I was taught by a career missionary to think about two questions principally when making disciples of Jesus Christ. The first question is “What do you want the disciple of Jesus to be?” And the second is “What do you want the disciple of Jesus to do?” These have served as helpful questions that make everything from preaching to teaching to counseling much easier, not to mention simpler. Rather than getting up inside my own head over someone else’s life problems or questions about the faith, I try to focus on their spiritual needs by following that missionary’s simple rubric.
But, as I think about the challenges facing the Christian church in the West today, I’m brought back all the way to my childhood and the hell-fire-and-brimstone pastor of my Southern Baptist upbringing. True, he made me more afraid of hell than he did hopeful for heaven. True, I walked away from his teaching believing that God loved me, but probably didn’t like me very much. And yet, there was something he said once that has stuck with me all these years. In one particularly candid sermon, he said to the parents in the congregation that “You aren’t really raising your kids. If you’re smart, you’re really trying to raise your grandkids.” I’ve always understood him to mean that asking merely what we want the disciple of Jesus to be and to do is still too short-sighted. We have to think longer term to how we want the disciples we shape to pass the Christian faith on to the next generation that they teach.
Of course the simplest answer to how we want the disciples of Jesus we influence to pass on the faith can be summed up in one word: intact. We want the disciples we shape to pass the faith on to the next generation whole and unadulterated. And then the question comes as to how we do that. I’m not sure I know the best answer, to tell the truth. But here’s where my own reflection has brought me over the years:
· Doctrine isn’t about the right answer as much as it is about the right way of thinking. If I teach someone to simply regurgitate the ‘right’ answers (what we sometimes call “Sunday school” answers) then I’m not teaching that person to think theologically. Future generations will be asked to answer questions regarding the wider culture that my generation couldn’t foresee. Leaning how to think is more important than knowing all the easy pat answers.
· Learning to think theologically is a matter of being shaped by the Scriptures. I meet people every day who try to make the Bible “easier” through helpful books/study guides and lay-centered devotional guides. I also meet people who try to get a leg up on their spiritual life by reading books about Christianity. But I’m not sure the Bible is actually supposed to be easy or immediately accessible. I’m also not sure learning about Christianity (which is the expression of the faith in an institutionalized form) is as important as seeking the Savior to whom the Scriptures point. The Scriptures tend to reward those who simply come and drink deeply. I want to influence Christians who want to allow the word of God to wash over them again and again until they finally begin to hear a “still small whisper” and follow that leading with everything in them. This is not to say that the Bible simply means whatever I think it means, but the application of Scripture is something that must be done in community, which leads me to my next point below.
· Because the discipleship process is about connecting a person to the Christ who is found in the Scriptures, what we believe is only measurable by how we live (and this is the important part) in community. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is not the same thing as a “personal Jesus” à la the old Johnny Cash song. Learning to live out the faith in community is vital to Christian discipleship because 1) the community of believers helps us to make sense of the Scriptures, and 2) others in the community know what I actually believe by how I’m living … and they can show me what I look like in the eyes of the wider community through godly accountability!
· Being a disciple is about imitating Christ. Being a disciple of Jesus isn’t about saving the world. It isn’t about ‘fixing’ what’s wrong in the institutional church. It isn’t about righting all the wrongs that I see in the world until there is no more injustice. It isn’t even, in the first place, about my personal holiness – or a host of other things either. Being a disciple is about imitating Jesus in every thought, word, and action with every breath I take because I fear him and trust his promises more than anything or anyone else in the whole world. Such discipleship does not merely make disciples; it makes disciples who in turn make more disciples, because such discipling of others is itself an imitation of Christ.