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Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Discipleship: A Letter from a Friend

Hey Man,

In our chat about discipleship yesterday, it occurred to me that I should quote you on it for my book with ________. Can you shoot me a couple of paragraphs on discipleship? Scriptural basis...what it means to you, etc?




I'll do the best I can to talk about discipleship in light of the fact that I've just begun a process of reinvestigating what that word means.  I don't know how much what I say today will resemble what I say at the end of my search.  I'm calling a lot of my assumptions into question.

"Disciple" is so churchy.  The Greek word it translates basically means "student."  But it's not a student like we carelessly use the term sometimes: a brain container with an ID number and a courses-taken checklist planted in a seat in front of a teacher who is trying to pour information in and tested on how much actually stuck.  Rather, this kind of student is learning to be like his or her teacher (cf. Matt. 10:24-25).  There is a cognitive component to be sure, but thinking what the teacher thinks is just a means or a part of doing what the teacher does or living as the teacher lives.

I was a disciple of my piano teachers.  Interestingly, though I benefited enormously (and necessarily) from my first and third teachers who drilled me on technique, I think I matured the most in the shortest period of time with my second teacher.  Most of our lessons were spent talking, and when it came to the playing, he played more than I did.  But I became more and more like him as a pianist because I spent time with him and picked up his way of doing things.  That's discipleship.  Incidentally, it occurred to me that while ________ is your disciple in the Way of Jesus, you are his disciple in the Way of Auto Repair.  That suggests to me that you are probably learning more about discipleship than I am and that I need to read your book—the sooner, the better.

I think what I've just written is at the core of what Christian discipleship is though I don't think it fully describes it.  But I need to describe that core, and I need to describe what isn't a part of the core but has just been built on it as particular people in particular places at particular times have tried to make disciples in particular ways.  Those ways aren't wrong, but they aren't the core, the essence of discipleship.  And I have an uneasy feeling that I/we have assumptions about what discipleship is that are actually just passing ways of doing it that may be (and need to be) adapted or discarded altogether.

For example, one thing I'm wrestling with is the relationship between discipleship and catechesis (defined here as "transferring doctrine to a new mind," not as memorization of a question-an-answer catechism per se).  It seems the silent assumption everywhere, including often in my own head, is that they are the same thing.  How do you disciple someone?  Throw her in a class.  Give him a book.  But that's absurd.  We have no evidence that Jesus made disciples anything like we try to do.  He didn't teach a class.  He didn't give them a book.  He also didn't give them a book on how to make disciples.  I have books like that on my shelf, which is ridiculous.  It's not that books on discipleship might not stimulate my thinking and give me some more tools—they do—but if I haven't basically learned how to disciple someone by mimicking the person who discipled me then those books are useless.  No one reads their way into Christian discipleship just like no one reads their way into playing the piano or fixing a car.  On the other hand, catechesis is an important piece of the puzzle.  It provides a cognitive framework that can be brought to bear on particular practical issues ("how do I make choices?" "how do I pray?" "how do I endure suffering?") by a skilled teacher, just as Jesus employed the catechesis his disciples received as youngsters in the synagogue.  So I wonder if discipleship and catechesis are separate things, or if they are overlapping things, or if catechesis is one portion of discipleship.

Then there's the role of the Holy Spirit in discipleship.  At times Paul and his companions would plant a church, appoint elders, and take off in what we would consider a shockingly short time for someone to go from pagan to Christian leader/teacher.  But they seemed to be confident that what they didn't have time to do with a person was well within the capacity of the Holy Spirit, whose job was to "guide [disciples] into all truth" (John 16:13-15, cf. 1 John 2:20-27).  Do our attempts at discipleship demonstrate any trust that the Holy Spirit teaches people?  Or are we content making catechumens that display no evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives?

Where I'm really groping is what these and other jumbled questions mean for discipleship in the church.  Discipleship as I've begun to define it here is intrinsically relational.  Because we're finite beings, the number of people we can disciple is small.  Because we're diverse beings living diverse lives, the degree to which we can design a step-by-step guide to discipleship is limited.  All of this points to the main outcome of discipleship being the development of a person who is trustworthy and wise enough to disciple someone else that I can't reach in a situation I haven't anticipated.  So how does this connect to Church Programs (small groups, classes, Bible studies, etc.)?  Pragmatically, I don't think it's possible for a church to do the most good for the most people without programs (at least at certain points in its life), and yet true discipleship seems in many ways stubbornly unprogrammatic.  Jesus' instruction of the Twelve as we see it in the Gospels is small-scale, relational, spontaneous, reactive, hands-on, nonliterate, and largely nonlinear in content delivery, most of which is anathema to programs.  Is catechesis to happen through a program but discipleship to take place outside of one?  Do we form disciples and trust that they will lead new students in the right way even if we can't even know for sure that they're doing it, much less control it, a nightmare for anxious pastors like I'm tempted to be?

I've been a disciple of Jesus for about thirty years, a thinking Christian leader-type of some degree for over fifteen, and a pastor for six.  So if I had any clue at all, I would know what discipleship is, right?  But as you can see, I'm at a point where I may have more questions than answers.  It's also a point where tomorrow I'm beginning an extended sermon series in Luke with the theme of—guess what?—discipleship.


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