Discipleship or just becoming “religious?”

Before Jesus left this earth, he gave his followers some instructions: to be witnesses to what they have seen and heard and to make disciples or more followers of Jesus.  That has been the mission of the church for almost 2,000 years.

But let me ask a couple of questions.

First, what does a disciple look like?

Throwing out, “Well, a disciple looks like Jesus,” is a cop out answer.  The word translated as disciple literally means student or learner.  And being a learner is just not for those early years of being a follower of Christ; it continues until death.

Being a learner means that you increase in understanding and wisdom.  It means that you learn things you didn’t know the day before.  It means arriving at a deeper level of understanding and wisdom that changes how you interact with this world, with all its people, situations, and circumstances.  It means encountering different people, situations, and events that give opportunity for the follower of Jesus to put into practice that which s/he is learning.  It is not theoretical; it is practical.

Unless caused by death, once a person ceases to learn and go deeper in practice what it means to be a follower of Jesus, that person has ceased to be a disciple, because that person has ceased to be doing what a disciple continually does – learn.

In that passage in Matthew that is familiar to many followers of Jesus, better known as the Great Commission, Jesus gives the “curriculum” for discipleship.  He said, “…teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you…”

What command did he give them?

“Make sure you attend synagogue (worship) every time it occurs?”  Don’t remember that one.

“Make sure to tithe?”  Don’t remember that one.

“Make sure to pray this many times a day?”  Don’t remember that one.

“Make sure you read this much of the scriptures daily?”  Don’t remember that one.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying these are bad things, but Jesus’ position was that they were already doing these things, but those things didn’t make them disciples.  Jesus knew that it was important for a disciple to do these things, but weren’t the Pharisees doing these things?  Doing these things caused the Pharisees to become “religious,” not disciples.

“Love one another as I have loved you.  By this all people will know you are my disciples.”  There it is.  Jesus, answering a question one time, said all of God’s teaching through the Law and the Prophets and His purpose for it could be summed up in two commandments: love God with everything you are and love those around you as love yourself.

There it is.  Making disciples isn’t about teaching people to abide by some code of morality.

Making disciples isn’t about requiring certain actions.

Making disciples is about people learning, experiencing, and practicing what it means to love God because He first loved us and poured that love into us.

Making disciples is about people embracing God’s love for us says about us as individuals and how valuable we are to Him, and then, because we have experienced that love, loving those around us in the same way.

And when a person experiences, embraces, and practices that love in real situations and toward real people, that’s when learning happens; that’s when discipleship occurs because that’s when learning occurs.

Second, how well is the church doing in carrying out its mission?

It would be easy to answer with, “Not very well,” due to the volume of rhetoric coming from certain churches and individual Christians that is not only not loving, but is actually harsh, condemning, and judgmental, immersed deeply in a religious attitude and spirit.

That would be the low-hanging fruit.  So, let’s go to what might not be so obvious.

In our churches, there is much teaching (Sunday school, preaching, Bible study groups, and the like) that occurs, but volume does not necessarily translate into learning.  Volume does not mean transformation.

So, how many followers of Jesus can say that, due to the volume of teaching commonly occurring in church buildings, they truly love God and truly love others, even enemies, more today than they did last year?

If people are not being transformed and, thereby, are more loving now than ever before, then the church is not doing well in its mission of creating disciples.

If I were to hazard a conclusion from what I read and hear in the news and personally experience and statements I actually hear people make, I would say that the church in America today is doing much better at producing religious people than it is producing disciples – those who are life-long, continuously learning (learning that is revealed through actions) individuals.

And if that is the case, how the church goes about carrying out its mission must be examined for it is the rare case that the results do not match what was done to produce them.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many people scoff when followers of Jesus talk about the awesomeness of God’s love.

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What do people want out of life?

What do people want out of life?

If a genie suddenly appear to a person and granted one wish, what might that person request?  I’m sure the answers would be varied and many.

How about this question: what do I (or you) have as a follower of Jesus that a person who is not a follower of Jesus would want?

I’m not talking about something philosophical, but something that is real, that actually exists in me.  I’m not talking about something that will happen in the future; I’m talking about right now.

People today are very savvy.  People, especially the younger generations, are able to see when they are being sold a “bill of goods” or being offered something that rings hollow because the person offering it truly isn’t experiencing what is being offered.  I wonder if that’s why many of the younger generations have rejected what the church has been offering.

For example, if one talks about the peace that the gospel brings yet is living a life full of stress and anxiety and worry, that discussion is nothing more than philosophical in nature, and any talk of the peace the gospel brings, rings hollow.

It has been said, erroneously, that “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.”  That is so wrong.  On the contrary, it is quite accurate to say, “Not everyone who can do can teach, but in order to teach, one must first be able to do.”

Just like it is impossible to truly and in ways that matter teach something without first being able to do it (this is so the student’s questions can be answered from the teacher’s practical experience of doing it, because how often does theory not translate to reality?  Quite often.), what followers of Jesus offer to others must be in line with what they are first experiencing.

Do we realize that this is how God works?  Whatever God offers to us, He first possesses.  Whatever God desires from us, He first pours that into us.  Consider the following verses as examples:

Galatians 5:1 – “With freedom, Christ did set us free.”  Christ possesses freedom and it is that freedom with which he sets us free and gives to us.

1 John 4:10-11 – “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son a propitiation for our sin.  Brothers, if in this way God loved us, we also ought to love one another.”  The love with which God expects us to love others is the very same love with which He loved us and poured into us.

God doesn’t do unfunded mandates.

There are very practical and real results of the gospel for this life and the living of it, results that cause those who have believed to approach and live life differently than those who have not believed.

And I’m not talking about some heightened sense of or following some code of morality.  I’m talking about exhibiting the nature of God which resides in us as our one and true and only nature through Christ being in us and us in Christ.  I’m talking about out-of-this-world love; I’m talking about peace, even in the midst of life’s storms, that goes beyond explanation.  I’m talking gentleness, goodness, joy, etc. that goes beyond understanding.

I’m not interested in a gospel that has no real and practical results for life now, for that’s not the true gospel.  The true gospel teaches that, upon my belief in Christ, God killed my old nature, crucified it with Christ, and then resurrected me to walk in newness of life, just as Christ walked.  I am given the nature of Christ so that what I live in this flesh is Christ.  That means that the characteristics Jesus possesses are now mine: peace, love, patience, gentleness, joy, kindness, goodness, and the like.

That’s how God knows me and that’s how I must know and view myself.  That’s how I must think, changing my thinking so that it is brought in line with how God thinks.  And the more and more my thinking comes into alignment with God’s, it’s truly amazing how what God has already poured into me and made me be comes out in life.

And then, I can truly back up when I tell people why the gospel is truly awesome news.

What leads people to repentance?

This past Saturday, I was at a regional gathering of people from different American Baptist churches.  During one portion of the morning, we sat around tables with each table having a specific topic.  The topic of the table at which I sat was “The Gospel in a rapidly changing culture.”

I believe it was a good conversation, but I asked a question that I would also like to state here.

“What leads a person to repentance?”

Inherent in the topic is the connection of the Gospel with today’s rapidly changing world.  The Gospel is about a relationship with God through Christ which is begun through belief and repentance.

So, the question, “What leads a person to repentance?” is critical to the conversation and the relationship between Gospel and world.

I really didn’t get a whole lot of answers to my question, and I’m wondering if this might be part of the issue.

Over the years, the church has employed different methods in attempts to convince (coerce?) people to repent and believe.  Some of these methods could be characterized as harsh and judgmental and condemning.  Some of these methods could be characterized as utilizing fear and guilt in order to convince someone to repent and believe.  The church has too often been guilty of using religious methods in attempting to convince a person of the need to repent and believe, or believe and repent, whichever you prefer.  While this might see some results at the outset, it quite often ends up with the person walking away at some point in the future.  And people walking away is one cause for the concern found within the church.

So, what does the Bible say leads people to repentance?  And this is crucial for followers of Christ to not only understand, but to also embrace, embody, and live out continuously.  The Apostle Paul says, “Or do you despise the riches of His kindness/goodness and forbearance and long-suffering, not knowing that God’s kindness/goodness leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

Did you catch it?  It is God’s kindness/goodness, not harshness, not threat of punishment, not guilt, not condescension, not throwing morality in people’s faces, and not condemnation.  And yet so much of the rhetoric people hear and read from the church are just exactly those things.

Should it be any wonder then why the Gospel isn’t resonating with many people?  Because to them, the practical results of the Gospel, this supposed Good News, is no different than what they get from the world.  Additionally, when they see people who have repented and believed going through life not much different from them, meaning stress and anxiety and worry, the lack of real peace, the lack of true contentment and lacking other practical implications from having the nature of Christ as their one and true nature, they see no real benefit for life now.  Therefore, they reject the Gospel as being irrelevant.

There was one additional thing I added to this.  There must be a direct connection between the kindness/goodness demonstrated and the reason/source behind that kindness/goodness.  That means that we must not focus on the macro, but on the micro.  That means that we must not focus our efforts and resources on large or blanket efforts toward a group of people, but on working through new and existing relationships with people as we share ourselves and allow the kindness and goodness of God flow through us to those around us.  Then we must make a connection between that kindness and goodness to God as the reason why we do what we do.

Think about it this way – if people were encouraged, equipped, and resourced to focus on one or two relationships with non Christ followers through which the goodness of God is definitely and practically displayed and connected to God as its source, would the church be struggling for growth?  Even if only 10% of those individuals come to Christ every year and then were taught the same thing, that would be tremendous growth.  A church of 50 adults, in 10 years, would experience a growth of 160%.

The question I would like to end this post with is this – do we truly believe that the Gospel actually is good news?  I ask this question because if the Gospel truly has not direct implications and practical results in this life, how is that good news?

Does the Gospel truly bring the peace of God into a person’s life?  Then why do so many Christians struggle with stress and anxiety and worry and a lack of contentment in life?  Why do so many Christians utter the question, “Why me?” when something bad happens or doesn’t go the way we had hoped?

If the Gospel is good news, but doesn’t have practical realities for living this life, then what’s the point?

And that, unfortunately, is the question way too many who are not followers of Christ ask but never get a satisfactory result.

As I drove

One of the things I enjoy doing when I’m traveling by myself is to have my own worship time.  I set my Pandora app to play the appropriate type of music, set the level at max volume and start in.

Yesterday, I traveled west to Rockwell City, IA, which is about a 30 minute drive from Fort Dodge.  There was something added to my worship experience today while driving.  I looked upon many fields which have been or were in the process of being harvested.  I looked out at the golden rich colors of the season and heard the Spirit say to my spirit, “You’re seeing just a tiny glimpse of my beauty and majesty.  And it leaves you in awe.  Imagine what my full glory is like.”

I could not respond with words; I could only respond with a great big smile on my face.  And then it caused me to go deeper and stronger into worship.

The Apostle Paul in 2nd Corinthians 3:15-18 says, “But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty. But we all with unveiled face be holding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory just as from the Lord the Spirit.”

Which one will you choose?

Peace – something that this world desires.

People long for peace so that there are no more wars and conflicts, but then the next war or conflict happens.

People long for peace in their lives so they don’t live lives full of stress and anxiety, but it doesn’t seem to ever come or, if it does come, it doesn’t stay around long.

A lack of peace brings fear and unease into people’s lives: of people, of the unknown or uncertain, of situations, of circumstances, of events, of the future  And this is how many people live.

Even people who are followers of Jesus.

Why is this the case for so many who follow Jesus?  Why do they live lives that are not characterized by the peace that God has placed within them through them being in Christ and Christ being in them?

Could it be that, for whatever reason, they have bought the lie that stress is just an inevitable part of life here on earth, and that the best that can be done is to somehow manage that stress, but still having to live with it?

What must be realized, first in the mind and then in that being lived out, is that stress/anxiety and faith are two things that cannot exist in the same space at the same time.  One of them has to go and we get to choose.

Paul says in Philippians 4:6-7, “In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by worshipful prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, in Christ Jesus, which surpasses all understanding shall guard your hearts with all its understanding, affections, and will, and all the actions of your minds.”

The focus, first of all, is on God.  That’s what Paul means be “worshipful” prayer and thanksgiving.  Just before this, Paul, multiple times, encourages them to rejoice in the Lord.  All of this puts the focus on God.  Faith in God isn’t logical, as the world’s standard of logic goes, but is based upon God’s own character, heart, and nature, which makes Him absolutely trustworthy.

Not only is He absolutely trustworthy, but He absolutely cares for and loves His adopted sons and daughters.  So, even if a storm in and of life, is raging about me, there is no reason for me to be anxious; He has demonstrated His trustworthiness and love for me many many times over the years and will continue to do so.

I need to speak briefly to the intensely high level of security that God’s peace brings to a person.  The word translated as “guard” refers to being guarded by a military force.  Think of the special force arms of the different branches of the military: the Navy Seals, Marine Force Recon, Delta Force, and Army Rangers.  Now, take the cream of those forces and that will be who makes up your protection detail.  If someone has made a threat of physical harm against you and this is your protection detail, how nervous are you going to be about that threat?

You’re not.  That’s the point.  Now, take the level of that protection and amp it up indefinitely.  That’s the protection that is around your heart with all of its understandings, affections, will, and the mindset and actions of your mind.  There is nothing that can touch your heart or mind unless the One who absolutely loves you allows it through.  And if He allows it through, then it is somehow necessary for you to experience in order to better realize who and what you exactly are: His child.

And there’s no need to stress about it; just walk through it.

There is an incredible beauty to living in peace and its protection.  It affects not only you, but also those around you.  It impacts relationships and situations positively.

It’s a great way to live.  I just pray that there would be many more Christians who would come to realize what it is like to truly live this way.

“Peace I leave with you.  My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” – Jesus

The necessity of adding value

Value.

It’s a critically important word in today’s culture.  With all of the opportunities and options open to people whose available time is limited due to life responsibilities and obligations, people, whether explicitly or implicitly, use a value system in choosing what to do and what to bypass.

I know that it has often been said that the amount of available time a person/family has in today’s world is less than what it was in the past.  While I am unable to definitively say whether this is true or not, I am certain of one thing: if something is valuable to a person or family, somehow time will be carved out time for that thing.  If something is considered valuable, the schedule will be arranged, or re-arranged, in order to accommodate that thing.

I see a direct connection between this reality and what is happening to the church.  When deciding what to do, being actively involved in a church just doesn’t have much value for younger families.  If something needs to go by the wayside during a particular week or period of time, being active in a church (being in attendance at worship gatherings and other programs/activities) can often be one of the first things to go.  That demonstrates that, for them, there just isn’t a very high value placed upon it.

For my generation (the Baby Busters, of which I am one of the older members) and the succeeding generations, it is often the case that things are prioritized based upon its value.  If something is deemed as not adding much value to life, then that is something that is first to go.  But the opposite is also true.  If something is deemed to be of high value, then people will go to great lengths to make that thing or time or activity happen, even up to the point of rearranging schedules or eliminating other less-valuable activities and things from the schedule.

So, what’s the conclusion from all of this?  The value placed upon being involved and connected to a faith community (a local church) is not all that high by those who may have been connected to one at some point in the past.  And because value assessment is the foundational issue, just changing things up a little bit, like changing the style, day, and time of worship, for instance, will not have much effect after a short burst of success.  Unless the value assigned to it increases, eventually those people will return to what once was.

Do I have the answers as to how perceived value in being an active part of a church will happen?  Unfortunately, at this point, not really, but it is a subject which God and I are having continuing conversations.  But of this, I am most certain; it will involve relationships and helping people move forward and building their lives and those of their family and those of their neighborhood and those of their community.  People find that of very high value.

And maybe, just maybe, when they connect the value of moving forward and building in one’s life and that of their family, neighborhood, and community with being actively involved in a faith community, that’s when the trend of being an active participant in a faith community being the first thing to go will start moving in the other direction.