This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

What’s missing in church — discipleship

According to missional leader Mike Breen, a disciple is someone who is learning to have the character and the competency of Jesus. It’s about faithfulness and fruit. Or as Dallas Willard once described it: A disciple is what it would look like if Jesus were you.

“As a disciple of Jesus… I am learning from Jesus to live my life as He would live my life if He were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything He did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that He did all that He did.” (Dallas Willard, “Divine Conspiracy”)

This requires that we exercise our spiritual muscles so that we might flex our God-given imaginations, seeing ourselves in what the New Testament calls our “glorified” state, where and when we are fully formed into the image of Christ.

A new identity in Christ

Have you ever considered that? What would it look like for you to live like Christ? If Jesus were living your life, what would it look like?

If we can’t see in our mind’s eye what that would look like, to live into our new identity free from the power of sin and death, how can we ever hope to become like Christ? What are we aiming for if it’s not the image of Christ?

I’m convinced that visualizing our inclusion into Christ was everything for the Apostle Paul. The mistake we make in the West is only to think of an abstract, theological position. But instead, Paul is advocating for disciples to actually “see” themselves in Christ with a disciplined imagination.

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5 NIV)

You see, when our sights aren’t really on Christ, we run the risk of settling or selling out for a more culturally palatable message that says you should merely seek to be a better version of yourself.

But please understand, that message is much different than saying you should die and become like Christ, which is the calling of all disciples.

The gospel and the culture are still very much at odds when it comes to our identity. Who are you? What about you is to be accepted? What is to be rejected? And what does the Lord Jesus think?

When Peter watches Jesus miraculously provide fish, despite his skepticism, and then recognizes that Holiness is in the boat with him, he tells Jesus to go away from him, for he is a sinner (Luke 5:1-11).

Notice that Jesus doesn’t deny this. He doesn’t try to affirm Peter with, “No, no… You’re just the product of your environment” or “I like you just the way you are, Peter. Besides, all those impulses you have were given to you by God.”

Instead, Jesus invites him and the others in the boat to a life of discipleship. He wants them to embark on a life-changing journey that will result in “catching people” up into God’s Kingdom, a path that begins in cross-bearing and the denial of self (Lk 9:23-26). The cross will be a help or a hurdle to you.

Christ gives us a new identity. Please hear that. You’re made in God’s image, but you’re also broken and not as you should be. Don’t expect to hear that message from the world, cause you won’t.

Jesus loves you the way you are, but he cares too much to leave you that way. Yes, Jesus affirms that you’re a product of the divine, but you’ve also been born into a world that is presently groaning and longing for release from its decay (Romans 8:18-22). Therefore, be prepared to lose some things.

So you can’t become like Christ as his disciple without repentance, divine power and a little imagination. Imagination is critical as we visualize for ourselves what it would look like if we lived in love and in perfect faithfulness to God, if we grew up into Christ. We can do this work together.

Make disciples, not converts

Discipleship is the word we use to describe that journey of becoming more and more like Jesus. It isn’t optional for Christians. It is the very reason for which we’ve been included into his kingdom, and of course is visibly made manifest in the community life of the local church.

If you’re not cool with that calling, if you’re not willing to sacrifice your life and agenda to walk this road of discipleship, I’m afraid that you’ve misunderstood Jesus and his eternal purpose for the church.

Then Jesus came to them [his disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20 NIV)

Jesus isn’t interested in religious converts or simply acquiring members for your church roll. He isn’t looking for a few conservative pew-sitters, nor is he looking for progressive social activists only interested in baptizing their justice efforts with Jesus-lingo. Far from it.

Jesus is interested in your self-denial and radical regeneration.

He is calling disciples to follow him daily and take on a new identity and a new allegiance with others in the church. It’s his authentic recipe and his sanctifying way for seeing all things made new in the world. Period.

Discipleship is about taking off the old and putting on the new (Eph. 4:22-24). We are called to manifest new creation right here in the midst of the old one.

If we’re going to be obedient to Christ’s command to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:18-20), we must first be personally undergoing the sort of training that leads to our own inner transformation.

Disciples are learners. But we do not make disciples by teaching folks abstract concepts in a classroom. Discipleship is about learning from Jesus in a real master-apprentice relationship and learning from others who are a few steps ahead of us in the pursuit of Christlikeness — mentors, if you will.

We need faithful (not perfect) examples of Jesus that we can engage in relationship and emulate as we’re working out our salvation.

Are you being discipled this way?

This way of discipleship demands humility, teachability, patience and perseverance — the kind where you put your hand to the plow and don’t look back (Luke 9:62). This was Jesus’ invitation to his first disciples.

Discipleship isn’t for the faint of heart or for those who are only interested in keeping up appearances in church by attending some worship services, participating in some meetings, and going through the religious motions.

No, Jesus wants more than that. The world can do all of that “religious stuff” in its own strength. Nothing to see there.

As Jesus modeled for us with his first disciples, we need churches that are intentionally calling people out of the social and public spaces where we “fellowship” and enjoy corporate worship. Jesus invited people out of those spaces, be it in a synagogue or on a hillside, for the deepening of discipleship within intimate and personal spaces.

Who do you think knew Christ best? Was it the fans who followed at a distance, only showing up for some singing and open-air preaching, or those who met around the campfire with Jesus? Why would it be any different today?

Let’s be clear. Jesus wants you to do everything with him.

Jesus invites you into his inner circle with other disciples. He is interested in followers, not fans. He isn’t looking for folks satisfied with religious services. If you don’t come closer than that, you’re not putting yourself in any relational context that allows for deep spiritual growth.

It’s within the intimate and personal spaces of the church where we can build trust and discover what it means to confess, practice accountability, discern the Scriptures, share our joys and struggles, and learn to pray together.

Where are those places in your church? Are you present and active there?

Abiding in Christ

Jesus wants you to abide in him; to live and move and have your being in him. He isn’t to be contained in a family or an ethnic tradition; our faith isn’t to be relegated to a Sunday morning or whenever it suits our schedule and level of comfort. Jesus must be more if we’re going to be his disciples.

To be a disciple, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “he [Jesus] bids a person come and die.” Your person, your plans and your preferences must be nailed to the cross with Jesus if you want to follow him. He becomes Lord over all of your life, not a therapist for some of your life. And this is good news!

Jesus said he has come to give us life to the fullest (John 10:10). If we want to experience the abundant life of Jesus, we must first recognize, as Paul did, “I have been crucified with Christ, I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). If we want to live, we must die first.

We must be willing to say “No” to all that conflicts with God’s best for us. This means we must surrender our lives to Christ.

It’s in this state of surrender that we are able to abide in Jesus.

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5 NLT)

Jesus makes it crystal-clear that if we are not abiding in him, we cannot bear the fruit of discipleship. For every Christian that hears that, there should be a deep concern to not only understand this “abiding” business, but to be about whatever this practice looks like.

So what does it look like to abide in Jesus like branches in a vine?

It’s simple, really. It’s an answer that might seem ho-hum to those who have grown up in the modern church, but nevertheless, it’s still the way the historical church has always taught we come to have an active relationship with Christ.

If you want to remain in Jesus like a fruitful branch getting its life from the tree trunk, you must be practicing some basic spiritual disciplines. These practices shape our identity, our character, and bring order to our scattered lives. Only then can we become competent like Jesus and be about the Father’s work in the world.

They are the spiritual disciplines of daily prayer & meditation, Scripture reading and study, fasting, worship, communion, etc. These practices exist for our spiritual formation as disciples, for the deepening of a real relationship with Jesus. Without them, we invite the world to shape us instead.

Discipleship requires resistance

Without a regular practice of the spiritual disciplines, we will inevitably fall prey to the spirit of the age and the forces of culture that are always at work to form us into the mold of the world. You literally must do nothing to be formed by the world. If you live in it, it’s working on you.

While not all of culture is malevolent and hostile to our faith, much more of it is contrary to Christ than we’re often comfortable admitting today.

Therefore, if we aren’t intentional about doing contextual theology and working at the discipled-life together, we will succumb to the prevailing secular liturgy of the day. At most, the church will become a nicer version of our fallen human selves — no good to Christ and no good to the world.

Like the decline of mainline liberal Protestantism has shown us over the past 50 years, people eventually wake up and see if all we’re calling them to is to be nice and care about social justice, then Jesus isn’t really needed. You don’t need to believe in the resurrection or in resurrection living brought about through discipleship. You don’t need the church calendar, communion or her liturgy.

If all that is needed for energizing people spiritually is to read some poetry or hear a motivational speech one day of the week, you can get that in a book club or by watching TED Talks on YouTube.

The sort of church that discards the commands of Jesus and opts for a more user-friendly, do-it-yourself spirituality is powerless and pointless, according to Jesus. It’s there that spiritual disciplines and Christian theology and liturgy in time become irrelevant. You won’t find disciples there. Not for long, anyway.

But, if Jesus and what we call the Christian faith is about becoming like Christ, in character and competency, through the process of discipleship, then we must hold fast to what rests at the heart of our faith: an insistence that being a Christian is about knowing the resurrected Christ in community and becoming like him in everything. All of this to the glory of God for the sake of the world.

And we can’t be disciples and do what disciples do without being intentional in resisting the pattern of this world.

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life — your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life — and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” (Romans 12:1-2 MSG)

Church, if we aren’t abiding in Jesus regularly, if we aren’t being disciplined in our spiritual formation, we will have nothing to help us discern and filter out all of the messages thrown at us today. We’ll have nothing to offer the world.

If we aren’t full of prayer and Scripture, if we aren’t committed to worship and Christian discipleship, we step out into the world spiritually unarmed and unable to discern what God’s will is for our lives and humanity.

What happens when we’re not being discipled? We are left with no choice but to operate off of our own sin-saturated thinking, our own feelings, and what is acceptable and deemed tolerant by society and culture at the current time. We then forfeit our power to shape the culture for Christ.

Throughout the history of the church and her engagement with the world, it has always worked this way. We will be discipled by Christ through our intentional efforts to be spiritually formed, or we will be discipled by the world.

Where we go from here

I suspect this has much to do with where we are today.

When I look at the current state of the church in North America, I think to myself: Why does the church lack the life-changing power of the early church? I know it’s really multi-faceted, but the simple answer is: We’re not being discipled to Christ.

It’s not that the church isn’t doing some good things. On the contrary, many folks in the church are running crazy trying to make a difference in the world. But this is what I’m getting at: We have put the work before the worship; the doing before the being; busy religious life before discipleship.

If we want to influence our world for Christ and do the faithful work of disciples, we must first be a disciple. We will go out with power if we’ve been consistently living life as a disciple. Jesus sends out his disciples only after they’ve spent significant time with him in the intimate and personal spaces.

A simple reading of the book of Acts reveals that the Holy Spirit is the one who empowers a movement of God. The Spirit comes upon those who are committed to Christ as his obedient and submissive disciples.

Discipleship is how we raise the sails so that the Spirit has a way to move the church forward into God’s good future.

Jesus shows us that discipleship propels mission and evangelism. In other words, it’s transformed disciples who transform the world. All good things follow from discipleship. Really? How so?

When folks are being discipled to Christ, they are getting in touch with God’s voice and his will for them and the church. It’s from that place that he sends us out to continue his mission in the world.

So where do we go from here?

(1) I think the church needs to recognize that she has largely lost sight of the Great Commission; (2) we would do well to repent of the many ways we’ve tried to change the world without first being willing to change ourselves; (3) we must seek to prioritize our lives and our local churches around the matter of discipleship — seeking to be disciples who make disciples.

Finally, I think our increasingly pluralistic and secularized culture will present us with some exciting new opportunities in the years ahead.

I’m hopeful that after losing the culture wars and whatever Christian power and privilege once existed in the U.S., we may soon be led by the Spirit to return to our primary calling that will surely revive the sacredness of our assemblies: making disciples.

So in the meantime, while we wait expectantly on a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit and for a movement of God to sweep the dry and barren landscape of American spirituality, my prayer is that we recognize that now is the time to return to our first calling to do the patient work of being discipled to Christ.

I’m looking forward to being a part of that kind of kingdom revolution.

David D. Flowers is pastor of Christiansburg (Va.) Mennonite Fellowship. He blogs at The Centrality and Supremacy of Jesus Christ, where this post originally appeared.

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