The Mystery Solved!
I first met the group of churches in 1981 that was later to be called the ICOC movement (International Churches of Christ). I was highly impressed with their evangelistic effectiveness and level of commitment, and figured out almost immediately that those two things were a result of discipleship. Bottom line, our lives should be all about discipleship, from both the vertical and horizontal perspectives.
Up, Down, and Sideways
Vertically, we are Christ’s disciples, totally committed to him and his purpose for our lives. To help people climb that lofty pinnacle, we not only have to preach commitment, but also love for Jesus. We cannot obey just out of fear or duty, but out of love for him because of his ultimate sacrifice on the cross for us.
Then we have the horizontal discipleship – our “one another” relationships within his Body, the church. This “discipling” relationship is also focused on Jesus – helping each other to become more and more like him and working in his power to carry out his mission to seek and save the lost. We have to not only teach it, but leaders must expect it, which means that we must have a return to clear expectations and accountability – applied in the right ways this time. The Bible has become an ideal for far too many, rather than a standard of what God actually expects of us.
Getting Off Track
When the challenges of 2003 came, for those familiar with our history, I knew immediately that several things would be discarded, and quickly. One of those was the practice of discipling and all that makes it function effectively. This one biblical concept and practice (even though it was too often practiced wrongly) was what drew me into this movement. I wrote a lengthy book about the topic back in 1997 and the book was later condensed in order to make it easier for younger Christians to use. It is still available after having gone through several revisions, and now carries the title, “The Power of Discipling.”
When the majority of our people stopped practicing discipling, I understood that a big part of the reason was because they had experienced wrong applications of it and been hurt. I was almost immediately hoping, begging, teaching and praying that we would return to what was a clear biblical teaching and expectation of God. You simply cannot dismiss the large number of passages that speak of our “one another” responsibilities. Yet, that is what many did and continue to do. But why?
Why, Why, Why?
The common answer, of course, is that people have been hurt and simply don’t seem to be able to get past their hurts and associated fears. I confess that I bought into that excuse too readily, especially when it kept being held up for so long as the main reason that people were not practicing what I believe the Bible clearly teaches. I recently read an article by a retired Methodist minister that jarred me. Keep in mind that the Methodist Church is not known for its evangelistic outreach with the concept of discipleship driving it. However, this one minister in that group makes his case strongly – more strongly than most of us who claim to still believe in the concept would make it.
So what is the real issue behind our all but missing ingredient of discipling? Is it the fact that we have been hurt and can’t get over our fears of a repeat experience? No, that’s not really it. The same people who cling to this excuse have also experienced wrong applications of marriage dynamics, parenting dynamics, and other interpersonal dynamics. Yet, they have worked through those challenges to try and correct these wrong applications and find smoother sailing in healthy applications of these other human relationships. They are not dumb folks; they realize that humans are imperfect and “bumps” between them in all types of relationships are a part of life that will take ongoing work to keep correcting. They handle those situations pretty well.
The Honest but Painful Answer
Why won’t they apply these same principles of seeing relationships to be an ongoing, learning process when it comes to discipling? The old Methodist preacher nailed it. Listen to what he wrote: (See his full article at: (http://www.transformativechurch.org/2013/02/25/why-arent-christian-churches-more-committed-to-making-disciples-2/)
We don’t like being disciplined. The word “disciple” comes from the same Latin word discipulus as does the word “discipline.” The dictionary defines a “disciple” as one who is a pupil or an adherent to the teachings of another. Discipline is defined as the “training to act in accordance with rules.” It also means “behavior in accord with rules of conduct; behavior and order maintained by training and control.” Do you see the problem? We don’t like to discipline ourselves, much less submit ourselves to the discipline of others. We Americans are radical individualists. We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do or when to do it. We avoid accountability like the plague.
It is not rocket science, but people must have real convictions about what following Jesus is really all about. As interested onlookers outside of our movement have said of us, we are now a nicer, gentler, more comfortable version of our former selves. We are enjoying our comfortability, and enjoy no longer feeling the need to be radical in our religion. We have for the most part become just another nice little church on the corner of Main Street, USA. We thus have fallen prey to the American view of church and Christianity. We may not be fully engaged in the race to catch that “American Dream” of materialism and worldly success, but we are almost fully invested in the race to catch the “American Church Dream.”
Rather amazingly, the old Methodist bard sees this one pretty clearly also. Listen to him:
We have an unregenerate church membership/culture. The quote above comes from Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Many leaders in today’s church are so concerned about attendance numbers they lower the cost, hoping more will be willing to buy. The results have been that with each new generation the American church culture has become less and less “disciplined” with fewer experiencing genuine spiritual regeneration. Once the church culture makes this transition it is extremely difficult to restore an environment where lives are truly being transformed… Making disciples is a process that takes a great deal of time and personal investment. Accountability is more important than entertainment. It requires submission and vulnerability and sacrifice.
Is this us? Are you getting defensive reading this? If yes, I have one word to describe it – Bingo! If it doesn’t describe you, you wouldn’t be getting defensive, now would you? The idea that past hurts are behind the loss of discipling one another is merely a smoke screen. The real reason is that we like having the freedom to pick and choose what we will and will not do as church members. We don’t like having people in our lives spiritually who have expectations of us and are willing to hold us accountable – even if those expectations are God’s!
The Bottom Line
Here’s the real bottom line of this issue, and it’s not a pretty thought. We have missed the very foundation of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. “Then he said to them all: ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it’” (Luke 9:23-24). So there we have it; a refusal to deny self and embrace whatever Jesus asks of us, including even a cross – and certainly including the goal of becoming as much like Christ as possible in order to carry out his Great Commission of trying to help save a lost world.
Of course about now, I can just sense someone asking, “Are you saying that we are not disciples?” Listen, I’m just quoting Scriptures and sharing obvious observations; that’s my job. Your job is to examine yourselves, if Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 13:5 are going to receive due consideration. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?”
I’m also reminded as a preacher of Paul’s words to Timothy, when he commanded him to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). Finally, as Jesus concluded his very strong admonition to a church that he described as being “lukewarm,” and about to make him vomit (the literal translation), he said this: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
The ball’s in your court; what will you do with it? What do you need to do with it? What does God want you to do with it? What are you going to do with it? Enough questions; you and God must provide the answers.