In his brilliant book The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen outlines the difficulty many churches face in the genuine need to disciple followers of Jesus. He writes,
“We simply go along with the many ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. Moreover, we ought to be on good terms with the church and civil authorities; we ought to be liked or at least respected by a fair majority of our parishioners; we ought to move up in the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life.” p.10
Now, discipleship in church is one of my biggest bug-bears because I find it is nigh on impossible to actually do. What I mean is that I feel it is [almost] impossible to do intentionally and [actually] impossible to do accidentally (unless you are in the wonderful position of having a handful of Christians in your church who really do want to grow in their faith, and boy, do they let you know they want to! The simple fact is, too many other ‘things’ crowd in. Yes, I know you could say I’ve got to prioritize, but I assure you, I already have. The church itself seems to mitigate against her core purpose!
If the church spent the time she has devoted to the homosexuality issue or the gender issue onto the discipleship ‘issue’, I wonder how the church would look? That’s not to say those issue’s aren’t important, they are and we need to think about them very carefully, but the church is losing out, losing ground, losing time and losing people because we’re not doing too well the very thing we have been called to do.
All of this comes out of my own observations and frustrations. I’m not throwing stones in glass houses, nor pointing a boney Pharisaical finger at my brothers and sisters, demanding that they “disciple people better!” No! What I am saying comes from my own hearts desire to be first and foremost a disciple of Jesus Christ. To allow others to disciple me, to have others allow me to disciple them.
The problem is, as already stated, the church, in general, doesn’t do this too well. That’s partly tied to the problem of institution outlined in a previous post, but it’s also a general unwillingness among the populace of our Sunday gatherings to not allow others to speak gospel-truth into each others lives – this is one reason why that group always gathers for coffee over there and never speaks to anyone, and why this bunch here shoot off straight after the service without even a toodle-pip! And have you ever wondered why the same people always do the washing up? So they don’t have to talk to anybody but their rota buddies!
Discipleship must surely be a conscious objective, or as per the current theological buzz-word “intentional”. Too much time is spent in our lives together smoothing over hurts and wounds; with multiple attempts to prevent people being angry, unforgiving or whatever. We all kind of smile knowingly when we say ministry is a tough place to be, being hurt by the church n’all, but actually, that’s quite sick!
Why? Because Jesus said we are to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile – and that’s regarding our enemies! How can ministry be so tough and painful? Surely it’s because our brothers and sisters are not discipled in the ways of Jesus to know that if we turn our cheeks for our enemies, what does it mean to a brother or sister?
I think intentional discipleship has the power to close the door to petty, ill-disciplined and loveless lives, into a way of life that is real, true and dynamically loving, not institutionally static. [NB. please note, I am not anti-institutional, I’m in one and I love it, but so was Martin Luther and look what happened to him].
I don’t want to leave the discipleship of myself or God’s people, especially those in my care, to para-church organisations, which is the prevailing default position. I love para-church organisations, but I do believe, if the church was doing it’s job, fulfilling it’s calling, would there really be a need for them? I don’t think so!
I want to disciple people, that’s what God has called me, us, to do! I don’t want second-class citizens in our churches. I don’t want arguments about pedantic secondary issues (yes, I know they’re important), but I want to journey with people in their faith and for them to go on to disciple others. Henri Nouwen is surely right, but I so want him to be wrong!
PS I would love to hear from you if you are getting this right, doing well or whatever.