Culture of Discipleship (part 1)

9 August 2016

If you’ve hung around our church for even a short length of time, a phrase you’ve probably heard is “culture of discipleship.” We talk about it, pray about, and seek to do it. But what exactly do we mean by this term?

Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, defines culture as “what human beings make of the world.” This simple definition presupposes that when we seek to make something of our world, we naturally adopt certain values, attitudes, behaviors, and tools for accomplishing this task. Think of the interstate highway system in our own country. This system is a reflection of a value on mobility and convenience, which opens up a wide array of possibilities that impact everything from our work lives to our shopping habits. This cultural artifact reveals a cultural value that shapes a culture, with all of its pros and cons.

So, what is a culture of discipleship? Before Christ ascended to heaven, He gave His disciples, and us, a command – “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt.28:18-20, HCSB). This command reveals a value. Jesus’ kingdom is all about discipleship. It’s about His followers observing His commands and looking more like their Savior and King. It’s about Jesus filling the earth with little icons of His character (ie. Christians) and little outposts of His kingdom presence (ie. churches). It’s about a new culture that reflects the kingdom that has come and is coming one day in fullness at Christ’s return.

And so the question becomes, “How do we effectively obey this command?” Many churches would take different approaches. It’s safe to say that we all desire to obey Jesus. But it’s also safe to say that certain approaches have actually undermined the creation of this kind of culture. As Andy Crouch writes, “Culture is what human beings make of the world, but not everything that human beings make shapes culture.” That is, our innovations can be fraught with negative consequences. Consider the interstate system again. Though we have achieved mobility and convenience, it has come at a cost. Automobile fatalities, the demise of small businesses due to the strategic placement of a mega-store accessible via intersecting highways, the advent of the strip mall and the demise of local hubs for community – to name a few. Likewise, churches can aim to make discipleship happen, but introduce programs that ultimately work against the very thing they want to create. For example, what values and attitudes are being cultivated in a young woman when we teach her that what her discipleship must look like is her attendance at the young singles’ Bible study on Thursday evenings? Seems innocent enough. But let’s look closer. What values are being cultivated? A value upon homogeneity (ie. you study the Bible only with people you can relate to); perhaps a value upon compartmentalization (ie. you have a time slot set aside for when you encourage others and look at God’s Word). To be clear, this is not a denouncement of community groups or specific Bible studies. As we grow and needs arise, those structures will naturally be needed. And it’s not to say that seeking spiritually intentional relationships with people at a similar stage of life or setting aside specific time slots for these relationships isn’t warranted. In fact, it’s very natural. Doing something is surely better than doing nothing! But, if we’re not careful, what is being cultivated in these programs could be something that works against the very values of Jesus’ kingdom (the barrier breaking power of the gospel, and 24/7 living sacrifice we are called to be in response to God’s grace, Eph. 2 & Rom. 12). What happens when the program disappears? Perhaps the consumeristic values that have been cultivated in this young woman will cause her to look elsewhere for her spiritual needs. She will look for people who look like her and fit into her schedule. The culture begins to implode. And the church is reduced to an accessory for the Christian life, not the context for the Christian life. No discipleship, no kingdom-power. 

In conclusion, what we do and how we do it is very important. The culture we create will either display the values of Christ’s kingdom or will work against those very values. In our next post, we’ll think about what a culture of discipleship can look like. If culture is what we make of the world, then the church’s culture is what we make of the kingdom that Christ has brought us into, how we display its values, and see it advance. Stay tuned.

  1. Andy Crouch, Culture Marking: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 37.

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