Where Discipleship Begins
[Matthew 23.1-12, 28.18-20; 1 Corinthians 11.1; Ephesians 4.7-13]
I love math. In school it was my favorite subject. More than merely liking it, I was also pretty good at it. I can remember attending high school and taking two advanced math classes as an 8th grade junior high student. I can remember one specific instance in my Algebra 2 class where the teacher was teaching a new concept and some of my peers next to me were having a very difficult time understanding. I was able to create examples that I could walk them through to help them develop a better comprehension of what the concept was. I got so excited when I saw them begin to understand and apply what it was that we were learning.
Ever since I was young, I experience great joy when I'm able to help others in ways that leads to new revelation. Today it's not so much math that I help others with (though I still enjoy it and get excited when my kids bring home math homework), but rather theology and interpretation of the Bible.
Even my "job" here at Direction reflects what I have great joy in. As the "Discipleship Pastor", I take my job very seriously at finding ways that I can help people grow in their discipleship to Jesus and in their discipleship to others. Recently, I've been walking through a season of immense healing and growth with the Holy Spirit and have been reminded of just how much discipleship is to my experience with math. It's easy for us to fall into the temptation of thinking that discipleship is nothing more than telling others about Jesus. That is a part of it, yes, but it's not the whole. To slightly modify the Bonhoeffer Project's Brandon Cook's words, "The full picture of discipleship begins with grace in us but continues by grace through us." In other words, just as I was only able to guide my peers into the understanding of the new math concept we were taught after I myself understood it, so it is with discipleship. You can't give/show someone something that you don't have.
For a long time now major pockets of the church in the western world has struggled with discipleship. It's even true here in the Des Moines metro. In spite of a plethora of churches (both existing and new) in the area, a 2019 study showed that the Des Moines metro ranked #26 in the top 100 post-Christian cities in the United States. We're not talking just non-Christian, but POST-Christian. A culture that has moved beyond "Jesus" and His church. As such, there have been good efforts to teach and train people to disciple others. Some of which have proven effective in one way or another, but none have proven 100% effective everywhere. Why is this?
A professor of mine once had a phrase, "Good is the enemy of great." While these may very well be "good", what if we're settling for this and not pursuing "great"? What if these (good) efforts have actually been creating an additional problem? What if post-Christian culture has emerged (headlined by many who have at one time or another claimed to be a follower of Jesus but now are not) in part BECAUSE of these efforts? Has our attention been focused so much on what we see as the issue, that we've created a "catch 22" by not remembering the foundation?
As I have been exploring this thought and spending time asking for guidance from God in my research, I believe that I've stumbled onto a framework that helps us journey to an answer and to a better way forward. We're focusing on addressing symptoms/effects rather than the disease/cause. Why aren't people discipling? Is it true that they may not know how, so we teach them tools to use? Is it true that that they may not think they can do it well (or at all), so we encourage them to get out there and try? While these are true, I believe there's something even deeper, something further upstream, a cause, that if we were to address and focus effort on, we would help remedy some of these effects/symptoms.
I see it all over the Bible, Old and New Testament alike. God calls a people and equips them to be His ambassadors. What if the equipping is a new life, a complete spiritual renewal that takes place within? What if we took the Bible a little more serious and accept that discipleship begins with grace in us.
A lack of ongoing discipleship of people who follow Jesus, has led to the systemic issue within the church of disciples not looking like disciples. It's not a polemic. It's not an either/or. It's a both/and. If you are a follower of Jesus, you will disciple others.... but first you yourself must continue in your own discipleship.
This is NOT to say that you must be advanced in your understanding (or a "professional" of what it looks like to follow Jesus before you disciple someone else. (Some may very well try to take my words here to mean such a thing though they certainly do not.) But the reality remains, you can't lead others where you haven't been. You don't have to wait until you understand everything to share with someone else. In fact, if you were to do that you'd never share because you'll never know "everything". But you can only share that which you have experienced/learned!
Think back to the story I shared at the beginning with my peers in that Algebra 2 class so many years ago. We were in the same class with the same teacher though we learned the material at different a different pace. Discipleship can look similar. As I comprehend and experience the reality of something we are taught by the master teacher (Jesus), I may notice others around me not understanding. So, I come alongside, not to become their teacher, but simply to help them understand what the teacher is teaching. We continue as peers (brothers and sisters) as we are continually taught, led, and transformed by the Spirit of Jesus. We never stop learning and no one learns at the same pace or even in the same way. This is the complex yet wonderful reality of discipleship and the joy of sharing the good news when we ourselves finally understand it.
So let me ask you.... what have you learned recently? What have you experienced about life with Jesus recently? What have you shared recently?