Below is a copy of the paper I presented at the 2018 Society of Vineyard Scholars’ annual meeting at Asbury Theological Seminary. In what follows, I attempt to explore the relationship of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral with our Vineyard DNA, building on Thomas Lyons’ previous SVS 2013 paper. After establishing this interface, I suggest a number of ways in which this valuable method of theological reflection can be cultivated and maintained within the context of of the lived-out and practical ministry of the local church, especially related to community discipleship (or you can download a PDF). [Read more…]
The hot button discussion in American Evangelicalism this week is the recently released “Nashville Statement”. This is an attempt by some Reformed Evangelicals to clarify their views on sexuality; the statement has raised a fair amount of agreement and a fair amount of disagreement. Given the theological diversity of my friends, some have loved it and others have found it terrible. You can see the diversity of public opinion within “15 Reactions For And Against the Nashville Statement.” In my opinion, the following posts have been tremendously helpful in thinking about #NashvilleStatement: [Read more…]
I’ve long been intrigued by the elusive subject of Christian discipleship. As a “child of the church,” having spent the entirety of my life in and around churchianity, I’m well versed in numerous definitions of what it means to be a disciple and yet, as I’ve read Scripture over and over and engaged the thinking of numerous authors, both pastors and theologians, I’m often left with more questions than answers. But because I believe that Jesus’ command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19-20) is one of the most important commands we have, I can’t set the subject aside and pretend it’ll eventually work itself out.
Before jumping to a working definition of discipleship, I think it may be helpful to identify some problems and challenges that tend to be unhelpful in our understanding of the subject:
Discipleship is not simply knowing stuff.
One of the negative consequences of the Enlightenment seems to be the assumption that many western Christians have made concerning the assumed transformative nature of information. We’ve basically spent hundreds of years assuming that if people just learn and memorize information, their lives will be transformed mysteriously into the image of Jesus.
Yet, as Bob Logan has noted numerous times, what we’ve actually done is educate people beyond their obedience. People have a ton of head knowledge but their lives are not being lived in a way that is shaped by that information. It’s as if we’ve downloaded entire systematic theologies into the brains of new Christians and then expected them to live out all 1,500 pages of it. The reality is that those new followers of Jesus have been over-saturated with doctrines and have yet to learn and practice the ways of the kingdom. Rather than educate people beyond their obedience, we need to educate people alongside their response. As followers of Jesus learn the ways of Jesus and become acquainted with his teachings, they, in turn, apply them to their lives. [Tweet “As followers of Jesus learn the ways of Jesus they apply them to their lives.”]
Discipleship is not a one time event.
While it’s true that people ontologically experience salvation immediatley upon the profession of their faith, people often experience salvation on a practical level as a process. Justification is certainly granted to broken sinners when their hearts turn from the ways of the world and, by God’s grace, cling to the work of Jesus on the cross, yet people seem to often come to terms with the beauty of God’s redemption slowly and in the context of numerous conversations and experiences.
I’ve seen this transition take place in our culture and think it’s largely just a chance of methodology and experience. The transition is noted in that fifty years ago, most conversion experiences were sudden and immediate. Folks would attend a Billy Graham revival and make a decision to follow Jesus and the experience was articulated in language emphasizing immediacy rather than process. Today’s cultural landscape tends to produce experiences of conversion that celebrate the process of discovery and thoughtfulness.
This became obvious a few years ago when I met a man who had been attending our church for a few months who finally came up to me and said, “You know I have been coming to church here mostly because my friends invited me and there was free coffee. But recently I think I might have become a Christian.” I replied, “What makes you think that you are a Christian now?,” to which he replied, “Well, I’ve come to understand that Jesus died for my sins on the cross and was raised from the dead and he sent his Spirit to help me live my life for God.” I responded, “Yep… I think it’s safe to say you are a Christian!”[Tweet “Yep… I think it’s safe to say you are a Christian!”]
Discipleship is not one size fits all.
One of the beautiful things about Jesus, I think, is how he took the time to meet people where they were at and engaged them in terms directly connected to where they were at in life. Whether engaging the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), a man with leprosy (Luke 5:12-16), or the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Jesus’ words and actions were unique and directly ministered, challenged, and healed those he was engaging.
That’s why any effective process or program related to discipleship has to have a lot of space for what is needed and what God is doing. While I love church resources that are “plug and play,” I absolutely despise the assumption that every city, every church, and every Christian is the same. Why? Because they aren’t!
Toward Defining “Discipleship.”
While there are, as a I indicated above, many definitions for the word disciple and voluminous literature on the subject of discipleship, perhaps the Gospel of Matthew is a good place to start:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24 NLT)
In the first century, the word “disciple” (Gk. mathetes) described someone who was a “learner, pupil, or apprentice” and is used to describe someone who is “constantly associated” with someone and their teachings (cf. BDAG, 609). Jesus’ command (and, I think, invitation) to “follow me” is one of the most important ideas in the New Testament. It’s the place where a relationship with the Lord begins. We begin following him and learning his ways, his words, his teachings, his thoughts, and his mission. We observe what he says and what he does. We begin to engage his proclamations and demonstrations. We can’t really begin to apply Jesus’ teachings until we learn them! It leads to recognizing another important statement in Scripture: Jesus is Lord. As people begin to follow Jesus and learn his ways and encounter him, they begin to understand more and more that he is Lord.
If you put yourself in the
shoes sandals of the early disciples, think about the invitation to follow Jesus as an opportunity to walk with him and hear him teach on the kingdom of God and to see him invite people to experience eternal life. As you hear Jesus day after day, you begin to fall more and more in love with him and as Jesus continually asks that pesky question who do you say he is, your answer becomes more and more aware of his goodness, grace, and purposes.
So I think it’s safe to say that disciples of Jesus follow Jesus. But what else does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? How might we understand following Jesus in a more fleshed out manner? Martin Manser writes that discipleship is:
“The process of becoming a committed follower of Jesus Christ, with all the spiritual discipline and benefits which this brings.” (Dictionary of Bible Themes)
Manser’s definition is helpful, I think, because of the word “becoming.” Avoiding the unbiblical and unhelpful suggestion that discipleship is crossing a finish line, this explanation envisions discipleship as a process of becoming. Another thoughtful definition comes from Chris Byrley:
“Discipleship is the process of devoting oneself to a teacher to learn from and become more like them. For the Christian, this refers to the process of learning the teachings of Jesus and following after his example in obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Discipleship not only involves the process of becoming a disciple but of making other disciples through teaching and evangelism.” (“Discipleship,” Lexham Theological Wordbook)
This definition is helpful because it emphasizes the process of learning from and becoming like Jesus himself in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yay for a trinitarian theological approach! But what’s also a gold mine is that Byrley includes an emphasis on “making other disciples” as part of discipleship. Multiplication and discipleship go hand in hand. [Tweet “Multiplication and discipleship go hand in hand”]
This brings me to one of the best definitions of a disciple. The legendary Bob Logan define’s disciple as the following:
Logan has fleshed out eight dimensions of discipleship, or activities associated with being a follower of Jesus as follows:
- Experiencing and worshiping God.
- Partnering with the Holy Spirit.
- Sacrifical service.
- Generous living.
- Personal transformation.
- Authentic relationships.
- Community transformation.
I had the honor of being part of a team that met with Bob Logan and helped put together these dimensions using Vineyard language, so I can vouch for the content and I’ve used them a lot and found them to be very effective (check them out here).
So disciples are people in the process of becoming more like Jesus as they learn his ways and apply his teachings to their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit. They are also involved in helping others also become more like Jesus.
Spiritual Formation’s Discipleship Triad
Thinkers within the discipline of spiritual formation often emphasize knowing, being, and doing. They suggest that a healthy and holistic approach to Christian spirituality will acknowledge that this paradigm avoids ignoring the importance of our thinking, our identity, and our actions.
Disciples seek to know Jesus and Scripture. They are curious about the ways of the kingdom and seek to know more about it. Yet, as Ed Stetzer states, “we learn and know so we can be.” Being is related to our identity as children of God, united in the Spirit. And as ones with knowledge of God and aware of our identity as God’s ambassadors, we do the works of the kingdom. Knowing, being, and doing. The discipleship triad that emphasizes our heads, hearts, and hands. Stetzer again states, “Knowing who you are in Christ, then being who you are in Christ (by walking worthy), leads you do doing the work of God.”
So when I think of discipleship, I think of process. I think in terms of what the Holy Spirit is doing in the life of someone. I think of people becoming like Jesus and helping others become like Jesus. I think that the process is transforming all of who we are. It’s calling for us to know and to be and to do. Jesus invites us to structure our lives around the kingdom and points us to himself as the source of lasting joy, peace, and salvation… qualities we are called to share with the world around us.
In Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s fantastic The Cost of Discipleship, he states:
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Discipleship is, quite frankly, the process of dying to ourselves so that we can experience life in Jesus. And it is, as Eugene Peterson notes, a long obedience in the same direction.
Over the years I’ve been approached by a few people who wanted to either use the gifts they believed they had or be trained and equipped to minister through speaking (e.g., preaching, teaching, training, etc.). In simple terms, they wanted opportunities to speak from the stage during larger worship gatherings. These people really believed that they had something to offer the church (and they probably did) and they wanted to “use their gifts.” Some of these people even guaranteed the effectiveness of ministry!
But I basically told each of them this: “Ummmmm, no thanks.”
Besides being really turned off by anyone who can guarantee certain aspects of their “ministry,” something else caused me to put things on hold. Each of these people said something like the following:
“I’m totally willing to teach the Bible but I don’t want to go to any of the fun events with people”
“I’m not interested in meeting with people who have questions about what I talk about.”
“Don’t count on me attending that event because there will be people there who drink beer and smoke cigarettes.”
These three responses, in my opinion, disqualify people from serving in influential leadership roles because they undermine the model of holistic ministry that Jesus demonstrated.
“I don’t do fun events.”
People don’t seem to understand that it’s in the context of relationships and spending time together that one’s influence grows. If you really want to be effective in ministry situations, you need to spend time with people. You need to eat dinner with them. You need to go bowling with them. You need to do the things that you assume aren’t spiritual because they actually are. Spiritual things happen around the table (cf. John 12:1-8 occurs around a dinner table).
So while you sit at home being all “holy” and “spiritual,” isolated from engaging human beings, effective missional disciples spend time with people just like Jesus did.
“No questions, please.”
If you believe you are “called” to speak to churches, please be humble enough to realize that your ideas in your sermons may provoke questions… and that’s a good thing. Yeah, people might disagree with you and want you to explain more about why you believe what you said or why you gave the advice that you did, but it’s actually a continuation of the ministry opportunity!
I’ve found that some of the most helpful “ministry” in relation to my preaching has been at a coffee shop! And I’ve come to find that most of the time that people only want to preach from a platform and aren’t willing to answer questions is because they primarily want to vent… which is totally unhelpful. Sure, they might call it “prophetic,” but the underlying arrogance (and ignorance) really damages any credibility you have.
“Beer and cigarettes!”
I get it. You are convinced that drinking a beer is a bad witness. I totally disagree (and have blogged about that here), but it really doesn’t matter. You don’t need to drink beer to be around people who do. Jesus had no problem hanging out with sinners, right? In fact, he hung out with them so much that their bad reputations rubbed off on his reputation and people actually thought that Jesus was a drunk:
“The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!'” (Luke 7:34 NLT)
I’ve found time and time again that people actually are disarmed by my willingness to spend time with them in their space (i.e., not the church building). I’ve found that I have opportunities to speak into their life because they know that I’m not hiding behind a sense of self-righteousness or legalism.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to drink beer or start smoking cigarettes to be “relevant.” I’m saying that you should be okay with being around people who do. You can’t influence them for the kingdom if you aren’t in their lives and they in yours!
What do you think?
Reading through the Gospels and taking Jesus’ words seriously, not to mention reading through both the Old and New Testaments, leads me to the conclusion that it’s perfectly “normal” for followers of Jesus to face persecution and to suffer. I mean, Jesus said that “since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you” (John 15:20) and the Apostle Peter wrote that “since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too” (1 Pet. 4:1).
While persecution and suffering go along with being a follower of Jesus and participant in the community of God’s kingdom, I’ve found that often times we develop what I call the “ministry guise” as an excuse for just about anything “negative” in our churches. Let me flesh that out a bit more…
The Pastoral Identity Crisis
A lot of ink has already been spilled addressing the why behind church leadership’s identity crisis issues and I don’t have the time or space to dive into that. Yet it’s fairly common for many pastors to have self-esteem issues due to either the expectations they feel are placed on them or the expectations they place on themselves. If a pastor’s identity is somehow rooted in the size of his church, she or he are going to really struggle when their church’s attendance is low. In fact, those pastors often feel like they are failures simply because of the perceived “success” of the church they serve. Their own identity is tightly wrapped around the identity of the church that they are unable to view themselves apart from the identity as “pastor.”
I can understand this pastoral identity crisis. It’s easy to see how it develops and why it continues for many pastors throughout their lives. But make no mistake. Rooting your identity in the “success” of a local church is a death blow to your own soul. Don’t do it. Your identity needs to be grounded in your relationship with God. It must be tied to your experience and knowledge of the Father’s love, sacrifice of Jesus, and indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. You are not defined by your “job” or “vocation” or “calling.” You are defined by love, namely God’s love.
This Crisis Produces Excuses and Resistance
Unfortunately, for many pastors and church leaders, identity is solely shaped and formed by ministry. And because their identity is controlled by the “success” of their church, I’ve noticed there there’s a huge consequence that develops out of this misstep: church leaders develop creative ways to make excuse for what may or may not be evidence of church health and success.
For example, I’ve heard countless pastor’s suggest that the reason why people aren’t coming to faith or growing in their specific church is because those people are “of the world” and it’s just evidence that the church (i.e., the pastor who solely represents that church) is being “persecuted.” Or they will suggest that the reason why the church isn’t growing is because “no one” is growing because “everyone” is declining because churches are being persecuted, etc.
And sadly, many of these pastors are resistant to asking some hard questions about their leadership or the church’s methodology simply because they have created a way of protecting themselves because the assumption that church identity equals pastor identity. So rather than asking crucial questions related to why things are the way they are, the leader suspects that the best way to avoid self-awareness or changing is to suspect that all challenges are simply a result of suffering and persecution. Make no mistake. The “ministry guise” is just that. It conceals the truth and avoids reality. It sounds really spiritual too, and will even get people’s compassion and concern.
But it won’t actually help leaders and churches grow or experience spiritual transformation. The “ministry guise” uses doing “ministry” and being a “minister” in a way that looks and sounds really correct but avoids any and all self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-development. If you are caught up in the habit of using “ministry” to avoid and resist growth, you are shooting yourself in the foot.
As you probably know, or like me, have experienced first-hand, you do yourself no good if you isolate yourself from accountability or avoid challenging questions or push back. Building a moat around your leadership does nothing to help your spiritual growth or leadership capacity or church’ mission. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Absolutely nothing.
Learn the Art of Self-Reflection for the Sake of Self-Awareness for the sake of Transformation and Growth (and invite some other humans to help you).
Pastors are always talking about how people need to believe in the gospel and experience spiritual transformation as the Holy Spirit begins to work. They’re also always talking about the importance of living in community because other followers of Jesus are there to both serve and be served.
Sometimes, however, it’s easy to say these things for other people but forget to believe them for ourselves. But we need to. We need to learn to ask ourselves hard questions. We need to be self-aware of both our strengths and our weaknesses. We need to buy into an approach to spirituality that understands that becoming like Jesus and leading like Jesus is a process and that we change over time and that we should be growing. We also need to know that there are huge culture shifts happening and that the way in which the church must communicate an understandable gospel
may require requires methodological changes. That’s why it’s important for church leaders to both ask and be asked tough questions. For example:
- What am I doing that is a bottle neck to our commitment to empower people for ministry?
- How can I better equip everyone?
- What practices do we have that actually undermine our theological commitments?
- What values are working against our mission (which is hopefully God’s mission)?
- Is our mission the same as God’s mission (you knew that was coming)?
- Who is able to challenge me / us?
- Why do we do _________?
- What is the perception that our community has about our church?
- Are we making disciples?
- How are we measuring our effectiveness?
- Would anyone notice if our church closed?
- How am I going to grow in my leadership skills?
These are just a few of the types of questions that need to be regularly asked. But if your assumption is that the problem is never you and it’s never the church’s culture(s) or ministries, you’ll likely never ask the hard questions, right?
Ask them. Take a risk. You’ll discover that growing as a leader will actually help you both face the curves that life and ministry throw at you and the church you serve as well as make the right decisions in the midst of those curves.
What do you think? I’d love your thoughts in the comments! How have you grown in this area? What are some practical ways to continue growing?