6. The Danger of the Empty Public Square

There is no question but that certain powerful forces would like to see the voice of religion, and especially the voice of Christians, eliminated from the American public square. When Richard Neuhaus initially wrote The Naked Public Square, the so-called Christian Right was in ascendance. [1]There was a great deal of liberal concern, culminating with Hilary Rodham Clinton making her famous “vast right-wing conspiracy” comment, alleging that the election of conservatives was the result of some kind of conspiracy. (One interesting aspect of contemporary American politics is the constant allegation that,  for example if the Koch brothers make political contributions, it is part of a right-wing conspiracy. If George Soros does, it is a result of a vast left-wing conspiracy. The paranoia of contemporary politics is, perhaps, a reflection of the absence of religious faith in the public square. If there is no God, then we are responsible for everything that happens or does not happen. This alone is enough to drive a person mad.) Today, as I mentioned last week, there is little to be worried about from the Religious Right. This does not seem to prevent the media, and left-wing politicians from alleging that there is and from attempting to expunge religion from American public life. It is Neuhaus’ view that this is a gigantic mistake.

For the past 300 years, intellectuals impacted by the Enlightenment and the revolutionary spirit of the French Revolution, have attempted to create a purely secular state. The goal was and is a “Naked Public Square,” that is the exclusion of religious views from public debate. Because the Enlightenment began in Christian France, the initial and consistent focus of this effort has been Christianity, but it can be easily seen that eventually the logic demands that all merely religious convictions and expressions should be removed from public discourse. Sometimes this demand implies that, since religious views are “private,” and not scientifically verifiable, they should not guide public debate or policy.

This notion is at least partially based on an outdated materialistic world view that sees the world, and therefore human society, as nothing more than matter and material forces. The genesis of Marxism in all of its various forms is the notion that all there is are material forces, and in the realm of political economy, all that exist are economic forces. The result is a kind of “economic determinism.” [2] This same idea also infects Radical Capitalism, with its notion that blind economic forces can lead to the optimal distribution of wealth. Those captured by a materialistic world view are inevitably hostile to spiritual values.

In the Naked Public Square Neuhaus develops an attack on this view that has three main observations: (i) such a truncated view of the world ignores much of what ordinary people value; and (ii) the observation that wherever this has been tried in the past, a totalitarians state has resulted with untold human suffering resulting; and (iii) finally, the naked public square is an impossibility. Where religion is excluded either “eratz religion” by another name will enter the square or a kind of secular religion will be developed to provide a basis for society. [3]

While much of the media focuses attention on the danger of a Nazi-like dictatorship, Neuhaus rightly observes that the 20th century shows that left wing, socialistic dictatorships are both more probable and more dangerous. One need only look to the suffering and slaughter of Communist China, Soviet Russia, and other communist states and the current situation in Venezuela to see that the siren song of “free stuff” and economic equality spun by current proponents of a socialized economy are either misguided or worse. In an American election year in which we hear about the virtues of a socialized economy, perhaps Americans should take not of this danger. there has been but one Nazi Germany. There have been several Marxist disasters, creating totalitarianism and human suffering.

More importantly, at one point in his analysis, Neuhaus makes a comment that has a continuing relevance for thinking people concerning the danger to America of the naked public square: In all likelihood the naked public square in America will look somewhat different than in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It would be a distinctly American, probably technologically driven,totalitarian monism that attempts to create a society without religious foundation, and therefore without meaning. [4] Those who think it cannot happen here might read the daily papers.

It turns out that a liberal democracy can only be sustained if all voices, and especially the voices of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other religious mediating institutions, can be heard. When these voices are excluded, then some elite will create its own moral and spiritual basis for society, and one in which religious voices are silenced. In contemporary America we see the danger of this happening.

This does not mean that religious people, and Christians in particular, should expect to control or dominate the public square. While religious voices are one voice in a pluralistic public square, they are not the only voice. Tolerance is a public virtue necessary to sustain a liberal democracy. We all have to listen to points of view we dislike or even regard as dangerous. More importantly for

Christians must remember that we are not called to dominate the public square but to serve it in self-giving love, emulating the One who gave himself for us. When his own leaders argued about who should be the greatest and in control, he gave this teaching:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Next week, I am going to continue the analysis of this idea that all mediating institutions are necessary for a proper functioning liberal democracy.

God bless,

Chris

Copyright 2020, G Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” This week’s blog is taken from Chapter 5, entitled “The Vulnerability of the Naked Public Square.”

[2] Id, at 79.

[3] Id, at 81.

[4] Id, at 85.

5. Critical Patriotism and Civil Community

Last week, we discussed the need for greater reliance on dialogue as opposed to political debate in the public arena. This week, this discussion continues. In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus has a chapter on “Critical Patriotism and the Civil Community.” [1] The major point of the chapter is that, while civility is a virtue in public life, civility cannot exist without some notion of the worth of the civil community of which we are a part. If our civil community is hopelessly corrupt, as extremists left and right imagine, then there can be no warrant for civility, what is needed is a revolution. [2] It is with wisdom that Neuhaus begins the chapter with its best quote: “Civility is highly valued by the uncertain. It needs most to be exercised by the certain.” [3] We live in a time when this observation is important.

Political Certainty and the Problem of Radical Solutions

One most discouraging aspect of contemporary politics is the certainty with which the political extremes, left and right, are certain of the correctness of their policy preferences. This aspect of American politics is made more troublesome by the fact that identity politics, of which we spoke last week, has made rational compromise difficult to obtain. If, for example, decisions about how to best manage our health care system are caught between the extremes of “there can be no single public funding system” and “there must be a single payer system,” compromise becomes impossible. In a variety of areas, this lack of ability to compromise harms our nation.

Secondly, where extremes control the debate, moderate, smaller, and less disruptive policy prescriptions become impossible. The recent debate over “The Affordable Care Act” (ACA), known as “Obamacare” is illustrative.  President Obama, Speaker Pelosi, and their advisors were determined to make a complete, radical change in the American healthcare system. Opponents were determined to prevent this. Many experts doubted that the public and private exchanges ACA exchanges could work, since they would attract the worst and most expensive risk and charge the lowest rates—something everyone in the insurance business knows is financial suicide. One party, did not mind this, since they saw the ACA as a step on the road to nationalized health care. The other party did not care because they believed (it turned out correctly) that the inevitable collapse of Obama Care would return them to power. Lost in all this was the need for America to have a more efficient and cost-effective medical care system. Because the extremes controlled the debate, a bad policy result obtained and billions of dollars and years of time were and are still being lost. Only recently has a more incremental revision been possible, perhaps because both parties feared the consequences of a complete collapse of the system.

The Virtues of Dialogue and Compromise

A rational government trusts that, over time, the public will embrace rational decisions if they are given time, information, and results. Even if one considers that the current policy in some area is not functional and dramatic change needs to be made, small changes in the right direction over time will lead everyone to recognize that fact. On the other hand, if the proposed polity solution turns out to be incorrect, then small changes will be easier to undo than dramatic ones.

In order for small changes to be made, the parties must set aside their ultimate polity preferences, enter a real dialogue, and compromise. This cannot be done in the setting of irrational charges, personal attacks, and public anger. Compromise requires the quiet moment of reflection on what is possible and necessary under the circumstances obtaining. In other words, it requires that wisdom and restraint be public virtues.

The term “civility” derives from the term “civil” and relates to public life. Civility is that public virtue that allows courteous, rational public debate, the absence of violence, physical, moral, or mental violence, all of which are counter-productive in the search for rational public policy. As America moves into a new era, restoration of (or at least an increase in) civility to public life is important. Without this, we are trapped into a series of policy missteps that ultimately damage our “civilization,” which is the end product of a civil public arena.

Civil Patriotism

Many on the left of America fear what they believe is a “jingoistic” irrational Patriotism. To the extent love of country, support common institutions, and care about the fundamental institutions (like the Constitution) are unreflective, there is a real danger in this fear. However, there is also a danger in jingoistic, irrational rejection of our social institutions, institutions that have served our nation well and allowed the social and economic progress we have made since our founding. True Civil Patriotism, and a love for our civil society, does not mean a lack of concern for its shortcomings and failures. It means a willingness to display respect for those who disagree with us and to listen with respect and openness to the critique they offer in the search for a better society for all.

As a Christian, I believe that it is only by injecting that most Christian of virtues, self-giving love into the public life of our nation that this is possible. Today is President’s Day. At the beginning of our nation, the wealthiest and most powerful figure of its birth, George Washington put everything at risk to create, form, and sustain our public institutions. He resisted every temptation to gain permanent power as he served our nation. At the moment when our nation was most fractured, Abraham Lincoln served our nation to maintain our union and fundamental institutions, and in the process eliminated the greatest evil present in the formation of our nation.  Perhaps it is to their example we should return as we face the problems of today.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] Id, at 69; “…civility assumes, if not a consensus about, at least a search for a reconstituted vision of the civitas.”

[3] Id, at 55.

4. Religious Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Public Square

In this week’s post, I want to focus on an aspect of The Naked Public Square that has long troubled my thinking. [1] Neuhaus, writing in the 1980’s, was concerned to fashion a position in over and against both to secular liberalism and the resurgence of highly conservative thinking represented in his writing by the Moral Majority. The position he was staking out was eventually given the name of “Neo-Conservatism” or New Conservatism. [2] Neuhaus, as a mainline Lutheran and then Roman Catholic thinker was concerned to show how his views were different from those of, say, Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority. Naturally, in so doing, he has critical things to say about the fundamentalist reentry into American politics.

The Reality of Religious and Moral Diversity

The Moral Majority that Neuhaus was so concerned about is no more, however, the problem he recognized is still with us: One difficulty in outlining a Christian political philosophy is the great divergence within Christian groups on matters of faith, morals, and their implications for government. For example, when St. Augustine wrote City of God, there was no diversity of opinion among Christian leaders concerning the ethics of infanticide or abortion. They were universally condemned. Today, this happy situation no longer exists.

More importantly, if America was a diverse society in the 1980’s, it is immeasurably more religiously diverse today. Christianity has declined as the primary religious faith of Americans. Other religious traditions and people of no particular religious tradition have increased. There is no consensus among these traditions about many aspects of public life, and very little hope that a consensus will ever emerge.

Finally, in the 1980’s, Neuhaus did not fear that secular forces might drive Christianity out of the public square entirely. Today, we cannot be so sure. Recently one political candidate for President implied that Christians should not run for public office. Routinely candidates for confirmation to public office are attached for their Christian convictions. The danger of “anti-Christianism” has joined anti-Semitism as a real threat to our free polity.

The challenge to Christian people is to speak into this diversity with faithfulness to their particular tradition, but with wisdom and some level of respect for other competing traditions. Abortion is a case in point. For nearly half a century, different Christian groups have been speaking their views into the public arena, sometimes virulently. The public has become accustomed to conservative Christian groups opposing abortion and mainline denominations supporting it. As a result, both groups are ignored by the great majority of people. There is some evidence that the public believes that the legalization of abortion late in the term of pregnancy has little public support, but efforts to change this law spark heated debate, with charges and counter-charges being levied among the parties. Often these charges and counter-charges are levied in emotional language cut off from rational argument. It is hard to see how the bitterness of the debate helps the witness of Christians to the greater society at large. Thus far, it has also been ineffective.

Identity Politics and Its Consequences

As in so many areas of American politics, there needs to be a step beyond debate to dialogue and reasoned argument. One of the many things that the left and right hold in common is a completely modern view that politics can be reduced to political combat between variousinterest groups. The idea is to motivate various groups to support your bid for power by appealing to their opinions and prejudices, and especially those that give them their identity:  race, religion, economic class, sexual orientation, and similar characteristics. This is given the name “identity politics” and explains so much of what is deeply wrong with American politics today.

A major problems with identity politics is that it enables candidates and parties to focus on a small, emotionally laden group of issues to the exclusion of other important issues. If I can get votes by emphasizing sexual orientation or the evils of carbon based energy and promising some simple, if impossible action, I can avoid complex issues with complicated solutions that will involve compromise between various options.

For example, the national debt is only considered from the viewpoints of “they are trying to take away this or that public benefit” or “they are irresponsibly bankrupting the nation.” This allows the parties to ignore the fact that too much debt will impoverish all of us and our children and we have to compromise to bring about rational spending. The solution, if there is one, is not in the agenda of either party, but in some kind of compromise.

In another recent case, a candidate proposed eliminating the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels in a very short period of time. Lost in this proposal was the fact that such a policy would involve building something like 250 nuclear reactors in five or so years, covering large areas of the nation with solar panels that could not even be built in such a time frame, and other impossible alternatives. Perhaps a more realistic proposal would be better for the nation. This candidate did not have to deal with the reality of the situation. He just wanted to get votes from the environmental lobby.

This leads to the final problem with the political atmosphere identity politics creates: It makes compromise impossible. Once the parties have radicalized and polarized their voting base, they can never compromise on any rational solution to a problem. In the areas of the budget, medical care, entitlements, and the like we have seen the paralyzing results of identity politics at work.

Christians and Identity Politics

In the face of this, it is perhaps the best and most important witness that Christians can give is to be especially careful in how we express our internal disagreements in public. I have always felt that there was a demeaning tone to some of Neuhaus’ argument in The Naked Public Square regarding the new evangelical emergence, a kind of “snarkyness” that is both off putting and demeaning. It is as if he were trying to purchase the respect of the intellectual elite at the price of belittling fellow Christians. This is a strategy that cannot work and needs to be avoided at all costs.

I am pretty sure that a true Christian public theology for the 21st Century will attempt to transcend the polarization of 20th Century public theology. It will attempt to be dialogical as opposed to debate oriented. It is hard to conceive how this might occur, but it is an endeavor that is worth the effort.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.” The critique Neuhaus gives is so pervasive that I have not given citations.

[2] One problem with this name has to do with the fact that it is also used for a branch of the Republican Party and the defense polities it promotes. This means that religious Neo-conservatives are often mistaken with political Neo-conservatives. While they have certain similarities, they are very different. one can be a religious Neo-conservative and not support the “Neo-con” ideas on what is the best middle Eastern military posture.

3. Why Government Should Not Be “The Primary Thing that Gives Us Unity”

I thought that I might continue the line of thought that I began last week. One of the most discouraging things about the state of our national polity is the extent to which our national government has become both dominant over other levels of government and intrusive into the life of persons, families, communities and other social organizations.

In The Naked Public Square, Richard Neuhaus makes the following important statement:  “The things that matter most happen in the Mediating Structures of our personal and communal existence. These structures, family, neighborhood, church, Voluntary association—are the people sized” institutions where we work day by day at our felicities and fears. The public square is not limited to the Government Square. At the same time—and for reasons that unavoidable—government impinges on all public squares.” [1]

There is a lot to ponder in this little quote. Neuhaus begins with an observation that we too easily dismiss: even in the most intrusive of dictatorships, the family, friendships, neighborhood, community, church, and other societies have not only great influence, but they are the source of the day-to-day meaningfulness of life for most people. This past week, my wife and I have visited two of our children, entertained guests from out of town, attended an historic preservation community meeting, and been to two different church activities. We also listened to the State of the Union Address and wrote a check to a political group we support. Guess which of those activities were most meaningful and important to our happiness and to the fullness of our lives? It was family and friends. Then it was helping our local neighborhood and church. Finally, it was those activities that impinge upon our national politics.

The Tao Te Ching has a passage that I find important in thinking about politics and persons:

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a person,

virtue grows and becomes genuine.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a family,

virtue grows by loving transmission.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a community,

virtue grows through careful schooling.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in a nation,

virtue grows by wise leadership.

If the Way is carefully cultivated in the world,

virtue grows as the Way is followed. [2]

One does not have to ponder this quotation for very long before what is deeply wrong with our political culture becomes obvious: We pay too little attention to the smaller, more intimate and personal aspects of our society. In so doing, we weaken our national polity, which inevitably relies upon the health of other institutions.

The modern world has created a kind of schizophrenia as “self-actualizing individuals” seeking their own happiness paradoxically diminish the very institutions that give the most meaning, purpose and wholeness to life. The rampant incidence of divorce in our society is but one example.

As a result of the interconnectedness of society, social institutions, and personal happiness, it is one of the roles of government to respect the limitations in its potential reach. The power of the sword is an important power. It inevitably creates the potential for governments of all kinds to emasculate and diminish other institutions. The temptation to do so in the search of some public good is ever present, but the temptation must be resisted, or the society as a whole will suffer.

In the United States, the national government has intruded itself into almost every aspect of life, personal and communal. It tells farmers what they can grow, small business persons what they can sell and to whom they may sell, businesses how they can manufacture, community schools what they can teach, doctors and hospitals what care they can deliver—the list could go on and on. The point is not that what they government is doing is necessarily wrong or that the motives of the national government are suspect. It is that we would all be better off if local communities decided for themselves what to do as much as possible.

One of the primary goals of any Christian public philosophy should be to give a general kind of guidance to policy makers concerning how much power they should exercise and how much restraint they should exercise in the public good. The principle I gather from all this is quite simple: Every public decision should be made at the lowest possible level and when there is a question, the lower body should remain free to do as it believes best.

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/ Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love an Adaptation of the Tao Te Ching for Christ-Followers (Cordova, TN: Permissio Por Favor (Booksurge), 2014). This quote is found in Chapter 54 on page 108.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

2. Mediating Institutions and Politics as War

In Chapter Two of The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus confronts the need for churches, public and private charities, and other ‘mediating institutions” to participate in public affairs. As to religious institutions, secular thinkers worry about the potential for religious warfare, reminiscent of the religious wars of Europe that followed the Reformation. It turns out, however, that the kind of secular religion created by, for example, radical communism, can also create such a situation—and has in the 20th Century. Neuhaus quotes the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre for the proposition that politics without a moral ground can become “civil war carried on by other means.” [1] We see many symptoms of this problem in contemporary America.

The solution to the propensity of politics to degenerate into “war by other means” is not the exclusion of groups from the public square, but a strong public ethic that provides a peaceful and rational way of conducting politics involving differing groups. Michael Polanyi points out a paradoxical feature of modern society: it combines a cynical disregard for truth and for justice with kind fanatical devotion to certain moral ideals of an ideology, right or left. The Russian Communists and German Nazi’s were inspired to violence by an ideological moral fervor cut off from any moral grounding in a history or tradition. The search for a just society, cut off from a deep public philosophy of justice can generate in the practitioners of modern ideological politics a fanaticism that permits gross immorality in the search for a better or perfect society. [2]

Western democracies, most of which have some basic cultural history in the Judeo-Christian tradition, need to recover a connection with historic moral traditions in the conduct of its political affairs. In particular, the West must recover its faith in justice as real quality progressively uncovered though a disciplined search for fairness in the political arena. In his book Logic of Liberty, Polanyi puts the matter in this way:

The general foundations of coherence and freedom in society may be regarded as secure to the extent to which men uphold their belief in the reality of truth, justice, charity, and tolerance, and accept dedication to the service of these realities; while society may be expected to fall into servitude when men deny, explain away or simply disregard these realities and transcendent obligations.

We may be faced with the fact that only by resuming the great tradition which embodies faith in these realities can the continuance of the human race on earth, equipped with the powers of modern science be made both possible and desirable. [3]

If there are no transcendental values, if politicians are not constrained in their political behavior by a transcendent obligation to seek truth and justice in political life with tolerance for other views, then the state can and must dictate these matters—and society will have entered a road to tyranny. If, however, a society and its politicians believe in the transcendent, moral and ethical realities of truth, justice, tolerance, charity, and serve them, not just when they find it convenient, and if citizens and their representatives believe that society will eventually discern these realities and be guided by them, then the foundation of a free society can be maintained in the fact of conflict and uncertainty.

The frenetic dishonesty of contemporary politics results from an underlying assumption of both the right and left that there nothing involved in debate but the contention of special interest groups for advantage. In the absence of a moral foundation for the political process, and upon what means may be used to seek a political result, a free and just society cannot endure. We see evidence of decline in American politics, as the recent Kavanaugh hearings clearly revealed.

If, however, citizens and their public representatives believe in something called the “Public Interest” as an invisible reality which can and will be disclosed to us as we seek a progressively attainable more just society, then a free society can be maintained in the face of the differences of opinion and the trials and tests of history. In such a society, the voice of religious leaders can and should be heard in the public arena.

Modern advocates of a purely secular state suspect that any attempt to subject government to religious opinions and moral rules involves an attempt to set up a theocracy or “moralocracy”. In fact, any attempt by religious or moral leaders to acquire political power as such would be contrary to the vision of Polanyi and others. A society in which moral values guide leaders is a society in which leaders have been trained in wisdom and in the principles of moral leadership and instinctively bring them to bear upon the problems of the day. The fundamental role of morality and religion is to create a kind of character in leaders, not to mandate a particular moral or political position. This is not to say that religious groups will not have specific policy preferences. They will and should.

Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other sorts of other mediating institutions are important participants in the public arena. The views of religious people are not determinative of matters of public policy—but they are certainly relevant. Each participant in public life must be able to peacefully assert their views without fear of legal restraint. In contemporary America, there has developed a tendency to restrain political and moral speech on the basis of the “hearer’s feelings.” This cannot be the test. We all have to hear and evaluate positions and views we find troubling, held together by confidence that the best policy will in the end prevail.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

 

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), 21, hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square.”

[2] Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1946). This section of this blog is taken from my book, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wift & Stock Press, 2014), 159-162.

[3] Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1951), 57.

The Naked Public Square Revisited

In 1984, the author and social commentator, Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book that had a profound impact on American public life, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. [1] This book, and Neuhaus’ work editing First Things, widely regarded as on the most influential journals on religion and public life had a great impact during the years that followed. [2] I remember reading the book in the 1990’s, and admiring its scholarship. However, even then, I was not comfortable with all of its conclusions or the tone of the work in many places.

The book was written during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, to some people a kind of golden age of evangelical witness in the political arena. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter, evangelical Christians emerged as a force in American politics. The emerging alliance of evangelicals with a Democratic administration was ultimately not successful. The deep feelings of many evangelicals on the subject of abortion, and the perceived ineptitude of the administration in handling the Iranian Crisis, resulted in a massive shift of evangelical support to the Republican Party in the 1980 election, where, until most recently, it has since resided. It is too early to tell whether the Trump Administration and the reaction of some evangelical leaders to his personal style and perceived immorality will result in a change of this alliance in the future.

In any case, one of the weaknesses of Evangelical witness in public life is that it has too often focused on “hot button” issues, such as abortion or more recently President Trump’s moral character. While this kind of focus certainly has a place in Christian discussion of public life, such a focus inhibits the development of discussion and reason concerning Christian faith and its fundamental message to Christians and others in the area of our national political life.

For the next few weeks, I am going to take a leisurely blogging journey through The Naked Public Square highlighting ways in which the book continues to have something to say to Christians as they consider how to impact the public culture of our nation. This is an important undertaking because our public culture is without question experiencing an unprecedented decay into a kind of nihilistic “winner take all” game in which the Christian virtues of reason, compassion, justice and love are inevitably lost. The propensity impacts Christians and non-Christians alike. The result is an impoverishment of our public discourse on important issues.

Neuhaus was very aware that Christian engagement with political life includes the danger that Christian thinking about matters of public life will degenerate into a “Church of What Is Happening Now” response. [3] One of the blessings of religious faith is that it involves internalizing an eternal perspective on current events that allows a kind of disengagement with the pressure of the currently urgent and allows focus on important things. Hopefully, the result is that Christians can engage others in the public arena with the wisdom and love that God has asked all his disciples to demonstrate.

Neuhaus believed that the emergence of the Evangelical Right was an event that required examination. He was concerned to illuminate the errors of the Moral Majority and similar movements. From the perspective on 2020, it would seem to me that his concern was overdone. The Moral Majority has disappeared from public life. The serial elections of Barack Obama without more than a small smattering of evangelical and Catholic support showed that, while religious faith is important to Americans, people remain more than willing to punish politicians who allow financial mismanagement and foreign misadventure to characterize their party and leadership.

More importantly, the cultural changes of the 1960’s were perhaps slowed by the Reagan Presidency but they were not by any means without continuing impact. In the Clinton and Obama administrations they were dominant. On college campuses and in the media and other cultural settings, the power forces of late modernity continued to impact public life in powerful ways. Although Republican candidates continued to speak about abortion, once in office they normally did very little to see that Roe vs. Wade was overturned. [4]

There is a lesson to be learned in all this. While religious faith is an important factor for people of faith in their making of public decisions, faith is not an important factor for non-religious people. In addition, while religion is important to people of faith, it is by no means the only or often primary consideration in their political views. About many matters of public life, it may not even be arguably the most important matter. For example, I am a member of a local neighborhood association that deals with issues like, where should boundary signs be located and what height of wall should be permitted in a particular lot. Hopefully, my religious faith causes me to be loving, kind, concerned with the people involved and just, but Christian faith does not determine my vote on the height of privacy fences. Finally, religious and other factors will impact a Christian response to any public policy issue, and as to some issues, Christians may well have to weigh their faith with other factors.

Furthermore, cultural forces are not easily changed, as the massive change in sexual morals among religious and non-religious people in early 2st century America clearly shows. Cultural change involves creating cultural artifacts (art, literature, movies, music, and institutions) that capture the imagination of people and hold their loyalty beyond the passing emotion of a political movement or reaction. Christians, and especially more conservative Christians have not been particularly good at the creation of a cultural response to late modernity that is both compelling and energizing to contemporary Americans. A deep and deeply rational public policy is one of those artifacts that it is important for Christians to develop.

More on the Naked Public Square next week!

Chris

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), hereinafter, “The Naked Public Square”

[2] First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, a bipartisan non-profit corporation headquartered in New York, NY. On its cover on the internet it describes itself as “América’s Most Influential Journal of Religion and Public Life.” See https://www.firstthings.com/current-edition.

[3] The Naked Public Square, 3ff.

[4] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Roe v. Wade is the initial case in a series of abortion cases and it initiated a continuing debate about the legality and morality of abortion in American public life.

18. Discipleship in an Age of Fragmentation

While held prisoner by the Nazi’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters published after his death as “Letter and Papers from Prison.” In these writings, Bonhoeffer spoke of “Humanity Come of Age” and the need for a “Religionless Christianity.” [1] As with all posthumous writings, and especially those of someone who died without the opportunity to expound upon ideas formed under the pressure of trying circumstances, Bonhoeffer’s concepts of “Humanity Come of Age” and “Religionless Christianity” should be handled with care. It is uncertain exactly what Bonhoeffer meant by the terms, and it is unclear whether he might have abandoned or modified his ideas had he lived. We will never know. Nevertheless, modern Christians struggle with many of the same issues with which Bonhoeffer struggled in order to face our own crisis of discipleship. His ideas remain relevant for this process.

Humanity “Come of Age”

The Humanity Come of Age of which Bonhoeffer writes is the fruition of the Western Enlightenment Project and the end of the Modern World, about which we spoke near the beginning of these essays. In the Middle Ages, the church was a kind of parent or tutor of European society. The church spoke into the lives of people from a position of power and authority. Beginning with the Renaissance, and increasing with the Enlightenment and the emergence of the Modern World, humanity entered a period of disengagement from religious authority, as modern ideas, science, and technology provided a non-religious foundation for life. So far as Bonhoeffer could see writing from prison in the mid-1940’s, the Enlightenment Project had succeeded. [2] Humanity had come of age, and Christians needed to learn to live and witness in Western society as if there were no God, because the societies in which Christians live largely function as if there were no God. This issue is more pronounced today than when Bonhoeffer wrote.

Until recently, the perceived success of the Modern World pushed God out of the consciousness of many, if not most, people. [3] This feeling was expressed by the mathematician Laplace when, speaking of God’s relationship with the universe, he said, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” Many modern people feel no need to seek or have a relationship with God or to consider God in making day-to-day decisions. They feel they have “come of age” and can handle life and its problems without God. The result for Bonhoeffer was a need for “Religionless Christianity” that can speak into the lives of secular people. [4]

Today, thinking people are much less certain about the successes of the Modern World. The societies most impacted by the Enlightenment are experiencing rapid cultural and institutional decay. To many, it seems as if Western culture is in an irreparable moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and cultural decline, and Modernity does not appear to have intellectual or functional answers to this cultural decline. In fact, remedies that previously seemed so obvious to the problems of the human race: governmental social engineering, large bureaucracies, technological progress, increased affluence, and the like, now seem part of the problem, not the solution. The increasing violence and alienation of many in Western societies indicates that the Modern World was perhaps not “Humanity come of Age” but instead, “Humanity in its Adolescence.” [5]

While no serious thinker recommends a retreat to the pre-modern world, there is ample evidence that the modern world needs to rediscover and reincorporate the wisdom of the pre-modern world into its cultural reality. Increasing analytical thinking, scientific understanding, technological progress, and material affluence have proven inadequate to the deepest needs of the human soul. There is little likelihood that any additional amount of analysis, scientific discovery, technological progress, or affluence can halt the decline of the modern world. In this situation it is important to rediscover the kind of values and transcendental concerns that modernity denigrated or ignored.

A “Religionless Christianity”

The concept of “Religionless Christianity” is even more difficult to understand than is the notion of “Humanity Come of Age.” What is certain is that Bonhoeffer did not mean that there was no God, that Christ was not the Son of God, that the Spirit of God was absent from the world, or that there would be no church—no body of those called out of the darkness of a perceived absence of God into the light of God’s presence. Instead, what Bonhoeffer wishes others to see is that the human race in the West is in a kind of “Dark Night of the Soul,” as God purifies the world, Christians, and the church from false notions of God, of discipleship, and of the nature and role of the church.

God is not absent, but cultural realities make it seem as if God is absent. Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us…. Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. [6]

Bonhoeffer ends noting that the God of the Bible, who rules the creative universe, rules in weakness. In other words, there is a God of self-giving love, Christ is the revelation of that God, and the Spirit is still at work in the world with the power of cruciform love. However, under the conditions of modernity with its fascination with human intelligence and power, these realities cannot be seen by a majority of people. In such a situation, the role of disciples is to live in the light and presence of God in a world that cannot see that light or experience that presence. Just as in the early church, the gospel was “foolishness to the Greeks” (I Corinthians 1:23), so also the gospel will often seem foolish to hypermodern secular people. In time, the difference faith makes in the lives of people will be obvious, and the light of God will be rediscovered.

Bonhoeffer saw the grim reality that the modern world embraced a worldview and values that increasingly exclude God from politics, government, business, social structure, and the practical actions of everyday life. The kind of Christianity, and the kind of church that developed from the time of Constantine through the Reformation to the present day, was (and is) inadequate for the new culture of the West, now a world-wide culture corroding traditional values and societies wherever it spreads. In response to this new reality, God is radically purifying the church so that the church can meet the challenges of contemporary life. The church will for some time no longer be an honored institution at the core of society, visibly powerful and influential. Instead, the influence of the people of God will be seen in prayer and action for the good of others.

If this insight was true in 1944, it is even more true today. The world desperately needs a new church, purified from its “corporatization” over the past century and more, a church that has rediscovered its roots in Christ and in the deep and abiding relationships among its members, each of which is serving and sharing the gifts of God with other Christians and the world. A Culture of Death needs to see the victory of Life experienced by those who follow the crucified and risen Messiah. For the foreseeable future, the best witness of the church will be to maintain a focus on authentic discipleship and serve the world in wisdom and love.

Mission Beyond Self Preservation

In 1944, just before the Normandy invasion, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay to the child of his friends Eberhard and Renate Bethge. In the essay, he spoke as follows:

Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for self-preservation, as though it were an end to itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christians today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among men. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action. By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification. It is not for us to prophesy the day (though the day will come) when men will once more be called to utter the word of God that the world will be changed and renewed by it. It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming-as was Jesus’s language; it will shock some people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom. [7]

These are challenging words. In Bonhoeffer’s day, they were an indication that the church in Europe, at the time, could do no more than pray and act for the good of the human race. We live in a different time, but these words are important for us as well. Too much modern evangelism and discipleship is little more than an attempt to shore up institutions in their current forms. While God loves our institutions as we seek to be children of God in our societies, God is not in the business of shoring them up so that we can avoid necessary change. God wishes Christians to reach out to a lost world with ideas and solutions to the needs of the cultures in which they live.

What Bonhoeffer could not see from his prison cell was that the two great wars of the 20th Century, the development of a style of warfare that is absolute and terrifying, the loss of meaning and purpose in the lives of many people, and the lack of cogent intellectual alternatives to the dominant thought forms of the modern world, had created, and would continue to create, an intellectual, moral, and spiritual crisis in the West. The self-assured pride of the modern world masked its deep inconsistency with human nature and what the deepest understanding of science was revealing about the universe, the human race, and human society. Western society, at its moment of victory, was about to enter a period of self-doubt and decline.

Dicispleship beyond Christendom

God is in the business of bringing his Kingdom into the world, not propping up our little kingdoms. A great deal of modern evangelism and discipleship amounts to shifting church members from one congregation to another, usually larger. Once again, God is not in the business of shifting existing members from one existing church to another by cleverly devised programing and preaching. God is in the business of expanding his Kingdom. God is in the business of sharing his wisdom and love with all people so that all people might receive the benefits of his wisdom and love. The choice for the church is to join God or decline.

God is in control of history and guiding in love the emergence of the new era we face. God intends to reach out into the darkness and decay of modern society in order to reach and heal human beings, their families, and ultimately their culture. As Bonhoeffer realized, we are at a time in which the churches of West are required to concentrate less on institutional survival and more on sharing the Gospel and making disciples in a life-changing, Spirit-empowered encounter with the postmodern world. [8]

For those of us who minister in the Protestant tradition, and especially for those who take their tradition seriously, it is hard accept that the Reformation is over and that churches must adapt to a new time. The Reformation was part of the birth of the modern world, which is itself passing away. We live 500 years beyond the days of Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers. The success of Protestant churches was a part of the success of the modern world, and partly a result of its success in challenging the thought patterns and institutions of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, it is a stark reality that the theological controversies of the Reformation no longer move most people. The reason they no longer move most people is that the circumstances that gave rise to the Reformation no longer obtain.

We live at the end of the modern era and the beginning of a new era an emerging postmodern world, in which there will be new controversies and adjustments of Christian faith in a new culture. This does not mean that the achievements of the Reformation or modern world are unimportant or without value, any more than the Reformation meant that the achievements of the Apostolic Age, or Age of Church Fathers and Mothers, or Medieval Age were unimportant. [9] In fact, the best insights of the Reformation and modern world must not be lost. One of the least attractive and most destructive characteristics of the modern world is its foolish distain for tradition. A new era, if it is wise, builds upon all that went before it, but it also goes beyond the achievements of the past. [10] There is a need for Christians to model to the new age its ability to adapt and change as well as be faithful to the past.

It is clear is that there will be new theological and liturgical language and forms, and a new appropriation of the Biblical text with his revelation of Christ, in light of the challenges of a new culture and new thought patterns. In particular, we have only begun to understand the dangers and opportunities of a visual and oral, media-based culture. Balancing faithfulness and willingness to adapt is a special challenge in this area. There will be new forms of “doing church” in this new era, just as the Reformation and the Modern world created new ways of doing church.

When, in Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer says the West is “not out of the melting pot yet,” he means to say that we are not yet out of a period of time in which is difficult, if not impossible, to see clearly the contours of the future. I’ve mentioned that what we call “postmodernism” may not be truly postmodern. It may simply be the final, decadent form of modernity. The exact contours of the postmodern age, and what would be the best and most faithful adaptation of the church, are yet to be revealed. We, like Bonhoeffer in prison, cannot see exactly where society is headed. We are not yet out of the melting pot.

The Gospel in the New Era

As Bonhoeffer recognized, Western Christians today live in societies built upon an ideology that excludes the possibility of God from public discourse. [11] Instead of living in denial, or attempting to gloss over the situation, Christians are called to share the suffering of God for the world in the world. Showing the world the love of God means living out the life of faith in a world that often considers Christian faith foolish. In many ways, this world is no different than the world that the apostle Paul entered. It is a world inclined to see the cross as foolishness and followers of the crucified God as fools (I Corinthians 1:22-25).

The world can deny or make fun of our theologies and faith, but it cannot deny the power of wisdom and love in action. One cold winter night just over a year ago, I left my office in Bay Village Ohio to eat pizza with some volunteers. As I walked into the fellowship hall, expecting to see a few people I saw over 200 volunteers in yellow T-shirts eating together and getting some instruction on the ministry of the night. The church I was serving has a ministry called “Respite.” Several times a year, the church keeps special needs children so that their parents may have a break from their caregiving activities. It takes about 200 volunteers to take care of about 80 students for the night. No question but what this particular ministry has been a part of building a reputation of this church in the community as a place of unique love. This service to the “least of these” is an important part of the life of a disciple.

For the time being, Christians will not be honored just for being Christians. Christian values will not be at the center of public life or decision-making. The act of going to church on Sunday will not be a requirement for political, social, or economic advancement. It may even be an impediment. As to Christians, any advancement will depend on the character and capacity of the individual involved. Christians will be called to minister to society by living and sharing a faith the world rejects and embodying a lifestyle the world does not respect or admire. Christians will advance in spite of their faith, not because of it. Along the way, there may be a number of failures, martyrs, and false compromises.  This is part of living in a melting pot.

In a book entitled, “The Great Emergence,” the Christian writer, Phyllis Tickle, writes about the church in the emerging postmodern society[12] Tickle observes that Christianity must invent itself about every 500 years at social inflection points, such as the beginning of the Middle Ages and the Reformation. There is truth in this observation. The visible church is a social institution, and like all successful social institutions, must adapt to a changing culture. Despite the need for change, the church has always done best when it returned to its founts: faith in Christ, the importance of the Body of Christ, the normative function of Scripture, and the importance of holiness and spiritual disciplines. This collection of essays is founded on the belief that, whatever shape the future takes, it will involve individual Christians sharing their faith, making disciples, and living together in loving community.

Contemporary discipleship will not be without its challenges and sacrifices. A Spirit-filled people, “enchanted by the Word of God,” will not be easy for the inhabitants of a decaying and often dark civilization to accept or understand. The life of individual Christians will not necessarily be easy in the years ahead.  Life was not easy for the Apostle Paul or Christians in the first centuries after Christ. There will be a rejection, persecution, and many who abandon the faith when it does not “work” as they wish it would work. As a pastor, I have watched many people abandon the Christian faith when the simple God who answers every prayer, especially important prayers, and heals every disease is proven to be a false God. The God who always answers our prayers and heals our diseases is an easy God to follow. It is harder to follow a God who dies on the cross and asks that we pick up our crosses and follow him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27).

Life Among the Fragments

Over and over again during the last period of his life, Bonhoeffer spoke of living a “fragmentary life.” [13] A fragmentary life is a life that cannot achieve the kind of wholeness and integrity for which the human soul yearns because of its circumstances. Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and separated from family, fiancé, and friends, sensed from his prison cell the fragmentariness of his life and the fragmentary life the death of German society entailed for his generation. He was, by circumstances, prevented from enjoying a normal life, a normal career, normal love, a normal family, normal friendships, and the like. His comrades in the Confessing Church faced a similar inability to enjoy the secure wholeness their parents and grandparents had enjoyed. He and his generation were faced with the reality of fragmentary lives. We may also confront such a reality.

The conditions of the decline of the modern world, and the movement now underway towards a postmodern reality, create difficult circumstances for contemporary Christians. Our culture is gradually decaying into a kind of spiritual and moral darkness that involves increasing chaos and violence. We, our parents, children, friends, coworkers, and others we care about and interact with, are profoundly affected by the sickness of our culture, even when its reality is rejected. The wholeness for which we yearn is beyond us and beyond many of those we love. The result is a fragmentary of life in which spiritual, moral and physical wholeness is almost impossible to achieve.

It is uncomfortable to live faithfully among the fragments of a great civilization, but success is not impossible. Interestingly, from his prison cell, during the last years of his life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer found, by all accounts, a kind of wholeness and sainthood. [14] Those who were with him at the end remarked upon the remarkable peacefulness and cheerfulness he exhibited. Perhaps the greatest gift Christians can give to a postmodern world is to simply to joyfully and peacefully continue the process of making disciples, praying for people, sharing the gospel, and helping them as they seek a kind of wholeness for their own lives.

It is at this point that a diversion is from Bonhoeffer’s analysis is important. There will be more than prayer and action involved in adapting the church to the postmodern world. Just as the initial disciples entered a pagan and hostile Roman Empire, sharing the gospel along the way, so contemporary Christian’s cannot give up sharing the gospel in word as well as deed. This sharing will involve some talented apostles like Paul. However, as in the First Century, sharing the gospel will generally involve countless ordinary Christians sharing their faith within the scope of their own particular social networks. This will require boldness and courage in our day, just as it did in the First Century. There will be those who reject, persecute, ignore, and make fun of Christ and Christian testimony. [15] This has been true in every age.

Implications for 21st Century Disciples

If we cannot fully see the implications of the emerging postmodern world for the church, we can see enough to know that the certain practices are likely to be essential in order to witness to the new era:

Community. It is certain that the relentless individualism and self-centeredness of the modern era will disappear. There’s nothing more likely than that the modern notion of the individual as a segregated atom-like monad, seeking its own self-development and satisfaction with only limited regard for others, will disappear. Developments in physics, biology, and psychology underscore the absolute importance of relationships in creation, in human life, and in the human soul. The clearest indication of the end of the modern world is the moral and social chaos generated by its unbridled and excessive individualism in families, sexual relationships, business and politics.

Building small communities of love where people can develop and find wholeness and exercise their spiritual gifts is of the first importance. [16] Just as Jesus created a little redemptive community as he called the first disciples, so disciples in the future will serve society best as they build families and small communities of wisdom and love. Such families and communities will attempt to reflect the character of Jesus in their own personal relationships regardless of the form society takes. In other words, the church will not disappear even if it changes.

More than Words. As Bonhoeffer predicted, Christian families and communities will be characterized by prayer and action. A world that does not believe in truth will not be a world persuaded by words alone. Only prayer, and visible acts of faith seen in concrete human action, will move the hearts and minds of the emerging generation. [17] It is easy to argue with words. It’s hard to argue with the reality of a community of love reaching out to meet the deepest needs of the human heart. It is easy to argue with the idea that God is love. It is hard to argue with a person once one sees he or she is acting from a center of unselfish, self-giving love. It is by self-giving love that the world will be saved not by words. Christians should always have known this, for it was by love shown on the cross that the savior showed the person and power of God and provided for reconciliation with God in the first place.

Worship and Proclamation. Proclamation of the Gospel will not cease. The Word will be preached and worship conducted in witness to the Risen Christ as it has from the first days of the early church. In this respect, Bonhoeffer may have spoken or implied something beyond what Scripture teaches and history validates. From the beginning of Christian faith, groups of people have met together to worship, sing, hear the word read and proclaimed, pray, and exalt the living God. This practice will not pass away in the postmodern or any other era. The form of worship and of the worshiping community may change, but the reality of the worship of God will not pass away.

The Bible tells the story of the first disciples leaving the Upper Room, and then Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth armed with the news and proclaiming it even in times of persecution, failure, and economic and personal difficulty. As Paul put it on his first missionary journey:

We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: “You are my son; today I have become your father.”

God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.”

So, it is also stated elsewhere: “You will not let your Holy One see decay.”

Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.

Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses” (Acts 13:32-39).

Paul was not speaking for himself alone. He was speaking for the entire Christian community, and especially for his traveling companions. At the center of his proclamation was the Good News that God’s promises to Israel were fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. (Acts 13:16-25). Those who spent time in community with him during his earthly life and who were witnesses of the resurrection, had been sent into the world to give witness to what God is doing and has done in Christ. Paul was not one of the original witnesses, nor was Barnabas, but they were also sent. Modern disciples of the Risen Christ will also be sent to proclaim the Good News in our day and time, even if there be scoffers, opposition, and persecution. This is the cost of discipleship.

The Crisis of Discipleship

We are indeed at a time of crisis. The word “crisis” comes from a medieval word used to describe a turning point in a disease, a decisive moment from which things will either get better or worse. When I speak of a “crisis of discipleship” the term is used in exactly this sense. We are at a decisive moment at the end of an age of Christian witness. We live in a diseased culture. A turning point is upon both modern culture and the church. Things will either continue to get worse or get better—and the decision is ours whether to adapt, serve, and go forward or attempt to maintain existing forms until their inevitable collapse. This is the crisis of discipleship we face. By the grace of God, we will face that crisis, and the next era of human history will emerge with the people of God at its center, seeking “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and serving the world in self-giving love after the example of the One who was and is, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Chris Scruggs

Epiphany 2020

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

[2] In a letter dated 16 July 1944, Bonhoeffer traces the emergence of the modern world from the 13th Century forward from Herbert of Canterbury, though Montaigne, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Fitch, and Hegel as they directed their attention to the autonomy of man and the world. He concludes that “God as a working hypothesis n morals, politics, or science has been surmounted and abolished; and the same thing has happened in philosophy and religion….” Id, at 360.

[3] See, Letters and Papers from Prison, at 341.

[4] One major difference between Bonhoeffer’s day and our own is that we can see that, in fact, the Enlightenment project has reached a dead end It cannot provide an unquestionable position from which truth could be found. It cannot provide a common morality based on reason alone. It cannot provide for stability of social institutions. It cannot bring peace or social order or agreement upon faith or morals. While its technological achievements are impressive, its moral and spiritual achievements are not.

[5] In many respects the modern world was adolescent. The fascination with sex, power, strength, technique, disinterest in inherited wisdom, and the environmental wastefulness of the modern world all seem immature. In this analysis, what Western society is currently experiencing as “postmodernity” is a bit like “one last drunken hangover of modernity” before growing up.

[6] Letters and papers from Prison at 361.

[7] Letters and Papers from Prison, at 300.

[8] I’ve been a pastor and congregational leader of one kind or another for close to forty years. I do not say give this critique out of any lack of love for the institutional church, and especially for the institutions that I’ve served. In fact, I take this as a point of self-criticism: the fact is I’ve spent a lot of my time and energy in institutional maintenance not always related to the expansion of the kingdom of God. The church in the West does need to repent of its focus on institutional expansion and survival. It’s quite likely that the postmodern church will look different from the modern churches we have created over the last fifty years. This observation does not mean that our efforts were in vain or meaningless. It means that a new era will require a new and purified church.

[9] One of the most important characteristics of a truly mature post-modern world will be the ability to receive, appreciate and accept the contributions of prior periods of human culture without the arrogant belief that the new and different is better.

[10] Just as Luther, Calvin and other Reformers build up on the work of Augustine and the Church Fathers, so also postmodern thinkers will build upon the work of the Reformers and other thinkers of the modern world.

[11] See, Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids, MI, 1991. The work of Newbigin has been my constant companion and inspiration since seminary, when I first discovered his work.

[12] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI Baker Books, 2008, 2012), 22.

[13] See for example, Life Together, at 215 and 219.

[14] See, Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 517ff.

[15] Perhaps the earliest portrayal of Christ is contained in a piece of Roman graffiti showing Jesus as an ass upon a cross, with the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his god.” Pagan Rome made fun of Christians, and the neo-pagan postmodern West will be no different.

[16] As I was writing this, my dear friend Rev. Dr. David A. Schieber, the founding pastor of Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, Tennessee, USA sent to me an article from the magazine Presbyterians today about an initiative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is seeking to create 1001 new worshiping communities in the United States of America. They are about half-way to their goal. Most of these communities are small communities of faith ministering to people and areas under serviced by traditional congregations. This effort, whether successful or not, is a sign that the PCUSA sees that the structures and solutions of the 20th Century church are not adequate for the 21st Century. See, M. E. Clary, “1001 New Worshiping Communities: New Life, New Energy, New Expressions of Faith” Presbyterians Today (July-August 2019),40-43.

[17] I have experienced this over and over again in the later years of my active, full-time ministry. Young people who grew up in strong local congregations and who are emerging as leaders in the Christian community have a much more wholistic view of faith than their parents and grandparents. People who in past generations might have ended up in the ministry are founding non-profit corporations to solve social problems and share the love of God in practical ways. Not long ago, our congregation in San Antonio sponsored by a young man from Memphis, Tennessee who is livening in a poor, minority neighborhood and whose life experience is deeply embedded in trying to help one of the poorest neighborhoods in Memphis. His experience has led him to a ministry of teaching and action to help Christians minister to the poor. See, Michael Rhodes & Robby Holt, Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).

17. A Heart for the Harvest

In Luke, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). If Christians are going to be outward-looking, loving disciples of Jesus, we must hear Christ’s call and go into God’s field and share his gospel of love in word and deed. We will not leave our personal comfort zones and reach out until and unless we hear God’s voice calling us from our current pattern of life into the world to share God’s wisdom and love. That requires a heart for people.

We won’t share God’s love with others until and unless we have a heart for people who need to hear the gospel and experience the love of Christ. In other words, we must have “hearts for the harvest.” God is not asking us to do anything impossible. God is asking us to order our personal lives in love and wisdom to make the world a better place, and then to share his wisdom and love with others as we go about our day-to-day lives. He wants us to be filled with his love and aware and alert to those times when we can share that love with other people.

Mature disciples remember that the Great Commission is part of being a Christian. It is not reserved for a few extraordinary people. It is not just for missionaries in far off places. It is not just for those called to specialized ministries. It is for all Christians. Furthermore, the Great Commission was not a suggestion; it was a commission. In other words, it was a directive from the Son of God and a public transferal of the ability and authority to carry out that direction. [1] We are all called to go make disciples. This is what we were created in Christ to do.

We will not do this unless have a heart for those who are searching for meaning and purpose in life, are suffering without the presence of the One who can heal them, and need God’s love and wisdom. We need a love for those who will not achieve the fullness of life they desire, and which God desires for them, if we do not reach out and touch their lives. We need a love that will take us out of our comfort zone to the places where people need good news. Frankly, I don’t always think I have such a heart. I suspect there are many people like me.

God Desires to Grow His Family of Love

John records Jesus entering a room the disciples occupied after his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection. You can imagine the fear, uncertainty, and anxiety they felt. He came into this hard situation and shared these words with them:

Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:19-23).

Jesus spent three years with his disciples sowing the Kingdom into their hearts. As his time on earth was ending, he would no longer be restricted by time and by space. Now, he could be always present to his disciples by the Holy Spirit. What did he say? He said, “Just like the Father sent me, I am sending you.” Jesus had been sent by the Father to proclaim and enact the good news of God’s love for the world. Now, Jesus is sending his disciples into the world to sow the seed of God’s kingdom exactly as Jesus sowed the kingdom when he was physically present.

The original disciples were sent to disciple people, and those people were sent to disciple people, who were were sent to disciple people, so that God’s kingdom spread throughout the known world. Contemporary Christians are a part of the long line of Christians called to the task of being sent. We have received the love of God in Christ, and now we are sent. The question is, “Will we go?”

Sowers of the Gospel

One of the most important of Jesus’ parables is the Parable of the Sower or Soils (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15). It goes like this:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear (Matthew 13:3-9).

It’s obvious that any crop requires a sower. Someone has to get up, load up with seed, go out into the field, and sow it with seed. In today’s world, most people never sow seed in the way seed was sowed in the ancient world. Members of our family who are farmers rarely, if ever, sow seed by hand. Instead, they own a piece of machinery called a “planter.” The planter sows the seed. The planter has a computer connected to the Internet, and a satellite guides its every move. The entire field has been electronically mapped. The planter knows exactly where to put the seed. It drills the seed into the soil at just the right depth to maximize the crop for the farmer. It is a very precise process.

In Jesus’s day, the process was not so exact. A sower got a sack of seed. Then, the sower walked up and down the field spreading the seed by hand. I’ve done this with grass in my own yard. It’s a very imprecise process! It’s difficult to spread seed evenly by hand. You end up with a lot of seed in one place, and not much seed in another. You have difficulty controlling exactly where the seed falls. A gust of wind can blow grass seed into a flower bed or a nearby hedge. As you get close to the edge of the front yard near the sidewalk, seed inevitably falls on concrete. Finally, the first time I reseeded, I sowed my front yard with seed only to find out that the birds ate most of the seed before it could take root. I did not water the seed into the soil. This was the situation in Jesus’s day. Sowing was an imprecise process. Under these circumstances, what’s important is sowing as much seed as possible in as good a soil as possible, and putting up with a certain amount of waste. [2]

This has practical implications for Christians today. For all of the modern church’s techniques and programs, nothing can supplement the personal actions of Christians as they share their faith with others and help those they meet grow into mature Christians. After years of pastoral ministry, and time as a Christian layperson, it is clear to me that the most important change that needs to take place in the church today is a commitment among individual Christians to sow the Gospel in love and service to others.

Unless we have a heart for those outside of God’s kingdom, we won’t sow the seed of our faith into the lives of others. When we do sow the seed of the Gospel, it is important to sow as much seed as possible, because discipling people is an imprecise process. The more sowers, the more seed falls into the lives of people. The more seed that falls into the lives of people, the more disciples there will be. It is just that simple.

Jesus never intended building his Kingdom of Love to be the preserve of a few talented and gifted evangelists. God does not want evangelism and discipleship to be accomplished solely by pastors or by specially trained laypeople. He wanted lots of sowers. Perhaps one reason God chose twelve ordinary people to be his first disciples is so that we could understand that he intends for everyone, ordinary and extraordinary, to participate in building his kingdom. He wants us to do so where we live, work, play, and meet people, etc.—everywhere we go. Just as God sent Jesus to us, we are sent by Jesus into our world to share the Good News with others. God does not just work through special people to share his love. He works through every heart captured by his love.

Knowing our Field

In Mark, Jesus tells a parable of the Kingdom of God. He says that his kingdom is like a farmer who goes out into a field that shows seed:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk then the head then the full grain in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe he puts the sickle to it for the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29).

This parable is a story about sharing the Good News of God’s kingdom. God created the heavens and the earth. The whole world, and every person in it, is God’s field. This is why John can say, “For God so loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves the entire world and everyone and everything in it. God intends to plant his kingdom of wisdom and love in his beloved field and harvest a great crop of human beings filled with the fruit of the Spirit.

Farmers rent or own fields. That field is the place where a farmer does the work of sowing, fertilizing, weeding, tending, and finally harvesting a crop. Some farms are large. Some are quite small. In the end, it is not the size that matters but what the farmer does with the field under his or her care. [3] When we lived in a rural area, I got pretty good at judging the quality of a farmer not by the size of his holdings, but by how well he or she cultivated the soil under her care. If there were a lot of weeds or a large part of the field that was not properly planted, the farmer was not a good farmer. The same thing is true of sharing the gospel.

Each Christian lives in some small part of God’s field. We may live in a large city or in a small town. We may live in the center of a metropolitan area or in a suburban neighborhood. We may live in a wealthy or poor nation. We may work alone or in a giant corporation. We may be in school or in the workforce. We may be a working spouse or a stay at home spouse. Wherever we are, and whatever we do, that place is our field. [4]

Our Social Network is our Field

A Greek word symbolizes the field into which Christians best sow the gospel. That word is “oikos.” The word “oikos” is the word from which we get our word “economy.” It means “household” in Greek. [5] We think of a household as a small, nuclear family (generally a husband, wife, and children). In the ancient world, people understood their household in a different way. A household in the ancient world included parents, children, grandparents, servants, household laborers, and their families. Most people lived and worked in farms, and so worked in close proximity to their household. Those who lived in cities would live within walking distance of their place of business, assuming their place of business was not attached to their house. As a result, the word “oikos” meant more than just a place to eat and sleep or work. An oikos was an entire household-based social network.

For contemporary Christians, it might be helpful to think of our oikos as a field constituted by our relationships with other people. Like the fields described by nuclear physics, our network of relationships is a constantly changing and evolving set of interactions between us and the many people we come into contact with each and every day. Some of these relationships have permanence and obvious importance: parents, children, relatives, neighbors, fellow employees, and the like. Some relationships are passing: the check-out person at the grocery store, the helper at the building supply store, the teller (if you can find one) at the bank, the repair person who visits our home to repair the refrigerator. The problem with most of us is that are often unaware of the complex network of relationships that makes up our daily life. A great field that needs our love is before our very eyes, but we cannot see what is right before us.

Contemporary Christian’s need to recover an understanding of how important social relationships are in the sharing of the Gospel. [6] My first church was in a small town. There were a limited number of people who might be interested in joining a church like ours. Nevertheless, the church grew. I would like to take responsibility for the growth, but I really can’t. What happened was the people already within the fellowship invited their friends, parents, children, business partners, neighbors, and social friends to become a part of the congregation. We even had divorced spouses in the fellowship of the church! It all happened in a pretty disorganized and totally unexpected way. To me, it was a sign that God was doing something special, touching the lives of people, healing old wounds, and bringing new life.

Since that time, I’ve served in larger churches. Each church has experimented with various forms of evangelism and discipleship programming, with varying degrees of success. In the end, my conviction is that the best, most effective, most biblical, and most Christ-like method of sharing the Good News is to do it exactly how Jesus and the first disciples did it: by sharing the gospel within existing and new relationships with people. When a Christian fellowship does this, it inevitably grows. The more people who participate, more rapidly the fellowship grows. The specific program the congregation uses is less important than is the Spirit-empowered movement of a group of Christians reaching out in love to others.

As we enter a post-Christian era, it’s important for Christians to re-develop the talent of the early church to personally share the gospel within our web of relationships. We are like farmers, and our social relationships are an invisible field though which and in which God intends to share his love, wisdom, and power to heal.

The Right Seed

It is no good for a farmer to have a field and the ability to sow the field, if there is no seed. Every sower needs seed. In fact, good farmers know that it is important to have the right seed for the soil. In the same way, disciples need good seed as we go out into the part of the world that is our particular field. The seed we take with us is the gospel—and the gospel in the right form.

Our family’s years in rural Tennessee allowed me to understand a bit about seeds and sowing: Some fields are so fertile, that they can grow anything. Any seed will do. Other fields are not appropriate for some crops, but are very appropriate for others. We recently moved to Texas, to an area that is much more rocky, dry, and hot than West Tennessee. As a result, there are different flowers in my garden. We had no cactus in Tennessee, but we have a number of cacti in Texas. Finally, for whatever reason, different farmers prefer different seeds. When we were in rural West Tennessee, only a few farmers raised corn. However, there was one farmer who was famous for his corn crops.

This story illustrates a spiritual truth: in different contexts and in different areas of the world, the way we sow the gospel and the precise formula of the seed of the Gospel we sow will be different. Each of us needs to understand who it is we are able to share the Gospel with and how is the best way to share. This does not mean we compromise the Gospel. It means we are smart about how we sow it. My cousin grows hybrid seeds, both corn and soybeans. The seeds are all corn or soybeans. However, he knows that some varieties of the same seeds work better in his soil than others.

Most Christians know of the Gospel, but when asked to put it into words, they do not how to communicate that Good News to those in their own family, community, business and the like. [7] Most of us have never taken time out to think about exactly what is the best way to share the gospel within our unique personal network of relationships. The way I shared the gospel to a congregation rural West Tennessee was not the same as in a suburban area of Memphis or in a town filled with professionals near Cleveland or in San Antonio, Texas. To successfully sow the Gospel, one needs to sow it in the right form—a form in which the hearer can understand and accept what is said. [8]

Jesus was a Jew. Jesus communicated the gospel as the Good News that the long wait of Israel for her Messiah was over. In Luke, the birth of Jesus is announced by angels in such a way that it is clear that the birth of Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the anointed ruler of God’s special people (Luke 1:1-55). In Jesus, the Kingdom of God for which Israel had longed for generations had arrived (Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:15). Jesus begins his ministry proclaiming the Good News, saying:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-20).

The Good News is that the Messiah has come to undo the effects of sin and oppression in the lives of the people of God. This was exactly then way in which Israel needed to hear the gospel.

On the other hand, when Paul was in Athens, he shared the gospel in a way that could appeal to the philosophical climate of Greece. He spoke of the unknown God the Greeks already felt might or did exist. He adopted a creation-oriented mode of communication that fed into the philosophies of his hearers (Acts 17:18-34). Paul’s success as a missionary revolved around his ability to adapt the Gospel to Greco-Roman culture.

If we love people as God loves people, we will learn how to share the Good News of God’s love with them in a way they can understand and accept. To accomplish this, it is important for churches to equip individual people to share the Good News by developing the ability to communicate it to other people with whom they come into contact in a simple, concise, appropriate, and non-threatening way. [9]

Expect a Specific Crop

When a farmer sows a field, he expects a particular kind of crop. If I sow corn, I expect corn. If I sow wheat, I expect wheat. If I sow soybeans, I expect soybeans. You get the idea. Imagine how disappointed a farmer would be if he sowed corn seed and ended up with rye grass! When we sow the seed of the gospel, the crop we expect to get is active disciples of Christ. The Great Commission asks us to go make disciples, and that is what God is looking for as a crop.

As important as it is to know what the gospel is, in the emerging postmodern West it’s also important to know what the gospel is and is not, and exactly what kind of crop God expects. Jesus called Israel to repent (Mark 1:8). This implies that there is a moral law that the coming of the new kingdom and new king has not changed. The crop Jesus is looking for is not unchanged people waiting for heaven or the second coming, even with tense anticipation. Jesus is looking for changed lives and active disciples.

The gospel is not just a verbal presentation calling for an intellectual response. There needs to be verbal communication, but that communication should lead to loving, life-changing repentance, acceptance, faith, and trust. Too often, contemporary people believe that accepting Christ means simply believing as a matter of fact that Jesus is the Son of God, forgives our sins, and permits believers to behave exactly as they want for the time being. (After all, we are saved by grace, aren’t we?) This is not discipleship. When we grow a passive, self-centered immature fan of Jesus, we are not growing the crop Jesus wants. As the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard put it, “God wants imitators, not admirers.” [10]

In Second Corinthians, Paul says that if anyone is in Christ, they are literally a new creation (5:17).  When a person accepts Christ, new person comes into being. The gospel is a gospel of transformed lives. The gospel is not a call to believe an abstract truth and then relax and sleep in a bed of grace until heaven comes. Jesus wants disciples who imitate him and reach out to a needy world with their lives changed, so that they can change lives as well. Jesus wants players and not fans. The crop the Great Commission expects is more disciples with changed hearts, reaching out in love to others. [11]

The Sower is Not Responsible for the Response

The bulk of the Parable of the Four Soils concerns the response of people to the Gospel after it is sown into their lives. In farming, once seed has been sown, it is largely up to the seed, soil, weather and farmer what happens next. Any farmer knows that wind, weather and a number of uncontrollable factors influence the results of their labors. The famer does not control the result. You can work all summer on a crop, only to have an early snow or late tornado undue months of work. The same thing is true in gospel farming.

In the Parable of the Sower, some seed falls along a rocky path. This seed is almost immediately eaten by the birds. Some seed falls on shallow soil. This seed germinates, but soon dies. Other seed falls near the edge of the field where there are thorns. This seed is choked out by the thorns after it germinates. Finally, some seed falls on good soil, takes root, grows, and bears a crop.

The disciples did not understand the parable, so they asked Jesus for an explanation. In response, Jesus gave them this teaching:

Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:18-23).

These words of Jesus are as important today as on the first day they were spoken. I never hear these words without thinking about the hardness of my own heart, the shallowness of my faith, how easily worldly concerns choke out spiritual growth, and important it is to bear fruit. The fact is that not everyone with whom we share the gospel responds. They may eventually respond, but not today. Their hearts are closed. Even among those of us who respond, the results are often uncertain at best.

Some people never respond. They don’t even want to listen. Some people initially accept the gospel, but when life gets difficult or prayers are not answered as they wish, they fall away forever or for a time. We do the same thing from time to time. Perhaps most importantly in our materialistic, hedonistic culture, it is easy to get caught up in the business of making a living, acquiring possessions, caring for a family, moving up the ladder of success, and all the other cares and worries of this world. Each of these things, good in themselves, can take us away from a commitment to share the gospel with others. We too can be choked by the cares and worries of life.

Each person, including every Christian, is a strange combination of hardness of heart, shallowness of heart, and a heart separated from its true self by the worries of this world. We all find ourselves someplace in this parable every day, and so do our friends and neighbors. This realization should fill us with compassion for others, whatever their condition. Even those who are far away from God, have a reason for being where they are. It is in a relationship of love and wisdom that we will discover that reasons and be able to effectively share the gospel personally with that person.

Most of us know, but find it hard to accept, that the work of discipleship is the work of the Spirit. In the last analysis, we are only the physical tools, the planters, God uses to sow the seed. This realization should also free us from guilt if our efforts do not end as we wish. Over the years, as a layperson and pastor, I have shared my faith and life with a lot of people. Some of them are mature Christians; some have fallen away. I have learned to accept that fact. This does not mean we ignore new disciples or never correct our own bad disciple-making abilities. It means that we should not take too much on ourselves.

The Time is Now

Mark begins his gospel with Jesus saying, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus loved people and announced the Good News of the Kingdom of God. He came at a specific time and place in human history with the Good News that God loves all people, sent his Son for all people, wants to forgive all people, and wants all people to receive his Spirit so that they can live holy lives in his power. We live in a different time and place, and we are called to proclaim and enact the gospel in our confused and changing world.

For people to become a part of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of Jesus, someone has to call them to repent, turn around, look at themselves seriously, recognize how far they are from God, and then turn from the kingdoms of this world to his Kingdom of Wisdom and Love. That someone is every follower of Christ. Just as the time came in in ancient Palestine when Jesus came, the time is now for us in our contemporary world.

People will never change until they come to appreciate that there is a better, healthier, more joy-filled, more blessed way of life available in Christ. In other words, people will not find the fulness of joy that God has for them until they come to believe, trust, and live into the gospel Christ proclaimed: God loves everyone, sent his Son for the world, and wants all people to be his children, part of his family, citizens of his kingdom of peace (John 3:16). When Christians are sent into the harvest, we are sent to proclaim in word and deed the gospel in ways that helps those who are open to hear, believe, and enter God’s gracious kingdom of love. The question is, “Do we have such a heart?”

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] When Jesus says to the disciples, “And surely I will be with you even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20), he means that the personal Spirit of Christ will be with all disciples then and now giving them the power to do that which Christ has asked us to do. When in Acts, Jesus promises that the disciples will “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8), Jesus is promising them and us that nothing will be asked that God will not also give the power to perform by sending the power of Christ upon his followers.

[2] One of the most interesting explanations of this parable is that as Jesus was telling it, he saw a farmer sowing on the rocky fields of Galilee near one of the paths that led up from the Sea of Galilee to the farmland beyond. As the farmer sowed, the crowd could see exactly what Jesus was describing. See, William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 88ff.

[3] This, of course, is the meaning of the Parable of the Talents. The servants were not judged on how much they were given to invest, but upon what they did with what they were given, large or small.

[4] As a pastor, it’s tempting to judge yourself by the size of your congregation, just as farmers are tempted to judge themselves by the size of their farm. Even church members judge their churches on the basis of size or public recognition. Over many years, I’ve learned that this is a great mistake. The measure of a farmer is how productive he or she is given the size and soil of their farm. There are small churches with great pastors and great missions. There are also large churches with less enthusiasm, less leadership, and less fruitfulness. What matters is not size, but faithfulness.

[5] Kittel & Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged Version) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985),674-675.

[6] Win & Charles Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1982, 1998), 58-59.

[7] My wife and I have seen this over and over again in leading small groups. In our experience almost all Christians, mature or immature have difficulty verbalizing the Gospel in a short, clear and concise way.

[8] I have been afraid that this adaptation my cause some people to criticize the presentation. I have several advanced degrees, but have often served churches where most people have never graduated from college. The gospel is eternal and unchanging, but how we communicate the gospel has to be crafted for the audience.

[9] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo Press, 2017). The approach taken in this book is only one of the many, many fine approaches to teaching people to share their faith with others in the context of their day-to-day lives.

[10] Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity Howard & Edna Hong ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 233.

[11] After proclaiming God’s love for the world and the saving work of Christ, Jesus warns the people as follows: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21). The Gospel is not a new lawless Gospel, nor does it absolve those who accept of the consequences of sin and short-comings. It is a new beginning for a new life to be lived in loving, wise fellowship with God and others. The crop Jesus wants is lives changed so obviously that the world will take notice.

 

16. The Way of Wise Living

I want to begin with a Merry Christmas. This week, we celebrate the  birth of the Word or Reason of God made Flesh, who came to share our human limitations and show us the way of love. I will not be publishing a blog next week, but will finish this series after the first of the year. Once again, Merry Christmas!

16. The Way of Wise Living

One discouraging reality of contemporary discipleship has to do with the foolishness demonstrated by a number of Christians and their leaders. It is just a guess, but I think that it traces its roots back to the extreme division between faith and works, gospel and law inherent in the Reformation. Studies show that Christians have affairs, divorce, use recreational drugs, cheat on their taxes and engage in a host of unwise behaviors as often or almost as often as anyone else. Christian leaders, especially youth leaders, sometimes exacerbate the situation by giving advice that appeals to the young but which a bit of life experience indicates is foolish. The prosperity gospel is only the most notorious of these. The result is a generation of Christians who believe in Jesus and then simply fit into the surrounding culture. If we are to overcome the crisis of discipleship in the West, we must do better.

There are questions and decisions people cannot avoid in life. Sooner or later everyone must ask and answer questions such as: “What kind of life will bring me true happiness and fulfillment?” “How will I respond to failure?” “What kind of person should I marry?” “How shall I make a living?” “How will I respond to temptation?” “Of the many opportunities of life, which ones will I take advantage of and which ones will I ignore?” “Why am I suffering?” “Why don’t my achievements bring me happiness?” “What does the future hold?” No one, Christian or secular can ignore these and similar questions. They are part of the human condition. Fortunately, in Christ the wisdom of God was made manifest, so that disciples can find the kind of wise guidance they need for living as a result of their relationship with him.

Each of us has choices to make in life – to commit ourselves to Christ in faith and follow the Way of Christ as a disciple, or to follow some other path. Where we end up depends on the path we chose to take. Wisdom literature divided these choices into following the Path of Life or the Path of Death. The Christian tradition holds that it is by following Christ that we conform ourselves to the deepest reality of the universe, the reality of the God of Light and Love revealed in Holy Scripture. Over time, disciples learn what it is to follow Christ in the many, sometimes difficult decisions we must make in life. In so doing, we follow the Path of Life.

Old Testament Foundation

The wisdom writers of the Old Testament passed on principles of wise living that summarize the life lessons learned by countless generations of people. The later writers of the Old and New Testament knew that life is unfair. Good people suffer. Wise people sometimes make bad decisions and suffer as a result. Success does not provide meaning and purpose for life. In the end, life is a puzzle, but living wisely is the best course whatever the consequences (Ecclesiastes 9:17-18); 12:13-14).

Christians believe that God is the source of all wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). In fact, the Bible says that creation constantly reveals the wisdom of God (Proverbs 8:22-35; Romans 1:20). Proverbs teaches us that wisdom is evident to all who will listen:

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gates leading into the city, at the entrances, she cries aloud: “To you, O men, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, gain understanding. Listen, for I have worthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are faultless to those who have knowledge. Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her (Proverbs 8:1-11).

This text begins with wisdom crying aloud, pleading with human beings to live wisely. The image is of lady wisdom standing on a high place outside a Jewish village, or sitting where two roads meet, or standing at the gates of the village, crying out, urging human beings, so prone to foolishness, to take the path of wisdom. The part of today’s text that has lady wisdom standing at the cross roads connect with another fundamental insight of the ancient Jewish wise men: each of us has choices to make during the course of our lives. Many people follow paths of foolishness. Wise people follow the path of wisdom.

Wisdom in Human Form

The writers of the New Testament saw in the Crucified and Risen Christ the answer to the quandaries and limitations they saw so clearly in the teachings of the wise men and scholars. This, however, does not mean the writers of the Old Testament were wrong. It just means that there was more to know. The “more to know” was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

John begins his gospel by identifying Jesus with the very Logos or wisdom and word of God (John1:1). At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the parable of the wise and foolish builders.  In it, he describes two different ways of life that may be chosen:

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Paul speaks of the Risen Christ as the image of the invisible God, in whom at the wisdom of God dwelt bodily, revealed for all the world to see (Colossians1:19). This revelation was surprising and impossible for the wise of this world to accept because quite unexpectedly God revealed himself in Christ as a God of Love, who is present in the suffering and sin of the world to redeem it through a terrible unexpected death on the Cross (I Corinthians 1:18-29).

Too often, contemporary Christians ignore the fact that our relationship with Christ involves more than forgiveness of sins and a new eternal life. That new eternal life that grows within us is the life of God, the All Wise Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. Part of becoming Christ Followers they are meant to be is learning to make good choices and life wisely in our day-to-day Christian lives.

Our first objective as parents and as church leaders is to help people take the first step of faith in God and a personal commitment to follow the Wisdom of God and listen to the voice of God speaking through Jesus Christ. Once again, the New Testament is full of references to Christ as the very embodiment of the wisdom of God. The author of Hebrews tells us that God once spoke through the prophets and writers of the Old Testament Scriptures, but now God has spoken in the person of Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). Studying wisdom and learning and growing in our intellectual understanding of Christian faith is important, but of even more importance is our personal trustful following Christ as the wisdom of God (I Cor. 2:23-24).

If Christ reflects God’s character, then our commitment to Christ involves becoming wise as God is wise. Part of a commitment to Christ is a commitment to listen to the voice of Word of God and follow the example and teachings of Christ. This means all of us need to be in some kind of regular Bible Study, however short. Each of us needs to take time daily to listen quietly for the voice of Jesus the Christ as he is rendered in Scripture. We need to listen carefully to the voices of those Christians who have gone before us, the voices of Christians of the past. As we do this, and as our souls are formed by the voice of Christ, we become better able to judge wisely and live well.

A Society that Encourages Foolishness

Some while ago, I heard several news commentators talking about a new program called, “Kid Nation.”  This show features forty children ages 8 to 15 that were taken to the New Mexico desert to a ghost town for forty days, with the goal of creating a new society. Each child was paid $5,000 for their time at Kid Nation. The show first hit the news when a parent complained and an investigation was launched by the New Mexico Attorney General concerning whether or not child labor laws were violated by having these children work such long days without the kind of breaks and protections professional actors, even child actors, enjoy. [1]

Some commentators looked at the kinds of releases the parents signed, and began to ask questions. One critic who has seen previews summed up another criticism when she exclaimed during the private screening, “What kind of parent would let their child participate in this kind of thing?” [2] This was answered on a blog I read, “The kind of stage parent who wants to ride the tail of their child’s stardom.” Michael Medved, a television critic, gave one of the most penetrating comments when he pointed out that the entire premise was flawed because these children were not alone in the desert creating a new society. They were surrounded by producers, directors, cameramen, and all the other adults who make up a television production team. In fact, these children were being used to create a program that the producers hoped would sell and which would reflect the social theories of those adults. [3]

The point is pretty simple. In our society adults and children are subject to pressures to conform to all kinds of foolish expectations. Even when adults say they are letting children develop their own standards and values systems, they are still teaching their children something and trying to get some result. Furthermore, adults and child are often manipulated to adopt value systems which are silly or simply won’t work or, worst of all, are harmful. There is no such thing as a value free education or child-raising. Adults do influence children and should influence children wisely.

We live in a “romantic age,” which is to say that we frequently act as if we believed that we can make good decisions simply by following our feelings. [4] This particular characteristic was exemplified in the movie, “Star Wars,” when Obi Wan Kenobi, tells Luke to “trust his feelings” as he attacks the Death Star. Most young people didn’t question this at all. Those who, for example, flew bombers in World War II, or jets during Viet Nam, have no memory of trainers telling them to trust their feelings. What you were supposed to do is learn to use the targeting mechanism and do it well according to instructions. Trusting instruments is one of the most important parts of flying. The aviator who does not is doomed.

This line from Star Wars exemplifies a huge problem in our culture – the idea that major life-time decisions are to be made on the basis of feelings not reason. This flies in the face of all human experience throughout most of human history, where wise people have urged humans not to follow their feelings but to develop good judgment and become wise.

Throughout most of human history people did not think that children naturally became competent adults or ladies and gentlemen without discipline, knowledge and training. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, from ancient times, it was taken for granted that children would not naturally develop life skills, they would not naturally learn wisdom, and they had to be trained. To become an adult, and especially a virtuous adult, required training in the skill of the virtuous life. [5]

This is why over and over again, Proverbs contains admonitions like, “Train up a child in the way he or she should go and when they are old they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:5-7).   This is why in Deuteronomy we hear the voice of Moses urging “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). In order to learn to live wise, Christ-like lives, we need to be discipled into a life of wisdom.

People do not “naturally’ develop life-skills, they have to be trained. Similarly, we Christians do not naturally develop Christ-like habits, the capacity for wise decision-making, and the virtues of Christ by nature. It takes training. This is why Jesus says in the Great Commission, “Go ye therefore into all the world and make disciples, teaching them to obey all I have commanded” (Matthew 28:16, emphasis added). We all need help to learn the things that we need to know to live wisely.

Children and new believers need training to be equipped for life. Teens need to be trained for the challenges of school, college, and early career decisions. Young adults need equipping for the challenges of adulthood. Parents need equipping for the demands of child-raising. New Christians need to spend time learning to be wise and make good decisions in their Christian and day-to-day lives. New Christians need opportunities to explore Christian faith more deeply. Becoming a good disciple of Jesus does not just happen; it requires work, study and self-discipline.

Choices Depend on the Voices to Which We Listen

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul urges the Romans to be transformed by the “renewing of their minds”. The word Paul uses for “mind” is not a word that means simply our brains. When the Greek used this word, “mind” they meant the whole person’s mental intellect as well as our, moral and emotional reasoning, the place inside each of us where decisions are made. [6] We all make decisions based upon the deepest orientation of our personhood. Our personhood is defined over time by the voices we listen to and by the words and images we hear, see and internalize. Over time we become as we think and act. [7] This is why parenting, good parenting and life time learning is so important.

Some time ago, I had a conversation with one of the people who have been helping us put together the new church directory. She was telling me about a ministry she is involved in with her church – helping people overcome the negative self-images many people carry into adulthood. She told me the story of a young man whose father made a hasty, bitter, belittling comment to the effect that he was a “loser” when he was six years old. This comment followed this man for many, many years, until in midlife he finally overcome the memory and the internal voice that memory had created telling him over and over again that he was a loser and would fail at life.

The Goal: Wiser and Better Christians

In 1967, the movie Bonnie and Clyde was released. [8] The movie glorified the career of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, bank robbers who terrorized Texas and parts of the Midwest during the 1930’s. They had a hideout in Joplin, Missouri, near our family’s home in Springfield. Clyde Barrow was a sociopath and a murderer. Eventually, law enforcement officers, led by famous Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, ambushed and killed them. Bonnie Parker was twenty-four when she died; Clyde Barrow was twenty-five. To young moviegoers, the wild life of Bonnie and Clyde seemed exciting. The truth is they lived short, violent, unhappy, unhealthy, unbalanced, and ultimately futile lives. In the end, they were ambushed and killed. In truth, they ambushed themselves by the way they lived. Bonnie and Clyde were both evil and foolish—and so are all those who ignore the voice of wisdom speaking in Creation and Scripture.

One reason for Christians to understand the perspective of the writers of wisdom literature is that our culture desperately needs to recover a sense that there is a moral order to the universe into which our life-stories fit. Contemporary people are often physically, morally, and spiritually rootless. Rootlessness leads to a shallow life lived in a series of unconnected choices based on the impulses of the moment. Without a sustained vision of life, and without the wisdom of past generations, contemporary people are like all those who distain history: condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past and reap the consequences. [9] We need what wisdom literature offers.

As early Christians meditated on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, they came to understand Jesus as God in human form—embodied Divine Love. The eternal, secret wisdom of God—a wisdom we can only imagine—came to us in a way we human beings can see and understand. When we have questions about how we can live the life of wisdom, we have a concrete, historical person we can look to for the answers. Jesus came to us, filled with the wisdom and love of God. Into the darkness of our world and into the darkness of our lives, the light of God shines in the person of Jesus the Christ.

The Most Important Gift

Over the years, my wife and I have given our children a lot of gifts. I don’t know how many pairs of expensive tennis shoes we’ve bought four children, but it involves thousands of dollars. We’ve bought running shoes, basketball shoes, soccer shoes, tennis shoes, and the like. We’ve bought enough “Air Jordan’s” and similar products to support a large number of famous persons in retirement. You know what? Not one pair of those shoes is still in existence.

We’ve bought hundreds, maybe thousands of toys over the years. We’ve bought Transformers, He-Men, She-Woman, Spider Men, Power Rangers, Ken and Barbie, and a host of other famous and not so famous toys. You know what, except for a very few toys and dolls stored in our attic for grandchildren, they have all long since broken and been thrown away.

The fact is that most of the things we buy ourselves and our children wear out, are outgrown, or break within months, days, weeks, even moments after the time we purchase them; then they are gone and forgotten. Advertisers tell us that we and our children cannot live without a host of things that for all of human history children lived without, and we believe them or at least we live as if we believed them. But when they are worn out or superseded by the next big thing, we soon forget them entirely. In the meantime, we can slowly but surely forget to be sure they actually get the things they really need.

One of my friends in the pastoral ministry made a comment that has kept me going through the delays and disappointments that are involved in any attempt to write something. He said, “So often, it seems as if we are telling Christians and potential Christians, ‘Behave this way because the Bible says so, or the church says so, or the denomination says so.’ What you are saying in this book is, ‘Behave this way because it is the way to true happiness and fulfillment.’”

Until my friend said this, I had not focused on that fact, but the truth is that is exactly the point of helping new Christians live wisely. In the end, if there is a creator God, and if the wisdom of that creator God is embedded in creation, then we ignore this wisdom at our peril – and so do our children and loved ones. If Christ is the very image of the invisible God, then by listening to his voice and learning to think and make decisions as Jesus thought and made decisions is the most important thing we can do, for in doing this we become like God and act wisely in accordance with the way God intends. This ability is the most important thing we can give new believers and those we love.

Copyright 20009, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Maureen Ryan, “How CBS Went Wrong with ‘Kid Nation’” Chicago Tribune.com www. Chicago Tribune.com/Entertainment, (September 5, 2007).

[2] See, Brian Lowrey, “The kids aren’t all right Kids Nation’ the Latest Show to use Tykes for Profit” Variet.com May 25, 2007)

[3] This was a comment made by Medved on Fox News during an interview September 4, 2007.

[4] Romanticism was literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century involving a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment with a resulting emphasis on the imagination feelings and emotions. One of the features common among Romantic thinkers is a deep respect for nature and a belief that culture often distorts nature. Therefore, Romantics are inclined to dismiss belief in the essential fallenness (original sin) of humans.

[5] Portions of this Chapter are from G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014, hereinafter “Path of Life.” This book is a critical realistic introduction to wisdom literature.

[6] See, Bishop of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, Orthodox Psychotherapy: the Science of the Fathers tr. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994). The Greek concept of “nous” is broader than our concept of mind, including the memory, understanding and will, the complete psychosomatic person.

[7] See, James Allen, As a Man Thinketh, (New York: Barnes and Nobel, 1992), for a classic statement of this insight.

[8]  David Newman, Robert Benton, and Robert Towne, wr. Bonnie and Clyde Arthur Penn, dr., starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (1967).

[9] I have written about his both in Path of Life and in the Introduction to Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rv. Ed. (Shiloh, 2016).

15. The Way of Caring for One Another

My parents, who are now both with the Lord, belonged to what was known as the “Builder’s Class” of their church. The Builder’s Class was very close. Of course, they met every Sunday morning upstairs at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, where we attended. The group often had picnics, holiday celebrations, social gatherings, and the like. One of my best memories is of a picnic in a park near the church, where I met my best friend in Jr. High and High School for the first time. We are still friends today.

The class began somewhere around 1960 or about sixty years ago. At some point during my childhood, one of the members left his wife and family. My Dad, who was an FBI agent, found out where the man was, took a day off work, drove 250 miles, and talked the man into returning to his family. Without their close community and fellowship, it would not have been possible. However, because of the close fellowship of the group, the man knew Dad cared enough to take a day off, drive 250 miles, and sit down to talk. He went home, and a marriage was saved. This is one example of the power of Christian community—and I have remembered the importance of my father’s action for more than a half century.

Made for Community

In our culture, most people suppose that human beings are fundamentally self-interested, isolated, individuals. Society, in this view, is made up of autonomous individuals seeking their own self-interest bound together by laws and passing agreements. The Christian worldview is vastly different. We see the world as fundamentally related and relational. Christians suppose that individuals emerge from families into larger communities and remain fundamentally relational creatures as long as they live. As God exists, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so also human beings exist and find deep meaning and purpose in life as they are imbedded in social relationships. Caring social relationships inside the body of Christ are basic to the Christian life and discipleship.

This is an area in which modern psychology supports the ancient insight of Christian faith and practice. People who grow up experiencing loving, healthy, sacrificial human relationships most frequently grow up to be healthy individuals. People who are not the product of such relationships, particularly in their youngest years, often struggle. Human beings are not in fact isolated individuals. Human beings emerge from families and other relationships and are profoundly impacted, for good or evil, by what happens in them. This is why strong, healthy families and friendships are so important.

In the same way, healthy Christians experience healthy Christian relationships in the family of Christ. Christians who grow in healthy Christian relationships become healthy disciples. Christians who experienced unhealthy Christian relationships often become unhealthy disciples. From the time we become a new disciple and are called into a relationship with God until our last day as a disciple, we need to experience the mutual love and fellowship of a healthy group of Christian people with whom we are caring for one another in a caring relationship.

Consequently, time spent in caring is important for every disciple. One important opportunity of ordinary Christians is to step out in the name of Christ and share the love of God with one another. In larger churches, it is impossible for even the largest staffs to minister to all the needs of a congregation. Only if lay people step out and exercise their spiritual gifts can the needs of the congregation be met. [1] Even in smaller congregations, caring relationships are important to the spiritual and emotional health of the people of the church.

The Importance of Loving Community in Scripture

This idea of Christians helping, loving, and encouraging one another is one of the most common ideas in the entire New Testament. A prominent Church consultant and author published some fifty-nine such texts in the New Testament. [2] Here are just a few:

  • “Be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50).
  • “Love one another…” (John 13:34; John 13:35; John 15:12; John 15:17; I John 3:11; I John 3: 2; Romans 13:83; I John 4:7; I John 4:11; I John 4:12; II John 5; I Thessalonians 4:9’ I Thessalonians 3:12; I Peter 3:8; I Peter 4:8).
  • “Be devoted to one another” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Honor one another…” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16; I Peter 3:8).
  • “Accept one another…” (Romans 15:7).
  • “Instruct one another…” (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)
  • “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12; I Peter 5:14)
  • “Have equal concern for one another” (I Corinthians 12:25)
  • Serve one another…” (Galatians 5:13).
  • “Carry one another’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2).
  • “Be patient and bear with one another…” (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32).
  • “Forgive one another…” (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
  • “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
  • “Admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16).
  • “Encourage one another…” (I Thessalonians 4:18; I Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 3:13).
  • “Build up one another…” (I Thessalonians 5:11).
  • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).
  • “Do not slander one another.” (James 4:11).
  • “Don’t grumble against one another…” (James 5:9).
  • “Confess your sins to one another…” (James 5:16).
  • “Pray for one another.” (James 5:16)
  • “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (I Peter 4:9).
  • “Use whatever gift you have received to serve one another…” (I Peter 4:10).
  • “…Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…” (I Peter 5:5).

It is clear that God wants us to live in a community of love with each other, not jumping around looking for the perfect church or small group, but sticking with a group and learning the hard lessons of loving people who are fundamentally different.

Reasons for Caring

There are many reasons why Christians should care for one another in every church and in every small discipleship group:

  • First, Christ commanded us to love one another. The Apostle John records Jesus as saying, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). We show love for one another as we care for one another in deep and profound ways. We should love and care for one another because God has asked us to do so.
  • Second, Christians are committed to experiencing the transformation of our character to that of Jesus Christ. Paul urges the Ephesians to be “imitators of Christ,” when he says: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:12). As we care for others, we experience growth in achieving the character of the Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Finally, we only experience the fullness of the Christian life as we employ our spiritual gifts for others. In I Corinthians, Paul puts it this way: “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Cor. 12:7). If someone else does the visiting and the caring in the congregation, then they experience the blessing of using their gift. If we have the gift of caring for others, and we use that gift, then we experience the blessing and so does each person we meet. As we use our spiritual gifts to bless others, we are formed into the image of God—and become the person God intended us to be.

Jesus spoke of himself as the “Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11). Christians become more like the Good Shepherd as we lay down our lives, just a little, taking time to love others in the name of Jesus Christ when they might be doing something else.

When I was a young Christian I became suddenly ill at a time when I lived all alone in a new city, and there was no one to care for me. One of the men in my discipleship group came and visited me. It meant the world to me then, and it has encouraged me to visit others. We are still friends, forty years later.

The best senior pastor I ever knew, though he was the pastor of a large congregation, still often visited people in the hospital and was part of a small group. When we receive care from others, we learn to care, just as a child who is properly cared for as a child learns to care for their children when the proper time comes. More than that, when we care for others as Christ has cared for us, we are slowly transformed into the people Christ wants us to be.

The Attitudes We Need

In order to grow to be more like Christ, Christians develop certain attitudes that characterize our relations with others:

  • Peace and Harmony With One Another: The Apostle Paul wrote the Romans saying, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. …If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:16-18). Avoiding endless arguments maintaining peaceful relations, and avoiding pride are some most important ways we love one another. This is hard to accomplish, but with the help of God we can.
  • Respect and Accept One Another: Paul goes on to say, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). We give care to one another as we accept the abilities and limitations that each person brings to the group. Each member of a group brings unique strengths and weaknesses to the community. We need to respect the strengths and the weaknesses of one another. No one member of a small group has all the answers—and people who think they do are often trouble. Humbly respecting others is essential if we are to develop the character of Christ. We don’t have to agree with or admire all the characteristics of our fellow Christians to love, serve, and befriend them.
  • Concern About One Another. In First Corinthians, Paul says “God has combined the members of the body and has given great honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is part of it” (I Cor. 12:24-27). Those of us who are emotionally, mentally or physically stronger than others need to put out care to those who are As we develop these attitudes of Christian love, we are transformed into the very image of Jesus Christ and become more like him. This means that we should not seek to be with only those who are as mentally, emotionally, spiritually or otherwise as mature as we are.

There are many, many other qualities that Christians need to develop. These are just a few of the caring characteristics we need to grow in Christ.

The Need for Loving One Another

We live in a society in which there is an enormous need for Christians to reach out to others with the unconditional love of God. Many societal developments of the 20th and 21st centuries have left people with deep spiritual and emotional needs. These developments are familiar to many of us and include:

  • The Decline of the Extended Family. Children no longer live in proximity to their parents with the result that older people often are lonely with no one to share their final years. Younger people are deprived of the wisdom of older people, and the aged are deprived of the love and respect they Everyone loses.
  • The Single Parent Family. Divorce has increased to the point that a great many children in our nation will grow up for at least a part of their childhood in families where there is only one parent. In the single parent family, the parent who is raising the children is put under increased pressure, and the children lack a role model from the parent of the opposite sex. This can result in a family where exhaustion and uncertainty are a constant factor in the family system. This has an emotional impact on children and parents alike.
  • The Two-Income Household. In America today, both parents work in many households. Unlike prior generations, much of the time parents work all or part of the time away from home where they cannot have constant contact with children or each other. Such families often face time pressures and little time for relaxation and family activities. The church can help by providing wholesome opportunities for family fellowship.
  • Economic Uncertainty. The rapidly changing nature of our economy has resulted in increased economic uncertainty for many people who formerly had relatively secure careers. Layoffs, downsizing, mergers, and divestitures have resulted in many middle-aged managers having to find new positions—or even new careers in midlife. The rise of global competition means that managers work longer and longer hours with less and less security for the future. All these factors create uncertainty and instability in relationships.
  • Decline of Institutions. Many people in our culture have a sense of self that is extremely dependent upon their participation in just a few institutions, primarily work. Family, church, neighborhood, clubs, ethnic associations and other groups that fostered identity and supported families and individuals are not present in the lives of many people. The modern subdivision normally consists of isolated and fenced homes with people who have little or no relationship with one another living side by side.
  • Unclear Role Expectations. In the past, our society had stable expectations for men, women, parents, children, leaders, etc. The increasing fragmentation and individualism of our culture has resulted in a loss of a consensus concerning the behavior appropriate to certain roles. People are forced to make choices under circumstances that, in prior generations, the appropriate role behavior would have been obvious. People feel lost, anxious and alone.
  • Churches in which there is Dysfunctional Care. There is one other factor that must be mentioned—perhaps the saddest of all. Some people have experienced dysfunctional care within the Christian community. Where a pastor or leader uses his or her position to create dependency, dominate, gain power, or otherwise control disciples, there is dysfunctional care. It can result in injury or a failure to mature as disciples.

These and other factors make creating community both challenging and more important in our society. One of the most important things that churches, small groups and other Christian organizations do is establish, nurture, and maintain healthy small and larger communities in which people can grow in Christ and flourish personally and as families.

Actions of Christian Love

Many years ago, my wife and I were teaching a long Bible study for a group of adults. One of the members of our group was a young couple experiencing problems with a pregnancy. The couple was overwhelmed, as they already had small children. The group started bringing them meals a few times a week. This couple were an active part of our church until the husband was transferred and remain strong Christ-Followers to this day. The love they experienced has been passed along many times by now.

In our former church, we had a number of single parent families. Some of the leadership would, from time to time, “adopt” children from our children and youth ministries and show them special attention as they navigated difficult times. Some of these young people still reach out to their mentors in hard times, although they are now self-sufficient adults.

Years ago, we went on a mission trip with a couple in our small group and their daughters. We went as couples and brought along our children. Each day for five days we ate and worked together building a home in Mexico. It was an important time in the discipleship of our children and theirs, and we remained friends until career changes took us apart. The wife became a leader of our church in a hard time. The love shared over almost a decade was important to both couples, and we still communicate from time to time.

When I practiced law, I almost always had a Bible study either in the firm or at a restaurant at least one day a week. This was an important time of growth for me as well as the other participants. One of these groups had no other Christians involved for the entire time we met.

Our former congregation sponsored a small group for displaced workers beginning during the Great Recession of 2008. This ministry helped many of the people of our community find work and survive a stressful period. Men and women were able to share their grief at career displacement, help one another, and celebrate new careers. Some of the members later on became leaders.

Christians always need to remember that the attitudes we have toward one another are reflected in the actions we take toward one another. Here are some other kinds of actions we can take as we show God’s love to others:

  • We can pray for one another and confess our sins to one another: In James we read, “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:14-16). One way that we show concern for one another is as we pray with and for one another.
  • We can serve one another: As Jesus was training leaders, he called the Twelve together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:24-28; see also Gal. 5:13). If we desire to show proper Christian care for one another we must be willing to serve the needs of one another.
  • We can encourage one another: In Thessalonians, Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (I Thess. 5:11). Sometimes the best care we can give one another is the care of encouraging one another in difficult times.

Self-Giving Love: The Vital Element in Witness

This “one-anothering” ministry of the church is vitally important to making disciples and sharing faith. The Early Church Father, Tertullian spoke of the amazement that non-Christians felt because of the love of early Christians towards one another. He put it this way “See, they say, how they love one another.” [3] Just as the love of Christians made an impression on First Century Rome, the love shown by contemporary Christians will touch even our society. Where people deeply care for one another, share life’s burdens, help one another in difficult times, and show selfless regard even for the weak and difficult, the world will always take notice.

The world can ignore our theology, our morals, our worship, and our public witness. It cannot ignore the love it sees worked out in the Christian community and towards the world. The greatest witness we can make to unbelievers and new believers is the unconditional love of Christ.

There is a great truth embedded in the Christian praise tune, “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love”:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord 
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord 
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

We will work with each other, we will work side by side 
We will work with each other, we will work side by side 
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

By our love, by our love

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand 
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand 
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land 
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love

By our love, by our love

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love 
They will know we are Christians by our love [4]

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved 

[1] See, Gareth W. Icenogle, Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Press, 1994).

[2] Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Tarrytown, NY: Revell, 1991), 129-131. I have not included the entire list here, but eliminated similar and negative “one-another’s”. Others have made similar lists of varying sizes. I have shortened George’s for this essay.

[3] Tertullian, Apology Chapter 39 in Volume 3 The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. 10 vols. 1885–1887. (Repr., Peabody, MA, MI: Hendrickson, 1994), 46.

[4] Peter Scholtes (1938–2009) “The Will Know We Are Christians by our Love” (© 1966, F.E.L. Publications, assigned to The Lorenz Corp., 1991).

14. God’s Discipleship Community

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship the world was a very different place from what it is today. In the West, Christianity was generally either the dominant or the state religion. Particularly in Europe, there were state churches. Most congregations were small. Both in Europe and in the United States, the years before and around World War II marked the beginning of the end of an era of Christianity that began with the Roman Empire. The late 20thand early 21st centuries also marked the emergence of formerly colonial nations into freedom and increased economic opportunity. The West was no longer culturally and economically dominant. [1] By the end of the Second World War, Europe was well into its march towards secularism, while in America the march did not reach the same level of intensity until the 1960’s.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, the late modern phenomenon of mega-churches in large metropolitan areas and large secular populations was unknown. There was religious and cultural diversity, but that diversity was different and much smaller than today. Some parishes were large, but nothing like the large churches experienced in America. The so-called Mainline denominations: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, American Baptist and the like were in broad decline by the close of the 20th Century, and evangelicalism had emerged as the most quickly growing segment. Nevertheless, by the end of the 20th Century even these churches had begun to gradually decline.

Called to Community

In the cultural situation of the early 20th Century, Christian community could almost be taken for granted. Life was simpler. Cities were smaller. More people lived in rural areas. Most Christian congregations were small, and community was a natural result of living and worshiping together. Today, things are very different, and we actually have to intentionally create Christian community.

God’s intention has always been and always will be to create a special people, his family, through which God blesses the entire world. God called Abraham for just this purpose (Genesis 12:1-4). In Genesis, God calls Abraham to bless not just himself, but his family, and even the entire world (Genesis 12:1-3). The history of Israel is the history of God’s dealings with this one family. [2] He wanted Israel to be a kind of prototype for what all families and all nations should be like.

Even once Israel became a nation, one of the most common images the Bible uses for them is “The Sons of Israel”—a family. God’s family, however, was called to be different than the other families around them. They were to be holy just as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2). The word “holy” means “separated” or “different.” The way in which God’s people were to be different is that they were to show forth the wisdom, goodness, and love of God in a special way, so that the entire world might come into fellowship with the God of Love.

For Christians, the Apostle Peter put it this way:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (I Peter 2:9-10).

Those of us who have been called to be disciples have become part of God’s family, and are called to be a special, set apart people, created by Christ through the Spirit to declare to the world the mercy and love of God. The church is God’s chosen vehicle to make disciples, drawing people into a deep, life-transforming relationship with God. The primary purpose of the church is to “go into the world and make disciples” (Matthew 28:16).

The New Testament Community

The book of Acts begins with Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples. The first discipleship group was disbanded when Jesus ascended into heaven. No longer would they be meeting together daily, physically in the presence of the Word Made Flesh. Instead, Jesus was going to be with the disciples as they shared the Good News throughout the world by the invisible, personal presence of the Holy Spirit. He asked his disciples to return to the city and await the coming of the Spirit (Acts 1:8).  They went back into the city, met together in the Upper Room as a group, prayed together, and planned for the future until the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-25).

On the day of Pentecost, the promised Holy Spirit came upon the little band of Jesus followers, and the disciples were filled with the powerful presence of God (Acts 2:1-4). They began to share the Good News with all those gathered in Jerusalem that day, and by the end of the day, about 3,000 people were saved (Acts 2:5-41).

What did they do next? They met as a family! The apostles discipled a new group of believers in Jesus just as Jesus discipled them! Here is how Acts describes it:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).

The early church was like a family, intimately sharing their life together. They shared meals. They kept a common purse for expenses of the group. They contributed to the needs of the group. They worshiped, learned, and prayed together. The experienced the power and presence of God together as a family. The surrounding society recognized that these people were different and, in the end, saw the beauty of their way of life. We are called to the same way of life.

God calls Christians to be a part of a set-apart community, not removed from the surrounding society, but a different sort of people showing a better way to live in the midst of every culture. This is hard in our society. We are so individualistic and driven that we have difficulty maintaining physical families, much less a church family. We are so busy that it is hard to find time to share our lives with others. We are so consumed emotionally by the needs of our biological family, career, social life, and the like, that making time for deep spiritually-based relationships is not natural or easy. Nevertheless, this is exactly what God has asked us to do. [3]  We won’t grow in Christ unless we devote ourselves to learning about God, fellowshipping with God’s people, praying with other Christians, and experiencing the power of God in our lives.

Often, as we have seen, contemporary people lack community, and tend to find an inadequate community in the workplaces and in political or avocational associations. One signal of the decay of our culture loss of where sometimes called “mediating institutions,” that provide meaning and purpose to life. [4] At the most basic level, the frequency of divorce in our society means that most people do not grow up in stable homes. The most basic unit of society is terribly unstable in our culture.

In the past, schools, preschools, swimming pools, and other public goods were often managed at the level of the neighborhood. Today, for most Americans these are managed at the level of a vast city. State and national governments are by their nature, distant. In larger metropolitan areas, the same things is true: governments are far removed from the day to day lives of people. Often leaders have little or no idea of the needs of local neighborhoods. The vast majority of people do not belong to churches and other institutions that give meaning and purpose to life at a basic level. The result is a pervasive loneliness and alienation.

Discipleship Groups

the Book of Acts provides us with a description of what a Spirit-filled community is like. We need to think about that description, because it tells us what contemporary churches are to be like in order to disciple people in ways that mirror the way Jesus discipled people. In the conditions of today’s Western society, and especially in America, this cannot be accomplished without intentionality. One way of accomplishing the goal of creating life transforming community is forming “Discipleship Groups.” A discipleship group is an intentional, personal, face-to-face, regular gathering of men and women who are committed to grow as disciples of Jesus Chris together in community. [5]

Each aspect of this definition is important considering the scriptural model given to us in Acts 2:42-47:

  • A discipleship group is Intentional: The early disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching.” The apostles and the new believers intentionally committed themselves to grow as disciples by listening to the apostles teach. We will not grow as disciples unless we are willing to be intentional about it.
  • A discipleship group is Personal: We are told “all the believers were together.” Personal, face-to-face fellowship is not an optional part of the Christian life. It is central. God desires us to become part of a community of believers who are sharing their lives and their faith together. God wants us to be in close relationship with others as we grow in faith.
  • A discipleship group is Regular: The early church met “daily.” A discipleship group meets once a week, every other week, twice a month, or on some other regular basis. Frankly, for most of us in our culture, a daily meeting is impossible, except perhaps in our family or with one or two other people we normally see in our daily lives. Groups that meet monthly are normally unable to produce lasting personal change. For most Christians, a weekly group is what is needed.
  • A discipleship group meets to be Taught: When they met, the first disciples listened “to the apostles teaching.” A discipleship group desires to grow in the knowledge of Christ and the Christian life. Discipling groups are not primarily social gatherings. Although the Christian faith is more than learning information, it is impossible to grow as a Christian disciple and be transformed into the image of Christ without learning truths about God and Christian living.
  • A discipleship group experiences Exciting Fellowship: When the early church met, “everyone was filled with awe.” Christian fellowship should be life-giving, exciting and life-changing. If people in our culture are to be filled with awe, then we must show the wisdom and love of God by the lives we lead and by the community of love we create. We must share the day-to-day miracles of life with one another and the world around us.
  • A discipleship group Intends to Grow: “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” The purpose of a discipleship group is to grow the kingdom of God by growing disciples. This means intentionally inviting new people into the group. Many small groups in our culture exist primarily for group members. A true discipleship group exists not only for current members but for future disciples of Christ. [6]

In contemporary Western society, Christians must intentionally create discipling communities like the fellowship of the early church. Any social institution emerges from a community of people whose purpose is the maintenance and transmission of the knowledge and skills the group was formed to advance. [7] One of the most important developments in modern philosophy of science is an increased understanding of the communal nature of science. Any scientist becomes and remains a scientist by becoming a part of the community of scientists. It probably begins early in life with a special teacher, who makes a deep impression on the student. Then, as the years go by the student goes on to take more classes, then begins specializing in the particular science in which he or she has an interest. During this period, the young scientist will have many mentors, teachers, role models, and will learn many skills. Over many years of apprenticeship and learning, the novice becomes an accomplished scientist his or her self. It does not happen easily or over-night. The church is God’s community of change.

Large worship services, media teachers, etc. cannot possibly form Christian character in the deep way discipleship groups can. Deep discipleship takes an intentional group of people led by experienced leaders, like the apostles, to take people from a secular-orientation and mold them into fully-equipped disciples as they model the life of Christ and share their own lives in a deep and meaningful way. There is no other way out of the crisis of discipleship in which our society finds itself

Spirit-Filled Community

Discipleship groups are more than a program. These groups, large or small, are a God-given opportunity for disciples to live the kind of life God intended for all human beings. Once we understand this, we understand human ingenuity is not sufficient for true discipling community. Only the Holy Spirit can create a community that models God’s wisdom and love in the midst of a fallen, broken, and diseased world. Only the Holy Spirit can help us live out lives of true agape love toward others. The Holy Spirit transmits to us the love of God in several ways:

  • Knowledge. It is the Holy Spirit that allows disciples to understand who God is and what God is like.
  • It is the Holy Spirit that draws disciples into fellowship with God by faith in Christ.
  • Church. It is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and draws disciples into relationship with others.
  • Worship, Witness, and Service. It is the Holy Spirit that sustains that relationship and empowers the Body of Christ for worship, community, growth and mission.

Over the years, the churches we have served have had many small discipleship groups. Frankly, some were life-changing and some were not. The difference was in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Years ago, a member of the congregation stopped me in the hall. His group was struggling. I asked him what they were doing in their meetings. It turned out that their group had become a dinner club. They met, had a glass of wine, ate dinner, and visited. There is nothing wrong with any of this—but it is not the characteristic of a discipleship group. There was no intentional attempt to grow in Christ. As a result of our conversation, they incorporated Bible Study, prayer, sharing, and service into the life of the group. They invited a few new people. Almost over-night, the group was providing a place for Christian growth for its members.

Discipleship Groups as a Means of Grace

In some Christian traditions, there’s much talk about the “ordinary means of grace.” Ordinarily, Bible study, prayer, and other activities are means by which God allows us to grow in grace. In contemporary society I would argue that participation in discipling groups, is one of the most important if not the most important means of grace. It has certainly been true in my own life and in the life of many people I know. Jesus said, “For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there with them” (Matthew 18:20). The spirit this is basically present in those small groups of Christians together in the name of Jesus.

In his little book, Life Together, Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” [8]

No Christian and no Christian fellowship should underestimate the importance of intentional Christian community.

Leadership and Discipling Groups

Discipling groups do not occur automatically. Jesus had to call his disciples to come and be with him. Peter had to preach. The apostles had to reach out and form the small Christian discipling communities that constituted the early church. Over centuries, people have call other people into a relationship with Jesus. In contemporary society, this requires getting out of our comfort zone and asking people to gather with us to learn about Jesus and follow him.

This involves leadership. Someone must call the people into the group. Someone has to provide overall guidance for the group. Someone has to teach a small Bible study. Someone has to lead the prayers. Someone has to organize the refreshments, if any. Every discipleship group is a miniature church requiring as many of the spiritual gifts as possible to function. Discipleship Groups do not need a single leader, they need many leaders with as many different spiritual gifts as is possible.

Today, most larger churches have some kind of small group program. Most of the time these programs have three basic problems:

First, the groups tend to become ingrown and not want to multiply and grow. People get accustomed to the deep fellowship of the group and they don’t want to leave that the fellowship and grow the kingdom of God. This is a tremendous leadership challenge. It is important that the leadership of the groups constantly mention the Great Commission, so that people develop a heart to share their faith and invite their friends.

Second, often groups do not intentionally develop new leadership. Most of the time, the existing leaders lead the group until the group no longer exists. Sometimes existing leaders are so invested in leading that they resist turning over leadership to others. While this is normal and human, it’s not the best thing for the kingdom of God. In the early church, Antioch was a wonderful church with great teaching, preaching, prophesying, and worship. Paul and Barnabas were essential and important parts of that fellowship. In Acts, we read that they were sent out on what became the first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). If they had not been willing to go, if the church of Antioch of been satisfied to be what it is where it was, we would not be here today. Instead they sent out their two best leaders and developed new leadership.

Third, there is the problem of equipping teachers to share the gospel without distortion. In a church that has a large number of small groups there is always the challenge of creating a teaching consistency faithful to the doctrine and morals of that particular church. This is an ongoing problem that senior leadership must take seriously. If a congregation has enough small groups, someday there will be at least one leader who in doctrine or morals betrays the confidence of leadership. This requires training and fellowship among the leaders of the groups and a structure of accountability.

This means that this discipleship group leaders must meet regularly with senior leadership in the church and be accountable to them. There must be times of sharing what is going on in the small groups, what the basic studies are going to be for the ongoing period of time, and some of the doctrinal challenges that may be faced as lay people talk about the passages and topics. It is also true that discipleship leaders must be mentored and monitored so that their teachings and life continue to grow in grace. [9] Finally, the fact is that some people will have to be removed from leadership. In my experience, this is rarely necessary, but it does happen.

Diversity and Unity in Discipleship Groups

There is not a “one size fits all” way of developing discipleship groups in a local congregation. Discipleship groups will be formed in different ways and for different purposes. People cannot be in ten different groups. It’s inevitable that people are going to attend groups that meet a particular spiritual need they have and the giftedness they sensed God has given them. This means that groups must have different foci, but some common features as they disciple people. [10]

Some groups will concentrate on studying the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that they should not be in mission sharing the gospel with others. Some groups will be involved in prayer, but this does not mean that they do not need to and base their prayers on the Bible and be in mission, sharing their faith with others. Some groups (such as a praise band) will be primarily involved in supporting the ministry and mission of the local church, but this does not mean that they don’t need to study the Bible and be prayerful in what they plan and do.

The key is to create a leadership team that is both focused and flexible. The focus needs to be upon making more and better disciples for Christ and the development of loving fellowship among believers. At the same time, the leadership needs to be flexible in allowing groups to accomplish this discipling task in a variety of different ways based upon the specific talents and vision of that group.

The Future of the Church

After forty years as a disciple of Jesus, and about the same number of years as a Christian leader, including twenty-eight years as a pastor, I’m convinced that the future of American Christianity lies in our ability to recover the ability to love people into the kingdom of God through personal relationships in life-changing community. Western civilization is in a period of decay. Much of the surrounding culture is not only non-Christian but hostile to the Christian faith. In such a cultural situation, we cannot rely upon a mass audience, mass worship, or mass ministry to do the job of sharing God’s love with others as we have experienced it because of our faith in Jesus Christ. This can only be accomplished by individual Christians joining together in small communities of faith within the larger body of Christ and sharing their faith day in and day out.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Although the United States emerged both victorious and economically intact from the Second World War, no other European nation did. As the 20th Century concluded, however, Western Europe, and especially Germany emerged from the devastation of the war. Japan was a major economic power having emerged from the post-war period as an economic powerhouse. China had also recovered from the war and from the economic setback of the cultural revolution. India emerged as an economic powerhouse. The economic dependence of the West on oil as a source of energy enriched and empowered the Muslim world of the Middle East and Asia. Culturally, the religions of the Far East were evident and attractive to many in the formerly Christian West. All of this meant that Western culture and values were no longer dominant. In America there were few major cities not characterized by a fair amount of religious diversity.

[2] One of the easy miss-readings of the Old Testament is a failure to understand that while we think of Israel as a kind of ancient version of the modern nation state, this notion is far from the reality. One of the most common names for the Jewish people and nation is “the sons of Israel.” Their identity was that of members of related tribes who came from a common ancestor and were therefore a family as much as a political body.

[3] This aspect of Bonhoeffer’s thought is often ignored. For example, “Everything the disciple does is a part of the common life of the church of which he is a member. That is why the law, which governs the life of the Body of Christ, is where one is the whole body is also. There is no department of life in which the member may withdraw from the Body, nor should he desire to so withdraw.” Cost of Discipleship, at 286.

[4] See, Path of Life, at 162.

[5] Individual congregations have many names for what I call discipleship groups. The term “small group” tells us only one characteristic of what we want these groups to be like. They should be small, but that is not the most important characteristic. They should disciple people. They are and can be called “Life Groups,” “Community Groups,” “Koinonia Groups,” “Circles” and any one of a number of names in different churches. What is important is to remember the purpose: to disciple people.

[6] See, G. Christopher Scruggs, A Leadership Training Guide for Discipling People: Discipleship Groups at Advent Presbyterian Church(Unpublished Manuscript, 2000), 6.

[7] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. 1958. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1962. I am reliant on Polanyi and Lesslie Newbigin’s analysis of his work and application to discipleship for this insight. See, Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995) and Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, previously cited, at 20.

[9] This regular accountability of small group leaders has always been hard to achieve. It requires both administrative and interpersonal ability. In the best example I have experienced, group leaders huddled with the person in charge of small group ministry and one of the pastoral staff several times a year. In addition, the person charged with administering small groups was constantly on the phone with group leaders. The Senior Pastor was an enthusiastic proponent of small groups. These “huddles” were an essential part of the success of the program.

[10] This was the intention of the A Leadership Training Guide for Discipling People, cited at note 6. While groups may differ in focus (Bible Study, Prayer, Ministries and Missions, etc.) there are common features that group leaders within a larger congregation need to understand and implement.

13. A Disciple Spends Time in the Word

A committed disciple is committed to spend time in the written Word of God so as to have the knowledge base required to grow in likeness to, and fellowship with, the Word Made Flesh. Christians should seek to know the truth, because the truth of God sets us free to be people God wants us to be. Time in the word of God is not alone enough to be a transformed disciple of Christ, but it is essential.

Each morning, I spend the first few minutes of the day reading the Bible and praying. I have been a Christian since 1977, and for most of that time, this practice has been my daily routine. This has been true as a layperson, as a pastor, and as a parent. After all these years, I do not feel right on the days I skip this sacred time and believe it makes a difference in who I am and how I behave. (I like to say, “I am not who I should be, but thank God I am not who was was!”)

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be centered in Scripture so that we can have a life-changing relationship with the One of whom Scripture speaks. A great deal of what we can know about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Christian life we learn by listening to the voice of God in Scripture. This “knowing about,” however, is of little use to us unless it results in our growing in a relationship with God in Christ and in our personal likeness to Christ. We have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. We must be doers and just hearers of the word (James 2:17).

In Acts, Paul leaves Thessalonica for Berea. The Thessalonians were resistant to the Good News and did not want to hear Paul’s message. In Berea, things were different. Luke records: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (Acts 17:11-12). Those who earnestly hear the gospel of Christ are almost always the most eager to study their Scriptures. We study Scripture to test the testimony and opinions of others and to grow in our understanding of God, God’s world, our fallenness, our constant need for mercy, and our unique place in God’s plan to redeem the world.

In perhaps his last letter, Paul underscores the importance of Scripture as he writes Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Here we see Scripture lifted up for what it is: the source of Godly wisdom, of a deeper understanding of the secret wisdom revealed in Christ, of the nature of faith, and of our hope in God through Christ. The Scripture was given to us by the Spirit of God to teach us, rebuke us of our sin, correct our errors, and train us in the ways of God. Notice that all this implies that Scripture was given to us so that we might change, grow, and reach out to a lost and broken world.

The Crisis of Biblical Knowledge

For a long time, pastors, scholars, and students have known that “Biblical literacy” is declining in our culture. There was a time when the Bible was found in almost every home in Europe and North America. There was a time, before radio, television, and other forms of media, when reading the Bible in family groups was common. There was a time when public schools and colleges taught the Bible and taught literature based upon the Bible. In such a culture, most people grew up with some basic understanding of the story the Bible is telling in the culture was formed by the story of the Bible.

This is no longer true. The story that the Bible tells us no longer at the center of our civilization. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the Cost of Discipleship, Europe was no longer filled with Christians who were constantly renewing their life in Christ. The elites of most European countries no longer believed in historic Christian faith. However, educated people were still part of a culture in which their fundamental values were formed by the Christian story. Colleges and Universities were still formed by the Biblical story even of many people no longer believed.

Unfortunately, this is no longer true in the West. Instead, in Europe and America, as well as the other parts of the world formed by a post-Christian culture, political, educational, cultural, and artistic leaders are generally formed by a worldview that excludes a personal God, the miraculous, the notion of a personal communication from God, prayer, the idea that God speaks to certain people with a word for others, and other facets of historic Christian faith. People formed by such a worldview do not intuitively find Christian faith, values, or morals important or realistic.

The situation will not change any time soon, and the current crisis of discipleship will continue until a group of people are so deeply formed by the Christian story and Christian faith that their approach to life and its problems are undeniably changed and different than the approach of the surrounding culture. The formation and growth of such a people cannot be done by mass media, corporate education, or large, music or entertainment driven, worship services. [1] This kind of formation can only be done in small communities of people who are studying the Scriptures, praying, and living out the Christian life together. The situation in our society will not change until there is a completely different approach to discipleship, one that focuses on living the Bible as much or more than teaching or sharing its truths.

A Changed World View

In Romans 12, Paul talks about our need to see the world the way God sees the world when he says:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).

Paul, like Jesus, knew that our faith should make a difference in how we behave. He teaches us that, if we see the world the way God sees the world (with eyes of steadfast, self-giving love), and are transformed in the way we view the world, then we will offer God our live to God and do the things that please God. Christians need to be transformed into bearers of God’s love and truth into their day-to-day world. This transformation will not occur until and unless we change the way we see the world, think about the world, and respond to the challenges of everyday life.

The Bible is a tool we should use in day-to-day life. All tools require skill to use them properly. Generally, the utility of a tool is only fully available to a craftsman trained and experienced in the proper use of the tool, so that its use is second nature. Mental tools are no different. The value of the Bible is not in the study of it, or even in the memorization of its teachings, but in internalizing and consciously and unconsciously learning to live out its truth over an extended period of time. [2]

As we study, memorize, and meditate on the Bible and the story of God and humanity that it tells, we learn to “indwell” the Biblical story and its principles. Only when the stories and teachings of the Bible are internalized, so they are available to us as part of our conscious and unconscious perception of the world, do they perform their most important use in guiding thought and action. [3]

The crisis of faith we face is largely due to a lack of understanding and internalizing the story of God’s love affair with all people, of every tribe and nation. The Good News of this love affair is contained in the Bible, and particularly in the stories of the life death and resurrection of Jesus, of his interaction with people, and of the response of those people to the Good News. Our civilization has lost its unconscious understanding of the nature of God’s love and of its power to guide us in everyday life and in the decisions of everyday life. If we want to be changed by this story and help the world see the difference it makes, we have to take time to be in the word of God and allow it to mold our character and actions.

Transformed by the Word

As Christians study Scripture and meditate upon the One revealed in its pages, we encounter God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul says in Romans, “faith comes from hearing, and the message is revealed through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Later, in Colossians, Paul urges Christians to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). It is in hearing and internalizing the Word of God, so that the word becomes the way in which we understand the meaning of the world, that we are changed into the image of Christ. As we listen to others in a Bible Study or Sunday School Class, God’s word, the Word of Christ, enters and dwells within our hearts through the window of our minds. Slowly, but surely, we are transformed.

Having a Good Bible Study

There are many ways to grow as a disciple by meditating on Scripture. There was a time when there was a lack of good group Bible Study materials. This is no longer true. There are many good Bible Study guides ranging from Sunday School materials, guides to the study of books of the Bible, and topical study guides in areas such as prayer, marriage, finances, child raising, coming to Christ, etc. All these resources help a group center itself on Holy Scripture. Not only do resources exist in printed form, but there are many ways to use materials to be found on the internet or in electronic media. Some of this material is free. [4]

Discipleship groups are not the place for large, lecture-oriented study. The key to a good discipleship group Bible study is its personal character. So, a study should have these three basic characteristics.

  • Group Discussion. People remember about ten percent of what they hear and about eighty percent of what they Therefore, lecture is not the best method for Bible Study. The best method for life-transforming Bible study involves personal interaction among people. This means the leader must avoid lecturing too much.
  • Open-ended Questions. It is always best to ask questions that enable group members to answer correctly whatever they say. So, questions like, “What did this passage mean to you” are always better than questions like, “What does John Calvin say about this passage?”
  • Focus on Application. It is important to remember that God is more interested in what Christians put to work in their lives than in how much they abstract knowledge they possess. It is always a good idea to end the study of a passage with a discussion of the question, “How am I going to live differently today now that I have studied this passage?”

If it is true that God exists in relationship and wants to draw us into his Triune relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then it is not surprising that God wants us to hear his Word both in relationship to his own person (Christ) and in relationship to the Body of Christ. He wants us to hear this word in our own private Bible study, and corporately as we study the Bible in groups and hear the word of God proclaimed in worship.

A commitment to grow as a disciple is important. God does not want us to be mere hearers of his Word. He wants to transform our lives so that we live out that word in our day-to-day lives. This is why James says in his letter “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). While it is true that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:9), we are also saved for the good works we will do in response to what God has done for us in Christ (2:10). The purpose of our Bible study is not merely to improve our minds and understanding, it is to transform us mind, body, heart, and soul. This requires more than an objective study.

Basic Bible Study Rules

Becoming a good leader for people who want to know more about the Bible is not as hard as it might seem. Here are some helpful rules in developing Bible study skills:

  • Use the Bible. If you are studying the Bible privately, you need a Bible! If you are in a Bible study group, everyone needs a Bible or a copy of the text the group is studying. In some Bible study materials, the text will be reprinted. In others, people must have a Bible as well as the guide. It is also helpful if everyone is using the same version of the Bible.
  • Read the Bible. No matter how good a Bible study is, the purpose is to learn the Bible. Much of the Bible began as an orally transmitted message of faith. Therefore, it is always a good idea to begin by reading the selected passage aloud. This allows the modern hearer to experience something of the oral tradition from which Scripture emerged. Stick to the text at hand. Avoid cross-referencing other biblical texts unless it is absolutely necessary. Before reading the text tells the group where it can be found can be found.
  • Opening Question. If you are the lead teacher of a group, think out beforehand the first question you will ask. The first question is always the most important of all. It opens the discussion and often determines the character of the group’s interaction. This kind of question most often can take the form of, “What teaching of this verse made an impression on you?” or “What did you find most interesting about this passage?”
  • Reflective Questions. Whether studying alone or in a group, there is no Bible study unless we engage the text. In reading this passage of Scripture or book, here are some questions you may want to ask yourself about the text:
    • What immediate message do you hear?
    • What feelings are you having in reading this?
    • What was helpful?
    • How I am I going to act differently because I have read this text?
  • Let Questions Guide the Study. Ask questions which are clearly tied to the text and build logically upon one another. If a question is not understood, restate it in different words. Limit initial comments to key information and definition. Focus on the most important aspects of the passage. Try not to answer your own question. If a question does not gain response, move on to another After the first response to a question, ask if anyone has a different or additional response. Don’t exhaust a question before moving to the next verse or question. Let the group set the agenda. Above all, realize that most questions do not have a single answer. Affirm those who respond if at all possible.
  • Involve the Imagination. One of the most important techniques that a teacher or student can use is to the whole person: sight, sound, touch, thought in the study. For example, as the text is read aloud, visualize for yourself or have the group visualize the scene. Ask the group to imagine how they would have reacted if they had been present. This is especially useful when studying a story from the Bible or a parable from Jesus.
  • Share Personal Meaning. Ask yourself the question, “What does this passage mean to me?” In a group Bible study, the most important thing to know is what the text means to the people present. This does not mean ignoring commentaries or historical understanding. It just means that what changes a life is a personal experience of the power of the Word.
  • Don’t Be Afraid. One barrier to some people exercising gifts for leadership in Bible Study is a fear of not knowing the answer. “I really do not know” is always a good answer. If you do not know, offer to study the question and give an answer at the next meeting. Even pastors do not know all there is to know about the Bible. Therefore, you should not be afraid to say you don’t know.
  • Stay in One Passage. One common mistake is to play “Bible Hopscotch.” Most people do not have a ready familiarity with the Bible, and flipping pages makes them nervous. Sometimes to get a clear idea of what Scripture means, we need to study more than one passage. Much of the time, however, this is not necessary. Staying in a passage allows us to memorize and remember that passage and allow that passage to change our lives.
  • Use Various Methods. Any Bible Study style when overused gets old. Variety is the spice of life, and we should use a variety of teaching tools and methods.

The methods that can be used to study Scripture are numerous. Not every technique that works for one person works for another. People in different generations may prefer different forms of Bible study. For example, I am in my 60s. Frankly, I do not enjoy media driven Bible studies as much as younger people in our church. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with me or something wrong with the younger people. It means that different generations, with different life experiences, prefer different kinds of Bible studies.

Conclusion

Sometime in the Spring of 1977, I attended a little Bible study in Houston, Texas. It was led by a newly-graduated seminary student and a few laypeople. We sang a few songs, prayed, studied together, prayed, and sang a closing song. This particular Bible Study meant enough to me that our family has always been involved in small, intimate Bible Studies. If I look back on my life and ask the question, “When did I grow the most as a Christian in the least amount of time?” The answer is, “In the Friday Night Bible Study.”

Interestingly, we called our system of study, “Group Grope,” meaning that none of us understood the deepest meaning of most of what we studied. We were beginners. Nevertheless, we studied and allowed God’s word to change our lives. We grew in Christ. We started businesses, families, and shared in the struggles of young adulthood. Almost all the members of the Friday Night Bible study are still Christians are Christian leaders in their churches and communities. At least three of us are pastors.

We did not know it, but we were involved in a transformational Bible study. We were not as interested in becoming Biblical scholars as in becoming better Christians. The crisis of discipleship we face in America will not be overcome primarily by scholarly, critical, information-centered studies. It will be overcome by transformational studies led by thousands and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people allowing the Word of God to change them. [5]

More importantly, people in our society will not be changed by words alone. One of the principal elements of postmodernism is a rejection of truth claims. In other words, postmodernism does not necessarily believe that there is anything called “truth” to be found. In such a society, people must see the gospel lived out in an attractive way before they will ever accept the truth of the gospel and live it out in their own lives. The truth Christians proclaim is not a bid for power over other people. It is an invitation to enter a relationship with the God of infinite love and wisdom who desires to draw the entire human race into one family filled with the joy of the presence of infinite love and infinite wisdom.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] I hesitated to use the phrase, “large music or entertainment driven churches,” for fear that the phrase would be taken pejoratively. Recent years have seen the emergence of large congregations that rely upon sophisticated media and popular music in worship. There is nothing wrong with this approach.  I have been the pastor of such congregations. However, as powerful as the worship experience may be in these congregations, discipleship formation cannot be done in worship alone, however powerful. Many of these congregations recognize this fact and are deeply committed to developing discipling ministries in their congregation.

[2] See, Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 198, 1962), 58-59.

[3] See, Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983). See also the work of Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1989) for a theological and missional adaptation of Polanyi’s notion of indwelling.

[4] When downloading materials from the internet it is important to remember that not all the materials found on the internet are sound. Many individuals put up materials that does not reflect either the spirit or the words of Christ or the experience of the Church over the centuries.

[5] I make this point with trepidation. It is a fact that transformational Bible studies should form the core of any discipleship program. However, longer and deeper, more theological Bible studies do have a place in the church. In both my congregations, the Disciple Bible Study Series of year-long encounters with the word of God played a big role in the development of leaders and of disciples.

12. Prayer: The Inner Life of a Disciple

Can you imagine walking and living with Jesus day after day and never having a conversation with him? Can you imagine a family never communicating? A married couple? Partners in a business? Of course not! If discipleship involves a deep, personal, long-term relationship with God in Christ, following Jesus day-by-day and learning from him, then disciples are required to learn to commune with God through Christ.

Prayer is the vital communication link that permits our relationship with God to grow and deepen. Just as a relationship with spouse continues to evolve and grow over time, we never reach the end of growth in our prayer life. Our relationship with God grows, changes, and deepens as our walk with God grows and deepens day-by-day. In this way, our relationship with God is no different than our relationship with any other person: We must take time to be in communion with another person.

When I first became a Christian, I had trouble learning to pray. Over the years, I found that the best way to learn to pray is to just pray, learning at each stage of discipleship what you need to move forward in the life of prayer. No one can ever learn all there is to know about communicating with God, just as no person can ever know all there is to know about human communication. What we can know is something we can put into practice today! If we continue to open our lives to the Spirit of God, we will grow in our prayer life.

We live in a post-Christian society. Many people did not grow up in Christian homes with parents helping them learn to pray. They never attended Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. They never prayed in church with other members of the congregation. They never experienced the prayers of family, friends, or fellow church members. Even those who grew up in Christian homes may never have seen and heard their parents and friends pray. Many of these people live in a “soulless would” in which there is no room for a God of Love who cares for them and wants to get to know them. They grew up thinking that a material universe is all there is or can be.

For these people, prayer can be a foreign experience. Nevertheless, in times of suffering and pain, most people cry out for help, even from the God they do not know, but whose character is written upon their hearts. (In fact, this instinctive human propensity to pray is one reason for believing there is a personal God.) It is not that people do not have the capacity to pray or the inner inclination to pray. [1] They do. The problem is that they have never developed a personal relationship with God such that they can lift up their needs to God in a natural way. Once such people open their hearts to God, their God-given capacity for prayer can be developed and enhanced. Maturity in the life of the Spirit is dependent upon moving from a state of prayer immaturity to prayer maturity.

Even among Christians who know something of prayer, many are reluctant to pray. Prayer is an act of self-revelation. Some people are afraid of what they might say. Others are afraid that they will not be able to pray as well as a professional, such as a pastor or group leader. These fears can deprive people of a vibrant prayer life. Opening up in honest prayer in front of family, friends, fellow church members, and others can be as embarrassing as being seen without clothes on. Our False Self—our façade of control, of capacity to solve our own problems—must come down for us to learn to pray honestly concerning our fears, faults and failures. [2] There is no hiding who we are in honest prayer.

A Disciple is a Person of Prayer

Like discipleship itself, prayer is not something we learn about, it is something we learn to do. Like all skills, no one begins his or her life of prayer as an accomplished prayer. Instead, by trial and error, long experience, praying well and badly, rightly and wrongly, maturely and immaturely, slowly but surely our prayer life grows. This has been my experience, and I think it has been the experience of most Christians. In prayer, like pitching a baseball, you begin learning to just throw a simple fastball, and then you improve your game.

As a result, it is important in prayer, as with any skill, to keep practicing and keep learning. A disciple needs to be a person of prayer, and a disciple of fifty years should be a better person of prayer than a disciple of fifteen minutes—and they will be if they just keep on praying. A few years ago, I went on an eight-day silent retreat. For a week about twenty-five of us did nothing but pray silently. We prayed in groups, alone, in journals, on walks, while running, etc. We prayed prayers from Scripture, in writing, and in silent contemplation of God. Once a day we prayed out loud in worship. Believe me, forty years ago, I could not have endured such a long period of silence and prayer.

Learning to Pray

Most Christians learn to pray by watching someone else pray. People born into Christian homes, learn to pray hearing parents pray at meals or at bedtime. Before long, we were saying our prayers just before we went to bed. As we attended Church with our parents, we listened to the pastor pray and prayed from a bulletin or prayer book. In Sunday School we heard prayers, and then learned to pray ourselves. Perhaps we saw our parents praying in difficult circumstances or over difficult decisions. As we matured, we learned to pray under the pressure of difficult times of life.

This description of the way people learn to pray alerts us to the need for mature Christians to help new Christians, and especially those who grew up in non-Christian homes, to learn to pray. As important as books, tapes, video’s, classes, and other opportunities to learn to pray are nothing can take the place of a personal relationship with another human being who models prayer for a new or growing Christian.

Prayer involves a personal relationship with God and is best taught within the context of a personal relationship with another person. This can be a family member, friend, a small group leader, a Sunday School teacher, a pastor or anyone else who prays regularly.

When I was a new Christian, I was good at reading my Bible, attending church, and being involved in certain ministries. I was not good at praying. I am naturally an active person. Sitting silently, praying, and listening for God was (and is) hard for me. Therefore, I did what people who like to read do: I bought a book, Prayer, by George A. Buttrick. [3] It did not take long to realize that reading a 300-page book was not likely to improve my prayer life. Therefore, I took a different tactic. I just started praying.

Then, I found a short guide to prayer that focused on adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and personal requests (supplication), the so-called “ACTS method” of prayer. I listened to people pray who were in Bible studies I attended. Several years later, I was part of an early morning prayer group that met for a couple of years during a difficult time in an organization we were a part of. This group stretched and improved my prayer life. In seminary, a group of us met weekly for prayer and had prayer partners. Once in ministry, I developed habits of prayer that continue to this day. In a tough period in ministry, I started another prayer discipline: that of praying the scriptures and a kind of Christian contemplation on Christ. One summer, I want away for an eight-day silent time of prayer, wanting to further deepen a prayer relationship with God. More recently, I began keeping a long prayer list. Sometimes, I write out prayers in my journal. All these disciplines did not come naturally or easily. They just appeared at the right time in my life of discipleship. The same thing is true of nearly all Christians. What disciple-makers must do is get a person started in the life of prayer.

Jesus and Prayer

Jesus had a simple method for teaching his disciples to pray: he prayed. Jesus prayed at every turning point in his life and ministry. Matthew tells us that, after Jesus fed the 5000, he went out alone and prayed: “After he had dismissed his disciples, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray” (Matt. 14: 23). At the end of his life, Jesus prayed for release from the momentous task ahead of him. Mark describes it this way: “Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:35-36). From the beginning to the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus was a person of prayer.

His disciples recognized that prayer was the secret of Jesus’ unusual wisdom goodness, and power. Therefore, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). In response to their request, he taught them what has always been considered the model prayer. By the time of the Sermon on the Mount, the disciples had been with Jesus for a while. They had seen miracles, healings, exorcisms, and the like. They had heard his teachings and his preaching. They had eaten a lot of meals together. They had experienced his hidden, secret, silent power. They had seen him pray and go away to be alone in prayer. They had noticed that Jesus was a person of prayer, and somehow his prayer life was deeply a part of who he was and his mission and ministry. Therefore, it was natural that they should ask him to teach them to pray.

In response, Jesus provided them (and us) with a few basic things to remember. He begins with some general instructions:

  • First, our prayers are to be directed to God. Jesus prayed to his Heavenly Father. This does not mean that we cannot use different words to refer to the One True God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. We can pray to God, the Eternal God, the Almighty, God the Healer, the Triune God, the One Who Is, and the like. We can direct our prayers to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but we must remember that we are directing all those prayers to the Triune God whom Jesus called, “Father.” In particular, we don’t pray to other god’s, natural forces, new age figures, crystals, or the like, Just the God of Love revealed in Christ.
  • Second, we should pray from the heart. Jesus tells his disciples to pray in secret (Matthew 6:6). He does so to remind them (and us) not to pray to show off, show how spiritual we are, try to gain the praise of other people, show off our personal prayer language, or for any reason other than to communicate with God. Although we use our minds as we pray, it is our heart connecting to the heart of God that is at stake in prayer. This is why silent prayer and contemplative prayers are still prayers: our human heart is connecting with the divine heart of God.
  • Third, we should be careful about “babbling” (Matt. 6:7). We should not pray words just to be seen praying words, nor should we think that we are going to get a better response from God just because we use a lot of words. Christians should pray rationally, that is reasonably. We should be careful not to pray nonsense or repeat a request 1000 times, hoping to force God’s hand. We should not make our prayer life a time of emotional self-exposure, irrational, or showing off. If occasionally overcome with emotion, we pray an especially emotional prayer, that’s fine. If on occasion we repeat a phrase or a request, that is fine. If we have a deep prayer for a family member or ourselves that we must pray over and over for years, that is fine. Jesus’ instructions were not meant to be hard and fast rules, but things to do and avoid doing.

The Two Tablets of the Lord’s Prayer

Having given some basic teaching on what prayer should be like, Jesus gave his disciples (and us) an example in a prayer we all know as the Lord’s Prayer. [4]  In its historic form it goes like this:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, 
Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those that trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, 
For ever and ever.  Amen. [5]

Pastors, scholars and others have noticed that it is possible to understand the prayer as divided into two halves, much like the Ten Commandments, with one half being about our relationship with God and the other half being about ourselves and our needs. [6] It begins by invoking “Our Father who art in Heaven.” This is meant to indicate that we are not praying to a force, to an impersonal deity, but to a person, our Heavenly Father who loves us and who can be trusted to hear our prayers. Because God is personal, we believe he hears and responds to prayers, even of the answer is “no” or “not yet.”

When we pray “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” we are recognizing and invoking the God who gave us his Name on Mt. Sinai and who is absolutely holy and who we should recognize as absolutely holy. This means that God is wholly other, different from us, not under our control, and not subject our complete scrutiny. In the end, we cannot fully understand God. We can only worship God. God’s holiness also means that God is uncontaminated by sin, self-interest at the expense of others, and limitations or flaws. Therefore, God can be trusted to hear and respond to our prayers in love.

Second, we pray for God’s Kingdom to come “on earth as it is in Heaven.” This is where the Gospel and discipleship begin to enter into our prayers in an important way. When we pray for God’s Kingdom to come we are praying that God’s mercy, wisdom, justice, peace, and love would come into our broken world. We pray that old divisions be healed, that wars cease, that the poor, widows, and others in need be taken care of, that those unjustly imprisoned be released, that those who are being treated unfairly be treated fairly. We pray that our world would become like heaven itself. This is a time when we can speak to God about big issues, war, peace, government, and the like. Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and every day we should pray for that kingdom to come to us in some way that day.

Third, having prayed to God for big things, we pray for ourselves. When we pray for our daily bread, we pray for the necessities of life. We pray for the things we need for ourselves, our family, our friends, our neighbors, and those we love and care about. This prayer brings our faith into the very smallest, ordinary, common needs of our life. We all need clothing, food, shelter, family wholeness, and other things.

Fourth, we pray to forgive those who have wronged us. If the first prayers we have are for physical needs, our second prayers are for our moral and emotional needs, our need to be forgiven and to forgive others. Jesus warns his disciples that it is not healthy to hold grudges. It is not healthy not to forgive others. In fact, if we cannot bring ourselves to forgive others, it interferes with our prayers for forgiveness (Matt. 7:14-15). Our personal wholeness is deeply related to achieving relational wholeness with God and others.

Just as those who have wronged us need forgiveness, we also need forgiveness. In this regard, God reminds us that if we expect to be forgiven, we had best get about the business of forgiving others. Since we are all flawed in some way and hurt others, forgiving others is a part of our solidarity with the entire human race filled with fallen, flawed, and finite people, just like us.

Finally, we pray to be delivered from evil. We live in a fallen world, and sin and temptation are ever-present realities. When we pray to be delivered from evil, we are praying that God will rescue us from our own sin and from the sin that surrounds us. Among contemporary Christians, this can be a neglected prayer. We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being able to handle the circumstances of life, including those that are less than healthy. This prayer to be delivered from evil is a recognition of the limits of our human goodness and power to resist temptation.

The Power of Prayerfulness

Prayer is part of God meeting our needs. Through prayer, God protects us where we need protection, changes us where we need change, and allows us to be part of bringing God’s kingdom into the world. Most importantly, however, prayer is about building and growing in our relationship with God in Christ. In 2015, I took a sabbatical. Every day that summer, I spent a significant amount of time reading my Bible, reflecting in my journal, contemplating Scripture and the problems of our family and our congregation. More than once, I spent an entire morning praying. It was one of the most important things about the time. It had a big impact on my life and ministry.

Jesus was a person of prayer and so was the apostle Paul. Paul knew firsthand the power of prayer. Here is what he wrote to Timothy, his “child in the Lord” near the end of his life:

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men – the testimony given in its proper time (I Timothy 2:1-6).

For Paul, prayer was the source of spiritual growth, of political stability, of salvation, of peace. In prayer, the power of God is brought to bear upon the human condition. Paul desired that prayers be made for all people, and especially for those in authority, with the goal that Christians and the rest of the world live in peace. It is particularly important in our prayers that we recognize, as Paul did, that God does not play favorites. God wants all human being to be saved and in a deep relationship of love and wisdom with the Eternal. God wants all human beings to know Christ and the power of the work Christ did on the Cross for all humanity. The Cross was a testimony, revealing to the world God’s message of salvation available for everyone. IT was an act of love and of solidarity between God and the world (John 3:16-17). The life of prayer is fundamentally a process of being drawn as a disciple into the wisdom and love of God for the benefit of the disciple who prays and for the world Christ loves and desires to be in everlasting fellowship with God. Our prayer life, in the last analysis, is a part of the process of being filled with the self-giving, transforming wisdom and love of God.

Prayerfulness and the Crisis of Discipleship

At its foundation, a crisis of discipleship is a crisis of prayer. The power of God is not unleashed into the world by human strategies, human programs, human philosophies, or human actions. The power of God is unleashed through prayer by the power of the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts records that, when the early church prayed, “the place where they were meeting was shaken” (Acts 4:31). When the Holy Spirit comes, the power of God is present, and our lives, families, churches, and communities are shaken by the power of God’s love. This is not a human shaking. It is a shaking produced by the love and wisdom of God entering into the lives of people and into the organizations and situations in which they find themselves.

The churches of the Northern Hemisphere have relied upon cultural support, financial affluence, advertising, charismatic leadership, and a host of human programs rather than upon the Spirit of God. In the era we are now entering, none of those things will enable the church to survive and prosper without prayer and the kind of deep faith that prayer produces. Until then, there will continue to be a crisis of discipleship.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] One of the most fascinating of the attempts to explain away the spiritual dimension of life is found in the occasional articles that proclaim that a group of scientists have “found the God part of the human brain and now can explain religious experience. Human beings are complex psychosomatic (mind and body) creatures. It is, therefore, to be expected that, for human beings to have any awareness of the transcendent, there must be some physical and mental capacity for such awareness. The capacity to be aware of an object, in this case God, is a requirement for such awareness to develop. See, Sharon Begley, “Science Finds God” https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/newsweek/science_of_god/scienceofgod.htm?noredirect=on (Downloaded July 15, 2019). The very fact that human beings have the capacity for faith in God and for prayer to an unseen God is evidence that there is a reality behind this capacity.

[2] The “False Self” is a construction of the human ego designed to project an acceptable persona to others. This constructed False Self divides a person from the True Self, preventing psychological and spiritual wholeness. The human propensity to create a “False Self” is a coping mechanism resulting from our sense of insecurity and inadequacy, usually stemming from the anxieties of childhood, youth, and adolescence. From a religious perspective, our False Self ultimately derives from alienation from God due to pride and selfishness, unwillingness to accept who God has made us, and failure to recognize God’s ultimate trustworthiness to redeem and bless his creatures and creation. Example: I lift up myself because I am prideful but I try to not let my pride show. This is a false representation of who I am. I am a prideful sinner and I hope to not reveal this truth to others.

[3] George A. Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville, TN: Cokesbury/Abingdon Press, 1942). It is still in print, but it is often reproduced in small type. Its style is dated to a time when people liked longer paragraphs and more complex writing than most of us enjoy today. Several years ago, I tried to read it again and had great difficulty keeping my mind on it!

[4] Bonhoeffer devotes an entire chapter to the Lord’s Prayer in Cost of Discipleship. See, Cost of Discipleship, 180ff. This discussion follows both Bonhoeffer’s discussion and that of John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. See, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 2 John T. McNeill, ed. Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.3.34 ff.

[5] See, Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4. In this essay, I have used a version found in the confessions and prayer books of certain churches, that the older, more traditional language. As a matter of fact, my churches use a more contemporary version, particularly one in which the word, “Trespasses” is translated “Sin” or “Debts.”

[6] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downer’s Grove, Ill: IVP Press, 1978), 146

11. Disciples Have a Way of Life

Being a disciple of Jesus involves more than recognizing who Jesus is. It involves adopting the way life of life Jesus lived. The Great Commission does more than ask disciples to witness to Christ. It asks Christians to teach new believers “to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). This involves teaching the Christian life by word and example (I Peter 5:3). Just words are not enough. [1]

A Tradition of Wisdom and Love

Much contemporary teaching about evangelism and discipleship implicitly indicates that, to be a good disciple of Christ, you need to be “radical.” In a culture that celebrates extreme individualism, this kind of approach can be attractive, especially to young people. A negative aspect of this approach is that it implicitly implies that ordinary people, who have conventional lives, and spend most of their time with family, at work, and among friends must completely alter their lives and change what they are doing in order to be true, disciple-making, followers of Christ. This is largely untrue.

This does not mean that we Christians do not need to change a few things about how we live, work, and relate to others. As previously indicated, a deeply pragmatic and skeptical culture will be more impressed by how we live and than by what we say.  As disciples, we are called to live wisely, love others unconditionally, and follow Christ. As we follow Jesus, our lives will change, but that may or may not mean that we change our careers, friendships, basic lifestyle, location, and the like. After becoming Christians, many people continue to live where they formerly lived, in the career and occupation they formerly had, now sharing God’s love with their family, neighborhood, community, friends, and fellow-workers in a new way. This has been true throughout history.

The “radical” ideal of Christianity is an import from the inherently radical nature of the Enlightenment mentality with its reflexive notion that what previously existed (tradition) is corrupt and backward. [2] But what is to come (revolutionary change) is better. From the French revolution forward, this has led to disaster after disaster, and currently in the West, to the increasing dissolution of Western civilization. Into this cauldron of often mindless change, Christians are called to defend a kind of wise and loving personal and communal order. Some things do need to change, but a lot of things don’t. What needs to change is anything that prevents us from living wisely and with self-giving love toward God and others.

People of the Way

The earliest name for Christians was “People of the Way” (Acts 9:2). The first Christians, most of whom had lived lives structured by the Law of Moses and Jewish customs, found in Christ a new way to God by faith in Christ. This new way did not involve following a lot of external rules. Nevertheless, this new approach did not mean that the moral aspects of the law of Moses were eliminated (Romans 6). The new way involved a relationship with God in Christ, a relationship in which disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to live wisely in loving relationships with God and others (Romans 8). As people of the Way, our ordinary, day-to-day lives are to shine with the power of God’s Spirit of Wisdom and Love. The earliest Christians saw in Jesus not just a new way to experience forgiveness of sins, but also a new way of living in relationship and in harmony with God and others.

Jesus summarized this way of life as characterized by loving God and others. When asked what was the greatest of the commandments, Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39). Living out the love of God in our day-to-day lives is the primary duty of the Christian. Everything else flows from this first decision—the decision for unselfish, self-giving love.

Salt and Light

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has these words for his disciples:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16).

These words remind us that it is not just what we say that matters; what we do matters even more. We are not to just talk about salt and light. We are to be salt and light. We are to shine with the light of Christ. It is not only what we say that will cause people to praise God. It is what they see and experience in and through us that matters.  [3]

Salt is a physical mineral. Light illuminates the world and allows us to see where we are going. Salt gives flavor and is a healing agent. Light is also an antiseptic and healing agent, as well as a source of illumination. Jesus described himself as “The Light of the World, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). To be a disciple is both to walk in the light that is Christ and to reflect that light into the world (Matthew 5:14).

To be a disciple of Jesus is to both experience the love of God in Christ and reflect that love into the world. Jesus wants us to live in such a way that we are a preservative and healer of the foolishness and brokenness of the world. He wants us to have a kind of wisdom in the way we love others that that we become a kind of light that shines into the darkness (Philippians 2:15). It is that light, the light of God shining in our lives that can and should attract people. This is not so much radical as it is entirely unexpected, but fundamentally the wisest and best way to live.

A Matter of Grace

All of this might sound legalistic until we remind ourselves that we are saved by grace, and it is God’s grace that empowers us to live the Christian life (Ephesians 2:8-9). In my experience, and in the experience of many Christians, the first step towards hypocrisy is to forget the role of grace, God’s mercy, and gift of the Spirit in our daily Christian life. When we forget our dependence on God’s grace, sooner or later we lose that intimate fellowship with God that allows us to live in the Way of Christ and share that way with others. God by his mercy calls us into a relationship with Christ, and we cannot live the Christian life without the presence and power of God sustaining our spiritual life.

When we allow God to illuminate and empower us by the Holy Spirit, we reflect the light and the healing power of God in our day-to-day lives. Of course, we fail and fall short—not only from time to time, but a lot of the time! Nevertheless, if we remain in Christ, and continue to live on the basis of grace, if we continue to ask God to enter our lives and transform us, we do make progress in the Christian life. When I am teaching about the life of grace, I like to say, “I am not the person I ought to be, but thank God I am also not the person I used to be!” This is what we should all aspire to daily: Thank God we are not the people we were yesterday, or last week, or last month, or last year. We are making progress because of the Spirit of God working in us.

Theologians, have ways of talking about how God allows us to grow in Christ. They talk first about the “Means of Grace.” The Means of Grace is a way of describing how God works in our lives so that we grow in Christ. These means of Grace are important because it is how we remain connected to the source of our new life in Christ. The Way of Life of a Christian is largely a way of Grace Empowered Living.

Christ in Us the Hope of Glory

Of course, the primary means by which we become and grow as a disciple is in a relationship with the Word made Flesh. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship with him, and Christians ever since have called people into such a relationship with Jesus. This relationship changes us from the inside out. Paul begins his letter to the Colossians by reminding the Colossians who Jesus was and is. He is the very image of God (1:15). He is the vehicle through whom the universe and everything in it was made (1:16). He is the head of the church, those called out by God to proclaim his glory (1:18). He is the one who reconciles creation and people to one another so that God’s peace can prevail (1:19-20. He is the source of forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God the Father (1:21). In Christ, our old life is put to death and we receive a new life (3:1). He is the Logos, the Word of God, who embodies the wisdom by whom and through whom everything was made (John: 1:3). Christian faith is not irrational or foolish, but rational in the deepest possible way—a way the world sometimes thinks is foolish.

In response to what God has done, believers live a different kind of life—because a different kind of life, the life of God, is growing up inside of us. This putting on of a new life is described both as a dying to an older kind of life, characterized by passions, immorality, evil desires, greed, covetousness, malice, slander of others, and obscenity and the like, and the growth of a new kind of life characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, and the like (Galatians 5:17-21). As we overcome the dark side of our personalities, we begin to experience a new kind of life. Here is how Paul describes this new life:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:12-17).

Notice that it is not primarily behaviors that Paul urges on the Colossians but spiritual qualities people receive as they remain in a relationship with Christ. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love are spiritual qualities we receive by grace as we allow Christ to work in our hearts. Growing in Christ involves behaviors, however, most importantly it involves developing new spiritual qualities.

Sacraments: Baptism

The Christian life begins with Baptism. God works in our lives through his Word, that is through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. God also works in our lives through what are called, “Sacraments” or “Sacred Acts.” When we come to believe in Christ, we are baptized. In some groups, parents baptize their children when quite small as a sign that God is already working his salvation in their lives. If a new believer has never been baptized, they are baptized a sign of their new faith.

Some denominations baptize only adults on profession of faith. Even if there has been an infant baptism, in many cases a believer will want to renew that baptism in a Renewal of Baptism service that is much like a baptism, except that it is a renewal of a prior baptism and not a baptism. [4] The purpose of this discussion is not to take a theological side, but to indicate that some form of baptism is practiced in all Christian fellowships.

In any sacrament, there is an outward sign. In the case of baptism, the physical sign is water. Some groups immerse, some groups pour the water on a new believer, and some groups sprinkle. However, the water is administered, it signifies our leaving our old life and the new life we have in Christ because of the cleansing power of God.

One of the first things we should do when we become a Christian, and encourage others to do when they accept Christ, is experience the sacred rite and mystery of baptism, as we celebrate new life in Christ and profess our faith to the world. If we were baptized as children or even earlier in our lives as adults, it may be important to “own” the new life we have received by publicly renewing our baptism. [5]

Some years ago, a lady in our congregation married a man who had been in her life some years earlier. She had always remembered and loved him. When he left, he was in a lifestyle that was not Christian by any definition of the word. Years later, God brought them back together and him back into the community of faith. This person became a friend, prayer partner, and fellow worker in our congregation and in a Christian ministry in our area. One of the great privileges of my life was the day we baptized my friend! We used to see each other almost weekly, and once or twice a year, we would take time to remember that “sacred moment” in his life when he publicly declared his faith in Christ and his commitment to be a disciple of Christ.

Word-Centered Worship

When the Word of God is read, taught, and proclaimed, God works profoundly in the human mind and heart. This is why Paul says that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). This “hearing” is not any hearing, but a hearing of the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love. Reading and hearing the word of God, studying the Bible, memorizing Scripture, and allowing Scripture to form the way we see and react to the world is a very important part of discipleship. We cannot grow in discipleship unless we grow in our understanding of the story of God’s people.

Although hearing the word read in Scripture is of supreme importance, hearing it preached and taught is also important. This aspect of growing in discipleship reminds us that it is not enough to simply read the Word on our own. We also need to hear God’s Word in the company of others who are also growing in faith. Listening to the Word of God in Scripture allows us to hear its meaning for our lives through the voice and in the words of another person, often the pastor or teacher of a Bible study. It allows us to respond with others who have also heard the word together with us. Finally, hearing the Word taught or preached by another person, who may know more about this particular passage, and who probably studied the passage in connection with preparing to speak, reminds us that our private interpretation and response to Scripture, as important as it is, must be disciplined and clarified by the opinions and responses of others.

All of this means that a disciple will be regular in worship and in attending Bible studies from time to time. We cannot enter the communal life of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without living and learning in community with the people God who have responded to God’s call to show his light and love in the world. Although in Protestant worship services the Word is at the center of worship, it is like a jewel in a precious setting. The calls to worship, the songs and hymns sung, the prayers of the people, the common confession of sin, baptism, the Lord’s Supper—all these things deepen our walk with Christ.

When was younger, I went through a period when I did not attend worship and was not a part of a Christian community. Not surprisingly, I drifted away from the Way of Christ. While Christians believe that it is possible to live the Christian life without living within and worshiping as part of the community of faith, ordinarily this cannot and should not happen. Most of us can take time to worship God regularly. We can hear the Word in community with others. We should thank God we can, for there are those who because of age, infirmity, or other necessity cannot.

Sacraments: The Lord’s Supper

Once you are a part of a Christian church, sooner or later you are certain to participate in a Communion Service. Different groups have different names for such a service. In Catholic Churches it is called the “Eucharist.” In Protestant congregations it is called the “Lord’s Supper” or “Communion.” In one way or another, Christians believe their faith is strengthened by this service of remembrance and spiritual participation in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. God is present to believers by the power of the Holy Spirit in a special way when we share the Lord’s Supper together.

Just as with baptism, different groups have differing ideas of what is happening when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For the purpose of growing as a disciple it is not so much important which group is correct concerning how the Lord’s Supper acts as a means of grace, but the sheer fact that it does. Some congregations celebrate communion weekly. Others celebrate communion monthly, quarterly, annually, or on some other schedule. Disciples make every effort to receive communion whenever it is offered in a way consistent with their particular tradition.

Some groups have a similar service called a “Love Feast” that small groups within their fellowship celebrate a meal in which the love of Christ and the unity of the group are celebrated. Love Feasts are not communion services for those groups in which an ordained clergy must be present for the Lord’s Supper to be celebrated. In whatever case, remembering and contemplating the love of God present in Christ strengthens our faith. [6]

Public and Private Prayer

Because the life of discipleship is a life of relationship with God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, the life of a disciple is strengthened and deepened by the habit of prayer. Once again, prayers should and will be said in worship, in small groups, and in other places where Christians gather. Nevertheless, daily private prayer is one of the most important ways in which we grow in discipleship.

In the beginning of our Christian walk, our prayers may be selfish and even a bit simple. That is fine. When a small child begins to talk, his or her conversations are not complicated or deep. However, as a child grows and matures, his or her ability to communicate grows and deepens. This is true also of the life of faith. Once again, this particular part of the Christian life is of such importance that it is discussed in more detail in a later chapter. For now, it is important to encourage the practice of communal and private prayer in the life of every disciple.

For Christians, prayer is not a means to an end, but a conversation with the Friend of All Friends—God. As we spend time with God, our friendship deepens and grows. In the beginning, we may ask for things that our friend thinks harmful or destructive. Over time, we will learn that fact about our friend. In the beginning, when prayers are not answered, we may think our friend has deserted us. Only much later will we know that our friend is present even in his silence and immovable intention not to answer a particular prayer. In the end, we will have something more important than simple answered prayers. We will have. A deep relationship with God.

Works of Love

Jesus involved his disciples in his own work of love to the world. [7] The Gospels and Acts reflect the disciples doing acts of healing and of mercy towards others. Although God is interested in our spiritual growth, we are physical creatures and self-giving love, the most important virtue of a Christian, by its nature must be enacted. In fact, experience teaches that those who never put their faith into practice serving God and others, don’t grow.

Therefore, every disciple needs to develop the habits of serving others in some way. These acts of service can be both personal, such as giving to the needs of others, personal actions of mercy, visiting the sick, caring for those in need, and the like, and public, such as being involved in solving social problems, overcoming injustices, and the like. As we change our priorities and move out of a life of selfish self-seeking and into a life of loving service to others, we grow in discipleship.

My duties as a pastor often caused me to be in my study a good bit of the week. I found that, if I did not take time to visit the sick, to be involved in some ministry outside of our congregation and serve others, sooner or later I began to feel dry and my faith became joyless. The best cure for this problem was and is to get up and do something for someone else. I think that this is true of nearly all Christians. In order to grow in our faith, we need to put that faith to work in acts of love. In addition, as has been emphasized already, when we put our faith to work, people, including unbelievers, take notice.

Walking the Walk as Well as Talking the Talk

The bottom line is this: if we are to lead other people, and especially new believers, into a deeper walk with Christ, we must be attentive to our own discipleship and to ways in which we can draw others more deeply into a life of discipleship. Assuming we regularly attend church, one sure way for us to help another person internalize the Word and participate in the Sacraments is to invite them to join us at church or a discipleship group. The same is true of Bible studies, prayer groups, and other Christian ministries in which we participate.

Once again, new and old disciples, like children, “catch” more than they are “taught” what it means to be a disciple. If we regularly visit the sick, give to the needs of the less fortunate, manage our lives with wisdom and prudence, are involved in making our neighborhoods, cities, and nation a better, fairer, and more just place to live, those we know, including those we are discipling are sure to see what we are doing.

Many years ago, as a layperson and an elder in a local congregation, I had the habit of visiting people who were sick in our Sunday school class. I did not always visit, but I did visit a good bit. Over the years, people have mentioned to me how much that meant to them. Years later, when I was in seminary, one of our members had a very serious heart attack. Although I wrote a card, I could not visit. I was heartbroken that I could not visit my friend. Other people in his Sunday school class did visit my friend and his spouse. Others saw what was being done, and I am sure that many years later, people are visiting the sick without being told or asked because they saw it modeled.

My father-in-law was in the food business. After he retired, he developed the habit of going around town to the bakeries in Houston and picking up bread and other items. He then distributed them to certain local ministries. This was his way of actively serving the body of Christ even though he was retired and beyond the time when he could do many things he had always done. We all need to have such ministries of care and compassion.

One of my good friends was a successful business person in a very competitive business. He was a good businessman. As the leader of his company, he also demonstrated the love of Christ in his dealings with others in business. Our secular occupations, if we have one, can be the best witness we make for Christ. Some time ago, I attended a funeral for a High School coach. I watched as men of all ages went to the lectern to testify to the difference this person made in their lives. This person’s work was his mission field.

Hidden for All the World to See

Some people think that faith should be a private thing. There is a sense in which that is true. One step on the road to hypocrisy is the step of making our faith too much a public matter so that we feel we must continually be seen as religious. No one likes a religious show off. On the other hand, no one will ever be moved by us to enter God’s family unless they see it lived out and hear the Gospel in some way. Perhaps the best way to think of how we might present the Gospel in our lives is to make our faith, “hidden for all the world to see.”

In addition to a faith that is hidden for all the world to see, we also need to have a faith that is publicly proclaimed for all the world to hear. There is something about hearing the testimony of some person who is been touched by God that changes both of them and everyone who hears that testimony. Speaking out into the world what God has done for us is an important part of being a disciple.

In Acts 3, there is a wonderful story about a healing involving Peter and John. One day, Peter and John were going to the Temple to pray. As they came to the Temple Gate, there was a lame man. When the man saw Peter and John, he asked for money. Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, look at the man and said, “Silver and gold have I none but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk” (v. 6). Then, he took a man by the hand and lifted him up and the man was healed. The story ends like this:

“He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (vv. 8-10).

The result of this man’s willingness to respond to God’s healing by walking, jumping, and praising God was that not only did he receive a blessing, but everyone who knew him received a blessing and a sign that God was present. If we keep our Christian faith a secret, if we keep what God has done for us a secret, then we’ve been blessed what the world has not been blessed. If we are willing to share all that God is done then we are blessed and the world is blessed.

We should never be afraid to share our faith. We should never be afraid to share what God has done for us. We should never be afraid to “walk and leap and praise God” for the salvation he has promised us (Acts 3:6). In Memphis our church was a part of a ministry called the “Great Banquet.” The Great Banquet is a three-day retreat designed to deepen Christian faith and leadership. As a part of the weekend, I have the opportunity to hear many testimonies. The Biblical content of the talks on a weekend were actually outlined for us. We have to say what was supposed to be said in the talk. On the other hand, we were asked to share a portion of our personal testimony as a part of our talk.

Now here’s an interesting fact: I have given a lot of talks, and I’ve heard hundreds of talks. I have prepared about two dozen teams for the weekends, and have heard the talks during the training sessions. Despite all of that I don’t remember the exact Biblical or theological content of many of the talks. I do, however, remember almost every personal testimony. I remember every story of salvation. I remember every marriage that was healed, every addict healed from addiction, every criminal who went straight, every housewife who prayed for a child, every man who ever prayed for a spouse. Those testimonies are more important to me theological content of the talk. When we tell others about our salvation, we are doing a great thing. Testimonies of what God has done in our lives is prove to a skeptical world the Christian faith is more than just words. God is more than just a distant principal or master mathematician who created the heavens and the earth. Instead, God is an active participant in his creation and in the lives of his people. He is always working to bring love and more wisdom into the lives of his people and into the universe he created.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Portions of this chapter are drawn from Salt & Light, previously cited, Lesson 10, 99-103.

[2] Tradition matters. I have been a pastor for a long time. My churches have all had some form of contemporary worship. Interestingly, while I love contemporary worship, I deeply appreciate the liturgical worship of my Catholic and Episcopalian friends. Many weeks, I take time to attend a worship service that connects me to a way of life that is hundreds of years old. Tradition has much to say for itself. This is not only true regarding worship, but regarding a lot of other things as well. The question is, “How should be change to live more like Jesus and the apostles?”

[3] Bonhoeffer has an entire chapter of Cost of Discipleship devoted to an exposition of Matthew 5:13-16. See, Cost of Discipleship, previously cited Chapter 7, 120-134.

[4] Most groups that practice infant baptism do not rebaptize people. Theologically, the reason is that because the person was baptized once, and because God is sovereign and faithful to his promises, there is no need to rebaptize and to do so infers that God was not faithful to the first promise made by the parents. Nevertheless, even in these cases, many congregations perform a renewal of baptism service. In one of my former churches virtually all the young people renewed their baptismal vows at confirmation.

[5] In this book, I am taking no position on the question whether infant or believer baptism is the correct understanding of the sacrament or on how the sacraments work. This differs among different groups, and this group of essays is not intended to defend any particular theological position.

[6] Once again, the role and proper method of receiving the sacrament is the subject of differing theological views and denominational practice. This book is intended to help people find a deeper walk, whatever their denominational (or non-denominational) background. Some Reformed pastors, for example, do not believe in “love feasts” or “renewal of baptism” services. My advice to new Christians is to follow the tradition into which God has called you. My advice to disciple-makers is to follow the guidelines of your particular church related to the sacraments.

[7] In Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer emphasizes that disciples are not called out of the world but into the world. “The disciple must not only think of heaven; they have an earthly task as well” Id, at 130. This earthly task is both our secular occupation and other service to God in the world. There can be no real discipleship until and unless the entire being of the disciple and all that the disciple does is for God and the well-being of others.

10. Disciples Have a Family

Christians are meant to be part of a family. We are meant to live like a family, in community with other Christians, sharing our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our dashed hopes and dreams, our worries, and our cares. The church, with is the community of those who have responded to the call of Jesus to come and follow him, is not something optional. It is essential. Becoming a part of the community of Christ is basic to becoming and being a growing disciple of Christ.

The Bible uses many metaphors for God’s community of discipleship. The Church is “Body of Christ;” the “City of God;” the “People of God;” the “Family of God.” When Jesus came to display the wisdom and love of God in human form, he did not so it alone. He chose a small group of followers and poured his life into them. He created a community of disciples. During his lifetime, the little group grew. When he ascended into heaven, his group of disciples grew into the church as we know it today. Of all the metaphors, the one most near to most Christians is that of the Family of God. We all come from human families. Even if our human family is not functional, we need a functional divine family.

In an individualistic culture, it is tempting to think of the church as a voluntary society of like-minded people formed to advance a set of beliefs. This is not the best way to think of the church. The church is a family. Our families existed before we existed, just as the church existed before we became members—or even believed in Christ. Just as we grow up in a family, we grow up in the family of God. The church is a family in which the children are disciples of Christ growing into a deeper relationship with God.

Christians will never reach the late modern or emerging post-modern world with words or ideas alone. After lives are changed and people commit to Christ, the details of our theologies, doctrines, and programs have a role to play, but not before. In a world that no longer believes in truth, ideas have no power separated from changed lives. In a world that no longer believes in morality, moral theology has no power to change people until they have received a new heart from God. In a world that no longer believes in beauty, words about beauty have no power until people have experienced God’s beauty. In a world of isolation and loneliness, people will never be motivated to become part of God’s community until and unless they experience the reality of that community. The world needs to see lives that are being changed for the better.

Discipling Groups as Families of Christian Growth

All our married life, Kathy and I have been members of discipling groups. We met in a Bible study. When we were a young couple, we were in Bible studies with other young couples. Each of us has been a part of small discipling groups with men and women separately over the years. When I worked as a lawyer, I sometimes had a small group in my law office. When we went to seminary, I met weekly with a group of fellow students and Kathy grew in fellowship with a group of women.

Since entering full-time ministry, both of us have been part of discipling groups. For eighteen years, I met with several men weekly. For many years, I taught a year-long Bible Study for no more than eighteen people. Those groups met for nine months. Often, our churches sponsored short-term groups that meet for six or so weeks. Most recently, Kathy and I led “Salt & Light Groups” in our local church. The size and length of the group is not what matters. It is the love of the group and the teaching and example of its leaders that matters.

Some years ago, we became part of a renewal movement that encourages the formation of small accountability groups, and over the years we have been members of several such small groups. We’ve led other discipling groups in our home and at church. We’ve always been members of Sunday School classes. We’ve attended special groups to learn special skills such as child-raising or how to manage our money.

Each of these groups changed our lives in some important way. Along the way, we’ve grown, helped others, made life-long friends, and experienced the joy of Christ. Just as Jesus was lifted up into heaven and was no longer physically with his disciples, most of these groups eventually disbanded as people moved along in life, but each person in each group remains a precious memory. Some of the members of these groups keep in touch after as much as thirty years apart!

As this was initially being written, we joined a couple we’ve known for over thirty years for a social outing. We’ve never attended the same church. In fact, we belong to very different churches. However, when we were young, for a few weeks, they attended a weekly Bible Study in our home. The friendship created years ago emerges every time we are together. The day before, another couple dropped by our house with their grandchildren. Once again, we met in a discipling group many years ago. Today, we are still Christian friends, helping one another grow and face the new challenges of a new stage of life. The love of discipling groups is a kind of love that never ends because it was not primarily a human love but a divine encounter.

Interpersonal Relationships Imitating a Personal God

Christians celebrate and worship God who exists in an intimate, self-giving, life-transforming relationship. God not only reveals himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in some mysterious way, God exists as one essential personal being in three distinct persons. These divine persons have an unbroken relationship of eternal, perfect, self-giving love. In other words, God exists as a community (a family) of self-giving mutual love. Within God’s community of love, there exists both individuality (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and relationship (Divine, Self-Giving Love).

This has profound implications for the Christian life:

  1. If God exists in a relationship of love, then there is no being a Christian without being in a relationship of love with God and other people.
  2. As persons who are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), we were made for deep, loving, wise, and powerful life changing relationships – with God, with other human beings, and with creation.
  3. The church is made up of people in a Christ-centered relationship with one another. A church that is merely a place for so inclined people to meet on Sunday morning, sit in pews, sing, and listen to a talk, is not the church God God meant the church to be a place where people are in relationship with God and with one another. A church is not a worship service. A church is a group of disciples called to live together and demonstrate to the world God’s love. [1]
  4. Since God is love, and the love God showed when he “sent his only son” (John 3:16) eternally exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, it is only as we exist in communities of love that the Church can be the body of Christ it was intended to be. This love is not a love based upon attractiveness, or other human qualities or worthiness. It is a pure self-giving love, which Jesus demonstrated for us on the cross.
  5. Finally, the very names of the divine person: Father, Son and Holy Spirit encourage us to see God existing as a family. This is exactly the relationship Jesus claims and models with his disciples. When Jesus says that he desires the disciples to be one just as the Father and he are one (John 17:20-21), he is praying that we might enter the family of God and become participants in the self-giving love of God. In other words, he is making us part of God’s eternal family. When John calls believers, “Children of God” (I John 3:1), he indicates that by faith in Christ and participation in his body, reflecting the love of God in our lives and in our life together, we become part of God’s family.

Jesus: Our Model

Jesus was the greatest transformational community builder in history. He called twelve average people. He saw their potential. He trained them. He lived with them as if they were his family. He loved them enough to give his life for them (and us), just as if they (and we) were his biological children. In the end, he called his disciples, “Brothers.” The disciples had become a part of his divine family. Then, he set them loose to change the world and build the same kind of community wherever they went. They did exactly that.

How did Jesus do this? Here are some concrete things he did:

  1. He called the group into being (See Mark 1:17).
  2. He shared his life with them (the entire four Gospels).
  3. He prayed for them (John 17:6ff).
  4. He taught them (Mark 1:21).
  5. He loved them (John 13:39).
  6. He rebuked them (Mark 9:36-39).
  7. He allowed them to lead (Mark 6:6-7).
  8. He gave his life for them (Mark 10:45).

In all of this, one fact stands out: A personal, intimate elationship with his disciples was important to Jesus. From beginning to end, his mission was conducted in and through relationships with people who were so close to him that they became like his family (Matthew 12:50). It is how Jesus conducted the most central part of his ministry: getting a small group of men and women ready for the day when they would lead others to faith in God the Father, who Jesus called “Abba,” or “Daddy,” by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ intention was to disciple those he met, so that they too would become children of God (John 1:12). This is not surprising, since in Christ the disciples were being called to become part of the family of God.

Jesus lived as part of a discipleship group as his disciples learned how to be a part of God’s family. It follows that every Christian should have a similar life-transforming experience. Small groups of believers call people into relationship with Christ and each other, allow people to share their Christian walk, deepen their prayer life, and experience life transforming community. These small groups are a source of Christian teaching, become places of loving care, are a source of guidance in difficult times, and a source of new leadership for a growing fellowship of Christians.

Life after the Resurrection

Life within God’s family of disciples after his Resurrection and Ascension is not identical with the life of discipleship when Jesus was physically present. When Jesus was physically present, his call was to come and physically follow and be with him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:2-11). Those who did not have the kind of faith necessary to leave all and follow him, did not become disciples. When Jesus ascended into heaven, the call of the apostles was to trust and believe in the Risen Christ and then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, follow Jesus, becoming a part of the little, and sometimes persecuted, fellowship of Christians. After the resurrection, the call is always first to have the kind of faith that follows a now invisible Jesus who is present in his people by the power of the Spirit.

After Jesus ascended into heaven, it was no longer possible to follow physically Jesus. Jesus, however, let his disciples know that while he would not be with them physically, he would be with them by the power of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:20). His manner of being with the family of disciples after the resurrection was going to be different than his manner of being with them before the resurrection. He would be invisibly present by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John, Jesus promises his disciples that he will not leave them as orphans without a parent. Instead he will come to them again and be with them in a new way (John 14:18). He tells them that it is a good thing that he is going away, because when he goes away, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will come to them and will both work in the world to bring people to faith and in the lives of his disciples bringing them all the knowledge they will need to have that Jesus could not tell them while physically present on earth (John 16:7-13).

The new way that Jesus will be with us is by dwelling within us by faith (Galatians 3:2). This faith will be shared, grow, and mature inside of the community of faith, and especially a small community of faith in which we have the freedom to grow and share our successes and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses, our gifts and where we are not gifted. When Christians develop such communities, we enter into the life of God and enable others to also experience and enter that life. This is why Jesus could say, “wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there are I with them” (Matt.18:20).

God’s Transforming Community

When people are drawn into God’s community of love, hopefully they find healing, acceptance, and physical examples of a better life, the barriers to the gospel in our society can be overcome. There is no other or easier way to share the gospel. People desire to see the gospel lived out in the lives of people they know and respect. In a world of hyper-individualism, where a consumer mentality dominates, and people are primarily interested in having their personal needs met, real transformational community is hard to build and maintain over time. It is only with difficulty that existing Christ-Followers can build little, authentic communities of believers.

Although it is tempting to talk about “small discipling group programs,” programs come after people. Groups come after community. Christians must desire to reach out and love and build community before community can be built by any strategy, however well thought out. Before people can or will respond and reach out with God’s love, hearts must be filled with the love of Christ and willingness to love others. This is the transformation that takes place at conversion and continues as we experience ongoing, transforming Christ-centered community.

During my early Christian years, I was blessed to be part of several smaller communities of Christian disciples. In some cases, we were almost all immature Christians. Nevertheless, we gathered weekly. We shared our lives. We shared times of worship. We shared prayer. We studied the Bible together. We read Christian literature. We tried to build Christian marriages together. We learned to manage our finances as Christians together. We raised our children as Christians together. We tried and failed a lot! But we kept on trying. We still are trying together. In the meantime, we built strong relationships that continue to this day.

People often ask whether or not I believe small group ministry is necessary. The answer is always “Yes!” Because of changes in our society, “worship center churches” that were important in the history of Christianity, including recent history, can no longer do the task of growing disciples without a strong community discipleship emphasis. Although a few churches will be able to grow as a result of worship excellence, Sunday school or other educational programs, the sheer busyness of people today make this difficult, especially in major metropolitan areas. In addition, most new churches and many churches in Western Europe and parts of the United States do not have the room to create expansive Sunday school programs. Therefore, bringing people together in small groups, primarily in homes, but in other places as well, is the best method to disciple them.

If we are to reach out and touch a “Culture of Death,” the culture and community dissolving end of the modern world, we need reach out in love, not just individually but as communities of believers. Discipleship is no longer the task of a few highly gifted people. It is the work of all Christians working together. While no strategy is possible without changed lives and Christians who desire to build life transforming community, the sheer number of people who need to hear the gospel and have the opportunity to grow in Christ requires some kind of programmatic solution—and small discipleship groups is the program most likely to succeed.

People Need Discipleship Groups

A fundamental principle of disciple-making is that all believers, and especially new believers, need to be part of a discipleship group, that is a small gathering of people who are seeking to grow in Christ. This was true of the first disciples, and it is true of us as well. Just as young children need a healthy family to grow up in, so also young Christians need a healthy, Christian family to grow up in. New believers need the experience of growing in Christ in an intimate fellowship of other people who are trying to grow in Christ as well.

In the ancient world, a disciple was a learner, someone who followed a teacher around and learned from them. The process was twofold: First, the disciple learned the information that teacher knew. Second, the disciple came to model the lifestyle of his teacher. For example, Socrates had a group of young men who followed him and learned from him. Plato, a disciple of Socrates, taught his disciples, one of whom was Aristotle, who himself formed a community of followers. In this way, the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were passed down. We need recover this ancient way of teaching people and changing lives. Modern universities excel at transmitting information. They are not as good at transmitting character. [2]

The internet and “online-learning” have made college and other educational opportunities available over the internet. There are even “online seminaries.” While these online educational opportunities are good for transmitting information and gaining credentials, they cannot, by their very nature, provide the kind of discipling Jesus modeled and wants. Jesus personally spent time with his disciples and they learned as much by what they observed as by what they were taught. There is an old saying that children “do as the see their parents doing, and not as their parents urge.” Disciples model themselves after older, more experienced disciples just as children, for better or for worse, model themselves after their parents.

A Family in a Culture that Does not Value Families

The family of God is important in a society that does not value family, and in which many people live and work far from their biological family. The form of life common in American and other cities increases loneliness and isolation among people. Many people live far from parents and siblings. Because of divorce and other factors, many people do not find loving community within their biological family, The structure of modern corporate society makes it necessary for some people to move and live away from their families, sometimes across the globe. With the advent of social media, many people have come to rely upon social media and electronic connection as a substitute for real human relationships.Finally, many people are working longer hours than in prior generations. The result is an epidemic of isolation and loneliness.

This loneliness is not healthy. In fact, it is pathological. If we human beings were meant for community, for deep and abiding relationships of deep care, then the modern structure of living is bound to leave most people unfulfilled and some people deeply wounded. If being fully human requires being in life giving relationships with God and others, then it is no surprise that the result of our society’s deconstruction of the family and of stable communities and neighborhoods has had a devastating impact on the mental, moral, and spiritual health of people.

When our society does provide community, that community is increasingly political or economic in nature. Unfortunately, jobs, corporations, business relationships, and the like can only provide a kind of limited social connection. Business does not love anyone as a person, only as an economic unit. Similarly, particularly among the young, belonging to social and political causes may provide some limited sense of connection. However, causes can only provide a limited amount of love, meaning and purpose. Our government and political organizations value us as citizens, not as children of God. Exercise classes, hobby groups, and other groups have similar limitations. Human beings were never meant to live as isolated individuals bound together only by work and the laws of a society. We were meant for deep, loving, wise, relationships.

Unfortunately, at just the moment in human history when the relational, family aspect of the local church is most needed, several factors have limited the ability of Christians to respond. First, over many generations, churches assumed that the loving community of the church would automatically permeate its fellowship. When most people lived in small towns, had relatively strong families, and attended churches in which their families had long and strong connections, church community grew naturally. Pastors and seminaries did not think that they needed to focus on the creation of life-transforming fellowship as a central duty. They assumed community would automatically result from the teaching and worship ministries of the local congregation. The massive transfer of population to major cities and the decline of small, community churches put an end to the effectiveness of this strategy.

Secondly, for most of the 20th Century, the major Christian denominations increasingly developed a corporate model of church operation and a professional model of pastoral formation. At the very moment when the sheer size and complexity of our culture was forcing people to live in large cities and in anonymous neighborhoods, and the natural ability of people to find spiritual nurture was declining, the church developed in a way that was not easily able to meet the changing reality of people’s lives. The corporate model no longer meets the deepest needs of people.

Finally, in the past many young people were not particularly active in church during their immediate post high school and college years, but when they had children, most returned to their local congregation or a similar congregation where they lived. Unfortunately, young people are delaying families longer and longer, and while they are delaying family formation, they are constantly bombarded with images of churches as judgmental, corrupt, interested only in money, and backward. Therefore, when confronted by the need for meaning, purpose, and community, they are unlikely to seek out the church for an answer to their deepest needs.

The only way to respond to these changes in contemporary society is to focus attention on the process of building life-transforming community and making and growing disciples within that community. This is not an easy task. It cannot be accomplished with slick advertising or any other corporate approach to church growth. It happens as people are drawn into a deliberate community that itself attempts to model the life of God among the peoples of the world. If we are to respond to the crisis of discipleship in our day, we must learn again what it means to be a part of the family of God—a family called to go and bring others into that family.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Bonhoeffer makes this point both in Cost of Discipleship, previously cited, and more directly in his earlier book, Life Together. See, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together tr. John Doberstein, (New York, NY: Harper One, 1954). Cost of Discipleship, previously cited, Chapter 7, 129-133 and Chapters 29-30, 263-304.

[2] It is important to remember that we are not called merely to transmit information to people. We are called to help people live a new kind of life as a disciple of Jesus. In a sense, every disciple is a child of those who helped that person grow in Christ and is the parent of those that they are discipling into the image of God-in-Christ.

 

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