by and to Jesus (so we look like Him) and not be discipled by and to people ( so we end up looking like them). The church’s call is to help people “navigate their lives with Christ.” (p.213). But that is a challenge for “the most fundamental reason why creating disciples has proven to be so elusive for the North American church is that all of our ideas, programs and methods for discipleship put ourselves at the end rather than Jesus.” (p.218) The means of growing is abiding (Jn.15) and that is not easily measured or analyzed.
Finally, the way of Jesus leads us to be a community of light on mission in our world. “There are few things closer to the heart of God than people on mission to do his will.”(p. 229) Faithfulness to God’s mission requires faithfulness to God’s community. “Unfortunately, we have thousands of people who did not sign up for community, incarnating the gospel, or being light to the world. We have people who signed up because they thought it would allow them to be what they always wanted to be: successful, put together and happy…This is why issues of loving one another, unity, one-mindedness and discipline within the community are central aspects of the New Testament. It is not because we want to have a community that turns in on itself and shuts the world out; it is because the community in being faithful will be a light in the darkness. In trying to change the world through power, numbers, money and programs, we have bought into a false understanding and have failed to take seriously the way Jesus enacted the Kingdom.” (p.234-235) This cuts directly to our definitions of success in ministry. Strobel insists from 2 Cor. 2:14 that we go into the world as a people conquered by Christ, who grow deeper with Christ-as transformed persons on mission.
Metamorpha is worth serious consideration by anyone who is interested in fulfilling Christ’s disciple-making mandate-church leaders and members alike. This is an important reminder about the fundamental calling of the church – disciple-making– and the difference between leading programs and equipping people to live with Jesus. Strobel is clearly in the line of Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, but does a significant amount of fresh and important thinking. His background in the seeker movement gives him a unique perspective from which to view the North American church and its disciple-making. This is not a fast read: it requires thoughtful consideration. Most of the time, that comes from the building of arguments; however, there are moments when Strobel’s philosophical roots make the writing a bit murky. My only other quibble would be the delay of getting to the cross and the gospel. That is an assumed, but unstated part of the foundation laid in the first two-thirds of the book. I think the book would be stronger if the applied reality of the gospel of God in Christ were more prominent throughout. Still, the concepts in Metamorpha will help us build healthy roots, so we will be fruitful people-just like Jesus.