In our series of posts about a culture of discipleship, we’ve considered the necessity of building a culture of discipleship as opposed to a “program culture” that only perpetuates a consumer mentality. We also considered how a culture of discipleship is both informal and formal, and how both aspects are helpful in nurturing the other. In this last post, we’ll think about several tools that help make a culture of discipleship sustainable over the long-haul.
In no particular order…
- A discipling relationship needs to be mutual. It can be tempting for program-driven evangelicals to hear “culture of discipleship” and conjure up an image of an unlearned Christian sitting at the feet of an older, wiser Christian who disseminates biblical knowledge. That is not what we are talking about. Though there is a valuable place for older, wiser believers to help instruct the younger (e.g. Titus 2), it is never a one-way relationship. The good work begun in us at conversion is not completed until we meet Jesus face-to-face (Phil.1:6). Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether one person has been a Christian for several years and the other has been a Christian for several weeks. Both can learn and benefit from each other. As Gal.6:2 says, we are to “carry one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” In this kind of relationship, confession of sin is normal. Sharing about heart struggles and anxieties is normal. Prayers for one another are normal. Sharing insights into Scripture and biblical topics is normal. It is not a one-way street. As a result, a relationship is formed in which both people, though perhaps in different stages of life and faith, are building up one another in Christ. Another thing that is being debunked is the myth that you have to be a student before you can be a teacher. We are always students. Christ is our teacher. A relationship of mutual discipleship leans into God’s Word and seeks to be obedient to the Spirit’s work in our lives as we encourage one another.
- A culture of discipleship requires that we understand the local church. Paul tells the Galatians to do good to all people, but “especially to the household of faith” (Gal.6:10). This means that when it comes to our relationships with other people, Christian or not, there is a heightened sense of responsibility we should feel toward the community of the local church. Why? Because the New Testament, and all of Scripture really, presupposes that having a relationship with God means having a relationship with His people. As Scott Sauls has written, “[God] calls us individually, but never as mere individuals.” We have been saved into a people! And to be a part of the universal family of God, means that we should be a part of one of His specific local households. The local church is the primary context for discipleship to Christ. Because the local church, like a family, you don’t get to choose your brothers and sisters! It’s fairly easy to love people generally and occasionally, especially if they are like you. It’s much harder to love people specifically and regularly, especially the ones who aren’t like you! But that is actually the point of it all. God is displaying the glory of His gospel love through the diverse community of the church (Eph.3:10). And as different people, who may have nothing in common besides Christ, get together and seek one another’s spiritual and physical good, that culture of discipleship turns into a platform for evangelism! Jesus prayed for this kind of thing – “May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17:23).
- A culture of discipleship requires a felt responsibility. When we understand that our discipleship to Christ has a congregational shape, we will then feel a sense of responsibility toward one another. Our church covenant seeks to help us with this. Our church covenant is not a set of expectations we place on others in the church, but it’s a set of expectations we place upon ourselves. We encourage our members (those who have committed to the church), to keep the church covenant in a place where they will see it regularly. On the back is a list of the members who make up the church. Though we want to do good to all people, there is a responsibility to especially care for the household of faith. Just a like a father is not responsible for someone else’s child, but is keenly aware of a responsibility to his own, the church should feel that kind of responsibility toward one another. And the beauty of all of this is that some of the people who would be the least likely to naturally get together, feel a responsibility toward one another that moves them to love and serve one another in such a way that the barrier-breaking power of the gospel is put on display. Only Jesus’ love for the ungodly can unleash this kind of love and create this kind of community (Rom.5:6).
- Discipling relationships can be both formal and informal. A culture of discipleship must recognize that discipling relationships will look different for people of different temperaments and life circumstances. Two people may have a good a spiritual conversation sitting down and talking through a good book. Another group of guys might get together for breakfast once a week and ask accountability questions and pray for one another. Another couple guys or girls might go for a weekly run or bike ride once a week and chat about anything and everything. It could be a family that sets aside a night a week to invite over someone for dinner, and seek to encourage that person. The point isn’t that we are checking something off the list. The point is that we are doing life together in such a way that spiritual encouragement and accountability is being given and trust is being built. Overtime, we could say an eco-system is being developed that replenishes and sustains itself through interdependent relationships. Yet, it’s important to note that informal times spent together aren’t just hanging out in a shallow sense. Though there may be times where just that happens, our church covenant provides a roadmap for what we want to accomplish. Simple questions like “How can I be praying for you?” or “What has God been teaching you lately?” are questions that will go a long way and provoke further conversation. Both aspects of formal and informal discipleship are recommended. In this busy age, it’s good to have set times and rhythms where we intentionally connect with other people. We need space to talk and pray and listen. We also need space to simply enjoy fellowship with one another where perhaps there is no clear agenda. As Jesus said of Himself and His own strategy for disciple-marking, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34). A culture of discipleship thrives when we know one another, care for one another, and open our lives to one another. That is where lasting change comes from. We should be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “We cared so much for you that we were pleased to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).
- A culture of discipleship is both liberating and difficult. For people who want to be anonymous and self-sufficient, a culture of discipleship will be unattractive and perhaps terrifying. Many people yearn for the spiritual experience of the New Testament church, but they find out it involves commitment and accountability, and they run the other way. In the words of Bonhoeffer, they love the “idea of community” but not the community itself. But for those who truly want to change, who want more of Jesus, and don’t trust themselves to follow Him alone, a culture of discipleship is liberating! It frees us from the danger and loneliness of lone-ranger Christianity, and frees us from the compartmentalized vision of community presented in many churches. It gives us a spiritual family (drunk uncles and all!). It gives us countless opportunities for creatively and consistently loving others. It gives us hope for change, knowing that we are not alone when we take up our cross to follow Jesus. As Jesus said Himself, “…there is no one who has left house, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children, or fields because of Me and the gospel, who will not receive 100 times more, now at this time—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and eternal life in the age to come” (Mark 10:29-30). And at the same time, it is very difficult. It can be tough to know what’s lurking in our hearts until we have a relationship bring it out. Living in committed community with other Christians will bring up many opportunities for you to become frustrated with yourself and with others. It’s not always convenient either. Having plans to sit in and watch TV some night, can be interrupted by an overwhelming need of another. Our love for leisure will be threatened by the messiness of time spent in relationships. But as we encounter these divine interruptions, we learn that this is what it looks like to become more like Jesus. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life – a ransom for many.” God’s desire for every Christian is that we would become more like Jesus. This was Jesus’ plan when He commanded, “Go and make disciples!” Christ is filling the earth with people who increasingly resemble Himself. A culture of discipleship aims toward that end. “For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal.5:13-14).