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.