Thursday, May 10, 2012

Following Jesus - Where Do We Go From Here?



We've heard from variety of voices over the past two weeks--Andy Blanks, Paul Martin, Mark Riddle, Matt Bowen, and Adam McLane--on the nature of discipleship and its current barriers. Today, I'm offering my synthesis of their responses, as well as as some musings of my own.

What is discipleship?

In the simplest sense, it is the title of this blog series--following Jesus. The first disciples could literally engage in this activity by walking the same paths and streets as the incarnate God. This invitation from Jesus required a response of movement, engagement, and the laying down of one's life and agenda in order to submit to the One they followed.

To be a disciple is never a program, a curriculum, or a study. As each of the other responders indicate, discipleship is a way of life. I would contend that following Jesus is the only real way to live; all other lifestyles are artificial and incomplete substitutes for the true life that Jesus offers. To follow Jesus is to live. He bids us to come and die, to find resurrected life in him.

Thus, making disciples is inviting another to follow Jesus with me. It is inherently relational, reflecting the Trinitarian nature of the God we follow. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly points out that he does nothing without the authority and guidance of the Father. Upon his resurrection, Jesus breathes upon his disciples and gives them this charge: as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.

To be a disciple is not only to embrace a way of life; it is a radical transforming of one's identity around the person of Jesus. The disciples are no longer fishermen; they are fishers of men. They are no longer ordinary individuals; they are salt, light, sent ones, ambassadors for the kingdom of God. Jesus looks at Simon and names him "Peter." In discipleship, we are inviting others to be given a new name, a new identity, a new way of being in the world.

What is the greatest barrier to discipleship in youth ministry?

Misguided theology.

When one's theology can divorce discipleship from real life, compartmentalizing it into a small group or Bible study program, it is missing the essence of following Jesus. Many ministries are expressing practical theologies that don't view discipleship as essential. In this paradigm, to be a "Christian" and to be a "disciple of Jesus" may overlap, but don't necessarily have to be congruent.

This misguided theology leads church leaders to (wrongly) place evangelism and discipleship on opposite ends of a spectrum, as a sort of continuum from non-believers to mature Christians. One ministry is all about evangelism, typically meaning high entertainment value, teaching series based entirely on felt-needs, and a sense of "let's just get 'em to church." Another is all about discipleship, meaning serious Bible studies, plenty of theological jargon, and a desire to "go deeper." Each ministry/theology views the other as incomplete and missing the point, yet both theologies view discipleship as for "serious" or "mature" Christians only. This theology doesn't allow for non-Christians to be disciples, ignoring the fact that the twelve chosen by Jesus were not suddenly mature Christians at the moment of invitation.

In a culture where moralistic therapeutic deism is the theological norm, we must challenge the theology of "God just wants me to be happy and nice." Jesus doesn't call us to be nice; he exhorts us to love sacrificially. He doesn't want us to just be happy; he bids us to come and die. God doesn't just want to be a part of our lives; He wants us to submit our very being to His kingdom and presence.

In youth ministry, we must have a theological understanding of the ways of Jesus and what it means to seek the kingdom of God. We must paint a picture of the kingdom for young people and invite them into the ways of Jesus. We must remind them that following Christ is the best possible way to live. I'm not saying to give out more theological information or educate students in a rigorous theological curriculum (though that might end up being a part of the discipleship process). I'm saying that our theology and our ministry practices are intertwined, and we must recognize what we're both preaching and practicing. If we want students to follow in the ways of Jesus, we must do so ourselves and pace alongside them as we follow Jesus together. This balance between pacing-and-leading is one of tension and messiness, but it's a beautiful mess to behold.

Making disciples is the only "program" Jesus ever gave us (along with "love God" and "love your neighbor as yourself."). Jesus sent a band of ragtag young people to be good news and live out the values of the kingdom of God. This program once radically transformed the world.  I believe it still can.

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