This article is addressed to pastoral leaders and members of covenant Christian communities. The spiritual principles and practical wisdom given here can be beneficial to Christians in general who seek growth in discipleship. – ed.
As Christians, we are called to discipleship. I remind us of that because Christianity has many members, but far fewer disciples. To say it another way, many modern approaches can produce baby Christians, but far fewer mature Christians. Some of that can be attributed to the lingering attraction to the “threshold” experiences: the experience we may have had when we first accepted the Lord, baptism in the Holy Spirit, realizing that scripture really is the word of God, etc. Conversion can really be a powerful experience: salvation, forgiveness, a new way of life, the promise of heaven! A caution, though: threshold experiences can result in a certain “what’s in it for me?” approach to Christianity. A spouse who continues to desire the experience and excitement of courtship may be setting himself up for eventual betrayal (See Ezekiel 23, Hosea and Revelation 17:4-5.
A life-time of learning and choosing discipleship
In the Sword of the Spirit, our network of communities has an initiations process which can mistakenly imply a “one-time instruction and I’m done learning” approach to discipleship. We can endure initiations and getting every card punched, and then miss the point of entering into discipleship! In the trades and professions, graduates are warned that their diplomas qualify them to begin to really learn the trade or profession. The student driver is cautioned that their new license is a license to really learn to drive. Even those who teach initiations often have the experience of understanding Christian truths at a deeper level. The early church had a catechumenate with several variations. Some were as much as three years long. Some approaches sought to ensure that the initiate understood, accepted, and could live the new way of life. Some of our modern approaches to Christianity can produce “members” that do not understand the moral requirements of the new way of life and some even reject that way of life. They have been thoroughly secularized, but not yet Christianized.
Transition to “what’s in it for Jesus and the kingdom”
We may have some knowledge of the word disciple. It suggests discipline of some sort, a student of a discipline. I would like to suggest a word: “imitates”. In 1Corinthians 11:1 Paul says, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” There is a following or imitating component of discipleship that often gets overlooked. Some say, “I follow no man. I follow Christ!” My experience has shown me that spiritual “Lone Rangers” can become the devil’s lunch! It is also very unscriptural to rely on following yourself to set a spiritual direction. All the pastoral letters in the New Testament support the need for training and instruction in the Christian life. The gifts of Jesus in Ephesians 4 are gifts for maturity. Those gifts of training and instruction come to us through people: pastors, teachers, prophets, etc.
A disciple transitions from “what’s in it for me?” to “what’s in it for Jesus and the kingdom of God?”
Some Elements of Discipleship (and Initiations in Christian Community)
I’d like to list some of the elements of discipleship that we may already be aware of: biblical training, personal pastoral training (pastoral care and input about the application of teaching and scripture), body life, tithing, service, spiritual life, and corporate discernment (versus spiritual “Lone Ranger”).
If, upon reading this list, your spirit says, “I have been there, and done that,” please bear with me and continue reading.
Our mind often filters and labels as “ridiculous” anything perceived as impossible: Matthew 18: 9a “If your eye causes you to sin…”, Matthew 18:22 “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven times.”
Then there is the perennial favorite, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect!” Matthew 5:48. It is impossible… we decide it’s ridiculous and pitch it to the ash heap. Be careful if your ash heap is growing!
God wants Covenant Christian Community
We have heard God’s call to build Covenant Christian Communities. As disciples, we respond to that divine initiative; we dedicate ourselves to the mission. Yet we have very little to give back to the Lord. It is almost like the loaves and fishes story in Matthew 14, when Jesus said, “You feed them.” The Lord calls his disciples to be faithful, consistent, and obedient to the promise we made to keep showing up and supporting the community and mission with our time (serving), and money (tithing). As disciples, we can grow in these areas.
Eternal Growth – Eternal Discipleship
Discipleship calls us to perfection in Christ. The Lord’s command, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) is a GROWTH concept in Scripture… and an eternal one at that. I believe that it is an eternal growth since it’s a call to being made perfect in Christ. To me that promises an ever deepening and growing relationship with God. So, discipleship involves change and growth at every point in our lives, and at every age.
Choose Discipleship Daily…for Now and for Eternity
Who can plumb the heights and depths of almighty God? There is eternal growth! It is a different kind of altar call: we can say, “Yes” at all the stages of life. Each stage has a transition where we can “lose it”. In our community we have a Summer Camp where many elementary school students become young disciples. Later, they will need to survive the morality gauntlet presented by high school and post high school subcultures. Our high school youth group, University Christian Outreach (UCO), and Bridge-builders help the young disciple to transition to adult life. These ministries are so crucial to support young adults in their faith and life as a disciple.
Maintaining a dedicated life in the transition to busyness of making a living…
Life has many stages and transitions, but I want to address and consider just one more, early adult life. If we have survived and thrived through high school and ages 18-25, we will face another transition where we can “lose it” – the busyness of everyday life after courtship and marriage (for most) and establishing a family (for most).
I certainly understand the dedication and time required to establish a career. I even have a little picture book of my favorite engineering projects and hobbies. But on the last page I tried to put that into perspective for my grandchildren – the work in the kingdom of God has eternal consequences. My favorite projects would last 10 or 20 years until replaced by newer technology. The work in Christian family and Christian community has eternal value.
This transition to the busyness of making a living, career development, getting the dream house, hobbies, exercise, etc. can derail a young adult disciple. Pastoral care, men’s and women’s retreats, and life together in the body of Christ can help us through this transition to continue as a dedicated, fruitful, disciple.
Bearing fruit for the kingdom of God
Christianity is not just about salvation. It is also about the dedicated life of a disciple… living and bearing fruit for the kingdom of God. If our young disciples get derailed and fall prey to the many traps along the way… even if they return to the Lord in later life, they will have missed a lifetime of bearing fruit for the kingdom of God.
So, all that having been said, I recommend that we have some prompt woven into our daily prayer time to remind us to grow in discipleship. For example, when we intercede for others, we can add ourselves to the end of the list asking the Lord to show us where we need to be more committed to him and to his people. We can ask the questions: “Should we serve more? Should we give more? Is the Lord calling us to obey him in some area where we are resisting his lead?” Articles such as this can pique our interest, but it is far better that we would be stirred to action!
- Christianity is not just about salvation, or even the gifts of the Spirit.
- It is also about a fruitful life of discipleship (Matthew 28:16-20)
- It is a mistake to conclude that an initiations process completes our discipleship training.
- We can forever grow in our relationship with the Lord and in our service to his kingdom. A disciple transitions from “what’s in it for me” to “what’s in it for Christ.”
- We need to choose a life of discipleship daily, while expecting perceivable steps of growth.
Top photo credit: Pentecost Prayer Gathering at Winchester Cathedral May 2016, Anglican Diocese of Winchester, UK
Bob Tedesco is the founder of the People of God, a Sword of the Spirit community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA where he served as Senior Coordinator for 26 years. He has been involved in lay ministry for over forty-five years, and has served as Regional President of the North American region in the Sword of the Spirit.