How much does discipleship really matter?

“But with people shooting each other, and anger driving our political system, are we missing something if we just focus on discipleship?”

A pastor put this question to me this week. Like so many of our fellow citizens, his heart was heavy with the events of the last month.  Like so many of his fellow pastors, he was wondering how he should address it, and what sort of answers the church has to offer.  He didn’t have any specific ideas of what we could do but at the moment focusing on discipleship felt, to him almost like avoiding the issue, like missing the point.

I speak with pastors regularly about the need to stay fervently, narrowly, focused on discipleship in their churches.  I urge them that this is not only the most important work they can do but it is precisely the clear mission (commission) of the church.  I find that most Christians, pastors included of course, agree with these sentiments.

At the same time, the pastor above was essentially asking me how discipleship helps anything in the real world.  It’s a fair question and with much care and humility I’d like to give my perspective.  I want to look at the example prevalent on this pastor’s mind and on the minds of so many pastors and christians these days, but I want to tread lightly and do my best to avoid any misunderstanding that I am saying more than I mean to.

So to that end, let me say.  I am concerned, but understanding, that when evil happens the instinct is to fix it. I am understanding because of course we want to make it stop and there’s nothing wrong in itself with the desire to fix what’s broken; I am concerned because this instinct leads to band aids, simple answers to complex questions, and in our rush to find who’s to blame we often treat the victims cruelly, without compassion, sometimes even leaving an impression of blame which is both untrue and unkind.  I won’t say more about that here, but you are free to check out this post for more on that.  I only mention it here, to say that I am not, attempting to simply add another “i told you so” voice to the choir, implying that if people. had simply listened to me than life would be violence free. And in my own frailty I acknowledge the possibility of saying something unintentionally ignorant and offensive.  I ask forgiveness and correction if such happens.  I am only wanting by looking at the very difficult realities we face now, to help pastors (primarily) and Christians to understand that discipleship is immediately and directly relevant, not with quick fixes but long-term cultural changes.

The difficulty for many churches is that while we believe we are commanded to discipleship we fail to understand the purpose or power behind it.  Much of my work coaching pastors is in dealing with these first questions:  What is it and why is it?  In fact, when pressed we often suspect that politics, or science, or education or pop culture or media carry more power to change culture than the church does.  Of course unbelievers often agree with and support this idea, and in this we have too quickly acquiesced and agreed, voluntarily abdicating our responsibility and authority to impact communities.  We then complain about all the respect, influence and authority which the world has stolen from us, when in fact, we gave it up by accepting the world’s definition of the church instead of the Lord’s.

We see these other institutions as having large mass impact, influencing large groups of communities at one time, and so we seek to do the same in the church.  The truth is that the church, at its best deals in intimate relationships (with each other and with God), something in fact that politics, media, pop culture and so on are very bad at.  They can speak in generalities, offering large scale “one size fits all” solutions to complex personal problems.  All the answers presented about guns or changing the culture of cops or African-Americans are not so much wrong as not specific enough.  Who do we take the guns away from and how do we determine who those people are?  As many law-abiding gun owners rightly point out, many of the mass shootings in our history would be unaffected by even the most stringent gun laws currently being debated.  How do you address the fear an African-American feels even if the cop in front of him is unbiased and unlikely to use excessive force?  How do you address the fear the cop feels even if the armed black man in front of him is a good citizen, free of criminal record and only reaching for his wallet?

Of course, you can say that it’s tragic that the black man should feel fear in front of a policeman, and that cops aren’t justified in shooting merely because of fear.  I agree, but what law can we pass, what propaganda can we promote that will change that fear?

Politics and so on can only deal with problems in this mass way.  It is their nature; there is just no way to draft laws which can be conditionally based upon each cop, criminal, or innocent citizen.  People have extreme choice in media and no longer are required to subject themselves to differing viewpoints, so despite the explosion of options (or maybe because of it) media, both pop and journalistic, seem to have less influence in changing biases and opinions and possibly more in confirming them.  Of course any kind of governmental censorship to remove options is another attempt to solve a problem in a big “one size fits all” kind of way with the added danger of having government decide what size everyone should be.

None of this is to say we should never do anything, but only to recognize the limitations of what too many people, pastors included,  are hoping will rescue us from the disintegration of our culture. It is at least arguable that it is this kind of salvation-seeking approach to politics that has landed us with the two least popular major presidential candidates in the history of the US. (Not hyperbole)

Be that as it may, I only share these limitations to contrast them with what the church can and should be doing.  There are times where masses have been moved by legislation or media, by education; cultures have shifted to some degree by these things, but the changes are both more limited and superficial than the church offers. Nonetheless they have their place.  I’m in favor of legislation and communication which will slow down certain self-destructive tendencies of our culture; but I’m more hopeful about moving the hearts of individuals away from these self-destructive tendencies.  Obviously as a  large community of 320 million, we need legislation to restrict the scope and consequence of evil from unchanged hearts, but it’s obvious that changing hearts is both more substantive and permanent when it can be done.  So for the safety of the community, we need the big one size fits all answers, but we must recognize their limitations and recognize that the church does what it does differently than these others and what is does it does in small intimate corners and that these small changes might just be more hep than these big ones in the long run.

Consider, at its best what does discipleship in the church do?  It teaches people how to be disciples of Jesus.  It leads them to walk by faith, following the leadership of Christ.  Jesus insists that He is the head of the church and that He has both desire and ability to apportion the parts of the church as He desires, both in the church and in community outside the church.  By affecting the hearts, souls and minds of the people in our churches, by reintegrating their lives under the headship of Jesus we can lead them to impact a disintegrating culture in astonishing ways.  Of course for this approach to make a difference in the culture we would need thousands of churches in every corner of our country all with the same goal and…oh, come to think of it that’s exactly what Christ said. “Go into all the world and make disciples of all the Peoples.”

Discipleship, can, in this way, change the hearts of the biased cop, move those in charge of policing in communities to lead with integrity and courage to serve the community by weeding out the corrupt, racist and unrepentant cops.  Discipleship can reconcile the races, lead to forgiveness, and repentance, and love.  Discipleship can move the journalist, anchor man, or media mogul to self censor their stories, thinking about how their story will impact the culture, and not merely about ratings.  Discipleship can produce politicians who are actually civil servants looking with compassion and humility upon those they serve, rather than feeding their own ego, and fulfilling their own agendas.  When discussing these groups of people, it’s tempting to argue whether there are more of one or another.  When dealing in large answers this question is relevant.  Do we address corrupt cops first or violent crime in the black neighborhoods?  But notice the church, dealing with individuals finds such questions irrelevant.  If the person in front of you is bigoted, it doesn’t matter at all whether he is one of many or the only one, his discipleship is equally relevant in either case.     The Church has the freedom, even the obligation to deal with such things in such an intimate basis.  Politics, law, education, media and so forth cannot and do not.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

So discipleship doesn’t mean avoiding the issues of the day, it means dealing with them head on in the intimacy of a personal relationship and a smaller community which is both harder and more impactful than the national conversations  we have on Facebook and in the talk shows and around election time.

Only Christ can actually change the hearts of men and discipleship is the support we give to help them continue to abide in the Grace of Christ and the church is the ONLY institution ordained by God to provide this support, and pastors are selected by God to equip the members of the church to do this work of discipleship for each other.  You, pastor, what you do matters.  You are in a unique position to discover in community and relationship with your church what faith’s response, what Christ’s response through us, ought to be at times like this.  You, church and only you can bring the full measure of Christ to the situation and the time.

But only if we maintain our focus on discipleship and the building of the church.

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