ast summer the president of the C.S. Lewis Institute, Kerry Knott, outlined the vision for the “Decade of Discipleship.”1 It could not have been timelier. It’s no secret that the church is suffering; whether it’s called moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD), casual Christianity, easy-believism, or nominalism, “the lives of most professing Christians are not much different from their nonbelieving neighbors.”2 Instead of adopting a biblical worldview, Christians tend to share the same basic presuppositions as nonbelievers and embrace ideas and values “that actually contradict the gospel we claim to believe.”3 This has contributed to a significant degradation of discipleship. But this is not news. This has been described in four previous editions of Knowing & Doing, so I will not rehash this but use it as a point of departure to address people like me: the laymen and laywomen of the church. And I’ll use my own journey as a backdrop to illustrate how we can frame this critical issue.
My Personal Journey
Although I was raised in the church I never grasped the importance of discipleship. When I finally heeded the call of the Spirit, I embarked on a journey of intense independent study and learning. I read every book I could find, sought out the best minds, and added much-needed intellectual rigor to a faith that was never much more than a feeling or general disposition. But as I studied the “big questions,” I realized something was missing. The Spirit made it clear that I had to act on what I had learned. I had to balance knowing with doing. And to do so I needed a guide, a mentor. As I evaluated my spiritual journey and mentally charted its trajectory, I realized that when I had been more faithful there had been strong, prominent Christians in my life. Some were mentors; others were peers. When I had strayed, there had been a conspicuous absence of any such presence.
I began my first foray into discipleship when God placed a strong brother in my life, and I grew through his encouragement and fellowship. When we began a Bible study and he learned that I’d never led one, his encouragement and advice nudged me more toward the doing. As we regularly spent time together, I realized that I wanted a faith like his. He had a strong mind, but that was not the sum of his faith. His was a practical faith, one that translated directly into everyday life.
At my next duty station I intentionally sought others with whom I could build similar relationships, and God led me to the Tun Tavern Fellowship. (The name is taken from the historical birthplace of the Marine Corps.) In this band of brothers, I found passionate, bright, and committed Marines and a place where I could teach, encourage, and challenge and be taught, encouraged, and challenged, a place where discipleship was the very raison d’être. It was in their DNA. I encountered one particularly astute brother who challenged and encouraged me by continually pulling me up to his level. He wasn’t impressed with my learning but was interested in how I was applying it. I was used to being coddled and praised for my “spiritual initiative.” This was the first time I’d really been challenged and had someone push back on me. And it was good!
Before long the Spirit led me to the C.S. Lewis Institute (CSLI). While attending CSLI lectures, I fell under the watchful eye of the man who would become my mentor. He invited me to take part in the Fellows Program, where I discovered the joy and rewards of discipleship of the heart and mind by drawing closer to God. I was stretched spiritually and learned in new ways. The knowledge offered ran deeper than doctrine and theology. It was more than intellectual knowledge. It was understanding. One aspect of the program that I had dismissed as an inconvenience—the triads—became one of the more enriching experiences, and through it I experienced what Greg Ogden calls the “hothouse of Christian growth.”4 Further, my mentor encouraged me to press beyond the Fellows curriculum and read the likes of J. Oswald Sanders, Greg Ogden, and Michael Wilkins. It became clear: discipleship is my calling. It’s our calling.
Further, I was disabused of the notion that “discipleship is for an elite, more committed, or more specifically trained person or group of Christians.”5 The reality is that “discipleship is not just one aspect of the church’s mission, but it encompasses all that the church does.”6 Why did this take me almost forty years to learn? Why didn’t anyone tell me this? How about you? Do your small groups sometimes feel like the blind leading the blind? Does your involvement in church seem fractured or disjointed? Do you feel, as a friend said to me, adrift despite your efforts to the contrary? Do the various ministries and activities in your church seem like a loose conglomeration of efforts that are hardly related? I contend that most churches have not grasped this simple yet profound reality.
What really grabbed my attention were two questions posed by Ogden at a CSLI lecture. First he asked, “How many consider themselves Christians?” Every hand went up. Then he probed further: “How many of you consider yourselves disciples?” Two-thirds of the hands went down. Is there a difference? How can you be a Christian without being a disciple? Matthew 28:19 is clear: “Go therefore and make disciples,” not, “Go evangelize,” or, “Go make Christians.” In fact, I was stunned to learn that Christ’s followers are called Christians only three times in the New Testament.7 It’s fairly well known that we were first called Christians in Antioch, but it is less well known that it was derogatory. As followers of Christ are prone to do, we’ve borne insult as a badge of honor. Despite this turn of the phrase, I echo the sentiments of the late John Stott: “One wishes in some ways that the word disciple had continued into the following centuries, so that Christians were self-consciously disciples of Jesus, and took seriously their responsibility to be ‘under discipline’.”8 As a friend once said, the term disciple has more bite to it and just seems to carry more weight. It’s hard to be a nominal disciple.
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