Undiscipled – It isn’t Change You can Believe In

kinnon —  January 17, 2012 — 10 Comments

In this post, what I’d like to do and is riff a little on Imbi’s post from yesterday—one prompted in part by conversation with our now 21-year-old daughter, Kaili. (Happy Birthday, Kaili!)

Kaili has been reading books by J.I. Packer and John Stott on catechesis and discipleship, respectively. In her discussion with her mother, she said the word that is most important to her in this, is the word “transformation.”

Pres. Obama campaigned under the rubric of “Change You Can Believe In.” It’s truly questionable how successful he has been, and I guess our American cousins will decide that later in 2012. But I’d like to talk about “change you should be able to believe in.”

One of the standard rejoinders from mega-church pastors to any critique is to mention the size of their church and the number of people they have baptized. To them the sign of the effectiveness of their ministry is simply in the numbers and the numbers baptized. (Note that in the UK Interview by Justin Brierley, Pastor Mark makes a point of mentioning the size of “his church” and the size of Acts 29.)

And now I’ll probably offend a large number of people when I question this kind of reporting.

Allow me to chase a rabbit for a moment or two. Certain organizations, fraternities, clubs, etc have weird initiation rites that one must perform before one can join them. Otherwise intelligent people are willing to swear blood-curdling oaths or perform silly or even danagerous actions in order to join… to belong. The need to belong, wired into the human psyche, will often allow us to suspend our better judgment while swearing oaths or performing meaningless actions in an effort to join a community.

What can this possibly have to do with “change you should be able to believe in”? Especially in light of baptisms.

I’d like to posit that for many people getting baptized is simply their initiation into fellowship with other people. They have a natural longing for community and baptism is their initiation rite into that community. It may be done for spiritual reasons. But in mega-churches where there is little to no emphasis on discipleship, baptism is simply your way in.

Let me say that I hold the sacrament of baptism in high regard. But I confess that I don’t see that this “high regard” is particularly the case in many Celebrity–Driven, consumer-focused mega-churches.

So, when I hear of the great numbers being baptized in North America mega-churches I ask this question, “Where is the fruit?” Is it simply in bringing more members into the mega-church – more butts to fill up the pews or comfy theatre seating.

John Wesley said, “The Church changes the world not by making converts but by making disciples.” He was known for rigorously examining people to discover whether they had really become believers. It could take up to two years of intense discipleship before Wesleyans actually accepted a person’s conversion. And though I come from a line of Wesleyan preachers on my mother’s side, and identify myself as predominantly Arminian in my theology, I’m not suggesting this kind of rigour.

But.

There must be more than simple crossing a line from darkness to light and then sitting just past that line for the rest of one’s days.

I am suggesting that we should and must have an expectation of real transformation in the lives of new believers. This doesn’t happen by having them sit on their butts in comfortable pews listening to sermons on Sunday morning and, perhaps, occasionally on Wednesday evening. It happens with older-in-the-faith believers walking alongside younger-in-the-faith believers —teaching them the historicity of the faith, the power of prayer, the longing for the infilling of the Holy Spirit, what the fruits of the spirit are, compelling them to read the Scriptures and become like the Bereans who Paul lauded, and to learn to be makers of discipler themselves. (Note that the older and younger references are not meant to suggest chronology but rather people who have been Christians longer than the new believer.)

Let me point you to a post from Andrew Jones earlier this month, Practices of a new Jesus movement. And what are those practices; Bible study, open houses, fringe focus, simple habits, good business practices, a system for rehabilitation, native flavor, daily rhythm, not outreach TO others but outreach WITH others, something for the whole family and prayer — with the ministries characterized by Grace. Andrew says,

…they were wonderfully generous. Being poor, they made many rich. Including our family who were treated like royalty. We left with our backpacks filled with gifts and our hearts filled with a sense of overwhelming debt of gratitude.

Also, the intentionality of the movement was focused on impacting people’s lives with the gospel and NOT on creating community or starting churches which they saw as a natural outgrowth.

Sitting in pews, staring forward (or off into space) is not high on the list of the new Jesus movement – where the fastest growth of the Church is taking place in the world. Make a point of reading Andrew’s post.

kinnon

Posts

A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

10 responses to Undiscipled – It isn’t Change You can Believe In

  1. Bill, in your post you say this…It happens with older-in-the-faith believers walking alongside younger-in-the-faith believers —teaching them the historicity of the faith, the power of prayer, the longing for the infilling of the Holy Spirit, what the fruits of the spirit are, compelling them to read the Scriptures and become like the Bereans who Paul lauded, and to learn to be makers of discipler themselves.

    And then make the transition to some Andrew shared…And what are those practices; Bible study, open houses, fringe focus, simple habits, good business practices, a system for rehabilitation, native flavor, daily rhythm, not outreach TO others but outreach WITH others, something for the whole family and prayer — with the ministries characterized by Grace.

    I think the danger in what your suggesting is that discipleship is more knowledge based than living. I know christians that have been listening to sermons, done bible studies…a solid prayer life, but have never moved beyond that. Where is the tipping point where knowledge becomes action. I like the idea of spiritual activism…we see this kind of discipleship in men like MLK, Ghandi, and in women like Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa. I’m likely reading you wrong, but I think there is real danger of Discipleship being solely a classroom activity…lacking the depth of real lived out truth.

    • I’m with Ron. I bristle at the word “discipleship” because in my former fundamentalist world that meant something very different than what I think (and hope) you mean.

      Discipleship meant encouraging the newbies to buy into the program. To believe all the right doctrines and theologies and to become convinced that we were the right ones and the Baptists, Pentacostals, Catholics, etc were all wrong (to a greater or lesser extent). And any practical expression of discipleship in that context was focused on one of two things: 1) converting others to think the same we did, and 2) complying with the shallow morality checklist (church attendance, no sex or smoking, while ignoring greater issues of justice because there wasn’t a verse for that). The Bible study, teaching historicity, etc. all served these pathetic ends.

      All of that to say this: I think those you criticize won’t hear it as criticism. They agree with you. Everything they do is about discipleship. You just mean something drastically different when you use that term.

    • Good points, Ron. The praxis part of working out Transformation is critical to the transformation. I think TSK’s post is about folk being discipled in the full warp and woof of the community and the larger world that community is in.

  2. Fun to read. I don’t waste anymore time over what most Americans call church – that big building that sits empty most of the time and bores people to death…sometimes literally.

    What occurred to me reading your distinction between baptism and discipleship is that the reason there is no transformation in these large dog and pony shows, (and usually the same goes for the smaller versions), is that there are no people in there who know what it would be like to be transformed. Be it old or young, one would be hard-pressed to find some one in these spaces that actually knows what silence sounds like, what seeing with the ears can be, what intimate connection with Jesus, ala John Donne or St. Ignatius, is like. Because let’s face it anyone who knows the Real thing has not the appetite for the cotton candyish fodder that makes up a baptism-focused community.

    just thinking:)

  3. Bill,

    Thanks for this. After reading through some of your ’10 posts, I bought Packer’s book on catechesis. We are now going through it as elders and staff right now. We are spending the winter/spring reflecting upon what real discipleship is supposed to look like. Then trying to implement some form of catechesis in the fall. It is forcing us to re-think much of what we do as a church community….

    • Dan, thanks for sharing this here. For far too many people, catechesis sounds like learning dry, dead, head knowledge. if we can learn to practice catechesis the way the Jesus taught his own disciples— in living with them amongst the wider community, then we may be on to something. As the folk above have noted, it takes more than head knowledge to truly disciple people.

      • Well said. Packer argues for a style of catechesis that is still doctrinally robust, yet much more than mere head knowledge. My hunch is that there is a certain ‘doing life together’ aspect of this that we have been missing for a long time. Our large city seems to make that ingredient really scarce. I now understand the impulse towards L’Abri – type ministry better, I think.

      • Dan,
        I think the “doing life together” part is the Jesus style of ministry. Walking, talking, loving those disciples who are with you a large chunk of time — until they are released to do the same thing with others. The call to “follow me” is one of “model what you see me doing” rather than “do as I tell you to do.” Of course, one hopes and prays that the one modelling is actually modelling Jesus under the power and influence of the Holy Spirit – rather than simply trying to control the disciple.

        I look forward to hearing about where Grace goes and grows with this.

    • Dan,
      I was working my way through it this summer and really, really loved it. Though, as a kid in a pew, my enjoyment didn’t lead to instigation of such attempts at my church (yet!). I really look forward to hearing about what the implementation/exploration looks like and results in at Grace.

      Father Bill,
      “There must be more than simple crossing a line from darkness to light and then sitting just past that line for the rest of one’s days.” AMEN.

What do you think?