18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Flavor the the Month: Discipleship
If you were to survey the largest church leadership conferences in the United States from the past 12 months, odds are that the major theme of the conference had something to do with discipleship. From Verge to Exponential, there is no doubt that discipleship is the flavor of the month.
I find this shift encouraging. Having worked in a mission-minded college ministry for so many years, it is exciting to see churches operating less like corporations and more like indigenous missions agencies. I believe that this shift in the Western church is a helpful corrective to the insular, institution-driven models which have, for so long, quenched the fires of evangelism and mission. Furthermore, this renewed emphasis on discipleship and mission is so widespread that it appears to be less a part of the latest fad and more a reflection of the Spirit-driven nature of church responding to the call of the Great Commission.
However, one of the things that I am worried about is the increasingly consumer-oriented nature of this shift. Nowadays I can’t turn around without running into another book on discipleship. There’s David Platt’s Follow Me, Mike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture, and Francis Chan’s Multiply. There’s Jim Putnam’s Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual and Greg Ogden’s Transforming Discipleship. The list is large and continues to grow. Leave it to us Americans to take an awesome idea, package it, and sell it for the greater glory of God. (And yes, I did just link all of those to Amazon. You are now free to indulge your shopping impulse).
Now I genuinely believe that these authors have a deep desire to help men and women grow to maturity in Christ and that these books are not written for personal gain. However, what I see when there is this explosion of books is a mad dash to buy, read, consume and regurgitate without thought to the consequences and without critical reflection on Scripture and our own contexts. We end up going and attending conferences with these authors, spending money on airlines and hotel rooms, eating out, eating in, and buying more books, all in the name of advancing the cause of discipleship. Finally, if any of this is actually applied, it is applied by buying more books, giving them to more people, and telling them to go and do likewise. The result: cookie cutter disciples being cranked out by the latest book buying craze.
Now all of that sounds rather cynical, but for the record I write this as someone who has partaken. I am just as guilty of following this model as the next pastor and for that I must repent. The reality is that we spend so much time reading and talking about discipleship that we miss the point: to help people to grow into full maturity in Christ. And the truth is that we don’t need another manual to help us do this. Why? Because we already have the one manual we will ever need: Scripture.
Spending Time with The Rabbi
What I find interesting about the vast majority of these discipleship books is how they all center around one simple idea: look at what Jesus did the in gospels and do likewise. That’s it. Jesus not only came and died for us, but he also modeled for us how to live. Furthermore, when he gives the Great Commission to his disciples he is essentially telling them to do exactly what he did with them. “Go and make disciples…baptizing…and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Jesus makes clear that his intention was for them to follow the example that he had laid down. So, I think the challenge for us is to set the manuals down for a while and to just spend time with our rabbi. Jesus shows us how to make disciples in the way that he taught, and he invites us to join in him in that process.
So here is a challenge for all of us: before picking up another discipleship book or training manual, spend some time in the gospels and ask yourself the following questions:
- How did Jesus help people grow spiritually?
- How did he help shape and form his disciples as people?
- What were Jesus’ rhythms of life with his followers?
- How did he teach, both in word and deed?
I think we will be surprised by what we find. Furthermore, this approach puts us right where we need to be: at the feet of Jesus, watching what he does and learning from him. My hope is that this will be the key to our discipleship; that we will be trained in the way of and formed by Christ himself, and sent to help others do the same.
QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION: As you read the gospels, what have you learned about how to make disciples? What has Jesus taught you be his example?