Disciplism – Part 5
Thankfully, the church growth movement is now undergoing a serious self-assessment. It started with Willow Creek’s REVEAL study when the church began to look at themselves and said, “Wow, we’re good at getting decisions for Christ, but not so great at making disciples.” As far as I am concerned, I say “hats off everyone!” This kind of honesty demands our respect. Willow Creek has been willing to take a good, long, hard look inside and make fundamental changes. Amazing and inspiring!
I commend this unlearning and repentance because by and large, the evangelism of the church growth movement catered to the very thing we need to work against in our time: consumerism! The method involved a direct appeal to the well-developed consumerism of all people living in Western contexts. Anyone coming to Jesus in America comes as an already well-formed consumer and needs to be confronted with the religious implications of what it means to follow and be conformed to Him.
And lets face it, for the vast majority of middle-class Americans, consumerism is not just about shopping for basic goods and services anymore. Consumerism is more like the overwhelmingly predominant religious alternative to biblical faithfulness in our time! In other words, consumerism takes all the forms of an idolatrous religion. When people go to shopping malls, they are not just buying things to fulfill basic needs. No, they are looking for purpose, meaning, significance and belonging. But aren’t these the very things that religion ought to offer and confer? And so the tragic irony is that the average shopping mall trip turns into a serious exercise in spirituality, and the average trip to the church turns into an intense exercise in religious consumerism. Increasingly, they look like the same thing!
So we discover that the prevailing method of evangelism has been seriously co-opted to consumerism. It has rightly been said that what you win them with, you win them to. In other words, if you use entertainment to win people to faith, then you have to keep entertaining them to keep them on the journey. This is a huge burden for the local church that now has to compete for attention of consumers with the Internet, big budget movies, 3D animation and other big experiences.
When we narrow down our proclamation to large, entertainment-based events; offers of salvation-on-demand-style altar calls; or tracts with variations of the four spiritual laws, we need to remind ourselves that we’re offering these to people who already are very well-formed (religious) consumers. In other words, consumptive methods fail to challenge the primary religion of most seekers and in fact end up exacerbating it! The problem is that we patently cannot produce obedient followers of Jesus by using consumerist methods of evangelism.
I believe the only way to challenge the insidiously idolatrous nature of consumerism is through becoming more and more like Jesus—in other words through discipleship. Discipleship, because it is about our loyalty to our covenant King, must always be done over-against the competing claims of the prevailing idolatry of the age. For us that is consumerism. We have learned the hard way that one cannot consume one’s way into the kingdom. It doesn’t work like that.
The way to salvation in the kingdom of God leads through the cross and through our ongoing willingness to surrender our own agendas. The cross must define our relationship to God from the very beginning to the very end. It’s not some optional extra, something we can simply take out of the equation and still expect to be the kind of Church that Jesus intended us to be. If Jesus says that we come to salvation through the cross—up front, right at the beginning of our following of Him—then who are to try to factor that out of our evangelism? If our Lord says discipleship is core to our mission (Matt. 28:16-20), then we have no right to try to remove it. Besides, if we try to factor discipleship and obedience into the spiritual equation after the altar call, it all ends up looking awfully like a fraudulent religious bait-and-switch strategy.
Begin With the End in Mind; End With the Beginning in Mind
This inconsistency with our prevailing method and Jesus’ explicit commands highlights a major flaw in our mission strategy. I believe that significant corrections at this point will change the shape and trajectory of the Church’s mission in this time. It will also deliver more integrity with our primary calling. We must begin with the end in mind, but we must also end with the beginning in mind. If the Great Commission is about discipleship, then discipleship should always be a major aspect in our thinking and approach to church vitality and mission. How can it not be? Just obey the Great Commission, and it will go well. It’s all about discipleship from beginning to end.
Now this does not mean that we stop sharing the Good News, far from it! But here’s the deal: Evangelism gets done along the way as you go about disciple making. As you disciple the nations, evangelism takes place because it’s done in its proper context: discipleship. And so once again we arrive at the central idea of this little eBook—the only faithful way forward in our time is to reframe evangelism within the context of discipleship. Time’s up … no more stonewalling.
Here’s one (not the only) of the simplest ways to go about recalibrating our thinking and doing in this regard. By simply following the Great Commission literally, we begin to see that conversion is a process that begins right at the start of the journey towards Jesus! Listen to what I’m saying here: Discipleship should start even before people become regenerated (“born-again”) converts and continue right till the end. Evangelism is “done” along the way. We can simply focus on discipling people, weave our narratives into theirs, live the Kingdom life, and make space for God to do His thing in giving them new life in Him.
I propose that we take this approach with the utmost seriousness: Put aside your prevailing understandings of event-based proclamation along with its easy spiritual formulas and simply adopt the Great Commission (taken quite literally) as your guide. Go and make disciples of the nations! Just start discipling people everywhere, and the gospel of the kingdom will be shared along the way in a far more natural, personal, loving and life-oriented way.
Just Follow Jesus
Now before you dismiss this as a tad suspect for your liking, if you look at the ministry of Jesus you’ll find that this is precisely what He did.
Ask yourself this question: When were the disciples of Jesus born again (regenerated by the Spirit)? Was it at the beginning of the Gospels? The middle? Or the end? I have never heard anyone suggest the beginning. And they are likely right not to. Some scholars would say it was towards the end in John 20:22 (where Jesus breathes the Spirit on them), and others say that it was likely at Pentecost (Acts 2). But I am not aware of any scholars who would assert that it all likely happened at the beginning or even in the middle! So, putting aside the so-called disciples that leave Jesus every time He offends them (e.g., John 6), even the hardcore “twelve,” as well as the “seventy,” were all what we would call pre-conversion disciples! Take a scriptural inventory yourself. Just look around at Jesus in the Gospels. The New Testament Church was a pretty mixed bag of folk, incorporating the most unlikely candidates to start a movement—prostitutes, fishermen, tax collectors, moms, farmers and some religious nuts.
So here’s the thing. If you look at what Jesus is doing, He’s got a whole lot of “pre-conversion disciples” tagging along with Him. All the while, He’s just discipling them along the way until the gospel narrative finally weaves its way into their hearts and they come alive to God in new birth. They’re certainly not mature, born-again Christians. What is even more surprising is that they are actually involved in His ministry even before they are fully converted to Jesus and His mission. They certainly have a long way to go. For instance, the lead disciple (Peter) doesn’t even understand the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death after hanging out for three years with Jesus. He rebukes Jesus for even thinking about any ideas of atoning for others and dying on a cross (Matt. 16:21-23). In prevailing evangelical idiom, this means Peter cannot possibly be “saved” as he does not understand the meaning of the cross! Go figure. It turns out that even Peter is not yet a full convert even after three years of journeying with the Lord. Consider this illustration:
But it didn’t stop with Jesus’ own methodology; pre- and post-conversion discipleship approaches were standard practice in the Church in its first three centuries. In the Church from around 100 A.D. to 300 A.D., seekers had to prove their adherence to Jesus and commitments to His Way before they were allowed to actually become part of the Church! No kidding, this was the original purpose of the catechisms:
Catechumens (the seekers) were thoroughly assessed for their spiritual condition and then put through a rigorous discipleship process by a sponsor who would take them under his wing. Under the guidance of their sponsor (discipler), they had to learn to live out the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, no less. These catechisms could go up to four years before the seeker was allowed to even hear and respond to the gospel, be baptized and join the community! It turns out that that seekers were already disciples by the time they joined the church community as contributing members.
In case you hadn’t noticed dear reader, this is not exactly what we would call “seeker-sensitive” practice! In other words, discipleship started long before a person became a formal convert and member of the Jesus community.4 And just before we dismiss that as seeker-insensitive practice, we need to remind ourselves that these early followers really did change their world. They transformed whole societies precisely because they were committed disciples. They took disciple making (and therefore evangelism) seriously, and would not tolerate religious consumerism.
4. See Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2007) and Robert Webber, Journey to Jesus.
Excerpt taken from Disciplism a free e-book by Alan Hirsch available here.