Searching for Church: Another Point about Discipleship

We’ve been searching for church.  Discussing the why behind church.  Trying to discern what’s essential and what’s just comfortable or traditional.  So far it’s the act of discipleship which seems most exclusive and essential for the church.  (You can see the previous discussions here).  Next week I will get even more specific about defining discipleship.  We’ll explore a couple of Greek words often used for Discipleship:  Kerygma and Didache.  But I do have one more general conceptual point about discipleship to explore first.

I missed a month in this discipleship series because my mother graduated from discipleship into perfection.

This of course only happens at death and while it is a great moment for her, it was sad and disruptive to us, her family.

As a pastor, I’ve seen this a lot:  life has a way of disrupting our discipleship plans and programs.

A fantastic teaching series is interrupted by Holidays or current events or illness or people all suddenly going camping at the same time.  A great outreach or service project is interrupted by weather.  Great programs grind to a halt simply because of weariness, because people’s jobs, families and health get in the way.   I don’t know a single pastor, present company included, who hasn’t at least been tempted to manipulate, coerce or guilt people past these interruptions to do the “important work of the church.”

What I’ve come to realize, and what is obvious when not in the midst of trying to make programs in the church work, is that these life interruptions are not actually interruptions.  These are where discipleship occurs.  This is God’s curriculum for discipleship.

Consider Jesus with his own disciples.  He did not appear to have a three year curriculum for them other than life itself.  This meant when they argued about who was greatest, he taught them about humility.  When a friend died, he taught them about the resurrection.  When sick, ill, and discontent people interrupted him with petty complaints he taught them about the power of God and compassion.  When children ignored all propriety in their desire to be with Jesus, he taught the disciples an important lesson about their own independence.

None of these things ever occurred to Jesus as an interruption.  This life-discipleship is what he was about.  A preconceived curriculum would likely have gotten in the way.  This is not to say there weren’t principles, ideas, theologies, important points to be made.  It’s just that the order, the emphasis, even the illustrations used to make these points, all flowed directly from life and community and never from any other system of education.

Interestingly the apostles were the ones who often felt that Jesus was allowing interruptions to their discipleship.  It’s the apostles who complained about the kids, the sick, even the crucifixion as an interruption of Jesus work in their lives.  They did not see till later this was all part of the journey.  Part of discipleship.

I’m in favor of planning, of ordered learning; I have no problem with curricula, programs, or teaching series.  I’ve frequently done all of the above.  My concern is that we need to have a flexible and yet serious enough approach to discipleship that we can see life, not as interrupting our journey, but guiding, framing and even defining it.

When we don’t do that:

  •  People who are struggling with genuine discipleship issues feel as if they’re intruding on church plans when they need help.
  •  We reinforce the increasingly prevalent idea that what happens on Sunday Morning bears no relation to the rest of our lives
  •  People who’s lives don’t fit our current theological emphasis are taught that their struggle is too small for God’s concern and too big for God’s Grace.
  •  Theology becomes rigid, defined by just a a few leaders, and unable to accommodate the real life of people we are trying to reach,

These are just some examples of a church lead by a curriculum rather than by life’s curriculum.  How do we make sure our discipleship is guided by real people living life, and not by an externally imposed curriculum?  How did Jesus do it?

Two factors:

  1. Being led by God.  Jesus said He did only what the Father instructed.  We are led by the Triune God:  The Father, the Son who is Head of the Church, and the Holy Spirit who indwells our communities as His temples.
  2. By being invested in the lives of the people we are discipling enough to know what is going on in their lives; by knowing them well enough to trust them; by loving them enough to have earned permission to instruct, challenge, reproach or encourage.

All this leads us back to small connected groups of relationships.  It begins to become clear why we are instructed not to see individual or even groups of leaders as the disciplers in the church, but rather why the whole community is called to disciple.  Only in subsets within the community can such connection and relationship be built.  This is why Jesus, God Himself, spent the last three years of His life on earth with only 12 people intimately.  He healed many, spoke with anyone who asked, but poured His energy into only 12.  Although the transcendent God can be with each of us intimately, while He walked in self imposed limitations of the incarnation, He reflected the realistic approach of discipleship.  Long term commitment to a smaller group of people.

Consider for a moment two recent controversies in the culture.  Controversies which the church was immediately connected to whether it wanted to be or not. Consider first the Syrian Refugee crisis.  Is it more compassionate, loving and Christian to take the refugees in or is it not?  For many the answer seemed obvious on either side.  I know that when I was actively pastoring a church with a weekly sermon, I would have been diplomatic, sincere and earned.  I would have tried to speak with compassion and intelligence about the situation.  The question on my mind would have been, “How can I use this current situation to teach my congregation something about Christ and faith and Grace.”  I suspect this is the question any pastor who addresses this issue asks.  It sounds like a good question and indeed in many ways it’s not a bad thing.

However, I now see that instead of using the pulpit and this situation to impress on people a particular viewpoint even a correct one, what if there were instead a way to challenge every member of our congregation to let the tension drive their own faith, encourage their own dependence upon Christ?  What if we could let the tension of the questions about protection, wisdom, governmental authority and roles, grace, compassion, love, justice…what if we could somehow walk through these tensions together, not avoiding answers as they come through this journey, but not predetermining them for people either?  Even better, what if the specific questions about Syrian refugees which most of us will never face personally actually drove us to more personal questions about the refugees in our own lives?  Everyone of us has undesirables in our lives: Estranged family, unpleasant acquaintances, the homeless man down the street who might not be homeless at all.  How should we respond to these. Some of the same questions apply.  Compassion and justice, grace and safety are all relevant here as well.

My point is specifically not what we, as Christians should or shouldn’t do about these situations, but to explore what it looks like to work together in community to uncover what faith is for each of us; i.e. what God is calling each of us to do specifically.  The difficulty with mass discipleship through corporate teaching is that God may actually be saying different things to different people.  While I’ve seen God accomplish this even in corporate settings of course, I also see God working more frequently in this way through loving interactions between intimate relationships where differing viewpoints are allowed under the unity of one Spirit, one scripture, and one faith.

Whatever our next millennium church structure looks like it must be flexible enough and earnest enough to let life drive the curriculum.

(This has been a difficult one for me to articulate, perhaps because of the great passion I feel about it.  I’d love your comments, arguments, agreements, clarifications below to help us all come to a better understanding of the concepts I’m here trying to articulate.)

See you next time!  (Part Four is here)


  1. This idea lit up like a light bulb for me: “The difficulty with mass discipleship through corporate teaching is that God may actually be saying different things to different people.”

    I love this because it acknowledges the tension and the conflict that is part of everyone’s journey. It takes away the need to have all the answers match for everyone. It excuses the church from having to have a single answer for every question. There may be as many answers as there are people and even more if you adjust for context.

    This whole small group/big church concept is fascinating to me because it is something I have been trying to navigate for a couple years now.

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