Does your church make disciples or religious consumers? Wrestling with this unsettling question gave rise to Renovation of the Church (2011): in this book, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken chronicle how the church they co-pastor, Oak Hills near Sacramento, Cal., came to the awful realization that, while they were remarkably successful in attracting people to the church’s services, the pastors were not helping people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them (Matthew 16:25).
The entire way of doing church at Oak Hills worked against Christ’s invitation to be authentically transformed, which in their assessment led to a form of non-discipleship Christianity.
A difficult call
Jesus’ call to his disciples is clear: “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15); “seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33); “take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29). His call is also clearly difficult: “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62); “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33).
The theme of this issue of the MB Herald is discipleship. Jesus’ clear and difficult call to his first disciples is no easier for us to hear or follow, yet his call remains our marching order: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25).
How well are we living out this clear and difficult call?
Apparently not uniformly well.
The results of the annual national MB Transformation Survey arrived in June 2016. Of the 150 churches responding, 31 percent indicated “We have an intentional discipleship process,” while 14 percent indicated “Our discipleship plan is working,” for a combined total of 45 percent. The combined total in 2015 was 50 percent.
It will take a longer article to unpack the factors that produced the new data, but the obvious observation is that 45 is less than 50.
A path to transformation
What is the way forward?
For starters, as Carlson and Lueken wryly observe, the way forward is not achieved by herding people through a series of classes or a curriculum, nor can transformation be mass produced by a one-size-fits-all program.
Programs can be tools, but completing them does not ensure that transformation has occurred. Spiritual formation is not achieved by learning more information from the Bible, rather by studying in order to be changed (“conformed,” Romans 8:29) into the likeness of Christ.
Key to discipleship is following Jesus in real time, with others. Jesus didn’t accidentally invite the disciples to be at his side for three years. He invited followers into an apprenticeship where they learned to take on his character and his priorities as they listened, asked questions, discussed and practised what they learned.
What’s more, most of their learning occurred alongside other apprentices. Learning to follow Jesus in community was fundamental to discipleship. Discipleship methods that are bookish, individualistic and do not focus on application fail the Apostle Paul’s test: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice” (Philippians 4:9).
A desire to change
Interestingly, dissatisfaction seems key to discipleship.
To the paralyzed man, Jesus asked, Do you want to get well? (John 5:6). What makes his question necessary? Surely the prospect of walking after 38 years of paralysis is enough to inspire a desire to dance. Yet, 38 years is also time enough to make the status quo comfortable.
Could it be that living below the discipleship poverty line has become normal? Disciples’ lives need to be marked by intentionality, the desire to be healed, to be done with “same old same old.” Jesus meant us for more – and dissatisfaction with status quo is a good beginning.
I am absolutely thrilled that churches and leaders are paying new attention to discipleship, desiring transformation so that Christ may be formed in us (Galatians 4:19). I’m thrilled, too, that discipleship will be the focus of our study conference in 2017.
Discipleship isn’t a department of the church; it is the central operating system around which the church lives out her clear and difficult mandate.
—Ron Toews is director of L2L, the leadership development arm of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C.