Apprenticeship and Discipleship

Apprenticeship and Discipleship June 30, 2017

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I was reading through posts on my Facebook feed this morning and the word “Apprenticeship” jumped out at me. It was used with reference to Jesus and what it means to follow him, and it immediately got me thinking: what does it mean to be an apprentice? What does it mean to apprentice ourselves to another?

Currently, I am business owner. I own an interior painting company and presently I am the only employee. I recently had a phone call with an individual looking for work and he recounted to me his experience as an apprentice for a larger painting company. Here is what he told me:

His main responsibilities included patching walls, filing nail holes, caulking cracks, sanding said patches, taping rooms, and cutting in with a paint brush. His employer told him, “I will cover the first drop of paint you get on a carpet/floor by cleaning it up for you. The second drop is on you: grab your belongings and leave the job site and don’t come back.”

In short, this apprentice was given the experience of a cheap laborer: scut work and easily cast after the first (or second) mistake. He has valuable experience in wall-prep, something that I loathe and have asked others to do on my behalf, but no real experience in interior painting. He was paid an hourly wage but not poured into, not invested in, not treated as a partner or someone sharing in the mission of the company.

I get it. This is a business we are talking about and not the church. And I’m not likely to win Boss of the Year—though I’ll gladly buy myself a mug from Spencer’s a la Michael Scott—because I have done the same sort of thing.

But is this apprenticeship? If we are going to talk about apprenticing ourselves to Jesus is this what it means?

Perhaps it’s a poor example, but it’s a real one nonetheless. We have, in many senses, lost a proper understanding of what a traditional apprenticeship is and have therefore missed the meaning of such a relationship with Jesus.

An apprentice in a trade such as carpentry, painting, plumbing, etc. may begin by doing the dirty work, the jobs that no one else wants to do, but the goal is always to pour knowledge and experience into the individual in order that he/she be prepared to go out into the market alone and earn a living. I would want to train up a painter or wallpaper remover so that he/she could take the experiences and then start his/her own company at some point in the future. Apprenticeship isn’t just about learning a skill or a trade or an industry. It is that but it’s much more than that: apprenticeship is about learning a way of life.

Jesus’ invitation to us, the invitation to “Come and see,” the invitation to “Follow me,” isn’t too different from the idealistic scene described above. The disciples are wonderful examples for us today of what it means to be an apprentice. If you look throughout the Gospels then you’ll notice some of the hands-on experiences Jesus gave them: he taught them to pray, he send them out in pairs to share the Good News, he took them away with him for teaching and meditation, he empowered them to heal and cast out demons in his name, and he released them to go and do it on their own after his ascension.

The disciples were invited into the fullest ministry of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They were taught, equipped, prepared, forgiven for mistakes, and made ready for a life of service and being sent out. And, according to church history, they were then able to replicate this model with their own followers and disciples. Paul is brought up and trains Barnabas, Timothy, and others; the Fathers and Mothers of the early church received the Gospel message from their predecessors and passed that along to those coming behind them.

So, why are we rather lousy at apprenticeship within the church? Why is it that we haven’t quite figured out how to make disciples? Why aren’t we inviting others into the full ministry of the Gospel?

I’m not sure I have an answer to those questions. My proposed answer is actually an action: let us go and do.

First, apprentice yourself to Jesus. It’s a simple statement but it cannot be overstated. To be a Christian is to follow Christ—his incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorious ascension—and to accept the invitation of the Trinity.

Second, find yourself someone to whom you can become an apprentice. Feel free to use the term “mentor” or “shepherd” here if you need, but my point is clear: find someone who is willing to pour into you from their own experiences and godly living. Find someone of sound character who points you to Jesus. As they follow Jesus, you follow both of them.

Third, look around you and see if there is someone(s) whom you should be investing in and pouring into. You’ve got to give it away in order to keep it, as it were. The full ministry of the Gospel is about sharing and extending an invitation. It is not a ministry of hoarding, of he-who-has-the-best-toys-wins, or anything else we see emulated in much of capitalism. It is about generosity, humility, and love. Teach people from your experience, share with them your heart, point them to Jesus.

Follow, friends. Follow the One who has called you. And while you are following, lead others in the same direction. This is apprenticeship. This is discipleship. This is the ministry to which we are called, lovingly invited, and in which we are expected to participate.

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