Jay Blogs – Being and Making Disciples

One of the most important ways that Christian schools differ from others is in their focus on discipleship.  Unlike other forms of K–12 education, which focus primarily on forming and shaping the minds of students and perhaps including (in their best sense) some limited form of added character training, Christian education is holistic, addressing every aspect of who we are as image bearers of God. Our goal is to equip kids to obey the Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37), and also the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20).

These are both direct commands of Jesus, and to be his disciples, his followers, or apprentices means that we must actually do them. I’ve been reading “Practicing the Way” by John Mark Comer, who makes an interesting observation: while 63 percent (a declining number) of Americans self-identify as Christians, many surveys identify only 4 percent as those who are actually following him. Comer says the biggest problem facing the Western church today is lack of clarity about what discipleship means, rooted in defining “Christian” as someone who simply ascribes to truths about Jesus and may or may not attend church, and absolutely does not live out the Great Commandment or Great Commission, as disciples of Jesus.

This is a distinction that Jesus never actually made in Scripture. Jesus never actually set aside a junior varsity group of believers and a varsity-level group of disciples and left it up to us to decide which ones we would be. Eternal life, the abundant life he promises to us, and the ability to live as sons and daughters are all promises made to disciples, to apprentices, and to those who live as he lives, do as he does, and speak as he speaks. If we are his, we’ll do what he does. Can you imagine what impact the church would have on the world around it if the 4 percent of disciples of Jesus were 20 percent, 40 percent, or 60 percent?

The greatest problem facing our nation and western culture isn’t that America isn’t a “Christian nation” (assuming it ever was)—it’s that only a small fraction of those actually proclaiming identity in Christ are actually living as his disciples.

Christian school is not just about teaching kids to think like Jesus thinks and to view the world through the lens of Scripture (although that’s a critical part of Christian education). Christian school is also about spiritual formation, shaping the hearts of our students to live lives inclined toward Jesus—to be his disciples.

This is so critical, such a desperate need in our culture, and such an opportunity for us to make a real impact, that I want to talk quite a bit about it over the next year or more. So, as we end this school year, I want to encourage you to use what I hope is a somewhat simpler time of year in the summer to reflect on the ways God may (or may not) be at work in your life. Are you truly being formed into disciples of Christ?

In “The Great Omission,” Dallas Williard’s book on discipleship in Christ, he too discusses the paucity of actual discipleship in the western Church—the title of the book refers to the tendency of the Church to emphasize “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and omit “and teaching them all I have commanded you,” which many forget is also part of the Great Commission. Willard notes that it is our responsibility to become disciples of Jesus. It’s not our church’s responsibility, or someone else’s, to “disciple” us, but ours to become apprentices to Jesus. 

As Willard says, “the gospel is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning.” While we cannot and do not earn our salvation, and while the Holy Spirit does the transforming work in our lives, making us different people than we were, we are absolutely active agents in the work of discipleship. We cannot change without it. If you are fundamentally the same person you were 20 years ago, or however long it’s been since you asked Jesus into your life, that’s actually because you have not been actively engaged in being a disciple of Jesus. As the great church father Augustine said, “Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not.”

Sanctification won’t come with a Matrix-style download from the Holy Spirit. We have to work at it, which is what Paul meant when he encouraged the Philippian church to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God works, and we work together to bring about change within us.

The change comes as a result of several things working in us, all of which the Holy Spirit uses and catalyzes to bring about change in our lives. The first is Scripture. God uses His Word in us to transform our hearts and minds, to think about life in different ways than we did before, and to love more and differently than we did. This includes all the ways we interact with Scripture, including reading it through in a year, Bible study, lectio divina, listening to sermons and other forms of teaching, Scripture memorization, podcasts, and a myriad of other ways—letting God’s Word marinate in our hearts and minds so we can be transformed by the Spirit.

Many of us stop here, especially in the Protestant tradition, where the primacy of Scripture is rightly emphasized. But one of the reasons so few of us are actually transformed is that we believe that reading our Bibles once a day and going to church once or twice a month is actually going to transform us. We’re surprised when we see so little change. The problem here is that we’re only partially engaged in discipleship, and so many other things—media, messages, and narratives of the world—are competing to disciple our hearts, so what little we are doing in response cannot hope to counter the ways we are being discipled by the culture around us. We have to engage in a much more robust form of discipleship.

The second way we’re discipled in Jesus is through the spiritual disciplines, or means of grace. These are all the ways we position ourselves under the shower of the Holy Spirit so that he can transform us. These are the ways Willard, Comer, Augustine, and everyone through the ages spoke of our part in the process of transformation. The disciplines include practices like prayer, silence and solitude, generosity, practicing Sabbath, and other rhythms of rest, fasting, and service. There are so many things that can be said about each of these disciplines, and time and space don’t allow discussion here, but suffice it to say many of us don’t engage in these practices regularly. Therefore, we miss opportunities for the Spirit to mold and shape us into the image of Christ.

The third practice of discipleship is living in community with other believers. God created us to live in community, and in doing life with others, we learn to love. Community gives us the opportunity to worship collectively, expressing ourselves and our hearts to God in a way we are clearly created to do and simply cannot do alone. Life together also allows for the manifestation of our spiritual gifts, because our gifts were given to us for each other, and only in relation to each other can they be used, demonstrated, and honed. As in marriage, it is the art of living and loving other people, rubbing against their rough spots with our own seasons and tempers.

Through all of these practices, the impact of time, trials, and turmoil combine to serve as catalysts for our spiritual growth. There is no such thing as speedy sanctification. While there are times where one may be miraculously healed of some addiction or struggle, most of our character struggles and the ravages of sin in our lives take time to heal. Discipleship is a lifelong process, and we are constantly being formed into someone, for good or for bad, throughout our lives. (Comer says this is why, while the young people you know are kind of a mixed bag of good and bad, the old people you know are generally either very kind and gentle or very angry and bitter.) Over time, we become fully formed, good or bad. We become who we have allowed and surrendered ourselves to become. Sanctification takes a lifetime.

Trials and suffering are those ways that, living in a Genesis 3, fallen world acts upon us from without. Disease, illness, conflict, the death of friends and loved ones, major and minor disaster, and other pain are all part of our lives. When they come upon us, as they do for all of us, we’re faced with a decision. We can let them embitter us, turning us against God and others. Or, we can humble ourselves before him and press into him, allowing him to use these challenges to refine and burn away anxiety, fear, stubbornness, harshness, a lack of empathy, and a whole host of other weaknesses and ways God wants to bring healing.

Turmoil is how I would describe those inner battles we face against our shadow selves, what author Pete Scazzero calls “the accumulation of untamed emotions, less-than-pure motives, and thoughts that, while largely unconscious, strongly influence and shape your behaviors. It is the damaged but mostly hidden version of who you are.” These exist within us because of our family of origin, hurts, unresolved sin patterns, and other past brokenness. As we do the hard work of opening our hearts to the Holy Spirit and letting him shine his light on these things in our lives through reflection and trusted friends, he gives us the opportunity to be free and restored from these things.

Discipleship starts at home. Whether it’s making disciples among our own children, our spouse, our coworkers, or our students, the gospel was intended to work so that we would become like Christ, imitating him, and that those around us would imitate us and become like him. I love summer because it gives us a little more time to reflect on the state of our lives and to see whether we’re living a life worthy of imitation. Are we disciples, and are we making disciples around us?