What Is Discipleship?

What Is Discipleship? September 10, 2015

As some of you may have (hopefully) noticed, I’ve been a terrible blogger over the last few weeks. Meaning, I haven’t blogged a whole lot since mid-summer, not that the content of my few blogs has been terrible, though that’s always a live possibility. Between broken down cars, computer crashes, camping trips, starting up an EBC extension campus here in Boise, and speaking at different venues, the last few weeks have been a little nuts. But I’m getting back on my feet and starting to feel that itch to blog once again.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m writing a book on discipleship that’s tentatively titled “The State of Discipleship in the Church.” (I’m sure I’ll find a much sexier title than that, but it’s what we’ve got for now.) So I’ve been knee-deep in all the discipleship books and statistical Caravaggio-Crucifixion_of_Petersurveys as I try to get my arms and heart around the topic. Part of my study has lead me to comb through what I call the “why millennials hate the church” books, which has been pretty fascinating. I’ll blog about that particular topic in the near future. For now, I’m interested in the foundational question: What is discipleship?

There’s some disagreement on what it means to be a disciple. The most common definition seems to be: “becoming more like Jesus.” Sounds like a pretty good definition, right? Well, sort of. But it all depends on what we think it means to be “like Jesus.” And here’s where I’ve found somewhat of a gap in the discipleship books I’m reading. Most of them promote some sort of “becoming more like Jesus” theme, and then advocate for a particular method to get people to become more like Jesus. But as I’ve reflected on this definition, I’ve had two main questions that I haven’t seen a lot of people address.

First, the definition of “becoming more like Jesus” is usually filled in with modern, individualistic, and suburban examples of what this looks like. To be more like Jesus means we should read our Bibles more. Pray more. Stop watching porn. Quick getting drunk. Be passionate about bearing “fruit worthy of a follower of the risen Lord,” as one writer put it, which is nice and all but feels rather cliched and vague.

While I don’t discount that all of these are virtuous goals, I don’t think they go far enough. These virtues seem to be drawn straight out of modern Christian subculture and don’t quite capture the full-orbed picture of Jesus painted by the inspired four Gospels.

The Jesus who walked the Middle East 2,000 years ago was executed by the state for political (and religious) treason. Not sure if this would fair well in a church where patriotism and the gospel go hand in hand. Jesus turned the other check when physically attacked, accepted unjust suffering without retaliation (and demanded that his followers do the same), and chewed out the most popular religious leaders of his day. He violated religious traditions, slaughter sacred cows, and lived so close to gluttons, drunkards, and extortionists that people thought he was one (Matt 11). Jesus believed that one cannot be His disciple unless they recklessly give to the poor (Luke 12:33; 14:33), and He even dared to make one’s ministry to the poor the main criteria for attaining eternal life in His most extensive sermon about judgment day (Matt 25:31-46). Is the American church ready to “become more like [the] Jesus [who’s actually revealed to us in the 4 gospels]?”

I just wonder if becoming more like Jesus is a lot more dangerous and countercultural than we’ve made it out to be. I agree with the definition of discipleship that’s often given. I just wonder if it’s been neutered and chained up inside a gated community.

Second, when I read about how people think of discipleship it feels somewhat performance-driven. As if the gospel is what gets us saved, but has little relevance for our sanctification. Discipleship is not just about how we can rid our moral closet of its skeletons. It’s also about how to believe and live out the gospel when we screw up.

I know this is anecdotal, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to young Christians who are deeply battling some sort of addiction and they feel so defeated precisely because they have a transactional view of the gospel. “I’m sure God is so sick and tired of me failing for the umpteenth time. There’s no way He could value someone like me who keeps masturbating.” These people functionally believe that God’s love is based on what they do or don’t do. But the gospel says that God’s love is based on what Christ has done for you. Success in the Christian life isn’t just becoming more like Jesus. It’s also, at its foundation, clinging to the promise that Jesus was successful on your behalf. The gospel is not a transaction; it’s a gift. And when you swallow up your identity in this gift it actually liberates you toward obedience (1 Cor 15:10; Phil 2:12-13).

Is disheartening that 3 out of 5 churchgoing Christians “equate Christianity with a list of moral rules to be followed,” which is roughly the same percentage as unchurched people (Kinnaman and Barna, Churchless, 80). According to a John Burke (Mud and the Masterpiece) and Barna, many church-going Christians think and live more like the Pharisees than like Jesus (Churchless, 178-180). It’s certainly tough to grow as a disciple and “become more like Jesus” when you believe that Jesus came primarily to give us a bunch of moral rules to follow.

A refreshing exception in the conversation has been Jonathan Dodson, who writes in his book Gospel Centered Discipleship: “Spiritual growth as a disciple isn’t gospel-centered-discipleship-jonathan-dodson-book-coverwhat rectified the moral failures of my past. No, the death and life of Jesus is what rectifies my past, forgiving all my sins, Christian and pre-Christian…the gospel that makes disciples is the very same gospel that mature disciples” (pp. 36, 40).

I got nothin. Nothin to add to that.

As I reflect on what discipleship means, I just wonder if it’s a bit more messy, and a bit less religious, than what we’ve made it out to be.

I also wonder if we’ve elevated certain pet aspects of personal morality over communal and social action—the subject of my next post.

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