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

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.

1o. 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.

 

9. Communicating the Gospel in a New Era

Part of the postmodern movement involves a change in the way people think, moving from an objective idea of truth, in which the observer is an uninvolved reporter, to a relational definition of truth in which understanding is created in a relationship between the observer and reality. [1] In this way of thinking, neither the observer nor the reality can be completely separated from the relationship they have with one another. From the perspective of Gospel communication, this can be positive, because it emphasizes conversation and dialogue. It moves disciple-makers from a purely “proclamation centered” view of sharing the gospel to a “conversational, relational centered” approach to evangelism. This change is consistent with the Biblical view that faith and understanding flow from a personal relationship between a relational, Triune God and the human race established through the Word of God by the Spirit.

Communicating and Community

The word, “communicate” has at the same root as the words, “community” and “communion”. We think of communication as something spoken or transmitted by words or symbols. This way of thinking reduces communication to the transmission of information. This can lead to an approach to sharing the gospel that is impersonal and unbiblical. Real communication is not just about information, it is about establishing a communion with another person while seeking to answer the deepest questions of their heart, spoken or unspoken.

Jesus, when he was amongst his disciples, was in an intense community with them. The disciples experienced more in this relationship than just Jesus as a transmitter of information. Jesus lived with him. He shared his life with him. He ate with them. He drank with them. The band of disciples was a kind of community in which the disciples found information, but also support, love, advice, and even the physical necessities of life. It was in this community that the Gospel was lived out and shared. When Jesus corrected his disciples, they knew he did so from love and friendship and for no other reason. Often, he knew what they really wanted to know even before they asked (See, Matthew 12:25; Mark 2:8; Luke 6:8; 11:17).

Non-Christians See What You Do as Much as Hear What You Say

In the area of child-raising, there is a saying that children “imitate what we do and not do what we say.” Every parent knows this is true. The disciples not only said what Jesus had said and communicated information to them, they lived out among new believers the way of life of Jesus lived. Jesus had established a community, and so did the disciples. Here is the way Paul describes it in one of his letters:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.  But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 22:18-24).

The Ephesians and other with whom Paul lived and ministered knew who Paul was and how Paul reacted to stress, conflict, opposition, threats and the like—not just from his words but from his actions and behavior. In times of conflict, Paul could write with authority to those who had lived in close proximity to him and knew of his heart for God and for them (See, 2 Corinthians 6:3-13). Paul’s effectiveness as a disciple-maker reflects his effectiveness as a builder of Christian community. Wherever the apostle went, he personally created and participated in little Christian communities in which people and lives were changed in relationship with Christ, him, and one another.

Postmodern Communication

As mentioned earlier, the modern world was inclined to see knowledge and information as paramount, and relationships as something good, but really only an “add-on” to the information conveyed or as something desirable for better communication. Increasingly, in the postmodern discipleship based upon this type of approach is not effective. From the insights of contemporary physics to communication theory, relationship is of paramount importance. This does not mean Christians do not believe that Jesus is the “Way, the Truth and the Life.” It means that we need new ways of communicating such information in the context of human relationships.

Postmodern people tend to be deeply pragmatic as well as relational. They, like our children, watch to see what difference faith makes before committing themselves to any belief system, including Christianity. In such a cultural environment, creating a relationship is as important as the message. People want to see the difference Christianity makes. This does not mean that the message is not important. It just means the relationship might be more important and longer lasting in its impact.

Just after the Second World War, the Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer moved to his family in Switzerland and created a community known as L’Abri. Over the years, many people came to L’Abri and participated in the community. Many came to Christ and became Christian leaders. Scholars have critiqued some of the things Schaeffer taught. However, it is not possible to deny the reality and importance of L’Abri as a healing community. [2]

Conversations and Dialogues

Contemporary disciple-making profits looking at the meaning of both “conversation” and “dialogue.”  The meaning of these terms illuminates the difference between the idea of truth as the result of critical analysis and a relational model of truth. The term “conversation” comes from a Latin root “con” or “with” in English and “vertere” which means to “turn” or “bend.” Interestingly, like the Hebrew word for knowledge, this particular word was used in the 1500s as a synonym for sexual intercourse, and also had a connotation of a household, a manner of conduct and behavior or way of life in a home. In other words, a conversation is an intimate, deeply human relational activity. A conversation is implicitly communal and intended to create communion. It involves a relationship in which two or more individuals share their thoughts and lives in such a way that an understanding that is cognitive, emotional, and spiritual results. Hopefully, in the conversation, their ideas, thoughts, and commitments will be “bent” toward each other.

The word “dialogue” has a similar derivation. The Greek roots of this term are “dia” meaning “through” and “logos” meaning “reason.” The process of dialogue happens when two or more persons share meaning through the exchange of views, and new understanding emerges as meaning is shared and reality illuminated by differing points of view. [3] For two people to enter into a dialogue is for each to commit to a mutual exchange of ideas and information in the search for a better understanding of reality. A dialogue implicitly seeks a truth, which the parties are humble enough to know requires sharing ideas, thoughts, and perspectives in order to achieve.

Human beings sometimes have dialogues with themselves as they conduct an internal conversation about a decision or problem. Sometimes people dialogue with one other person for example about a personal business situation. And, of course, we dialogue in a larger context in which many people participate. In fact, the reasoning of Congress or the governing body of a church is a dialogue of sorts.

Not so long ago, I was faced with many difficult decisions in a relatively short period of time. The future of an organization was at stake. Sometimes I would disappear for a long walk to clear my head. While gone, I would have an internal conversation about a problem. More frequently, the executive director of the organization and I would meet. Each of us would share what we thought and our opinions about what others suggested we do. In the end, though I was the decision-maker, more often than not we took her advice or some third idea that neither of us had considered emerged. This is the benefit of a dialogue.

Dialogues and Community

It is easy to see that, if God exists as a community, and if that divine community is a community of shared meaning and love, then some form of conversation or dialogue in which two people can share deep meaning and purpose is most likely the best possible way to share the gospel. We’ve already established that God exists in relationship and wants to draw us into a relationship of self-giving love of the kind that characterizes the Triune God. Obviously, that relationship of love cannot be achieved or sustained without a deep and personal sharing. This is why conversations are a big part of sharing our Christian faith.

In a conversation, we speak what we believe, others share what they believe, we ask questions and clarify our understanding, and we modify what we have said in order to reach a common understanding. To have a conversation with another person, involves inhabiting a common spiritual, emotional, and intellectual space to share concerns and information in a deep way. For Christians, this is more important than it would be for non-Christians because of our conviction that the ultimate rationality (the Logos of God) is revealed in the self-giving love Christ showed on the Cross—a love God shares with directly by the Spirit and through believers in Christ.

The Difference between Dialogue and Discussion

Dialogue is different from a mere discussion. Interestingly, the term “discussion” has the same route as the word “percussion.” A discussion can be no more than two people or groups expressing their views, with each trying to convince the other that their view is correct. [4] There is no community formed. There is simply an attempt to persuade. This kind of activity is subject to the post-modern critique that all truth claims are bids for power. A dialogue should not be a mere discussion. It should involve sharing meaning. Even in the context of a direct dialogue, there must be an open willingness to hear the other person’s views.

Although some proponents of dialogue suggest that we must suspend, give up, or hold in abeyance our own views to appropriately enter a dialogue, the kind of dialogue needed in conversations regarding faith requires only that we continue to hold our beliefs but remember that others do not share these beliefs and we may not be entirely correct in what we think. [5] Therefore, we must learn to be open-minded in how we share the Gospel and what we say. We do not need to give up who we are or what we believe. That would not be authentic. We do not need to agree with everything that is said by another person or persons. In fact, we should not do anything like the foregoing. We need to share our perception of the truth with love and openness to the opinions and views of others.

The Value of Unintentional Disciple-Making

Many people think of evangelism as involving intentional attempts to persuade others of the Gospel. We all know that some conversations occur intentionally, but many conversations occur spontaneously in the business of everyday life. We have conversations with our parents, children, grandchildren, neighbors, business associates, church members, political representatives, members of clubs we belong to, and many other people. Only a very few of those conversations begin with a religious premise.

Most conversations are not on a single subject matter. For example, when our family meets around the dining room table on a holiday we may talk about church, politics, books for reading, children and grandchildren, politics, the economy, hobbies, and many other subjects. No one is really in charge of the conversation. It may begin with one person talking about one subject, it may end with someone else suggesting that we change the subject.  In between, the conversation moves along a path chosen by those in the conversation, generally subconsciously and informally.

Perhaps most importantly, most people resent an exchange in which one person seems to be pushing an agenda or dominating the conversation. This means that we must enter a conversation armed with who we are as a person and not with an agenda to convert others. Although I have conversations that begin and ended with a religious premise, and are at least partially intended to explain the meaning of Christian faith, such conversations almost always begin with a question. In short, most conversations that have a Gospel component evolve as a part of a larger conversation and relationship among acquaintances.

Jesus and Dialogue

When Nicodemus came to Jesus to ask him questions in the middle of the night, the Gospel of John records a long conversation designed to help Nicodemus understand who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do (John 3:1-21). In the next chapter, Jesus meets a nonbeliever at a well in Samaria (John 4). The scene is something like this: Jesus and the disciples are traveling back to Galilee through Samaria. When they reach the town of Sychar, everyone is hungry. Outside of town there was a well where they choose stopped. (You can see the well today.) The disciples left Jesus at the well and went into town to get some food.

As Jesus sat by the well resting, a woman came to draw water at an usual hour. Jesus began the conversation with the woman by asking for a drink from the well, since she had brought her bucket with which to draw water. The woman was surprised that Jesus even spoke to her because she was a woman, a sinful woman, and a Samaritan. Jesus, ignoring the religious and racial conventions of his day, began a conversation with the woman. In the beginning, the woman spoke of physical water, at a point in the conversation in which Jesus was speaking of spiritual water. Eventually Jesus explained to the woman that he is the source of a kind of water that permanently quenches a deep human thirst. The woman, who like most Middle Eastern women of the day spent a lot of her time gathering water, wanted this kind of water.

This response allowed Jesus to speak into the spiritual life of the woman. Jesus explains that those who drink only physical water, meeting physical needs only, will always be thirsty again. In the spiritual world, those who drink of the love of God will never thirst again, because they are filled with the source of all love. (It has not yet been revealed, but this information meets this woman at the precise point of her own need for authentic love.)

The woman then asks for the water. Jesus, knowing the woman is not married but living with a man, asks her to bring her husband to see him. This allows Jesus to speak into the woman’s spiritual and moral condition. In the end, the woman understands that God is able to meet her desire for love without an endless series of men. She goes and tells everyone she knows about her conversation with Jesus at the well. As a result, the woman and many other Samaritans become Christ-Followers.

This story is helpful in understanding the importance of conversation. When the woman came to the well, she was an outcast in her society, known to be promiscuous, isolated, and alone. Jesus did not simply proclaim to her that she was a sinner who could receive restoration by confessing her sins and accepting him as the Messiah. Instead, he stepped out of the social conventions of his day, which did not permit a rabbi to speak to a promiscuous woman, and formed a relationship with her in the form of a conversation. It may seem like a small thing today, but in Jesus’s day for a rabbi to speak to such a person was unheard of. The woman not only received a message about living water but experienced the personal presence of that living water. Her relational isolation was healed by the presence of Jesus in. life transforming conversation.

Jesus did not change the truth he already knew about the woman or her moral and spiritual condition. He knew very well the woman’s condition both morally and spiritually. Nevertheless, he did not brow beat, condemn, or judge the woman. He entered into a relationship with her though a dialogue in which the woman discovered for herself who Jesus was and what he could do to heal her and her relationships.

Examples from Life

Some time ago, my wife and I led a class designed to help people learn to share their faith. One project of the class was learning to share Bible stories from memory. The second week or so, we learn the story of the woman caught in adultery.  In that particular class, there was a woman who decided that very week she wanted to drop out of the class. Some weeks later, she came back to tell us a story. Not long after dropping out, she had coffee with a friend who was having marital problems. Infidelity was involved. Her friend was not a Christian. Actually, her friend was opposed to Christianity due to some early life-experiences. The friend felt that her husband would never forgive her for what had happened. Our friend in a casual way spoke about what she remembered about the story of the woman caught in adultery. The other woman, who that her Christian friends would condemn her, had never heard the story. She left their coffee feeling supported, understood, and loved. I have no idea whether this person became a Christian or not. What is important is that a Christian friend shared the love of God with a friend at a critical time in her life. In the story and in the presence of a Christian friend, the woman felt God’s love.

This story contains important elements to ponder. First, our friend was not motivated to meet with her friend out of a desire to convert her to Christianity, save her soul, or add another convert to her list of Christian accomplishments. She was having coffee with an old friend who needed love and support. Although she did share God’s love, her purpose was to support and care for another human being. Second, our friend did not set out to make a gospel presentation or imply that coming to Christ would save her marriage. She simply told a story that related to the women’s situation and allowed the woman herself to decide how she would apply it to her life. [6] Our friend did not demand a commitment or response. Our friend shared the love of Christ with someone in need, communicating care and concern for the person.

In business, I’ve had important conversations that involved Christian faith. However, almost all the time they were in the context of some legal or business discussion. For example, years ago I spent a good deal of time with the manager of a local investment group. The group was trying to acquire a business in another state. We had to travel to and from another city and engage in incredibly tedious negotiations with a business owner with whom it was extremely difficult to communicate. One-night while flying home, the manager expressed an interest in why I handled a situation in the way I did during the negotiations that afternoon. He knew I was a Christian and assumed that my Christian faith had been guiding my words and actions in the negotiations. He was correct. We then had a conversation about the importance and difficulty of bringing Christian faith into business dealings. The context of our relationship was not religious nor was the situation a religious meeting. It was a business negotiation. Nevertheless, both of us grew in our faith as a result of the conversation that we had that evening on the airplane. I learned from him, and he learned from me. It was a dialogue. Incidentally, we were successful in acquiring the business.

Dialogue in a Lonely, Isolated Society

In a society characterized by loneliness and isolation, in which a good bit of the time people don’t feel loved but instead used, caring relationships in which the gospel is communicated in compassion is incredibly important. The basic prerequisite is to be centered in love upon the other person and his or her needs, not on any agenda, including the Gospel. The most important thing we do is just love the other person and try to sympathetically enter into his or her world.

There are, of course, a few useful techniques that are helpful in centering a conversation on the needs of the other. First, there is a technique known as “reflective listening.” Try, if possible to respond to the other by rephrasing what they have said to be sure you understand what they are saying. A good deal of the time, we think we know what another person is saying, but we do not. We have misunderstood. Learning to listen and pay close attention to what another person is actually saying is important.

Second, be aware of personal emotional responses. People can often say things that are either shocking or so opposed to what we deeply believe that we cannot help but be emotionally impacted. As a pastor, I have had many such experiences. Much of the time, if we are not self-aware, we end up responding too quickly and often too strongly. Our faces or physical movements may communicate our shock. When one detects such an emotional response, it is best to remain silent for time until you can respond in the kindest possible way.

Often, statements produce a physical response in us. Being aware of these physical responses is important. Experts report that the physical and emotional cues we give another person are just as important as the actual words of our response. It can take a bit of practice to not just speak words of love but also physically express our concern for the other and to resist physical responses that are inappropriate or unhelpful. For example, I tend to look away from a person if I truly disagree with what they are saying. When I look away, I am listening but the other person senses a disconnect. Looking a way often involves formulating a response to what is being said before the person is finished speaking. Although the other person may not know I am formulating a response (which they would not appreciate), they usually know I am not paying attention to what they are saying! The best practice is to pay close physical and mental attention to the other person until they are finished speaking.

The Fruit of Dialogue

It is impossible to over-estimate the fruitfulness of learning to have conversations and dialogues with other people, personally, professionally, and spiritually. Learning to have a good dialogue is an important element in being a good disciple-maker. Of course, dialogue is important as a person asks questions and explores what it would mean to become a disciple of Jesus. It is important to have answers to some questions. It is important to know a gospel presentation and to have a personal testimony. But, the most important thing is to be in a loving conversation with another person.

The conversations and dialogues we have with people after they have become Christ-Followers are just as important as those we have before they come to follow Jesus. People do not become perfect disciples the moment they accept Christ. Just like us, people resist change, make mistakes, hide their faults and shortcomings, and fear rejection if they are entirely honest about their struggles. If we are to help people at critical junctures in their walk with Christ, we have to continue to be open, non-judgmental, diplomatic, and conversational was we help them “learn to obey all that Christ has commanded.”

As mentioned at the beginning, our business as disciple-makers involves more than getting people to a point in which they except Christ as their Lord and Savior. Our business as disciple makers is to help him become deeply committed, mature disciples of Christ. This involves the ability to walk with another person, talk with another person, learn from and with another person, teach in mutual conversation and loving relationship, as both the disciple-maker and the new disciple grow in Christ. It is not easy, but it is the most rewarding thing we can do to show God’s love to those around us.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]  It is the fundamental insight of quantum physics that level it is not possible to disengage the observer from the event being examined as was the model of investigation dominant in the modern world under the influence of the Newtonian view of science. This insight, first discovered at the subatomic level of physical reality has implications in other areas, and is a part of the emerging postmodern view of science. The American philosopher Charles S. Pearce foresaw this insight in his relational theory of signs, in which he spoke of the relationship between reality (an object under observation), an interpreter (observer), and the sign used to understand the reality observed. See, C.S. Pierce, “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties” in The Essential Charles S. Peirce Edward C. Moore, ed (New York, NY: Harper & Row), 1972.

[2]  Francis and Edith Schaeffer moved to Switzerland in 1955. Today, there are several L’Abri fellowships all over the world. To learn more visit,www.labri.org. Edith Schaeffer wrote the story of L’Abri in her book by the same name. It is well worth reading. See, Edith Schaeffer L’Abri(Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1992).

[3]  This section is much indebted to David Bohm and especially to the digest of his thought published as On Dialogue (New York, NY: Routledge, 1996).

[4]  On Dialogue, at 7.

[5]  This is an important difference between what is being said here and what some proponents of dialogue urge. David Bohm, for example, believes that a dialogue requires that we suspend our own opinions and beliefs.  When Bohm urges suspension of beliefs he means creating a situation where we neither believe or disbelieve. It is doubtful that this is even possible or desirable as to our most deeply held beliefs or the most deeply held beliefs of others. If I believe that God is Love it is neither necessary nor desirable that I suspend that belief to have a conversation with another person, whether or not they agree or violently disagree with that belief of mine. What is necessary is that I listen with love and be willing to be corrected where I may not be acting or believing consistently with that deeply held belief.

[6]  One important quality of stories is that a story does not demand or require acceptance or rejection. It simply allows another person to imaginatively enter into a narrative and decide for his or herself what impact if any the story has for the hearer. Jesus used parables in just this way. For example, in the story of the prodigal son, while many people see themselves as the prodigal, others to see themselves as the older brother or one of the servants.

8. A Disciple Has a Personal Story to Tell

Many people misunderstand what it means to testify to what God has done in our lives. Jesus came bearing witness to his relationship with God the Father, and Jesus’ disciples bore witness to their experience of Christ the Son. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the disciples testified throughout the known world that they were witnesses to what God had done in Jesus (Acts 3:15). The four Gospels are essentially the memoirs of the disciples and others as they remembered their personal relationship with Jesus. [1] In Mark, for example, we have a clear presentation of Peter’s on-again, off-again status as follower of Christ and leader of the disciples. The Gospel of Mark, which many believe contains Peter’s memoirs recorded and edited by John Mark, paints the disciples, and especially Peter, as clueless and wishy-washy, not understanding who Jesus was or the true nature of his messiahship. After the resurrection, they were completely changed and went onto the Roman world proclaiming Jesus as the Savior of the World.

One reason we read our Bibles, and particularly the gospels, is to remember and be able to tell the stories of Jesus. One reason disciple-makers memorize Bible stories and gospel presentations is so that we can share the stories of Jesus with others and bear witness to him in this way. However, there is more to disciple-making than telling stories from the Bible or sharing Gospel presentations. We must be able to tell our own story of what God has done for us and meant to us.

What is a Testimony

The word “testimony” comes from the same root word as the word “witness”. The Latin word we translate witness can be translated testify. [2] This makes sense. A witness testifies at trial. Just as a legal witness testifies as to facts of which they have personal knowledge, our testimony to Christ reflects our personal experience of God in our lives. Just as an expert witness testifies as to matters about which they have expertise, a Christian witness can be a witness of things we have come to understand about God as a result of study and consideration.

Testimony at trial is evidence one side or the other submits to the court for consideration and to prove its case. In the same way, our testimony is simply evidence for the gospel. A potential Christian will weigh this evidence just as a court weighs evidence submitted at trial. Like almost all evidence, our testimony is not the case. It is just a part of the case. Therefore, we don’t need to ask too much of ourselves as we relate out testimony to another person. We are not responsible to change minds. We are only responsible to testify as truthfully as we know how.

Finally, perhaps it is appropriate that the Greek word is also the root word for the English word “Martyrs.” We all fear potential embarrassment and rejection for speaking up about any controversial matter. As Christians, we need to die to that fear and anxiety as we bear witness to Christ.

The Importance of Testimonies

In our emerging postmodern culture, the capacity to testify to what God has done in our lives is extremely important. A characteristic of postmodernism is that it is deeply pragmatic. People believe there is no ultimate truth. There’s no continuing truth. Truth is what works at a particular point in time. [3] What is true for one person or in one society may not be true in another. In such a culture, stories of the impact God has in a single life can make a tremendous difference to listeners. Therefore, we should be willing and able to testify as to what a difference God has made.

Testimonies of Action

Our testimony is not just what we say. It includes what we do. How we live as much as what we say is a testimony. As friends and acquaintances watch Christians in business, marriages, family life, social relationships, schools, and in other venues, they notice if followers of Christ live differently and visibly wise and loving lives. In how Christians live, they give personal testimony in their lives concerning what faith means. This testimony can be as simple as saying grace during meals at restaurants or not working on Sunday because you’re in church.

When I practiced law as a young associate attorney, people knew that I rarely work on Sunday. I came in almost every Saturday and worked at least part of the day. However, I never came in on Sunday unless specifically requested to by a partner or client. People knew I did this because I was a Christian. They knew I felt it important to be in worship and spend Sundays with my family. They may not have agreed (and they didn’t always agree), but they knew it was my way of life. In at least one case, another person noticed and was impacted by my behavior. When we demonstrate Christian virtues in our day-to-day life, people take notice.

Testimonies of Words

A lived testimony to the importance of faith in Christ is important. This does not mean Christ-followers don’t need to learn to verbally share their faith with others. It is extremely important that Christians be able to tell people what God has done in their lives. Just as words without action are not enough, actions without words are not sufficient either.

The Apostle Paul told his story to other people in order to bring them to Christ and encourage their faith. His testimony is recorded more than once in Acts and again in Galatians (Acts 22:1-21; 26:4-20; Galatians 1:13-2:21). We can deduce that Paul’s testimony was an important part of his mission of sharing the gospel. In Acts, Paul tells his story at length to his fellow Jews. Here is the story as Paul tells it:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, “Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” I asked. “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.  “What shall I do, Lord?” I asked. “Get up,” the Lord said, “and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.” My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said: “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking to me. “Quick!” he said. “Leave Jerusalem immediately, because the people here will not accept your testimony about me.” “Lord,” I replied, “these people know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” Then the Lord said to me, “Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:1-21).

Paul’s testimony has three features:

  1. He tells what kind of a person he was prior to becoming a Christian.
  2. He tells how he became a Christian.
  3. He tells what happened as a result of his becoming a Christian.

Before Paul became a Christian, he was a persecutor of Christians. He hated Christ and the Christian faith. Then, he met Christ on the road to Damascus, on his way to persecute the Christians in that city. As a result of his conversion, Paul became a missionary to the Gentiles. This is the essence of Paul’s testimony.

All good testimonies have these same three characteristics:

  1. Who I was before I came to Christ
  2. How I came to Christ
  3. What a difference faith makes.

Most mature Christians remember how we lived before that moment or period in which the became a Christian, how we became a Christian, and what changed because we became a Christian. In fact, most Christians have several testimonies of what God has done in their lives and how it changed them for the better. Notice that in Galatians the story of Paul’s Christian experience does not end with his conversion on the Road to Damascus (1:18-2:21). Neither does our conversion.

Dramatic and Nurtured Testimonies

Some Christians are hesitant to share their story with others because they feel it is not good enough, powerful enough, dramatic enough, or whatever. This is a big mistake. I have a pretty dramatic testimony of how God came into my life. My wife, on the other hand, has been a Christian almost all of her life. Her story is much less dramatic. It is important to remember that there are as many different testimonies as there are persons and there is more than one type of testimony. Each of these testimonies is important to someone and someone will respond to that testimony.

People sometimes talk about the difference between dramatic conversions and nurtured conversions. A dramatic conversion usually occurs when someone has been far from God and is brought close to God in a single dramatic event or series of events. A nurtured conversion usually involves a parent, grandparent, or some other significant person who gradually nurtured the believer as a Christian.

In my case, I was far from God, not really looking for God, when I suffered a series of failures and losses. At an important moment, a co-worker reached out and invited me to a Bible study. Over several months the members of this Bible study nurtured me until I came to believe in Christ. My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a Christian family, was nurtured as a Christian by her parents, accepted Christ at an early age, and never strayed very far from Christian faith or behavior. She can, however, remember various times when God worked in mighty ways and led her toward deeper faith and commitment to Him.

One type of conversion story is no better than another. In point of fact, most of the time the reason people have a dramatic conversion story is that they were dramatically out of fellowship with God in a destructive way. I often say that my more dramatic conversion is not a matter of my great spirituality but my great lack of spirituality! Because of my hard-headedness, God had to knock me over the head with a “spiritual 2 x 4” in order to get my attention. If you don’t have a dramatic conversion it doesn’t speak ill of you. It speaks well of you.

Another reason we should not emphasize one kind of a conversion story as superior is that people have all kinds of life experiences. A person who is quiet, meditative, and somewhat in touch with God may not have a dramatic experience at all. The story of a quiet experience of Christ will have a bigger impact on that person than will a dramatic story. On the other hand, a person who is dramatically out of touch with God, may respond to a more dramatic testimony. Every Christian was given their own personal testimony which is meaningful to people who are like them. Whatever our testimony is, we need to be prepared to share it with others.

God’s Continuing Work in a Life

People love to hear the story of how someone came to Christ. [4] These stories are important. However, our conversion story is not our only testimony. Since the time we came to believe in God and came close to Christ, other things have happened. Everyone has faced times of challenge, doubt, social pressure, testing, failure, alienation from God, and the like. One of the most powerful testimonies any Christian can give to another person is to tell a story of a struggle in your life that is similar to a struggle they are having in their life. Once again, people like to hear stories of what God has been doing in the life of people they know are Christians. People especially enjoy knowing that their Christian friends have struggled and do struggle with exactly the same things with which they struggle. Once again, these stories do not have to be dramatic. In fact, sometimes they are more powerful if they are not dramatic.

Suppose you were let go from a job and it took a long time to find a new one. Suppose you prayed, reached out to other Christians, and went to a Christian ministry that helps people find new jobs. Then, after several months of looking, you found a new job! That testimony would mean a lot to a person who was just laid off. Suppose you have struggled in your marriage, in parenting, or in some other area of your life, and you prayed you sensed God’s presence in solving the problem. That testimony would be powerful to someone who is struggling in a similar way.

We might call these testimonies “Continuing Testimonies.” God continues to work in our lives after we are Christians, forming us into the people God wants us to be. This forming process, both pleasant and unpleasant, is part of our continuing testimony. It is also an important witness to what God can do in the life of ordinary people like us.

In my former church we had a ministry to people who were looking for a job. It began during a recession, and many of the people who attended had been let go by their employer in late middle age and were having a hard time finding a job. Most sessions began with someone sharing their experience and how God worked out the problem or was working in the problem. People who found jobs were encouraged to return and tell the newer participants how God had worked in their struggle to find employment. These stories were always important to newer members of the group. People are always encouraged when they can identify with someone who has struggled as they have struggles and come out on the other side.

Sharing in Testimonies

One important thing to remember about sharing your testimony is maintaining an appropriate level of self-disclosure. For many years, my wife and I were leaders in the ministry in which laypeople were asked to give their testimony to others over a weekend. Occasionally, someone would go into great detail about a series of sexual, alcohol, drug, or other indiscretions.  These were never good testimonies.

There are two problems with being too explicit: First, as I point out in training sessions, whatever you say to a hundred people is likely to be retold to a larger number of people. Therefore, it’s always a good idea to remember to share at an appropriate level of detail, so as not to embarrass your family, spouse, children, co-workers or others. Of course, if you were guilty of some sin, it is completely inappropriate to share the name of someone who may have been involved with you at the time without their express permission.

Second, there is a level of explicit repetition of indiscretions, that borders on the glorification of that indiscretion. For example, I once heard a testimony that included repeated somewhat detailed references to sexual indiscretions. At some point, it almost sounded like bragging.  This testimony was given at a retreat at which many young men were present. In the end, the impression was given that this behavior was something that young people do that is fun and exciting, but limited and in the end disappointing. I felt the testimony almost encouraged the behavior in question. Unfortunately, a number of young ladies were likely to be hurt by young men who engaged in that pattern of behavior. In the end, I felt that this testimony made the wrong point, despite the good intentions of the person who gave it.

A Good Testimony Glorifies God

Last of all, it is important to remember that our testimony should not glorify us or our activities, good or bad. A good testimony glorifies God. The level of detail we need to share is that level of detail which allows a listener to understand what God has done in our lives and how important it is to us that God acted to heal us. The point is that God loved us and rescued us from the situation—and can be trusted to love and rescue others as well. God should be the hero of our testimony, not us.

We Should be Ready and Willing to Share our Faith

Many Christians have difficulty sharing their own story. Even more people are not sure that they could tell another person what it means to be a Christian. This is nothing new. Christians have always struggled to tell others of the love of God we see in Jesus Christ. The best antidote to our fears is to learn to share a short testimony concerning what God has done in our lives.

Preparing to Share

Every Christian should be able to give their testimony when appropriate. A good way to start is to try to tell your conversion or other story in about three minutes. If you wrote it out, that would be about one typed page, double-spaced in length. Your testimony needs to be personal. It needs to be your story. Of course, it needs to be factually correct. There is a reason why it needs to be short: You may not have a long time to tell it.

I often call this testimony my “Elevator testimony: or “Starbucks Testimony.” The setting is this: you’re at a coffee shop or restaurant or some other place with a friend. In the course of the conversation it has become appropriate for you to share with them how you became a Christian. You don’t have your Bible. You don’t have notes. You don’t have your diary. You don’t have a lot of time. You’re sitting at a table looking at another person. What would you say? Obviously, what we say will vary from person to person and situation to situation. What we need to keep in mind is the major point of what we intend to say.

In my particular case it goes something like this:

I grew up in a Christian home. Our family went to church regularly. When I was in college I drifted away from God. I became selfish and self-centered. I made decisions that were unwise. Over the next seven years, while I was objectively successful in the minds of a lot of people, my life was a mess. And a moment of personal suffering and tragedy, a friend brought me to a Bible study, and that Bible study witnessed to Christ by word and deed. I made Christian friends who shared God’s word and God’s love with me. About six months after I was first invited to the Bible study, one afternoon after church, I was pondering the worship service, and suddenly believed that the Bible was true and that Christ was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. After that moment, my values, my objectives, and my goals in life began to change. Over time, some of my worst habits were overcome. God has made a big difference in my life personally, professionally, morally, and spiritually. I’ve become a much different person than I was on that day forty and more years ago that I became a Christian. I have a wonderful wife and family, a satisfying career, and good and healthy friendships.

After forty years as a Christian leader, I’ve given my testimony in many different venues, sometimes for as long as two hours. Obviously in two hours you share a lot more detail. In one minute, you share a lot less detail. The important thing is to outline in your mind the contours of how it is you came to Christ in such a way that you could tell the story to another person. Of course, the truths of the Scripture and faith in Christ are primary in the Christian life. However, people are touched by the stories of people who have been touched by God. We don’t need to worry about having a lot of scripture in our testimony.

Don’t Deprive Others of your Witness

When we don’t share what God has done for us with others we deprive them of the opportunity to understand what a difference God can make in one single human life. A person struggling in their career is touched by the story of a friend who struggled in his or her career. A person struggling in their marriage is touched by the story of a person who has struggled in marriage. A person who is struggling with their children is touched by the story of a person who is struggling with children. Our human stories, and what God has done in our lives, is a source of hope in the lives of others. We need to remember this when we are shy or fearful about sharing with others.

It is important that we are able not just to communicate what the Gospel is, but also what the Gospel does. A personal testimony should allow another person to see not only what God as done in the past (the Gospel) but what God continues to do (our testimony). This is why we need to continuously be aware of what God is doing in our lives and be able to share it. Someone will be touched by that testimony.

Recently, I semi-retired. In the beginning, I was not terribly comfortable with the situation. Then, God opened up a door for me to use my gifts in a new church, far away from any congregation I ever served. It was a wonderful experience. This particular testimony resonates with many retired or semi-retired people who feel a need to continue to use their gifts and abilities for the glory of God. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow God will give me yet another testimony? The continuing story of what God is doing in our lives is part of the bigger story of what God is doing and about to do in every life we touch. Each day we are alive involves a new act of God in our lives that can benefit someone.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] There are various theories concerning the writers and compilers of the Gospels. Tradition held that the apostle Matthew wrote Matthew, John Mark, the traveling companion of Peter and Paul, wrote Mark, Luke, the traveling companion of Paul, wrote Luke, and the apostle John wrote John. Critical scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke each borrowing from Mark. The exact writers are not as important as the observation that the Gospels are largely edited memories of Jesus.

[2] The Greek word “martereo” means “to bear witness.” It can also mean to testify It is also the root from which we get the term “martyrs,” i.e. those who die bearing witness to Christ. Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, Eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged Ed., Tr. Geoffrey W. Bromily (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), 564.

[3] Despite its usefulness, this pragmatic definition of truth is limited. Christians do believe that people will be better off if they follow Christ. We don’t mean by that that they will always or inevitably be better off. In fact, the benefits of faith can never be fully experienced in this world.

[4] Once again, in my over forty years as a Christian, I have participated in many renewal weekends, meetings, testimony services and the like. I have heard hundreds of testimonies by ordinary lay persons. Much of the time, there were non-Christians in attendance. Almost without exception, everyone in the room was interested in and moved by the testimony being given. This does not mean that everyone responds to testimony. This is not true. What is true is that people are almost never offended or dismissive of a testimony.

7. The Good News We Share

Many (if not most) Christians, even when convicted that they ought to share their faith, do not do so. Some Christians come to evangelism or discipleship classes, but leave if there is a chance they would be asked to share their faith outside the group. There are basically two reasons for this that go to the heart of effective gospel communication: People don’t know what to say and don’t know exactly how to go about communicating the gospel with others. If contemporary Christians are to overcome the decline of Christian faith, disciple-makers must address both the “what” and the “how” of disciple-making. Fortunately, the best way to share faith with another person is also that way that comes most naturally to the person sharing their faith.

Some years ago, a close business associate and friend, not a Christian, asked me out of the clear blue sky if I felt he was going to go to hell. He knew I was a serious Christian and wanted to know the answer. I had never given the question of my friend’s eternal destiny one moment of thought. I was shocked and did not know what to say. I stared at him blankly for a few seconds, and then gave a halting answer affirming our friendship. I have never felt good about my answer, because I do not think I came close to addressing what was really on his mind. What was most deeply wrong with my answer was that I did not communicate my faith or my testimony to God’s love in a way that my dear friend could hear, understand, or accept. I made a mess of the opportunity. I feel my friend is fine, but I do not feel good about my answer to his deep question.

Jesus and the Gospel

When Jesus began his ministry, he shared the gospel with other people. Mark begins his gospel noting that he is recording the “beginning of gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1). In Mark, Jesus is immediately portrayed as proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, so people should repent and believe (Mark 1:15).  Sharing the Good News was important to Jesus, and it ought to be important to us as well.

Jesus began his public ministry communicating personally and verbally that the Kingdom of God was present, and therefore, the people of God should repent and believe the Good News (Gospel). In other words, Jesus was a proclaimer of the gospel, and Jesus is the its content.  A longer account in Luke gives us additional information about the gospel Jesus proclaimed. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his career in Nazareth quoting Isaiah as follows:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing (Luke 4:16-21).

This passage communicates a good deal about what Jesus means by Good News. First, the gospel is the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel for a Messiah. The Jewish people lived in a condition of subservience for most of their history. During that entire time, they dreamt of release from captivity. As a conquered people, the Jews were poor compared to their Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman captors. They were oppressed and subject to arbitrary imprisonment.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw that God would come to rescue his people (Isaiah 61:1-2). In quoting Isaiah. Jesus is saying that he is the long-expected salvation of Israel. The good news is that Jesus has come to rescue his people. Surprisingly, this salvation is not for the wealthy, the powerful, the religiously active, the best followers of the law, or the saintly in the eyes of the world. Instead, it is for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, sinners, tax collectors, and a host of others no one expected that God cared about. In other words, the gospel is for everyone.

The First Disciples and the Gospel

The disciples, as they went out into the world to share the gospel, developed a way to explain to people the meaning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul, who was perhaps the most effective of the early missionaries, at different times and in different ways, described the gospel as he delivered it to his hearers. Near the end of his ministry, writing to Timothy, his beloved helper, he said: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst” (I Timothy 1:15). Embedded in this little sentence is a basic form of the gospel:

  • The way to salvation is Jesus Christ, who came to save; and
  • We all need salvation.
  • I found salvation in Christ.

A longer version of Paul’s gospel occurs in First Corinthians where he writes:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (I Corinthians 15:1-8).

In this passage, Paul outlines the gospel in narrative form answering the historical question, “What happened in Christ that we believe to be Good News?”  He begins by stating the importance of the gospel: It is the source of salvation and renewed relationship with God. Having established the importance of the gospel, he tells the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The good news is embedded in the story of the life death and resurrection of Jesus.

First Corinthians was one of Paul’s earliest letters. Second Timothy was one of the last. In Second Timothy, Paul speaks of the gospel in these words:

So, do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (3 Timothy 1:8-10).

Although the context and wording are different, the Gospel is the same. God’s appointed savior, Jesus the Christ, came to the human race and was manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This Gospel provides a means of salvation for everyone who believe in Christ and accept the gift of the forgiveness of sins and new life God offers them. It is a matter of God’s grace, not human achievement. It is important to recognize the Paul not only shares the content of the Gospel, but its personal application to him and its importance for his life. The gospel is not good news unless and until it is good news to a person.

The various ways that Paul expresses the content of the gospel ought to relieve us from the false idea that there is only one way to describe the Gospel There is not. Good communication involves a communicator, a message, and a recipient of the message. A good communicator is careful to communicate the message of the gospel in different ways to different people in different circumstances depending on the person or persons to which we are communicating.

What is the gospel today? We often hear people say, “If it was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it is good enough for me.” This is true, but it does no good to speak words to other people that they do not, cannot, or will not understand. Therefore, we need to communicate the gospel to people in ways that those we are communicating with can hear and understand.

Good News from God

In the Greek, the word we translate Gospel means “good news.”  Before recent times, there were few or no newspapers or electronic or other forms of mass communication. When an emperor, king, or person in authority wanted to communicate something important, the communicator used heralds who read and proclaimed what was to be communicated.  These proclamations were good news from their leader. Imagine then, how important good news would be if it were good news from God. Paul believes that he and the other apostles have been commissioned to transmit to those with whom they come into contact the most important good news there can be: Good news from God. That is why Jesus, the apostles, and the church ever since has used the term “good news” to describe what God is communicating to the human race in Jesus. The most powerful being in the universe has sent his heralds to proclaim the best news possible! You can have a life changing relationship with me now and forever. In the meantime, you can be released from your self-centered captivity to sin and brokenness.

Good News for Captives

People in our day and time continue to be captives, needing the liberating power of God. In some areas of the world, people are living in physical captivities not much different from the captivities of the ancient Jews. In the West, there is often a different kind of captivity. People are captive to our cultural brokenness and the personal and social brokenness that captivity creates. Because people are inclined to believe that there is nothing beyond this material universe, and the activities, possessions and pleasures of this world are the only hope for meaning and purpose, many people are captive to an eternal search for money, possessions, power, and pleasure. Into this situation, God has sent us to proclaim good news to the entire world.

The false gods worshiped in our day are not set up a temple at the center of our cities. The modern temples are in office buildings, school rooms, and other places. Their prophets are usually not odd figures running around half-naked and half-mad. Instead, the modern prophets, priests and priestesses of false religions speak to us through the media, cell phones, mass entertainment, popular music, and often education. We do not worship the false gods of our day in temples, but in the fabric of day-to-day life. To be raised and educated in the West today is to be raised in a kind of captivity to a false and damaging world-view that breaks and hurts nearly everyone. In order to escape this captivity to the false God’s of our society, people need to see and have a relationship with people who have escaped and found freedom, wholeness and blessing in Christ.

Explaining the Gospel to Post Modern People

Some years ago, I was in my office on a Friday. I got a call from the front desk because a disturbed individual was asking for help. I went up and brought the person to my office. Without going into detail, this person was in a sinful lifestyle, selling her body to men, taking mind-altering drugs, and in a relationship of physical and moral abuse. She was not highly intelligent, and she had been drinking. I knew that whatever I said to her had to be simple. The only thing I knew to do was share the gospel in a short form. I took out a piece of paper, drew a little diagram, and shared the basic elements of the gospel. My guest had been raised in a poor, minority church. She knew the story. As I shared the gospel with her, her eyes were filled with tears, and she cried. She prayed for forgiveness. We spoke of other, more urgent things, and our congregation helped her with a physical need. In the end, this short sharing of the Gospel was exactly what this person needed.

I did not set out that morning to bring someone to Christ. In particular, I didn’t set out to have a relationship with the kind of person who came to my office that day. Yet, I knew enough to help this woman at a moment of distress. I shared a form of the gospel with her. Our gospel help did not end with words: Our church shared with this woman some physical resources she needed. This example is a reminder that the gospel is best shared by words and deeds. As we share God’s love with others, we reveal to them that God is love. As we explained to them how they can experience that love, we give them the opportunity to commit their life to that God of love. That commitment is the beginning of a life of discipleship.

There are many gospel presentations. One of the most famous portrays sin as a great chasm that separates us from God, and the cross of Christ as a bridge allowing us to cross over and be reunited with God as we accept God’s grace and believe in the gospel. This presentation emphasizes our sinfulness and need for the cross. Another famous Gospel presentation contains three pictures, one with me on the throne of my life, one with me on the throne of my life but God involved, and one with God on the throne of my life. This presentation emphasizes our human pride and desire for self-sufficiency.

When Kathy and I were writing a book about sharing the gospel called “Salt & Light,” we prepared another little graphic that can have importance to postmodern people. One characteristic of postmodern people is that they do not have a fully developed sense of sin. Because there is no God and no ultimate truth, there is no place in their thought world to believe that we human beings are in a state of rebellion against God. [1] Interestingly, people do have a sense of brokenness. In fact, our society is characterized by pervasive brokenness and anxiety. Emotional fragility and neurosis are at an all-time high. This situation opens up the door for a new and different way to present the Gospel to people—by focusing on God’s love as a healing agent for the fragmentation, anxiety, and loneliness people feel in our culture. [2]

Here is the graphic:

The graphic begins with the actual situation of people who do not believe in God: People almost always consider themselves far from God’s love if they do not believe in God or that God is love, as Christians do. Most non-Christians can get that far. The second image of the graphic shows what happens when people draw near to God, even occasionally: Such people are now in contact with God’s love. Again, a lot of people who do not believe in God or have not really established a relationship with God often have had some experience of calling out to God and being touched by God in some way. People who do not believe in God or have little or no relationship with God still call out to God on a battlefield, when a loved one is ill, or when they or someone they know are in danger. Finally, the last panel shows the person inside of the love of God with a relationship with God.

The third image shows a person surrounded by God’s love. One of Paul’s favorite images is that of believers being “in Christ.” [3] One of my favorite verses is, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has gone the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This “in Christness” of believers is both spiritual and physical, as believers accept Christ and live in Christ and enter the body of Christ, which is the church. The graphic above emphasizes the new life and new way of life that people receive as they become “in Christ.”

Paul clearly says that our position in Christ leads us to becoming new creations, with different ideas, plans, hopes, dreams, and the like. Paul also believes that this new life we receive in Christ puts us into a new place regarding the laws of God and the teachings of God: We have been freed from our innate inability to achieve holiness, and now can live the new life in freedom.

A Gospel Summary

If we put together all the biblical evidence, the gospel might be described something like the following:

  • Because God loves the world and everyone in the world, and wants to have an eternal relationship of love with the world and everyone in it, God has always been acting in history to show his love to others.
  • The story of Christ is the story of the good news God was and is providing for the human race. That story continues to this day.
  • God’s transforming love became present with power in Jesus Christ, through which the extent of God’s love was revealed by Christ on the cross, to provide for us a forgiveness for our sins and a release from out guilt, shame, and brokenness.
  • By believing the promise and trusting in Christ, we enter a new, life transforming relationship with God through Christ.
  • This new relationship frees us to become the people God intends us to be and live a life characterized by faith, hope, and love for others through which we experience the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
  • Christ will continue to be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit beyond the moment we accept Christ as he makes us into a new, Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered person.

Beyond Gospel Presentations

Some Christians misunderstand the place gospel presentations have in the Christian life. Accepting Christ is like being born. It’s just the beginning of a new life. Just as a mother would not desert her newborn baby, we must not think that our job is over when a gospel testimony has been shared. Sharing is not the end. It is the beginning. Every time we share Christ, we move into a discipleship relationship with the person with whom we share. We are now like a midwife helping a woman deliver a child or a mentor helping a young business person find success. We can’t desert our charge, because the need us.

One benefit of this approach is that we do not need to feel compelled to share everything we know about the gospel with another person in a single setting. As we “teach a new disciple to obey all that God has commanded,” we have plenty of time to share aspects of the gospel that we had neither the time nor the ability to share at the moment they invited Christ to be the center of their life. In fact, it is impossible to share all that God means by” good news” in one sitting or at one time. The riches of Christ are too vast for that to be possible.

Putting it All Together

As indicated above, the New Testament is littered with examples of gospel presentations and descriptions. These various presentations give us an idea about what a good explanation of the Gospel needs to say:

  • First, any gospel presentation needs to center on Jesus: on his life, his death, his resurrection, and his continuing work in the people of God who believe he is the true revelation of the mercy of God.
  • Second, a good gospel presentation includes some notion of the human need for God—the fact that we are separated from God. We are finite, mortal, and do things we know to be wrong and misguided. For this we need forgiveness and new life.
  • Third, to be good news, a presentation of the Gospel needs to assure hearers that a wise and loving God has provided us a way to fellowship with him, forgiveness of sins, and a kind of life we can only imagine.

If I were to write out a short gospel presentation, it would go something like this:

Everyone I know, including myself, often feels alienated from God. We have done things that we know are wrongheaded. We do not necessarily sense the love of God in our lives.  The people I know who have tried to overcome their sinful nature by hard work have failed. Some gave up entirely, and some became hypocrites trying to appear better than they were. What I needed and what most people want is inner transformation. God loves us enough to send Jesus to provide us a way to experience that transformation as we become his disciples. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to show us what a truly wholesome life would be like, to teach us God’s ways, and to die for our sins, showing us the extent of God’s amazing grace. God raised this Jesus from the dead, and then he promised to send his Holy Spirit to us when we believe, forgiving us and changing us from the inside out.

This testimony says who Jesus is, who we are, and what God has done for us in Christ. It centers expresses our need to accept Christ by faith.

One thing is certain: We should not allow ourselves to be unprepared for that moment during which we have an opportunity to share the gospel. Every Christian should think about what they will say when the opportunity comes. It will come. If we pray for the opportunity to share with our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and others, God will give us that opportunity.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is why the “Who is on the throne of your life?” presentation of the gospel is often more meaningful to postmodern people. On the other hand, I used the chasm drawing with the young woman in our church I spoke of above, just as I have used other presentations over the years. This is consistent with the notion that we need to adapt our presentation of the Gospel to the needs of those with whom we are trying to communicate.

[2] This graphic is found in our book, Salt and Light, Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2016).

[3] See, Romans 8:1; 1 Cor. 15:22, 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:9). The spherical use of the phrase indicates that the person who is in Christ is within the sphere of his love and activity. The image is literally one of location: in Christ.

Go Share My Life

 

As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.(John 20:21)

Imagine the scene when Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus and the disciples had been together for three or so years. During that time, the disciples formed the belief, hope and expectation that Jesus was the Messiah who would restore the Kingdom of Israel. The disciples gave up everything and followed him, expecting they would be rewarded when Jesus came to his throne (Mark 10:35-36). Then came his betrayal, arrest, death, and burial. Their hopes and dreams were shattered. Amazingly, three days after his death and burial, and for weeks thereafter, Jesus appeared to them— proving he was alive! Jesus had conquered betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, and the grave.

Now, the disciples knew Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David. They believed Jesus would restore the kingdom of David, just as God promised. (Acts 1:8). Once again, Jesus surprised them: He was not going to directly bring in the kingdom by his own physical presence and power. Instead, Jesus was going to bring his kingdom spiritually through his disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. He put this new understanding in the form of a commandment or commission: [1]

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

In one of my former congregations, there was a retired pastor who grew up on a farm. He was and is a southern farm boy. He has been both a pastor and a missionary. When he translates the Great Commission, he puts it something like this:

As y’all are going wherever you go, be sure and share the Good News with others and make them disciples of mine. As you do this, baptize those who come to believe. But, don’t stop there. Be sure you teach them all about me and to live the way I have taught you to live. Along the way, don’t be scared. I will be with you all the time, everywhere you go. [2]

You actually have to know a little Greek to understand that Robert accurately captured the essence of what Jesus is saying. In Greek, the word “Go” is a participle. It can mean, “Go!” (the imperative form), but it also connotes “As you are going” (the progressive form). Christians are to make disciples (the command) as we go (throughout the progress of our lives).

Because of the centrality of the Great Commission, it is important right to get firmly in mind its central principles that should guide each and every Christian. The specific task Jesus gave the first disciples and gives to us cannot be emphasized too often:

  • Go: Coming to church is not what the Christian life is about. The Christian life is about going into the world. In fact, we all live and go somewhere every day, and where we are where we go are our mission fields.
  • Share the Good News: Christians are not called to simply receive teaching. Christians are called to share Christ and the love of God with everyone we meet, not just with people we like or are attracted to. We should share verbally but also actively by the Christ-like quality of our lives.
  • Make Disciples: Once we have shared our faith and others have accepted Christ, Christians are called to patiently form people into communities of faith in which they are transformed. We are not called to make people church members; we are called to make disciples. [3]
  • Live in the Power of the Spirit: We do not need to fear. God is and will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ as we go about the business of sharing God’s love and making disciples. [4]

Making Disciples is More than Words

As we go, Jesus does not say that we should, “Just get people to say they believe in me.” He says “make disciples,” and “teach them to obey.” Too often, evangelism programs stop at conversion. This is not what Jesus asked us to do. He asked us to make disciples who obey his words and teachings and seek to emulate his life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants his disciples to be about the business of making more and more Spirit-filled disciples, who live out in their day-to-day lives what they believe in their hearts in such a life transforming way that other disciples are made along the way.

Going While Unqualified

By the time that Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, the disciples were very aware that they were unqualified. During their time with Jesus, they had constantly misunderstood him. They had not understood that he was not going to be a political and military messiah. They had not understood that the Good News he proclaimed was going to be for everyone. In the end, they all deserted him, denied him, and betrayed him. As individuals and as a group, they lacked the character and ability to undertake a world-wide mission.  They were not administrators, managers, linguists, theologians, or cross-cultural experts. They had neither the education nor the experience to undertake the mission. They were. not particularly intelligent, gifted, or capable. Nevertheless, Jesus sent them.

Most of us are in the same boat. We don’t feel qualified to take the good news to the ends of the earth. Jesus must have meant to send someone else! However, he did not. He meant to send the disciples, and he means to send us. If we lack the capacity to do what Jesus calls us to do, we are in good company. That has been true since the beginning. If we are afraid, not wholly faithful, wobbly in our trust in God, we are no different than the original disciples. We need to hang on to the understanding that God will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit if we will only go and share.

Taking Time to Make Disciples

One of my favorite New Testament stories is the story of the sending of the Twelve on their first mission trip (Mark 6:7-13; Matthew 10:1-15; Luke 9:1-6). After the Twelve had been with Jesus for a time, Jesus sent them out to practice doing the things they had seen him do. Mark describes it like this:

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So, they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mark 7:7-13).

There is a great deal to learn from this short story. First, Jesus was a master disciple-maker and knew that the disciples would not become the sent apostles he needed just by listening to what he said and watching his deeds of power. He did not want them to be just learners, but doers as well. He knew that someday they would be on their own, and they needed to get ready for that day. Therefore, he sent them out on practice missions. He did not send them out alone, because he knew that they would need mutual support along the way.  Therefore, he sent them two-by-two.

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn to rely upon God and not upon human beings, even him. Therefore, he carefully told them not to take along many items that almost anyone would consider necessary. What person leaves on a trip without a suitcase, their wallet, a few credit cards, and the like?  No one. Jesus knew this, but also understood that the disciples needed to learn to rely on the Spirit of God. He also warned them not to waste time going from place to place, but to stay for enough time to actually disciple people. [5] The disciples went as they were told, and later on we learn that followers of Jesus were excited and energized by what happened. [6]

Making disciples is not a quick, easy, or painless process. It takes time, effort, and patience.  We must be willing to teach, mentor and love each new disciple for a period of time as they mature in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Some people adapt easily to the new life in Christ, others take a long time. Some years ago, Kathy and I were privileged to be a part of a young woman coming to Christ. This particular person did not grow up in a particularly good home. Her parents were divorced. Her mother remarried, and her father worked in a profession where he traveled a lot, and he lived in a distant city. When she gave herself to Christ, she was in an unhealthy relationship. Today, that woman is an on-fire of disciple and disciple-maker—but believe me there were ups and downs along the way! On one notable occasion, our friend failed to tell us about a financial failure on her part. She was evicted. When she came to see me, I was as hard on this “daughter in Christ” as I would have been on one of my children!  That particular event was a turning point for this person, and since that time she has been a very careful Christian and mother.

Going as Salt and Light

My wife, Kathy, and I created a discipleship technique out of which a book grew, “Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship.”  [7]  The title comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told 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 5:13-14).

At some point, many of us have been told by doctors to cut down on our salt intake. In fact, salt is necessary for human life. It is also a seasoning and preservative. Animals and humans need salt to live, and as a seasoning it preserves and heightens the enjoyment of food.  When Jesus says we are to be the salt of the earth, he is reminding his disciples (and us) that they (and we) are to share his self-giving, life-transforming love, the most important thing in the universe, with others. His love is what makes life possible, joyful, and meaningful. Without his love, life is nothing but struggle. We see the impact of life as nothing but struggle in our own culture. Living a life of ceaseless struggle is dehumanizing.

John speaks of Jesus as the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). James speaks of God as the “Father of Lights” (James 1:17). John says that “God is Light”—a light in whom there is no darkness (1 John 15). Jesus says told his disciples that they were “the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14-16). Christians are to walk in the light of God, living wisely and with deep love for others. Paul says that when we do this, “we shine like stars” (Philippians 2:15).  We are to be like a lamp on a table shining the light of Christ into the room in which it is placed.

The description of God as light, of Jesus as the light, and of Christians as the living as light, reminds us that we are to embody the wisdom and love of God, as well as personally experience the love of God. It is not enough for us to privately know about Jesus.  It is not enough for us to just tell others about Jesus. In fact, if we do this without growing in Christ ourselves, we become hypocrites and dishonor God. To be a disciple is to shine like Jesus, live in the light of God’s presence, be transformed by that light, and share that light with others. In this way, everything we say and do will point others towards Christ and help them experience the wisdom and love of God.

When I was a new Christian, a partner in the firm in which I worked gave me an urgent task. The task required a paralegal to assist. As we went over the assignment, the paralegal looked over the desk and said, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” She could tell by our conversation that I was a Christian, even though the conversation was about filing a document at a particular time in a particular place in Texas. After the paralegal spoke to me, we shared our common faith in Christ for a few moments before going on with the task at hand. We became friends and partners in the Gospel for an interlude.

The “going” part of discipleship is not just about going out and sharing Christ in words. It is about living the life of Christ in our day-to-day lives in such a way that others take notice, even if we say nothing at all. This does not mean we say nothing at all. In fact, we will say something. But, the words we speak flow naturally from the people we have become in Christ. When Christians are salt and light to those they meet, people take notice, whatever words are spoken.

Any pastor who is ever sat at the bedside of a dying person knows at the ministry of presence is one of the most important ministries disciple-makers have. Some years ago, the father-in-law of one of my elders was in the hospital. I didn’t know it, but he was close to death. One Saturday morning I went to my normal prayer group. On my way home, I decided to go visit this person. My job at the time did not involve a lot of visitation. Nevertheless, I went. When I got to the room, the elder’s wife was sitting with her father, who was very weak. I sat with her for a time, and then said a prayer. Later that day, he died. My off-the-cuff visit that day meant a lot to the people involved. Before this incident, I was not close to the elder in question. I knew almost nothing about his family. He was not a particularly important supporter of mine. After that event, we were much closer. He’s become one of the most important leaders in one of my former churches.  That morning, I said almost nothing. It was presence that mattered. The presence of Christians in the life of those we disciple is one of the most important qualities a good disciple-maker must have. To be a disciple-maker to be involved in the lives of people in a personal way, just as Jesus was involved with his disciples.

Going in Relationship

For their first missionary experience, Jesus sent the disciples out in groups. Our going should also involve going in relationship with others, those we minister with and those we minister to. God desires a personal relationship with us. God also wants us to develop communal relationship through the church, the people of God, those people God has called to be his special witnessing people to the world. The Christian community is the place where people come to faith, learn, grow, and put their faith into practice. The church (the community of those who have been called out) is where Christians experience and share a bit of the kingdom of God on earth.  It is no surprise, therefore, that God wants us to reach out and share what we have experienced in Jesus Christ in community with other people.

Discipleship as a Triangular Relationship

Discipleship involves a “triangular relationship.” The essence of going in discipleship is a life-changing relationship with God, other people, and one’s self. This relationship grows in a process of maturity in faith and life. We have a vertical relationship with the Triune God, who is the foundation of our Christian life. As we trust God, we enter the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 1 John 1:3). This vertical relationship with God changes our inner being and makes us new people. (2 Cor. 5:17). Just as God exists in a community, we become a part of the community of God and walk with the Triune God and with other believers. Gradually, we become more like Christ, who is the very image of God (Col. 1:5). Finally, our inner transformation grounded in our vertical relationship with God, and our healed horizontal relationships with others, empowers us to reach out to others just as someone reached out to us (I Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:4).

The life of a disciple is built around all three points in the triangle: We believe in and trust Christ and become passionately in love with God, willing to follow Christ and obey God’s commands. To do this, we need to be discipled in relationship with other Christ-followers, become part of a local fellowship of Christians, and learn to live as God intended his children to live. Finally, as we grow, we reach out into our families, communities, work places, schools, etc. with the love of God so that others may experience God’s wisdom and love. [8] Each of these three movements of faith are important. Each require that we grow in relationship with God and other people. Each require that we grow into the likeness of Christ with the same kind of love for others Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Discipleship in an Entangled World

The communal, relational aspect of sharing the Gospel is hard for contemporary people to fully understand and appreciate. We are accustomed to the radical individualism of our culture, and so find it difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the necessity of relationships in order to grow in Christ. If there is any important insight of science that should change our way of looking at the world, it is the insight that we live in what John Polkinghorne calls, “An Entangled World”. [9] We live in a world characterized by a deep and fundamental relationality. Our habitual way of looking at the world as individual entities exercising force upon one another masks a deeper reality—that of a world of beautiful and elegant relationality, what I sometimes call “Deep Love” in religious terms. [10] The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the deep, self-giving love characteristic of God, implies that believers should be in deep, self-giving relationships with God and one another if we are to achieve the wholeness we desire. We cannot be Christians alone, because that is not the way God lives or wants us to live. It is not the way we were made. We were meant for community. We need to live “entangled” in the lives of others.

The New Testament reveals the communal aspect of mission. The most famous apostle, and the one about whom we know the most, Paul, rarely traveled alone. He ministered in community. [11] He went on missionary journeys with Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke and others. At the end of his life, Peter seems to have been in Rome with John Mark (1 Peter 5:13). Paul and John Mark ministered together at the beginning and end of Paul’s ministry (Acts 12:25; 2 Timothy 4:11).

The “going” of God’s people is a going in community. In the modern world, perhaps because of our emphasis on individualism, we idolize those who go alone, or seem to go alone in mission. We celebrate Billy Graham, but forget George Beverly Shay, Cliff Barrows, and the hundreds of others who ministered with him over the years. We celebrate Mother Teresa, but forget the members of her order. We celebrate famous pastors, and forget the staff members who make their ministries possible. Everyone ministers in community, whether they (or we) know it or not.

The call to go is not a call to go alone. It is a call for the community though its members to go. [12] A few go as individuals, but most will go as a group with support and with the kind of courage that only a group can muster. The same is true of us today. While a few of us may be called to solitary mission, most of us will go as a part of a team.

The Lost Art of Going

When I began to write this book, I reread the Cost of Discipleship after many years.  I took a journey into the bibliography to look for references on the Great Commission. There were none. The only reference in my edition to Matthew 28 related to the presence of the Holy Spirit with believers, and was related to the chapter on baptism. [13] In the late 1930’s, writing as a German, a citizen of the home place of the Reformation and the center of Christian Europe, Bonhoeffer could not fully see the need for the church as a community to recommit itself to evangelism and disciple-making. This is a legacy of the fact that, when the Reformation occurred, Germany, and all of Europe, were already Christianized. The great age of disciple-making, extending for hundreds of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was over. Europe might not have been a good example of Christianity, but it was nominally Christian. Although by the end of his life, when he was writing to his family and friends from prison, Bonhoeffer could see that Christianity in Germany and Europe was in a crisis, at the time of Cost of Discipleship, he could not. [14]

In a similar way, many Christians in the United States today fail to see that we are not only in a postmodern era, we are in a new apostolic era. The Christian faith cannot live on its prior successes. Instead, Christians must learn again to reach out and share the Good News Christ has entrusted to us. We must recover the lost art of going and sharing the Gospel, or the crisis of discipleship we face will continue and even get worse.

Going and making disciples is not the responsibility of a few, but of all of us. Just as not everyone who traveled with Paul was a great speaker, not all of us are called to be great oral evangelists. Each of is, however, called to share our faith as we can in the ways we are gifted to do so. This does not exempt us from verbally sharing our faith and understanding how to do it. It simply means that each one of us will share as they are called and gifted to do so. We are also called to invest our livers in the lives of others, so that people not only believe but become well-taught and mentored disciples of Christ. The gospel without love is powerless, and love without the gospel is meaningless.

I have been a Christian for the better part of half a century. I’ve been a pastor of evangelical congregations for a quarter of a century. It was only recently that I fully recognized that a good deal of what I have taught, and accomplished as a pastor is distant from what God intends for his church. There is nothing wrong with great worship, visitation programs, Sunday School, children’s programs, youth groups, good Bible teaching, men’s and women’s ministry, community outreach, and the like. In fact, God desires for his church to do all these things. However, if we do these things without making and empowering disciples, we fall short of what God desires for us and for the world—to go make disciples.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Great Commission occurs in some form in each of the Gospel and in Acts. See, Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:7-8. In each case, there is a sending to witness to Christ and a promise of the presence of the Spirit as the disciples undertake to do what they have been asked to do.

[2] This quote is from Rev. Robert Crumpton who was one of the pastors of Advent Presbyterian Church, a former pastor of the Arlington Presbyterian Church, which Advent helped to revitalize, and a missionary to Ghana with his wife Nancy. During my years at Advent, Bob was the visitation pastor who shared God’s love with every visitor to Advent for over fifteen years after his “retirement.” The translation is not unique, and I have seen it other places.

[3] I have outlined the importance of living out the teachings of Christ and the Bible in much greater detail in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR, 2014) and in Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge Publishing, 2014).

[4] See, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution (Monument, CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). This book is the single most important source for learning about T4T, which is one of the most important and powerful of the disciple-making movements in the world today.

[5] This particular aspect of this story should make us careful about event and media-centered ministries. Jesus did not want the disciples to into a place, preach the gospel, do a few miracles, and leave. Instead, he wanted them to stay in one place for a significant amount of time. Paul traveled a lot, but also spent significant time in specific cities like Ephesus. This indicates that serious disciple-makers should be grounded in a place and a community.

[6] See, Luke 10:17, which applies to yet another sending event. The various gospel narratives indicate that his sending before the ultimate sending was a part of Jesus’ strategy. See, F.W. Beare, “The Mission of the Disciples and the Mission Charge: Matthew 10 and Parallels,” Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 89, No. 1 (March 1970), 1-13.

[7] G. Christopher with Kathy Trammell Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2017).

[8] See, Mike Breen & the 3DM Team, Building a Discipleship Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People like Jesus Did(Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM Resources, 2011). Many churches and congregations use this triangle approach.

[9] John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[10] See, Centered Living/ Centered Leading, at 165. In Centered Living, Centered Leading, I use the term Deep Love to describe God’s uncreated, self-giving love.

[11] The passages in which one can see that Paul ministered in community are too numerous to mention. The missionary journeys in Acts reflect Paul traveling with others. Often, the final portion of his letters reflect personal greetings to various individual persons important to his ministry. At the very end of his ministry, he asks Timothy to be with him (II Timothy 4:21). There is nothing in the life and ministry of the great missionary apostle to indicate that he ministered other than in community most of the time.

[12] As is often the case in interpreting the New Testament, it is important to recall that the Great Commission is in the plural. While Jesus is speaking to each disciple individually, he is also speaking to them as a group.

[13] See Cost of Discipleship, at 256.

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

.

5. Discipleship as a Personal Relationship

Many people (myself included) have difficulty visualizing what a personal relationship with God might be like. We understand human personal relationships, but we can’t ask God out on a date, go on a hunting trip, see a movie with us, or play a game of pickup basketball. God is not like Jesus in his incarnation. The first disciples could see, touch and physically spend time with Jesus. We cannot physically follow the human Jesus of Nazareth around in order to get to know what God is like. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask the question, “How can we have a personal relationship with someone we cannot see and who is infinitely different from us?”

Jesus believed in life-transforming relationships. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through him into a personal relationship with relational, Triune God. In Jesus, God allowed us to see what his “Being in Love” looks like in a concrete human life. He asked his disciples to “follow him,” which meant spending their lives with him for three years so that they could see and experience that love. In our life of discipleship, we too must learn to “follow God around” as we grow in Christ.

Loving a Personal God who Loves Us

The distinctive characteristic of Christian faith is belief in a personal God. Christians believe that the one God exists in three persons bound together in a relationship of self-giving love. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing in an eternal mutual relationship of love. This insight is interesting and important because it is the foundation of our belief that God is a person and desires to have a personal relationship with the human race.

As the early church worshiped, they prayed to and worshiped God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The earliest church liturgies reflect this personal, Trinitarian pattern of worship. The church worshiped, prayed to, and treated as holy all three persons of the Trinity. As the first Christians heard, wrote, and read about the experience of the disciples (now apostles) with Jesus, they understood that the God of Israel, whom Jesus called, “Father,” had revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed Messiah, who was the “Son of God” and the “Word of God” in human flesh. Finally, the church saw that God the Father and Son were present in the life of believers by the Holy Spirit. The names “Father” and “Son,” and names like “Spirit of Christ,” Spirit of the Father,” etc. indicated that the persons of the Godhead were personal beings, not merely forces. [1]

Early Christians worshiped each person in the Trinity as God. This was a major barrier to Jewish evangelism—and it can be a barrier to people today. To a Jew, only God could be worshiped, and God is One. The earliest statement of faith of Israel was, “Hear O Israel, the Lord, your God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The question was raised, “If God is one God, how then can we account for Christ and for the Holy Spirit? This caused a long period of spiritual and intellectual reflection, as well theological debate, concerning how the Trinity can be explained. In the end, the church felt that, while there is only one God whom we worship as God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, this God exists in three persons, the “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.”

There are many reasons why this is important. If God is love (I John 4:8), then God in some way has to be person. Inanimate objects, powers, and ideas do not love. Only persons love. In addition, for love to exist, it must be shared. For there to be love, there must be someone (a person) to love and an act of love by someone else (a person). Therefore, it seemed logical to the early church that a God of Love is characterized by both unity (One God) and diversity (Three Persons) bound together in a relationship of divine, self-giving love—the love Christ revealed on the Cross.

If God is not a person, then we cannot expect to relate to God personally. If God is only a force or a principle, then we cannot have a personal relationship with God. We cannot expect God to love us personally as individuals. At best, we can submit to his power. [2] If God is a person, there can be a personal relationship between us and God. God can so love us that he would even give himself for our salvation.

On the other hand, if God is a person, we can “Love the Lord with all of our hearts, and all of our souls, and all of our minds, and all of our strength” (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28) and expect that love to be reciprocal. If God is a person constituted by love then the proper way to be in a relationship with that God is to reflect God’s character by responding to God’s love by loving God and God’s creation in an earthy approximation to the love that God is. Because God is a person, Christianity is focused on personal love between persons and God, creation, and other people.

The idea that God must be loved was not new in Jesus’ day. In the Old Testament Israel was to love the Lord with all of its heart, soul and strength (Deut. 6:4-5). This love is not just to be shown to God, but to the world as well (Lev. 19:18). In the Old Testament, God often speaks of his love of Israel. For example, in Hosea God compares his feelings towards Israel as those of a spouse who has been betrayed (Hosea 3:1). The picture of God’s love in Hosea is especially important because it reveals a personal God who suffers, is humiliated, and yet will not abandon his beloved, however far away the beloved may wander. This love is the same love that caused God to provide in Christ a way for all of us to return to a living, holy relationship with the Triune God.

Persons and Personal Relationships

In our individualistic culture, we think we know what makes a person, and we celebrate individual personhood, perhaps to excess. Interestingly, however, the modern world actually has a drastically truncated and inadequate idea of personhood. We think of a person as an individual, a solitary, discrete body with a mind and reasoning powers. This person is bound to other persons solely by physical forces. Even love is often regarded simply a complex bio-psychological phenomenon, a biologically-based force acting between two persons. We think that love, care, friendship, and other relationships are reduceable to individuals and biochemical relationships between them. When we think this way, people become like living billiard balls—discrete objects careening around and occasionally making contact with other similar billiard balls.

Christians, like much of modern science, believe that this way of thinking is profoundly limited and mistaken. Persons are complex, relational beings with minds, bodies, psyche’s and spirits. A person emerges from and is constituted by the various relationships of life, physical, mental, emotional, and social. This last part is especially important: We would not be who we are without the social relationships we experience from the moment we are conceived. This is one reason why the church, a social institution, is so important to growing in Christ.

If modern physics is correct, our bodies are more than material particles bound together by forces. The subatomic “particles” that make up the deepest reality we know are not material. Rather, they are waves of certain basic fields that make up the entire universe. What we call “basic particles” are not material particles in the classic understanding of those terms, but “quantized ripples” in waves in a field that stretches throughout the entire universe. [3] These quantized ripples seem to be related to one another in such a fashion that it can be said that everything in the universe is related to everything else. Such a universe is characterized by both a deep relationality as well as by independent reality. In such a universe, it should not surprise us that people are deeply and importantly relational.

When we are conceived, we are far from being an independent reality unconnected from the rest of the world. Instead, we are composed of the DNA of our parents, unique, but dependent upon their genetic history. During the period of our gestation, we are connected to our mothers in the most intimate possible way, enclosed within her body, dependent upon her for our being, sustenance, and life. When we are born, we are born into a family, not just a biological unit, but a social entity with its own unique characteristics. This family cares for us and provides for us for a long time. We are dependent upon our parents, and who we are and what we become are deeply dependent upon the quality of that relationship. Each and every relationship we have from that time forward, positive or negative, plays a role in who we become and what kind of person we are. As time goes by, we enter into relationships with hosts of other people and social groups, each of whom profoundly contributes to who we become, the person we are. Every pastor has seen the terrible done to a person when parents and others fail to provide the love, care, respect, and other emotional and physical needs that are needed in the early stages of life. Such behavior literally deprives a child of the fullness of human love God intended for that child to experience.

We are also born into a community and a culture, with its unique patterns of life and ways of understanding the world. This culture forms in a deep way who we are as a person. In addition, the cultures we experience and become a part of during our lives, profoundly impact who we are as persons. Anyone who has traveled has experienced the sense that people in other parts of our country and the world live differently and often see things differently than does our culture and the people with whom we are the most familiar. I have had the opportunity to travel a good deal, and sometimes on more than one occasion to the same places. I always recognize that, for example, while I love Scotland and my European heritage, I am an American, not European or Scottish. This is true of everyplace one goes. Travel both broadens us and shows us the uniqueness of our place. Relationships make us bigger people than we would otherwise be.

Throughout all our relationships and experiences, there develops the unique person that comes to a relationship with creation and other people, and with God. As time goes by, each person becomes just that a person—a unique individual. This unique individual has his or her unique physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being, different than anyone else. Nevertheless, we remain connected to and profoundly impacted by those with whom we have relationships. It is this unique individual that is called into a transforming relationship with God. When we enter into this relationship, the relationship changes us, just as every relationship of life changes us, except this one is with the Lord God, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. We can expect that such a relationship will change us more profoundly than any other relationship we have.

Growing a Relationship with God

If God is personal and wants a personal relationship with us, then we have to ask the question, “How can we establish and maintain such a relationship?” Although it may seem like an unanswerable question, the beginning steps are pretty clear.

  • First, we have to believe that there is a God who wants a relationship with us. In other words, there must be faith. I have to believe that such a relationship is possible and desirable.
  • Second, we have to commit myself in trust to developing that relationship. If we have faith, then we have a relationship with God. It may be a new relationship. It may be an immature relationship. But, there is a relationship.

Our relationship with God is like any human relationship. If this new relationship is going to grow and mature, we must spend time working on it, just as we work on relationships with a friends, spouses, children, or co-workers. We have to communicate. This is where prayer comes in. As we trust God and move out in faith, God’s love is increasingly revealed and that love grows, even in hard times, just as a good marriage grows in good times and bad times. If we are to grow in a relationship with God, we must spend time with God in silence, in conversation, in sharing, in meditation, in growing closer to God.

When my wife and I were dating, as busy as I was as a young professional, I made time to be with her because I loved her and wanted to be with her. We literally could not spend too much time together (at least I did not think so). Our relationship grew. Once we were married, our relationship still grew, but the pressure of business, family, church, and activities strained our relationship. It went through difficult times. We did not communicate as often or as well. Our relationship suffered. Today, when we are alone in the car, we are often silent. Nevertheless, our relationship is still changing and growing. Our relationship with God is no different. It takes time, and it has its ups and downs.

Grace and its Emissaries.

Christians believe in grace. Grace is God’s love reaching out to us to form a relationship with us. Christians believe that God is always reaching out in love to relate to human beings. Always. God’s love is in fact reaching out to us, long before we can or think about reaching out to God. God’s love is reaching out to us at times when we do not sense the presence of God and think of God as absent. As Paul reminds us, “In him we move and live and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Of course, if we are to recognize that the invisible God is reaching out to us, most of the time it will take another person who already has a relationship with us to tell us about that God and introduce him to us. [4] I have a friend, now dead, who became a pastor a long time ago, when it was thought that pastors ought to be married. He went to seminary, but never really met the right person. One day, he met a young widow whose husband had died very young. He was introduced to her by a friend. Without that friend, my friend might never have met his wife of over fifty years. Christians are friends who introduce their friends to a person that will meet their deepest needs for love, forever. We need to think of ourselves as like my friend’s buddy who introduced him to the woman who would be his wife. We are not imposing on people when we share God’s love with them. We are introducing them to the best lover they will ever have.

Deepening our Relationship

Most of the time when we form a relationship with another person, we decide to spend time with them. Prayer, Bible study, worship, and the like are the spiritual equivalent to spending time with and getting to know a human person. If we are to know what God is like and how to grow our relationship with God, we have to study our Bibles, Christian literature, and the stories of others who have developed a relationship with God. We pray and spend time with God. God is a person. We learn to relate to the God of as a person by reaching out to others in acts of love and mercy.

Finally, if our relationship with God is to grow and mature, we need to spend time with people who are already in a relationship with God, including time with people who have been in that relationship longer and more deeply than we have. We need to be a part of the Christian community, and have a relationship with another person or persons who are themselves growing in a relationship with God.

A Different Kind of Relationship

Naturally, there will be differences between our relationship with God and our relationships with human beings. We will never see God. Most of the time, he will speak to us in silence. We will never fully comprehend the One who is the all-wise, all knowing, all powerful creator and sustainer of all that is. There will always be mystery and unresolved questions. Sometimes God will seem to be silent or absent, as if he has deserted us. We will never control the terms of our relationship with God. We will never come to the end of our relationship with an infinite being. But, we will grow in our relationship with God.

Mother Teresa once led a retreat for a group of married women, who complained about the difficulties of marriage. Apparently, one participant indicated that it would be hard for Mother Teresa to understand the difficulties of being married because she was a celibate and unmarried. Mother Teresa replied that she was married to Christ, who could be a very difficult husband indeed! Like Mother Teresa, we will not always find our relationship with God easy, simple, or without its sacrifices and sufferings. [5]

This is the situation in which Christians find ourselves. The life of faith is a life of relationship with a being (indeed the source of all being) we cannot hope to understand and who, from time to time, may place what we think are impossible demands upon us! Most of us who have been married any length of time admit to not fully understanding our spouses and believing that he or she sometimes makes impossible demands upon us! Married couples all know that even the best marriages are not always easy.

Our relationship with God will be no different. We will struggle to maintain the relationship, and we may often wonder what God is up to in our lives. Nevertheless, as the years go by, we grow and the relationship grows. Its growth is not immediate, constant, or without ups and downs, defeats and disappointments. After all, on our side it is a human relationship subject to the problems with all human relationships.

The Transforming Moment

The life of the Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of how God can come into a human life in order to transform and heal it. [6] Paul was not, as we know, seeking Christ. In fact, he was a persecutor of Christ and of Christians. Acts tell us that he “held the cloaks” of those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58), After that event, Paul violently persecuted the early Christians (Acts 8:1-3).

Having received authority from the Sanhedrin to persecute the church in Damascus, he was met by the risen Christ on the road outside of the city. Christ revealed himself to Paul, brought him into a personal relationship with himself, commissioned Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles, and ordered him to go into the city and await his recovery from blindness (Acts 26:12-17).

Paul went into the city, and was brought into the fellowship of the church in Damascus by Ananias, whose efforts allowed Paul to begin his Christian pilgrimage (Acts 10:7). Paul immediately demonstrated his changed life by his powerful defense of Christian faith, a defense he continued for the remainder of his life (Acts 9:19-20).

As the example of Paul demonstrates, because God is a person and we are persons, there exists for each human being the potential for a life-transforming relationship with God, a transformation based upon hearing the Gospel with our intellect, accepting Christ with our hearts, and receiving from God the transformation of our being.

I will close this essay with one final example. Many years ago, my wife and I met a young woman who was damaged by her first husband. She had become closed to relationships with men, and was deeply wounded, fearful, and unhappy. Eventually, she remarried. Her new husband was not a Christian. When they had children, the husband decided to go to church one Sunday morning. Eventually, he accepted Christ. Later, our friend came to Christ as a result of her husband’s efforts.

In my former occupation, I used to see this woman from time to time in the tunnels beneath the city of Houston. The next time I saw this young lady after her conversion, instead of seeing her unconsciously recoil and move away, she broke out into a great smile and came over to greet me. This woman’s relationship with Christ continues to this day. Even to today, I have never seen a person so transformed and healed because of a new relationship with God in Christ. This is the power of a transforming, personal relationship with God.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Holy Spirit is referred to using many different names in the New Testament, including the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Comforter. In all cases, it is a personal reference.

[2] This is not an essay on apologetics, but it is just at this point that Islam and Christianity diverge. For Islam, God is a monad, a singularity of power to whom believers submit. (“Islam” means submission.) Christianity, on the other hand, sees God as personal, constituted by love, and to be freely accepted not commanded into submission. If God is an idea, we can understand God, but we can’t love God nor can God love us. The fact that God is love means we can be in a loving relationship with God that takes precedence over and is the foundation of all other actions we take towards God and others.

[3] See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge, 1995), 19: “What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains and immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, “quantized” wavelike excitation on top of the background, rather like a ripple on a vast sea.”

[4] Although Christians cannot discount the possibility that there are those who, like the Apostle Paul, receive a direct communication from God in their calling (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-22; 26:12-18; Galatians 1:11-24), ordinarily there will be no discipleship without a human community of faith. Even Paul had his communities and partners from whom he learned and with whom he grew. Barnabas, who first brought Pak to Antioch is an example of a mentor in the life of the great apostle (Acts 13).

[5] I have looked through my sermons and on the internet for the source of his story, but I cannot find it no matter how hard I look. The idea is, of course, that our relationship with God will involve difficulties. In Mother Teresa’s case, we know that she experienced a long, long period of darkness of the soul when God ceased giving her overt indications of his love for her. Mother Teresa continued in the life of discipleship for a long time without the consolations of God’s obvious presence in her life.

[6] See James Loder, The Transforming Moment 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989), 21ff. The Transforming Moment is one of the best books on how faith initially and subsequently transforms the human person. My analysis of Paul’s conversion is dependent upon and closely follows that of Dr. Loder.

4. Come Follow Mw

“Come Follow Me” is the next essay in this series on discipleship. This week, we move from a more abstract look at discipleship and our culture to the practicalities of how Jesus discipled people, and therefore, how we should disciple people.

The Biblical records that, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus began by calling the disciples into a personal relationship with him. Matthew describes it like this:

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James and John as they went about their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior before going on with your life.” He did not ask for an intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God, and then go back living the way you did before.” He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he asked for a commitment involving mind, heart, body, and soul. He asked for a radical break with the past. He might as well have said, “Stop what you are doing. Leave your old accustomed way of life. Leave the books you are reading right where they are. Stop going to your therapist. Make your hobbies, families, and work secondary. Then, follow me.” He even offered them a new occupation: “From now on you will not fish for fish; you will fish for people.”

It is precisely at this point that true discipleship begins. At the beginning, the disciples had no idea of exactly who Jesus was and what he had come to do. They hoped he would be a politico-military Messiah that Jewish tradition anticipated. Nevertheless, they left their nets, and followed him. In the Protestant tradition, we often overlook the fact that there was an act of obedience right at the beginning of the life of discipleship. Bonhoeffer puts it this way, “In the gospels, the very first step a man must take is an act which radically affects his entire existence.” [1] The beginning of discipleship is following Jesus.

Too often, modern people think of our commitment to follow Christ is purely intellectual terms, as if simply recognizing who Jesus was and is makes a person a Christian. In evangelism and discipleship, we often ask people to merely make a verbal statement of faith and perhaps say a prayer. We ask them to confess with their lips, remembering that they must also believe in their heart—the center of their very being (Romans 10:9). [2] If one believes something, it makes a practical difference in life.

Christians believe in and trust Jesus for all of life. They follow him wherever he leads. This is where the artificial division between faith and works is overcome. Those who believe also trust and obey. [3] In John’s Gospel, Jesus puts it this way: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:23-24). To be transformed by the love of God is to become an obedient child of the Father. To be a disciple is to be a follower of Christ.

Following God in Christ

Jesus wanted the disciples to know who he was, even though they seemed not to understand until after his death and resurrection. The key to the disciples attaining that knowledge was for them to enter a personal relationship. He wanted them to make a deep commitment to God through him. He knew it would take personal commitment on his part and theirs. He knew they would have to learn trust him in all of life. He knew it would mean his sacrificial death on a cross. He even knew it would require that they learn to carry a cross as well. He knew that this would take time, a lot of time. Jesus wanted them to spend time with him, follow him around, hear his teachings, observe his responses to situations, and experience his leadership so that they could become more like him. Therefore, his first act was to call them into a life changing personal relationship.

Deciding to Follow Jesus

Sometimes, we think it must have been easier for the first disciples than for us to follow Jesus. We think that if we physically saw Jesus, if he came and personally asked us to follow him, we would find it easier to follow than after hearing a pastor, evangelist, or friend share what God has done in their lives and ask us if we are ready to follow Jesus. This is a mistake. People today have to make the same decision the first disciples made. [4] They must decide to follow Jesus.

The first disciples had it just as hard as we do. They had families. They had friendships. They had hobbies. They had occupations. They already had a religion. They went to the Temple periodically and made sacrifices and attended festivals. They went to the synagogue in Capernaum. They had homes and responsibilities. They did not have the gospels or the records of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. They had much less information than we have. One day, when they were out fishing or getting ready to fish, a man came up to them and asked them to follow him and become fishers of human beings. They had to decide whether they would respond or not.

The gospels tell us that the disciples heard the invitation, left what they were doing, and followed Jesus (Matthew 4:20; Mark 1: 18, 20; Luke 5:11). Somehow, amidst the hustle and bustle of earning a living, caring for spouses, parents, and children, and being engaged in family and civic affairs, the disciples saw something important in Jesus and decided it was worth the risk of following. They did not have it easier than we do. In fact, they had it harder. We can look back at the generations of lives changed, of people healed, of ministries and missions of compassion and care. They had to decide without any of this history. They were the first followers.

We have the examples of people like St. Francis of Assisi, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and hosts of others. We have reason to know what God can do with one ordinary life. When Jesus called the disciples the cross, resurrection, and spreading of the gospel, the birth of the church, the example of the martyrs, the evangelization of the world, had not occurred. It was all to come. They had to look into the eyes of a traveling rabbi and answer the question, “Will I follow him or not?”

We are called to answer the same question the disciples answered: “Am I going to follow Jesus?” As we ponder that question, we ask ourselves the same questions the disciples must have asked: “Am I willing to follow Jesus and to trust him in all my daily life?” “Am I willing to give up everything to follow Jesus?”

When we ask another person if they are ready to become a Christian, we need to be careful not to make it sound too easy. We probably should not say to people, “Are you ready to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” We should say, “Are you willing to trust and follow Jesus in all of life?” Eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, membership in the family of God, citizenship in the kingdom of God depend upon our being willing to follow Jesus, not tell people we believe in Jesus.

The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard constantly reminds us that Jesus does not want admirers—he wants imitators.” [5] In the ancient world, a disciple was more than just a learner. A disciple followed his master and imitated his master. While learning is a part of the life of a disciple, it is not the end or goal of the life of discipleship. Jesus asks us to follow him because he intends to have us become little Christs, living as he lived and doing the same kind of things he did. A follower of Jesus will have certain characteristics, the most important of which is that followers of Jesus try to become like Jesus, and in becoming like Jesus we believe we become more like God. Our goal, as the Eastern orthodox put it is “theosis,” being changed into people filled with the life of God. We are Christ’s disciples so that we might become more like God.

Christian faith is not simply objectively knowing who Jesus is, memorizing a few Bible verses, and learning three or four theological ideas. Christianity is a way of life based on faith and powered by grace. Furthermore, it is a specific kind of way of life: it is a way of life patterned after Jesus Christ. It is a life of loving others, of being a servant, of sharing life together with others, of discovering and using our spiritual gifts, of healing our broken world, and speaking truth into the darkness of a world too often governed by lies.  Being a Christian is learning to bear a cross now and again. This is why Jesus says, if anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matt.10:23, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:32) We cannot be a disciple or learn to be a disciple any other way but by following Jesus, watching and listening to Jesus, and acting and living like Jesus. This is what it means to be a disciple.

Counting the Cost

A dangerous failure of churches today is a failure to understand that the gospel is not primarily a system of doctrine, a theology of grace, or a verbal formula and mental acceptance to propositions about God expressed in a creed, confession, or theological position. The word we translate “Faith” is also translated “Trust”. [6] Faith is seen in trusting and following Christ and responding faithfully to the pressures of daily life. Real, active faith is seen in disciples who follow Jesus regardless of the cost, personally, professionally, or otherwise. Real faith is seen in a life-transforming relationship with the living God.

At the time of the Reformation, it was unquestionably important to guard against the idea that by obeying a theological authority or doing certain liturgical actions one could be saved, as if by magic. The Reformation was a corrective to the excesses of the Middle Ages. Today, among evangelical churches, indeed among all churches, there is a need to correct the notion that faith is accepting a proposition about Jesus, getting your admission ticket to heaven punched, and then living as you always lived in reliance on the cheap grace of God. If cheap grace was a problem in Bonhoeffer’s day, it is a worse problem today.

The call to be a disciple is a call to follow Jesus in the concrete, daily business of life. It is a call to commit one’s self to God in such a way that we follow Jesus, learn from Jesus, imitate Jesus, and grow to become more like Jesus. It means giving our lives, families, careers, hobbies, and social circle to God. This includes cross-bearing.

Learning to Bear a Cross Now and Again

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). We cannot be disciples without becoming like Jesus and being willing to experience what Jesus experienced, for good or for bad. We cannot become like God unless we are willing to give our lives for others in self-giving love. Crosses are not difficulties. Crosses are not the consequences of our own behavior and choices. Crosses are the decisions we make to suffer for others although we are not required to by law, divine compulsion, or some inner brokenness. Jesus went to the cross because God loves us, and Jesus was sent by God to bear our sins and brokenness on the cross on the basis of that love. Being a disciple means bearing the sins and brokenness of others, loving them unconditionally, and accepting whatever that commitment requires. [7]

Years ago, I was a lay leader in a large congregation. A problem arose. As time went by, I came to think that my closest friends, those with whom I was theologically most in sympathy, and those with whom I wanted to side, were not adopting the best or most godly strategy, and therefore behaving inappropriately. On the other hand, members of my own family were on another side of the dispute, whose proponents were not acting appropriately either. It was the first time as a Christian I ever had to go against the very people who were most important in my life and Christian walk. It was a time of deep personal suffering. During this time, God taught me an important lesson: Being a disciple does not exempt us from being misunderstood, misquoted, slandered, and otherwise deeply hurt. In point of fact, sometimes when we are doing our most important work for Christ, this is exactly what will happen.

To be a disciple is, from time to time, to bear a cross. I’ve now been a pastor and for over twenty-five years and a Christian for well over thirty-five years. Every pastor and every serious Christian leader know that following Jesus does not exempt person from suffering and carrying a cross in the name of Jesus. In fact, as I sometimes say, “Every time God desires to do something really important in this world, someone carries a cross.”

The Role of Faith

From the beginning, Jesus warned his disciples what belief in him meant. Mark begins his gospel with Jesus proclaiming the good news and telling his hearers to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:14). The faith of which Jesus speaks is more than knowing Jesus is right. Faith involves turning away from the past, moving out into the future, and trusting in the wisdom and love of God. Faith requires that we give up our self-trust, our sin, our selfish ambition, and follow Jesus. If we believe in Jesus, we will turn away from the life we lived in the past, and live on the basis of the new life we have in Christ. If we have faith, we will trust Jesus, move out in faith, and live like Jesus, trusting that a life of loving service to others is the best way of life there is.

In Galatians, Paul speaks of the Gospel that can only be accepted by faith. He teaches the principle that people cannot earn their salvation. He is correct: We cannot be justified by our moral behavior or by following the moral law (Galatians 2:16). However, Paul also goes on to say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Responding to the cross means dying to self and selfish desire (“I have been crucified with Christ”) and then living by the power of Christ (“it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). Faith means responding by giving our whole selves to God, turning away from our selfish, self-centered ways, and living out of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Faith inevitably involves works—in doing something, living in a particular way, taking a particular risk, living differently from others around you. We all have something to do because we follow Jesus. This is why in Ephesians, Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our works do not save us, but when we believe in Jesus, we are going to do things we never would otherwise have done. We are going to be wiser, more loving, more caring, and truthful, than we were before. God does not save us because of our works; he saves us so that we can become capable of living like Jesus and doing the works Jesus does.

Trust/Faith as a Personal Journey

There is confusion in our society and in churches about the nature of faith. Just as we are too easily believers in cheap grace, we are also often believers in cheap faith.  Is faith merely recognizing who Jesus is and calling upon him so that you can go to heaven when you die? Does faith simply believe Jesus is who Jesus said he was? Does faith mean accepting Jesus and trying to be a bit better than one was before? The answer is, “No.” Faith involves transformation.

The Bible is the story of faith lived out by faithful people. The Biblical story begins with Abraham, who is told by God that he will be the father of many nations and have an heir if he goes to the land of the promise God will show him (Genesis 12:1-3). The Bible tells us that Abraham believed and went. In other words, Abraham trusted God not just with his mind (“OK, God I know you can to this”) but also with his heart, soul, mind, body and strength (“OK God, I will go). Abraham went and followed God in the wilderness for years because of his faith. As James reminds those who think faith can be divorced from works, Abraham’s faith was revealed and completed by his works (James 2:14-26). A faith that does not change the way we think, live, act, and feel is not a faith at all.

When Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” Jesus means exactly what he says. He wants us to follow him because we believe that he holds the secret to our becoming the people we were created to be. Our faith is shown in our discipleship. The person who believes one thing and does another can never be psychologically or personally whole. To have integrity, to be whole, our hearts, minds, souls and spirits have to be one. Only then can we be a whole person.

This faith does not change us all at once as if by magic. The life of faith is a life of constant slow transformation. Over time in the life of faith we are slowly but surely being made whole as we gradually become the people we profess to be. As what we believe in our minds becomes imbedded in our hearts, our emotions and how we behave automatically change. This is the work of grace we call “sanctification.” Sanctification is the process by which what we believe and how we live become one thing in one life.

This is the journey of faith. Just as Abram went on a journey with God and was changed into a new person, and the disciples went on a journey with Jesus and were changed, when we become Christians we begin a journey of faith that will change us. It is journey of following Jesus through a process of discipleship and spiritual growth. It means following Jesus where Jesus goes, with companions (other disciples) who are also following Jesus and listening to the words of Jesus spoken in the Bible. It means asking Jesus into our hearts daily through prayer. It means doing what Jesus did and is doing in the world. It means making a few mistakes along the way, just as the disciples made mistakes, correcting those mistakes and growing along the way. As with any journey, there are and will be twists and turns, blind alleys, and mistaken paths.

A few years ago, a close friend and I walked five days of a pilgrimage, the El Camino de Santiago. The path of the pilgrimage is marked with the sign of sea shells. Occasionally the path may not be precisely marked or one may miss a marker or a marker may be obscured. When that happens, it is easy to take the wrong path and then have to retrace your steps. This happened to us late on the next to last day when we were tired and ready for the journey to be over. We had to walk back a mile or so to where we left the path and begin again. This happens over and over again on the journey of following Jesus.

We cannot always clearly see Jesus or where he is leading us. Sometimes, the way is obscured. The “thorns and thistles” of our culture make the way hard to see and find. Sometimes, we misread the signs God has given us in Scripture or in the advice of others. When that happens, we retrace our steps (ask for forgiveness and make amends), find the place we went off the path, and begin again. God in his mercy knows we need instruction, examples, and mercy on the journey. At the same time, because of his steadfast love, God will bring us safely through the journey. This is why Paul could say with confidence to those he was discipling, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1”6).

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of “Costly Grace,” he is speaking of a grace that transforms us and molds us into new beings. Divine grace never leaves us where we were before we received it. Real grace fits us to come and die to self with the crucified Christ, so that we may be raised to a new and different life by his resurrection power. Grace requires more of us than mere recognition of who Jesus is. It requires that we unreservedly commit our lives and futures to God through him and in light of his revelations to us of God’s nature as love.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Cost of Discipleship, at 70. This is a major focus of Bonhoeffer’s work. Bonhoeffer clearly saw that there was a problem in contemporary Christianity which had become so focused on faith and grace it had forgotten the element of obedience and trustful, loving action from a center of faith in Christ.

[2] This two-fold act of believing, confessing with lips and believing in the heart, is important to understanding the Christian life. In the Jewish way of thinking, the heart was and is the center of thought and life. While our minds conceive of a thing, it is our hearts that commit us to a course of action. Thus, in proverbs, God as the father figure instructs the believer to put his commandments in his or her heart (See for example, Proverbs 2:2; 3:3; 7:3)

[3] Cost of Discipleship, at 70. Bonhoeffer leaves no doubt at this point, saying: “Only the obedient believe.”

[4] See, Soren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity Howard V. & Edna H. Fong ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 9-10. It was Kierkegaard’s insight that contemporary believers must accept Christ with just the same kind of faith and degree of trust that the first disciples did.

[5] See, Practice in Christianity, 233 ff. The quote is a summary of what Kierkegaard is after in his entire Practice in Christianity. Nevertheless, he definitely distinguishes between imitators who follow, and admirers. For one example, “if we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, recue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.” Id. Throughout the text, Kierkegaard is reminding readers that to believe is to follow and imitate, not to simply hold a conviction as to who Christ was.

[6] The Greek word for faith, “pistos” means to have the kind of faith that results in trust. It has the connotation of obedience. This is why when I translate the term from the Greek, I almost always use the term, “Trust/Faith.” Modern, post-Reformation Christians too easily fail to grasp that faith trusts and trust means acts in accordance with what is believed. See, Kittel, G & Friedrich, G, eds, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Abridged ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1985), 849ff.

[7] Bonhoeffer is emphatic at this point. “If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow him,” Cost of Discipleship, at 101.

3. The Challenge of Discipleship in our Culture: The Unblessed Life

This week is the most complex of the chapters until we reach the very end. Next week, we begin to ask and answer the question, “How would Jesus respond and have us respond in this context?”

Christians proclaim Jesus is, “The Way, The Truth, and the Life.” For those who believe, the declaration seems obvious. Nevertheless, for many non-Christians in our society, the words are meaningless. There is no one way of life. Everyone simply chooses a lifestyle that pleases them. There is no universal truth. There is only the perspectives of various people, groups, and disciplines. There is no inherent goodness or beauty. There is only one kind of life, what the ancients called, “Bios.” There is no moral or spiritual life not reducible to biology. Jesus is not “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” because no one can be anything more than their own, way, truth and life.

The decline of Christian faith parallels the decline of the modern world and the emergence of a post-modern, post-Christian age. [1] Christians have been slow to apprehend the dramatic shifts in the culture—a culture Christian faith helped to create and sustain, and which Christians generally assume will continue to be receptive to their religious vision. This is untrue. As a retired professor observed, “We were slow to discern that the culture is not our friend.” [2] In particular, the church has been slow to recognize a new dominant world view that is replacing a Christian world view as the primary way in which people structure reality.

This new world view might be summarized in the following way:

We are alone in the physical universe, which constitutes the only reality. In this universe, there is no embedded notion of truth, beauty or goodness. These concepts are matters of personal choice. We humans must, therefore, create our own meaning and lives by acts of personal choice. All attempts to force such ideas upon others are a form of coercion by which one group forces its will upon others. Personal pleasure attained by the acquisition of personal experiences and things that can provide desired experiences are the means by which humans create their lives. [3]

Sociologists remind us that all people live in cultures characterized by “plausibility structures” that define what is reasonable and sensible and what is not. The world view of modern society has created a “crisis of credibility” within which Christian beliefs, values, and morals no longer make sense to many people, and especially the youngest, best educated, and most successful members of the cultural elite. [4] the new plausibility structure assumes that any kind of universal, transcendent truth is impossible.

Basic Features of Our New Cultural Reality

There are basic features of this new cultural reality that impact discipleship and disciple-making in important ways, and which make our culture increasingly hostile to the message of the gospel. Here are a few of the most important:

My Truth is Only True for Me

Nothing is more common than to hear people voice the opinion that “all truth is relative.” [5]  In our culture, when applied to faith and morals “true” means “true for me,” as opposed to “true” in the sense of accurately rendering external reality independent of my ideas about it. In this kind of society, it is difficult to make persuasive unpopular or counter-cultural truth claims, and especially religious claims, such as the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” Such claims are dismissed as silly. A popular way of expressing this aspect of postmodernity is, “You have your truth; I have mine.”

In our culture, truth claims are often seen as nothing more than an attempt by the person making the claim for power or control over another person or group. While it is positive to understand that all expressions of truth inevitably involve the social condition and bias of the claimant, this positive aspect is often overwhelmed by a negative inference that there is no objective moral or other reality outside of isolated individuals, who ought to be able to live, think, and act as they see fit.

The Christian story has a powerful response to the nihilistic vision of radical postmodernism. The foundation of the postmodern critique of religion lies in its view that all truth claims involve a bid for power. The claim that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and should be followed by all people is seen as nothing but a claim for power over the lives of people.  Christian faith and the Biblical narrative are, however, exempt from this critique. The fundamental insight of Christian faith is that God is a person characterized by self-giving, self-sacrificing love (1 John 4:8). God in Christ forsakes all power and privilege for the sake of the human race and gives God’s self in an act of sacrificial love. (Philippians 2:5-11). Far from being a bid for power, Christian faith at its best is a bid for love. While Christians often not do not live up to this ideal, the Biblical story speaks of forsaking power in love for the sake of the world.

I Alone Make All My Choices

Contemporary society is hostile to any form of tradition, authority, and historic communal norms that might burden an individual’s “free choice.” [6] The bias of the modern age against authority and tradition is reflected in the radical individualism that permeates Western culture. The good life involves the ability to do “whatever I want to do so long as I do not hurt anyone else.” In such a culture, the idea that individual desires and goals may need to be sacrificed for the good of parents, children, city, state, or nation seems quaint and out of date. In recent years, this radical individualism has moved from being the province of a narrow elite to being an underlying assumption of the vast majority of people. For most people today, traditional sources of authority, such as parents, pastors, business and political leaders, as well as the authority of such intellectual works like the Bible, are either lost or greatly undermined.

Nowhere is the narcissistic individualism of contemporary society more evident than in the decline of marriage and family. When the primary goal of human life becomes self-fulfillment, the kind of self-sacrifice required to maintain strong marriages and families is inevitably absent. In the early 1960s, a convenient fiction was born, holding that even where a marriage had already produced children, divorce was preferable to lovelessness and constant strife. The alternative of learning to love the other out of duty and creating a home of peacefulness was not deemed a rational alternative. The result has been what is sometimes called an “epidemic” of divorce, weak families, a decline in standards of living, and children with deep, unhealed spiritual wounds. [7]

If it Feels Good, I Should Do It

Without question, the dominant moral philosophy of the early twenty-first century America is a kind of hedonism. [8] The idea that the good life is synonymous with a life of personal pleasure is part of the everyday environment within which most people live. This hedonism surrounds and permeates our culture. The idea that pleasure, and especially physical pleasure, sits at the center of the good life bombards people on television, in movies, and in the music to which they listen.

A subtle form of hedonism is often found among Christians. Many people who would never affirm their commitment to a life lived for personal pleasure engage in activities that are indistinguishable from the activities of non-Christians. Often, Christians have affairs, drink heavily, use recreational drugs, collect pleasurable experiences, are financially greedy, and engage in other hedonistic activities no less frequently than non-Christians. Despite what Christians, including church leaders, may say about the meaning of religious faith, a silent internal, secular worldview impacts everything from the family budget, to the cars they drive, to the time spent on hobbies, to personal fitness and grooming, to their actual commitment to other people. [9]

 What is Right is What I Feel  is Right for Me

The radical individualism and moral hedonism of our culture combines with the modern awareness of cultural differences in fundamental belief systems to create a form of radical moral and spiritual relativism that characterizes the moral and religious beliefs and behavior of many people. [10]  Often, people do not so much personally reject traditional moral standards as they disregard their application to themselves or other persons who do not see them as personally “right for them.” This way of thinking puts Christian leaders, whose teaching and preaching inevitably involves moral issues, in a dilemma. Christians must either speak in ways that are unpopular and live with the resulting rejection or conform the teachings of the Scriptures and Church to contemporary moral norms. Many choose the latter course.

During one of my advanced degree programs, I saw the fundamental irrationality of this modern way of thinking dramatically demonstrated in a conversation among theological students. During a class, the notion of radical moral relativism was advanced by the leader. After class, a group continued the discussion. Finally, I asked the major proponent of the moral relativistic position, “Do you mean that there is no moral difference between a tribe of pigmies that engage in human sacrifice and Christian morals?” Before the person thought, he immediately answered, “Yes.” The entire class went quiet as a large group of people confronted the implications of what they had been taught in their undergraduate and graduate programs.

I am Responsible for My Life Story

Scholars tell us that human beings are by nature narrative thinkers.[11] We instinctively place our lives within the context of a story, in which we are a main character. In most previous societies, there was a kind of over-arching story that allowed people to construct a narrative in which their life made sense and had meaning and purpose. Old Testament stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and the patriarchs, Moses, Deborah, Joshua, and the exilic generation, Gideon and the Judges, Saul, David, Abigail, Bathsheba, and Solomon, and the decline of David’s kingdom, and its fall provided for ancient Israel a meaningful story around which human life could be structured and meaning found. [12]  Christians have traditionally believed that the story of God’s relationship with humanity as rendered in the Jewish and Christian Bibles (the Old and New Testaments), and especially the life, death and resurrect on of Jesus, and the writings of the New Testament authors provide an overarching story that gives a context and guidance to human life. This is precisely meta-narrative postmodern thinking rejects. [13]

A basic challenge for contemporary Christians in sharing the Christian story is that we live in a “world that has lost its story.” [14] Our culture is characterized by rejection of any “meta-narrative” (or overarching story) that seeks to give meaning and direction to human life. Not only do contemporary people not believe the Christian story, they often do not believe there is any meaningful story around which to order their lives. The result is an inability of people to form their lives and make decisions in light of the biblical or any other story, except that which they create for themselves. The Christian narrative has been replaced by the secular narrative discussed above.

Modern society has been unable to sustain and renew its intellectual, moral and spiritual foundations in light of the challenges it has faced both intellectually and practically, with the result that it has largely collapsed into radical individualism and moral and spiritual relativism. [15] The result is cultural decline and disintegration. In basic ways, the cultural ruins we see around us is evidence that the Christian story is truer than the secular story that has increasingly replaced it.

The False Gospel of “Entertainmentism”

Into the emptiness created by the loss of a meaningful story has entered the entertainment industry, which provides endless narratives to replace the Biblical story. This industry is central to the lives of modern people. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry is shallow, simplistic, adolescently romantic, obsessed with sex, and often violent. As a result, it is normally unrealistic in the stories it tells in television, movies, music, and other forms. Often, its communication techniques make consciously irrational appeals to emotions. Sex and violence are the vehicles of choice in this emotional appeal. The end result is a culture saturated with the values of the entertainment media is one with a deep and abiding lack of interest in truth and a romantic avoidance of reality. One author describes it in the following manner:

For all practical purposes, the U.S. today is a 24-hour, TV entertainment society. Everything in contemporary America is an entertainment, from sporting event to big business, politics, certainly religion, and even academia. If it isn’t fun, cute, or packaged in ten-second sound bite, then forget it. If it can’t be presented with a smiling, cheerful, sexy face, then it ain’t worth attending to. We’re all spectators in a grand entertainment society. [16]

Recently, my wife and I have been watching a television show that exemplifies the problems with the contemporary entertainment industry. The story line we have been following concerns of a group of young people who are able to travel backwards in time. [17] Two different groups are attempting to manipulate and control the direction of human history. Roughly speaking, one group is portrayed as “the bad guys” and the other as “the good guys.” The good guys kill just as many people and act as irrationally as the bad guys, except that they are trying to protect human freedom. The bad guys are trying to control the future for their own political and economic interest. The bad guys are mere caricatures of the people the media industry dislikes.

The show is saturated by human self-assertion and ethical chaos. The characters struggle with the idea that there might be a higher power who controls the future, but of course there isn’t one active in their plot line, and so they must struggle to create a meaningful future all on their own. They have to make choices. Deep in the problems with show is what Walter Wink calls, “the myth of redemptive violence,” – the notion that violence can be redemptive if only the “good guys” defeat the “bad guys.” (It’s not redemptive for the bad guys kill the good guys.) [18] The result is a constant replay of a shallow, relativistic, philosophy the writers where probably taught in High School and College. In addition, because the show takes the watcher back into history, occasionally the watcher is treated to a shallow, cartoon version of history, sometimes distorted.

A society dominated by entertainment reduces complex problems to sound bites and catchy lyrics. It reduces basic moral and spiritual dilemmas of the human race to a simplistic one-hour drama. It allows people to view sex and violence without consequences. The news depictions of our politics have become similarly shallow. If complex problems are often oversimplified by politicians, the media has largely lost interest in educating the public in the facts, which are often complex and difficult to understand, finding it easier to give opinion pieces and distorted coverage of current events. Complex problems, like the national debt cannot receive proper attention. They are too complex and solutions would require self-denial in a culture addicted to self and selfish consumption.

This culture of oversimplification impacts discipleship, because of the pressure to communicate the Scripture and the content of the confessional standards in simple, even simplistic, ways. Furthermore, the way in which worship services and other church programs are conceived and presented must increasingly take notice of the way in which the entertainment industry structures reality and the acquisition of new information and ideas. None of this is necessarily helpful to those who wish to communicate historic Christian faith.

 The One Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins

When persons from less developed nations visit Europe and North America, they immediately notice the vast array of goods and services available to those who live in these cultures. (Often, they bring with them a list of items it is difficult or expensive to acquire back home to purchase for friends and loved ones.) America and Europe have become shopping paradises.

With the passing of the World War II generation, most Americans cannot remember a time not characterized by relative prosperity. Recessions aside, the standard of living enjoyed by most Americans today far surpasses that of their grandparents. The impact of consumerism upon the culture is important, deep, and pervasive. A culture without meaning and purpose is likely to find endless consumerism attractive and distracting. People too easily come to believe (consciously or unconsciously) that “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”

The economies of Europe and North America have evolved from struggling to meet basic human needs to providing a growing supply of goods and services to an affluent consumer market. Marketing has moved from a means by which people with basic needs find products to meet those needs to the creation of needs in ever increasing, narrow product niches. The definition of the “good life” is increasingly dominated by the feeling that “good” and “abundant” are identical concepts.

The consumer culture is a challenge to the gospel, the Church, and leaders. Many members of local congregations have difficulty resisting consumerism; however, church leaders and their families are not exempt from the disease I call “consumeritis.”[19]  Consumerism assumes human happiness can be purchased, that the acquisition of things will bring happiness, and that the experience of ownership and possession is redemptive. Few people explicitly articulate this faith, but many people practice it. The bumper sticker that reads, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” is truer for more people than they want to admit, including many who would never admit that things constitute the primary focus of their lives.

Advertising and the media constantly communicate the idea that new cars, new hair sprays, and new soft drinks can bring happiness and fulfillment to the one who acquires them. A kind of disconnect often exists between the gospel that is preached and the life that is lived, making authentic spirituality hard to achieve and maintain in a local congregation. Alternatively, some congregations have adopted a consumer-oriented approach to ministry that is not fully faithful to the Gospel. This situation is especially true in those denominations that sit at the center of American culture.

Materialism: There is Nothing Beyond the Physical World.

Sitting beneath the superficiality of a consumer culture is the reality of a materialistic culture, a culture that assumes that the material world is primary, and physical goods and services are redemptive. Deep in the modern and postmodern psyche is the notion that the physical universe is the only and ultimate reality. In this way of thinking, all that exists are material things and the forces that act upon them. [20]

God is considered not to exist or to be a part of the only and ultimate reality, the physical universe. Pantheism (the belief that everything is God) is one religious response to a materialistic worldview. A more common practical reaction is a movement of religion to the human psyche, where it is viewed either negatively as a neurosis or positively as a principle of self-transcendence and wholeness. New age and other similar forms of popular religion often emerge from this kind of thinking. In any case, such a religious foundation is powerless against the overwhelming materialism of the culture.

Among churches, an overt attempt to find a place within a fundamentally materialistic worldview is common. In liberal circles, this accommodation is evident in its theological accommodation to a materialistic and anti-supernatural worldview. In evangelical circles, the accommodation often emerges in a different form, such as an uncritical adoption of psychotherapeutic techniques and notions. In conservative churches there is often a wholesale philosophical rejection of modernity, coupled with an uncritical acceptance of this means, methods, and goals. [21] In both cases, discipleship has been hampered by the false world view accepted by groups.

Our “Postmodern” Context

Our social context is often referred to as “Postmodern.” The term “Postmodern” is both deceiving and not always helpful. [22] All the name connotes is that we live “after” the Modern Era. In fact, many characteristics of what is commonly called “postmodern” seem to indicate only the end-phase of the Modern Era. [23] Nevertheless, emerging and challenging realities captured under the rubric of “postmodernity” profoundly impact Christians and discipleship.

In ways, the culture we inhabit often involves a partial return to paganism. Unlike the ancient world, our cultural paganism is a “religionless paganism.” [24] In such a culture, discipleship must be lived out by disciples in the West without the social supports common in preceding generations. American society, in particular, has shifted from one in which Protestantism, especially mainline Protestantism, represents a societal religious and moral consensus to one in which many cultural elites are often openly hostile to Christian faith and morals. [25]

A culture characterized by consumerism, radical individualism, hedonism, and “entertainmentism” is a challenging culture in which to proclaim the gospel and form and sustain Christian community. I have experienced many conversations, particularly with older pastors, where the following statement was made. “It is no longer fun to be a pastor.” In noting the reactions of Third World observers to American cultural religion, Eugene Peterson makes and observation that, at least partially explains this sentiment:

What they notice mostly is the greed, the silliness, the narcissism. They appreciate the size and prosperity of our churches, the energy and the technology, but they wonder at the conspicuous absence of the cross, the phobic avoidance of suffering, the puzzling indifference to community and relationships of intimacy. [26]

Early twenty-first century America, characterized by consumerism, materialism, hedonism, and “entertainmentism” is deeply at odds with the gospel and a form of life based on the Christian narrative. The resulting cultural patterns constitute a form of life deeply at odds with values that stand at the core of Christian faith and with the kind of life the gospel narrative encourage Christians to lead. As hostility toward the Christian meta-narrative has grown more intense in recent years, a tendency for the biblical story to be ignored or even suppressed developed in schools, colleges, universities, and the like. A corollary of this development is a decrease in the number of people outside and inside the Church who have a basic familiarity with the Biblical narrative. This decrease, in turn, makes communication of the gospel more difficult as many people simply do not have the kind of familiarity with the Christian story that permits them to understand and respond to the gospel. Furthermore, many inside the Church have either forgotten the story of the Bible or never knew it. [27] At the same time, secular society has developed a kind of lifestyle that is deeply at odds with many facets of historic Christianity.

Fortunately, Christian faith has a response to the critique of postmodernism. Christianity was not founded by a conqueror in a bid for power. The story of the gospel is the story of a God who forsakes perfection and power, endures suffering on behalf of humanity, dies a terrible death, all to reach into human history with the unimaginable self-giving love of God. At our best, Christians do not believe in a kind of religious imperialism by which every human being is compelled to believe in Christ. Instead, Christians fundamentally believe that, by reaching out in love and service to others and sharing the truth of God, people will without compulsion respond by the power of the Holy Spirit to the call of God to live lives of wisdom and love.

Christians who minister within the European and North American context in this cultural era have a unique challenge. Our ministry is to take people where they are found, caught in damaging cultural patterns, and shepherd them into a new way, the way of Christ. The sum total of the challenges posed by Western culture is the need to minister amid a deep and abiding sense that the way of Christ and the way of this world are radically different. The need is to develop the kind of character than can build and sustain Christian community in the face of the cultural challenges Christians face. Merely repeating past truisms will not do. Faith divorced from a distinctive way of life will not do. Cheap grace dispensed for sins few people either acknowledge as sin or believe are sins will not do. Only the truth embodied in love will do. Until then, we will be trapped in a crisis of discipleship.

Copyright 2019, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A good deal of this chapter is based on research done for my Doctor of Ministry Degree. A more heavily footnoted version of this chapter can be found in G. Christopher Scruggs, Practices and Characteristics for Pastors Renewing Mainline Congregations: Studies from the Presbytery of Memphis (Unpublished Dissertation, Accepted March 25, 2005).

[2] Nelson, C. Ellis. Private conversation (14 March 1994).

[3] Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1989), 1

[4] Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. (New York, NY: Anchor, 1967), 151; see also. Berger, Peter L. Rumor of Angels (New York, NY: Anchor, 1970).

[5] Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1987), 25. Professor Bloom points out what has been my experience both as a student in the late 20th Century and a teacher. The younger American generations have been indoctrinated into a world view in which “truth” means “true for me.

[6] Trueblood, E. J. The Dawn of the Postmodern Era (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1954), 19.

[7] This radical individualism is increasingly felt in the Church. The notion of an authoritative text read as part of a tradition is difficult to sustain in a postmodern environment. Church leaders are confronted each and every day with persons for whom the notion of authority, and perhaps especially the notion of pastoral authority, have little or no meaning. The result for church leaders is an intense pressure to succumb to such views or constantly minister in an environment in which church leaders can do little more than support persons. Furthermore, church leaders are not immune from such radical individualism in their own lives.

[8] “Hedonism” is an ancient Greek moral theory that the ethical life can be reduced to seeking pleasure or happiness and the avoidance of pain or unhappiness. It was founded by a pupil of Socrates, and its name comes from the Greek word for pleasure. This idea has been important in religious and moral thinkers since Greek times, and profoundly impacts some forms of both Pragmatism and Utilitarianism.

[9] The pleasure-seeking aspect of modern and emerging postmodern culture is especially evident in the way in which sexuality both dominates secular politics and the Church’s agenda and distorts the Church’s life mission. Recent headlines involving the incidence of child molestation by Roman Catholic priests, the continuing divisions in mainline churches over homosexuality, and highly publicized heterosexual clergy misconduct are but examples of the way in which the hedonism of modern culture invades the Church. Addiction to pornography, a challenge in many cultures, is made much more pervasive by its easy availability on the Internet. In such a culture, the idea that self-denial and suffering are part of the good life is at odds with the form of life that surrounds people.

[10] Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1989), 9.

[11] See, Hauerwas, Stanley and Jones, L. Gregory, eds. Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989).

[12] In ancient Greece, the story of the Iliad with its exaltation of the heroism of Achilles and Hector formed the consciousness of people. Within the great story of the Iliad, kings, warriors, men, women, servants, and the like all found examples of where they could go right in life and how they could go wrong. See, Alister McIntyre, After Virtue 2nd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1983), whose analysis I have shortened but largely followed.

[13] This aspect of postmodernity is especially troubling. Human beings seem to naturally seek to understand their lives as a story, and to place themselves in some way within that story as a character. The loss of narrative inevitably means the loss of place. It means the loss of identity, meaning and purpose, as it becomes less possible to find a coherent place in the events of daily life.

[14] Jenson, Robert W. “How the World Lost Its Story.” First Things Oct. 1993: 19-24.

[15] Postmodern thinkers have abandoned any hope that any core symbolic world or meta-narrative can provide a unified vision and narrative structure for human life. [15] Unsurprisingly, the result has been cultural decline and growing social chaos. One pressing need in ministering to post-modern people is to recover the notion of the Bible as providing a non-violent narrative which provides meaning and purpose as well as ultimate justification for a free and open society. Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 42-43. Interestingly, the Postmodernists do propose a metanarrative of their own, one that denies the possibility of unified spiritual and moral vision for human life. See also, After Virtue, previously cited.

[16] Mitroff, Ian I., and Warren Bennis. The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What It Is Doing to Our Lives (New York, NY: Oxford, 1989), 16.

[17]  Timeless, NBC New York (October 3, 2016-December 20, 2018). Timeless is an action drama in the science fiction genre.

[18] Wink, Walter, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 13-31. Wink has written extensively on the powers and principalities and the way in which a misunderstanding of them can warp Christian thought ad action. In my view Wink is too captive to his own left-wing ideology, and thereby weakens his case. We are all inclined to be controlled by the powers and principalities, not just one group of people.

[19] “Consumeritus” is a term I coined for the ‘consumer’ orientation of our economy and the way in which it encourages people to find meaning in acquiring things. The “itis” indicates that Consumeritus is actually a disease of the soul.

[20] One of the clearest indications that the modern world cannot continue is that this belief in material objects and forces is completely contrary to our most sophisticated understanding of the universe in which we live. The ultimate nature of material reality seems not to be material. It can be described as disturbances in fields or even as information, but whatever the ultimate reality is, it is not material. Our intellectual leaders, politicians, business people, and religious leaders have hardly begun to accommodate the relativistic, relational, information-centered view of the world favored by contemporary quantum physics and increasingly other disciplines as well.

[21] Nowhere is the impact of materialism more evident than in arguments over human sexuality. Whether the debate is over marital fidelity or alternative forms of sexual expression, the argument used often involves some form of an argument that “people are born this way.” At the root of the widespread acceptance of this argument is a materialistic notion of reality in which religious faith may give subjective support to persons but is unable to change ultimate reality. On the other hand, among conservative Christians, there is often little difference between how they in fact live and the life-style evident in the culture as a whole.

[22] The term postmodernity is used in a variety of ways by various authors. In general, the term postmodern is used to describe both a philosophical movement and an emerging cultural reality. The postmodern intellectual period is generally thought to have begun with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his powerful indictment of both Christianity and Enlightenment optimism concerning human reason. Culturally, the postmodern period is generally thought to have begun to emerge after the First World War, which engendered a tremendous alienation from Western Culture among European intellectual elites. Both the philosophical and cultural aspects of postmodernism are very complex. This study does not presume to provide a comprehensive analysis of postmodern thought. It sought to give a pastoral analysis sufficient for a study of transformational leadership in the contemporary church. Worth noting, however, is that I believe that postmodernism is “here to stay” as a cultural phenomenon, and pastors must minister within postmodern America and to people who are consciously or unconsciously affected by its theory and cultural artifacts. As a cultural reality and as a philosophical movement, postmodernism has aspects that are both positive and negative for the Church and for Christians who witness to Christ under its conditions.

[23] See note 4 above.

[24] This “religionless paganism” is sometimes referred to as neo paganism. Just as postmodernity refers to something after modernity, neo paganism refers to a new form of paganism. The actual content varies because it is a kind of eclectic collection of beliefs that people choose to adopt. What defines them as pagan is the fundamentally manipulative nature of the beliefs, which is to say that the “divine” is put at the heart of human striving. From a Christian standpoint, neo-paganism is both superstitious and idolizing.

[25] The emergence of “new age” ideas clearly often involve a kind of religion, and even supernatural forces, so the emerging culture is not void of spiritual ideas. When I use the term pagan, I mean a kind of return to the pre-Christian notions of society and morals.

[26] Peterson, Eugene. Under the Unpredictable Plant. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 37

[27] A common experience of pastors and other Christian leaders is the pervasive lack of familiarity with the biblical narrative even among Christians. The emergence of the Internet, which many people thought would be a great help in alleviating this problem has significantly helped the problem. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for a long-term commitment to study the Bible in some detail. Obviously, some passages are more important than others, and some sections clearer than others. Many of the programs that gave churches and Christian organizations a vehicle for deep discipleship in the past the longer seem to work in the postmodern context.

The Blessed Life

We live in a curious age. Never in human history have people in the developed world had so much material wealth. Paradoxically, never before have people suffered from so much anxiety about the future, life, their ability to continue to consume at or above their current level, and the meaning and purpose of their lives. Young people in almost all Western democracies, but notably in the United States, the so-called “leader of free world,” demonstrate a lack of trust in the way of life and institutions that provide the highest standard of living and the most freedom experienced anywhere in human history. Sadly, among Christians, fewer and fewer people live as fully committed disciples. Churches in Europe are nearly empty, and those in the United States and North America are rapidly following the European example.

Numerous social commentators, Christian and non-Christian, liberal and conservative, traditionalist and radical, note that there is something troubling about our society. Commentators do not agree on what is wrong, how serious the problem is, or what to do in response to the problems they see—they just agree there is a problem. No significant period of time goes past without someone publishing an article with a title something like, “Are America’s best days behind her?” [1] These articles focus on indications that something is deeply wrong with our culture. Many of the commentators see at the root of our society’s problems the reality that material wealth, prosperity, pleasure, consumption, leisure, and the like cannot provide meaning, purpose, love, or inner strength, and security. In fact, the relentless search for meaning and purpose by the means advocated by our society result in increasing loss of meaning, purpose, love, inner strength, and security. The result is pervasive loneliness, isolation, neurosis and anxiety.

One reason we have so much trouble resisting the temptations of our culture is that most of us have a deeply ingrained, culturally formed notion of “the Good Life.” The good life involves feelings of personal pleasure and happiness. Most people believe that hard work, healthy habits, exercise, pleasurable experiences, travel, recreation, hobbies and other forms of self-actualization are important to achieving to this good life. Some people believe that government can and should arrange to create this good life on behalf of its citizens. Other people believe it should be created by private industry and personal initiative, but nearly everyone believes in some kind of earthly paradise in which all our human expectations and desires can be and are met. [2]

Jesus and the Blessed Life

Interestingly, Jesus never talked about the desirability of seeking to live to old age, attaining a degree of physical beauty, staying fit and healthy, acquiring wealth, getting ahead financially, consuming increasing amounts of goods and services, traveling, pleasurable experiences, or any of the other preoccupations of our day. Jesus did, however, speak of what he called “the blessed life.”

The Blessed Life Now and For Jesus

Jesus’ teachings concerning the blessed life are completely at odds with what our culture considers blessings. When people in our society use the word “blessed,” in almost any of its forms, it usually involves something concrete we have received. We say, “I am blessed with good health.” “I am blessed with a strong heart.” I am blessed with a wonderful spouse.” “I am blessed with four healthy children.” “I have been blessed financially.” “I am blessed with a new job.” “I am blessed with a promotion.” The list of our blessings could go on and on, but they have this in common: they relate to physical blessings that contribute to our sense of emotional and physical well-being.

On the other hand, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are the humble.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Worst of all, Jesus says, “Blessed are the persecuted.” In Luke, the words are even less palatable to modern ears. [3] In Luke, Jesus is recorded has having said, “Blessed are the poor,” not just the poor in spirit. He says “Blessed are the hungry,” not just those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He says, “Blessed are those who weep,” and repeats, “Blessed are you when men hate you, exclude you, and insult you.” [4] Jesus seems to be saying that everything the modern world believes leads to the blessed life does not.

Jesus challenges our human presuppositions about what it means to be blessed. For Jesus, the blessed life is not something exterior to ourselves we acquire. Instead it is something we experience within ourselves. Moreover, because of the nature of the blessing, the blessed life is not something we naturally seek, but can only receive as a gift from God. The exterior life, upon which modern people place so much emphasis, is secondary. It is our relationship with God and with his plans and purposes that is primary in life. In other words, Jesus thinks our society has things completely backward!

Secular reason does not permit us to see and understand the truly blessed life without the intervention of God. It was true in Jesus’ day, and it is true today. [5] The blessed life is received by faith in God and in his Word. We cannot discover it on our own. Someone, under the inspiration of God, has to tell us about this blessed life in Christ and show us what it looks like.  Someone must help us overcome our cultural addictions to power, pleasure, and possessions. That is why Christ came. In the end, the Spirit of Christ must work in us so that we can receive by faith what God has promised.

The Old Testament and the Blessed Life

The Old Testament reflects an understanding that the blessed life, like all of life, is a gift from God. The Hebrew word “Baruch” implies a kind of all-completeness and wholeness that can only come from God. In the creation story, God creates the human race, and then immediately blesses them (Gen. 1:27-28). The blessing God gives to Adam and Eve implies that the human race was intended to occupy and enjoy God’s good creation as a creature that can joyfully appreciate and participate in the completion of God’s gracious intention for that creation.

The story of the fall reflects the human race falling away from its divine destiny of blessing (Gen. 3:16-19). The curse of the fall described in Genesis is not the abusive action of an angry God. It is the natural result of the human race leaving the path of fellowship with God, creation, and other people for self-centeredness and self-seeking—a path that inevitably leads to alienation, misguided behavior, and suffering. The human race, meant for communion with God, nature, and one another has forfeited its divine destiny and now restlessly roams the earth in search of a restoration of its blessings.

Blessings and Noah

In the story of Noah, God saves a righteous man in the midst of a catastrophe of sin and alienation that engulfs the entire world. When the flood is over, Noah departs from the ark, builds an altar, and praises God. God in return blesses Noah in language that reveals God’s desire to restore the blessing lost in the garden of Eden: “Then God blessed Noah and his children saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen. 9:1). [6] Even in judgment, God is seen restoring, renewing, and blessing the human race.

Blessings and Abraham

The story reaches a decisive moment when God calls Abram into a new and special relationship of blessing. When the Lord calls Abram to leave his country, his people, and those of his household left behind, he promises:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth   will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3).

The blessing God gives to Abram (Abraham) is not just for his genetic family. It is a blessing for the entire world and every tribe and nation. It is a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. This blessing flows from the trustful relationship Abraham and his family are intended to have with God. Over and over again throughout Genesis, God blesses the family of Abraham. As the story unfolds, the blessing of Abraham is extended from Abraham and his family to the entire world (See, Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 28:14). This blessing through the kind of faith Abraham demonstrates continues to this day.

Blessings and the Wise Life

The book of Psalms begins with a blessing:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Therefore, the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,  but the way of the wicked leads to destruction (Psalm 1, ESV).

By the time Psalms was written, the people of Israel understood that the blessed life is achieved by following the teachings of God. The psalmists realize that God has revealed in nature and his word a way of life that leads to blessing. The blessed person not only receives the blessing of fellowship with God, but also physical blessing that comes with obedience to the God’s instructions. The blessed life is achieved by following the way of blessing God has provided for the human race.

Those who follow the way of wickedness (i.e. act contrary to God’s will) can never be blessed. They have chosen a path that leads away from blessing. Those who follow God’s will and become wise in good living, receive the blessing a fellowship with God. Those who follow the way of holiness and righteousness are recreated into the image of the God who created them in the first place and received the blessing of that re-creation.

Wisdom literature affirms this same idea: the blessed life is lived according to the wisdom God has imbedded in the universe, a wisdom that is revealed for the people of God in God’s instructions and laws (Proverbs 3:13-18). [7]For wisdom writers, the blessed life is the wise life. Those who follow the path of wisdom (adapting their lives to divine and created reality), find a path that leads to peace and plenty. It is a way of life that leads to increased blessings. For the wisdom writers, the blessings of God are received by those who develop a wisdom God imbedded in the universe. The Path of Life is the Path of Wisdom and is the most valuable blessing a person can receive in life, and it is the ground and source of all the other blessings of life. [8]

The blessed life is filled with the kind of wisdom that comes from God and from life in fellowship with God. The blessed person listens to the voice of God’s wisdom, and waits for God’s revelation of the proper course of action in the practical affairs of life (Proverbs 8:34). Ultimately, the wise life is a life of wise, loving, trustful, and faithful conformity to God’s character and will (Proverbs 16:20). It cannot be achieved without the deep reverence and respect for God that that Bible terms, “the fear of the Lord,” which is the beginning of wisdom and of the blessed life (Proverbs 1:6, 9:10; 28:14). [9]

Blessing and the Prophetic Life

If wisdom literature emphasizes that the blessed life is the result of wisdom, the Prophets teach that the blessed life results from following the will of God and walking in his chosen path. The end of the Kingdom of David, the failure of Israel to retain its freedom and independence, their defeat by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the exile to Babylon were interpreted by the prophets as a judgment on Israel’s lack of faithfulness to the God of Abraham. As a result of their failure, God removed his blessing, and allowed judgment to come upon them. The people of God forfeited the blessed life.

If the recipe of the wisdom writers for a return of blessing was to forsake foolishness and wickedness and return to the “Path of Life,” the recommendation of the prophets was that Israel return to faith in the Living God and live according to God’s instructions and will. [10]Their message was one of religious and national revival. “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). If Israel returned to faithfulness to God, they would be restored to their land and the kingdom of David would be restored. [11]

Old Testament writers were not unaware of the role chance, good fortune, and bad luck play in human life. [12]Nevertheless, they believed that God was the fount and source of the good life and all the blessings of life, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The restored Kingdom of David was, even in the early stages of its development more than a restored earthly kingdom, but a kingdom of blessing from God. It would be revealed in a kingdom of wisdom, righteousness, and peace.

The New Testament and the Blessed Life

 By Jesus’ time, the religion of Israel had developed in a disturbing way. In terms of religious observance, the blessed life was achieved by participating in religious rituals and making proper sacrifices. In terms of behavior, the blessed life was achieved through understanding the law of Moses and following its details as interpreted by the rabbis. The Pharisees, and teachers of the law (those who took the Old Testament seriously) developed detailed understanding of what it meant to follow the law in every area of life. For the religious few, this form of life gave life meaning and purpose. For the average person, temple religion had become a matter of mere external form, and the religion of the scribes and Pharisees a complicated and unachievable set of rules.

Certain forms of modern Christianity resemble the religious situation of Israel at the end of the Old Testament. People continue to go to church. A few continue to study the Bible and attempt to organize their lives “according to biblical principles.” Sometimes their understanding of these principles is quite detailed. However, for the majority of people the life of discipleship has become a dim memory. Just as with the ancient Israelites, the life of faith seems complicated, unrewarding, and unachievable. [13]

The Change Jesus Made

When Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called twelve ordinary people to become his followers, he revealed something new: The blessed life is not achieved by external religious observances, devoted study of the law, or even dedicated obedience to the law. Instead, discipleship and the blessed life is a matter of a living relationshipwith God who is the source of wisdom and love. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through that relationship, into a personal relationship with God. As with any relationship, the defining characteristic of Jesus’ new way was a personal commitment to be in relationship, a commitment that we call “faith.” The faith of the original disciples was reflected by their decision to follow Jesus. Our faith is no different.

Just as in a marriage (or any other human relationship) not every day, week, month, or year is characterized by good feelings, the same thing is true of our relationship with God in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Perhaps even more challenging was Jesus’ warning that following him entails sacrifice and even suffering. “If anyone would come after me, they must take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). Following Jesus involves not just discomfort, but suffering and sacrifice. There will be blessing, but that blessing will not necessarily eliminate the reality of suffering, even undeserved suffering.

The Disciples’ Long Period of Misunderstanding

It took the disciples a long time to understand that the blessed life Jesus promised was not a promise of uninterrupted health, success, pleasure, or victory over opposition. The crucified Messiah revealed a kind of blessing that transcends human experience wisdom or experience (I Cor. 1:16ff). This is why Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The blessing (Shalom) that Jesus offers is a kind of blessing that cannot be achieved by simple religious obedience or ritual. Is a blessing that may only be found in a personal relationship with the Living God.

The Truly Blessed Life

So then, what is the blessed life? First, the truly blessed life is lived in fellowship with God, nature, and other people. It is lived in solidarity with the external world as human beings recover the stewardship of creation for which the human race was created. It is a life of restored interpersonal relationships, as the alienation caused by pride, selfishness, and self-seeking is overcome. The blessed life is a life of spiritual and emotional wholeness. It is a life of restored communion with God.

The person who lives in communion with God, creation, and other human beings achieves emotional and spiritual wholeness. The blessed life is a life of humility and acceptance of others, because the wise and blessed person recognizes that human beings are fallible, finite, and capable of wickedness. Blessed life is also a life of steadfast love, because those who live in relationship with the God of steadfast love exhibit that steadfast love in their own day-to-day lives.

When I was a young Christian, the missionary, evangelist, and social theologian Francis Schaeffer diagnosed the condition of Western society as dominated by a definition of the good life as achieving personal peace and affluence. [14]Certainly, our society is dominated by the individualistic search for things, for experiences, for recreation, for a sense of happiness and peace. In the midst of this search, we experience a high level of dysfunction.

Why is this so? Is it because the “Blessed Life” cannot be found in having more things, achieving success, experiencing pleasures, and the like? What if the blessed life can only be found in the humble search for wisdom in daily living and in loving service to God and others? What if our society and every other society always have been and are misguided at a deep level concerning what constitutes the blessed life? [15]

Jesus knew we human beings seldom change our behavior until we experience what life might be like if we adopted another behavior pattern. Therefore, he was not content to simply talk about the blessed life. Jesus lived the blessed life for all the world to see. He called disciples to live with and observed him. They did not know it at the time, but they were experiencing the blessed life and being trained to share that blessed life with others.

If people in contemporary society could achieve the blessed life by reading about the blessed life, our society would indeed be a blessed society. There are many, many self-help books. There are books about how to lose weight, gain weight, exercise, take vitamins, diet, think and grow rich, retire early, become more physically able to defend ourselves, find peace with God or the Ultimate (however you visualize it)—there are books about anything and everything we might do to achieve the blessed life on our own terms. It is been my experience, and the experience of most people who’ve tried these books, that they don’t permanently work. Why?

It is because we human beings do not need more than information to achieve the blessed life. We need to experiencethe blessed life. We need to experience what it is to live wisely. We need to experiencewhat it is like have healthy relationships with other people. We need to experiencewhat it is like to love others with what the Bible calls “steadfast love” or “agape love,” the self-giving, long-suffering, faithful love of God. In order for people to experience the blessed life, there must be disciples who follow Jesus and how to live the blessed life know not just from reading books but from experience.

The disciples, like people today, did not immediately understand what Jesus was showing them. Like us, they did not learn all at once but only after a long period of observation and personal interaction. It was not until after his cross and resurrection that they understood. Although Peter was inspired to say that Jesus was the Christ, the son the living God at Caesarea Philippi, his inspiration was temporary. He would still deny Jesus and go back to fishing until his time of discipleship was complete. It was only after he saw the risen Christ and experienced the power of the resurrection that Peter became capable of living the blessed life. [16]

We cannot expect people in our time to be any different. Relational understanding comes slowly. It requires time, practice, mistakes, correction, teaching, patience, and all the other attributes of discipleship. The reason Jesus created and lived in relationship with his disciples during his entire earthly ministry was because relationships are the way, and the only way, people can truly change and be transformed. In our day and time, we are experiencing a crisis of discipleship precisely because we have not done a particularly good job of discipling others into a living relationship with God. The crisis will not abate until we give up the idea that better marketing, worship, or programming can achieve real change. Real change involves a return to Way of Jesus.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] A brief survey on the internet demonstrates the truth of his proposition. See for example, Farid Zakaria, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” Time Magazine, Thursday, March 3, 2003 http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2056723,00.html(Downloaded, June 22, 2019); Eduardo Porter, “America’s Best Days May Be Behind It” New York Times, January 10, 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/20/business/economy/a-somber-view-of-americas-pace-of-progress.html(Downloaded June 22, 2019). Patrice Lewis, “Why Our Best Days Are Behind Us” WNDhttps://www.wnd.com/2016/01/why-our-best-days-are-behind-us/(Downloaded June 22, 2019); Nigel Barber, “Are America’s Best Days Over?” Huffington PostMarch 18, 2017 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/are-americas-best-days-ov_b_9487770(Downloaded June 22, 2019).

[2] This point is made powerfully in lay language in W. T. Wright’s new book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good(New York, NY: Harper One, 2015), 109ff. In the modern world, we are all subject to a culturally reinforced worldview that considers progress to be an automatic result of human striving. Recent history casts doubt on this view. What is needed is a new kingdom not the result of human striving and schemes.Just as the Jews were mistaken to reduce the promise of the Messiah to an earthly kingdom run by a new and improved “Son of David,” when we reduce the gospel to a personal, economic or political agenda we are always wrong. In our culture, Christians need to be prepared to show people the error of expecting God’s kingdom to be just like our kingdom only wealthier, politically stronger, and more defensible. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, and was accused of opposing Caesar, he replied that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to bring his kingdom into this world; it just means there’s more to God’s kingdom in this world will ever know.

[3] In at least one modern translation of the Beatitudes, the term blessing is translated “Happy.” The Old Testament makes clear that, while happiness may result from the blessed life, the blessed life is not constituted by feelings of mere happiness. The blessed life depends on the grace and mercy of God. God is the source of all true blessings. To be blessed is to receive a state of wholeness and holiness that only God can provide. It is a gift, an act of mercy, not a reward.

[4] See, Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-22. The differences between the Matthean and the Lukan descriptions of the Sermon on the Mount are significant, but not for the purposes of this book. In both cases, what Jesus is saying is at odds with what the vast majority of the people in our society see as blessings.

[5] This insight sits behind Paul’s observation in I Corinthians that the world cannot understand or accept the wisdom of God. It seems like foolishness to the human reason without the intervention of God (I Cor. 118-2:16).

[6] The language of Genesis 1 and 9 are nearly identical, indicating God’s divine intention remains the same for the fallen human race as it was for the human race at its creation.

[7] Thus, in Proverbs 3 we read: “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:13-18).

[8] Thus, wisdom writers go on to say:“By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew (Proverbs 3:19-20).

[9]T he term “fear of the LORD can be difficult for modern readers. When I translate the phrase, I use the term “Deep Respect,” which captures the Biblical idea that God is so much greater than human beings that the only proper response before his wisdom and power is a kind of obedient, humble, and absolute respect. See, G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), at 37

[10] It is important not to draw too great a distinction between the wisdom and prophetic writers. Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, are deeply influenced by and in substantial continuity with the wisdom writers and many of their writings could easily be classified as wisdom writings.

[11] Isaiah speaks of a coming “King of Righteousness,” who will usher in a time of blessing for Israel (Isaiah 32:1). In the time of the Messiah, the people will learn to live wisely and receive the blessings of justice and righteousness (v. 2-5). They will finally be led by one under whose leadership they can receive the fullness of blessings for which they longed.

[12] I have written about the awareness of the Old Testament writers that the wise and good life does not guarantee happiness: Job, Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms speak of this awareness. Nevertheless, the Old Testament writers believe that God is the source of the blessed life and that it cannot be achieved without following God’s laws in faith. See, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers, 165-193.

[13] In my first church, one member of a local congregation criticized me to one of my members for cutting my lawn on Sunday afternoons and coming to the bank in my running shorts. For this person, the “law of Christ,” just like the law of the ancient Jews prohibited any physical work on Sunday and for a religious person to expose himself in any way to others. In other words, this person was, for all intents and purposes, a modern Pharisee.

[14] Francis Schaeffer, HowShould We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and CultureRev Ed. (Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revel, 1976), 205.

[15] In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people desired to experience the blessed life. In Jesus’s day, just as in our day, people had misconceptions about what it is like to live blessedly. The Jews, like modern Americans, were inclined to suppose that those with sufficient material blessings and economic and political security to relax and enjoy life would experience the blessed life. They, just like many modern Americans, were inclined to believe that if only their own particular political opinion and preferred form of government could be achieved, their lives would be blessed. Jesus came to deconstruct that entire way of thinking.

[16] One important characteristic of the Gospel of Mark is the way in which it shows Peter and the other disciples as frequently either not understanding or misunderstanding who Jesus is and what Jesus has come to accomplish. They do not understand his Messianic Kingdom, the means by which the Kingdom of God will be established, or the kind of leadership they will be required to exercise in order to accomplish the tasks the Messiah is giving them. It is only in light of the resurrection that they can understand the mission of Jesus and the mission Jesus is giving them.

The Crisis of Discipleship 1

 

Just before the Second World War, a young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, published “The Cost of Discipleship.” [1]The thesis of the book was prophetic for his life and for the course of 20thCentury discipleship. “Cheap Grace,” he said, “is the deadly enemy of our Church.” [2] He went on to compare “Cheap Grace” with “Costly Grace.” Costly Grace is that grace Christ speaks of when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Cheap grace is the offer of forgiveness of sins in a way that costs a believer nothing and requires no faithful response. During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Bonhoeffer took up his cross and followed Jesus to martyrdom near the end of the Second World War. [3]

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s book became famous. Like many famous books, Cost of Discipleshipis often mentioned, a few quotes find their way into blogs, sermons and religious books (like this one), but Cost of Discipleshipis seldom read outside of college and seminary classes, and even more seldom internalized. Part of the problem is that the book was originally written in German, and German is a difficult language to translate into English, especially for readers who prefer short sentences and simple language.  Part of the problems is that Bonhoeffer was not a popular writer even in his own day. He was an academic, and his writing shows the influence of an academic mind. The book is simply not easy for modern people to read, fully understand, or digest.

The problem of Cheap Grace and its consequences for a church that dispenses it, is the message of The Cost of Discipleshipand of Bonhoeffer’s life. Here is how he describes “Cheap Grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. [4]

When a church, denomination, or other Christian group dispenses Cheap Grace, it dispenses God’s promise of forgiveness and new life like soda from a fountain at a child’s birthday party or beer from a keg at a fraternity party. Discipleship characterized by cheap grace makes a mockery of what God was doing in Israel’s history, what Christ did on the cross, and how committed disciples live out the Christian life all over the world, sometimes in danger and persecution. Unfortunately, in one form or another, the gospel of Cheap Grace is too frequently the gospel of Western religious groups. [5]

Real grace is “Costly Grace.” Bonhoeffer characterized costly grace as like the Pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in one of his parables (Matthew 13:44-46):

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. [6]

As the saying goes, “Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.” The one who confesses his or her sins to God, who repents (turns away from sin in the heart), who turns to God with everything he or she is and possesses, who takes up his or her cross in obedience to Christ and his teachings, and who lives a holy life in response to what God has done, is a person who has experienced true grace. True grace does not leave us as we are. True grace changes everything. The response of a human encounter with real, true grace, is a transformed life.

If in Bonhoeffer’s day there was a crisis of discipleship, and cheap grace was a problem for Christianity, the problem is exponentially greater today in the increasingly “postmodern,” Western church. Western churches, and especially American churches, are addicted to cheap grace. In church after church, in sermon after sermon, in Bible study after Bible study, God’s love, forgiveness of sins, and redemption in Christ is preached without preaching God’s judgement on sin and the new life into which disciples are called by Christ. Building strong disciples is impossible if difficult passages and problems in Scripture are ignored or explained away. [7]The result is a weak, declining, and impotent Christianity.

I have been a disciple of Christ for over forty years. There is no question but what the condition of American Christianity is worse today than at any time during my lifetime. Tremendous cultural changes have deeply impacted American Christianity for the worse. Even unhealthier is the American propensity to value size and external and economic success, which has accelerated the development of a shallow form of Christian faith. The result is a crisis of discipleship.

The Command to Make Disciples

Jesus’ last act was to commission his disciples, saying: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age”(Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commission was his last word and directive to his disciples then and now to carry out God’s program of salvation and new life that Jesus began during his earthly pilgrimage Making disciples is the supreme goal Christ set for believers and for the church. It is the reason for the existence of the Church.

Making disciples involves being a good disciple yourself, having a heart for people, going to where people are, helping them enter the life-transforming fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them the things of God, and helping them respond to God’s grace by live a God pleasing life. Discipleship is not something for a few incredibly dedicated believers to do while everyone else watches and applauds. True discipleship is for every Christian.

The Greek word we translate “disciple” refers to one who learns from another person. As Christians, we learn about God and wise living from the Bible, from our personal relationship with God in Christ, from teachers and mentors, and by observing our fellow Christians day-by-day. Christian discipleship is not just about learning information. Jesus Christ is the “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In other words, the key to abundant living is not an idea, but a person and relationship with that person in which we become transformed into the likeness of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In order to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ, we must become imitators and obedient children of Christ. As the New Testament so often puts it, we Christ must dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16).

Because being a disciple involves a relationship with a person, we must believe in that person and spend time in fellowship with that person. Being a disciple is like being a professional athlete or a physicist. A person who admires professional athletes or physicists, but who never enters into a relationship of learning and emulation with one, is not a disciple. At most, such a person is a fan or an interested onlooker. Disciples observe, emulate and become like the one they are learning from and into whose image they are being conformed (Romans 8:29).

Christians do our best, and live wisely, when we emulate the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing his divine life to permeate our entire personality. It is not enough to proclaim that we believe in Christ or to bring people to declare their intellectual belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and died for their sins. To be a disciple is to follow Christ, become more like Christ daily, and help others become more like Christ. Christians today must be willing and able to help other people live with the same integrity and self-giving love that characterized Jesus when he ministered to his disciples and the people of Israel. This means we incorporate into our lives the same divine wisdom and steadfast love that characterized Jesus of Nazareth. It even means that we are willing to suffer for the gospel as Christ suffered for the human race. This is the result of costly grace.

The modern world, from which we are now emerging, was characterized by an abstract understanding of knowledge. The world and God were objects to be studied and mastered not things and persons to be loved and cherished. In such a world, knowledge is measured by tests and one’s ability to answer questions, write essays, and regurgitate information. The object of such knowledge is mastery of a subject and increasing control over reality. To the modern mind-set, any kind of knowledge that was not “scientific” or “objective” was not really knowledge at all.

Wisdom is different. To be wise, one must know some information. More importantly, one must apply and embody that information in everyday life. The earliest name for Christians was “people of the Way” (Acts 19:23, 24:22) To be a way is to be a path, road, highway, or boulevard that must be traveled on. Christian faith is a way of life. Discipleship is a life-style, a way of life, a path of wisdom, a road that leads to life, a highway to a better relationship with God, a boulevard to holiness, an embodied knowledge of God. [8]The test of whether we are good or bad disciples is found in how we live and what kind of people we are in the depths of our being.

The Community of Jesus

Jesus did not just preach, teach, and do signs and wonders. Jesus brought people to himself and spent his earthly ministry in a small group of people he was actively discipling.Other religious figures have written books. Jesus did not. As Lesslie Newbigin puts it, “Jesus did not write a book but formed a community.” [9]Christ chose twelve ordinary people and lived in relationship with them for his entire earthly ministry. He also lived in close fellowship with a larger group of men and women with whom he shared his life and teachings (Luke 8:1-3; 10:1; 14:25). Their memories of him are contained in our Gospels. It was their memories of Jesus, and their time together in a discipling relationship, that propelled them to carry the Good News of his life, death and resurrection on a continuing journey to the ends of the earth as they understood it.

Jesus promised that, “where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20). If people are to meet Jesus, a group of people (disciples) must introduce potential disciples to him in a community in which Christ is present by the Holy Spirit.  If new Christians are to understand what it is like to be a Christian, they need to be mentored by people who are further along on the path of discipleship. People need to see what it means to be a Christian lived out in the day-to-day lives of other disciples. This involves being part of a fellowship that spends time in fellowship with one another and with God in Christ. It is so important for new believers to become part of a group of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those who try to follow Christ alone, without belonging to his fellowship, and without accountability for their life of discipleship, almost inevitably fall short or fail. Those who belong to a fellowship of believers have a better chance of succeeding in the Christian life.

The way the early church grew was by reproducing in community and in individual lives who Jesus was and what Jesus had done while he was with his disciples. The book of Acts is the story of how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, Paul, and the other disciples lived as Jesus lived, did the kinds of things Jesus had done, and faced the same opposition and suffering Jesus faced. [10]

This is important. The best and most authentic way for the Kingdom of God to grow in is by ordinary men and women bringing people to Christ, calling people into authentic community, growing in discipleship together, training new believers “to obey all Christ commanded,” and continually reproducing this process through generations of people. The reason for the crisis of discipleship we face is that most believers either never know or have largely forgotten how to do the task of making disciples.

The Commission to Make Disciples

According to Matthew, when Jesus ascended into heaven he left his disciples with a job to do and marching orders to do that job. Matthew ends his gospel with an important commission for his disciples (and for us):

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus did not say, “Go have huge worship services with big organs or praise bands.” Jesus did not say, “Go build large buildings in which many people can come for one hour a week.” Jesus did not say, “Go build impressive institutions to continue your way of thinking about God.” Jesus did not say, “Have wonderful programs for children and youth.” Jesus did not say, “Have a program for every sort of person in your community. Jesus did not say, “Support that party or social agenda that you believe most compatible with Christian faith.” He said, “Go make disciples.”

If there is a crisis in the church today, it is a crisis of discipleship. The church has been too concerned with worship services, programming, numbers, money, institutional maintenance, sustaining the American way of life, creating a moral majority, reforming government, and the like. Christians have not been concerned enough at what sits at the center of what we have been asked to do: Make Disciples. If the Christian community is to exit its current decline, it will not be because of large worship experiences, crossless sanctuaries, focus on technique, programs, consultants, fund-raising, or new and greater institutional capacity. It will be because ordinary Christians have rediscovered what it means to make disciples.

I do not watch much football. However, I have noticed that, when a team gets in trouble, the coach often tells reporters, “We are going to concentrate on the basics.” The church in the West is in trouble. If the church is to survive into the emerging postmodern world, Christians must, like a football team, turn our attention back to the fundamentals. We must concentrate on the ‘blocking and tackling” of the Christian faith, and the blocking and tackling of Christian faith is disciple-making. To recover from the current crisis, we must be about being and making disciples.

The slow process of one-by-one disciple-making will not immediately seem the most successful or swift solution to the problems our churches and society face. However, in the end, it will be shown to have been the best and only solution to the current decline of faith and practice in the West. As with all real change, it will begin slowly and silently, but in the end will be shown to be fruitful, not primarily for the institutions of Christianity, but for the changed lives and vibrant faith of Christians.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipRev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963). The book was originally published in 1937. Bonhoeffer wrote the book while a pastor in Spain after graduating from graduate school. In German, interestingly for the theme of this book, the title is literally, “The Act of Fallowing.” The theme of this book is that true Christian discipleship is following Jesus Christ, and the Great Commission of the church is to create followers of Jesus.

[2]Id, at 45.

[3]Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945 by order of Adolph Hitler, one of his last acts before his own suicide and death on April 30, 1945. By the time of his death, Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned since April 5, 1943, or just over two years.

[4]Id, at 47.

[5]Western popular Christianity, liberal and conservative, is addicted to just the kind of cheap grace of which Bonhoeffer warned.  Modern evangelicalism, in particular, has fallen victim to a popularization of Christian faith that focus on grace to the detriment of emphasis on the response to grace in faithful living.  Cheap Grace is everywhere the forerunner of a watered-down form of Christianity in which Christians, like the Corinthians of old, cannot tolerate the meat of the gospel, being addicted to the milk of salvation by grace alone (1 Cor. 3:2). One reason for this book is to encourage local fellowships of Christians in America and the West to begin to seriously build small groups of committed discipleships within their fellowships.

[6]Cost of Discipleship, at 47.

[7]A recent comment by a well-known mega-Church pastor is but an example. Since the time of the early heretic Marcion (85-160 A.D.), the church as always recognized the continuity and validity of the Old and New Testaments for Christian faith and practice. The difficulties are not new; they are as old as the Christian faith. It is easier to unhitch ourselves from the old testament than to learn to understand the way in which Christian faith emerged from First Century Judaism, incorporated the Torah into its emerging Scriptures, and to understand the depth of the inheritance Christianity has from the Jewish Scriptures. This is not said to enter into a debate with this or any other pastor, but to give a concrete example of the temptation to avoid the hard work of discipleship. See, Steve Warren, “Christians need to Unhitch the Old Testament from their Faith: Andy Stanley’s Sermon Draws a Backlash” CBS News.Com May 11, 2018, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2018/may/christians-need-to-unhitch-the-old-testament-from-their-faith-andy-stanleys-sermon-draws-social-media-backlash( Downloaded July 23, 2019)

[8]This embodied knowledge of God is what the Orthodox Church refers to as “theosis,” or becoming like God. If Christ is the image of God (Colossians 1:5), then in the process of discipleship disciples become like God by becoming like Christ.

[9]Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eardmans, 1989), 95, 227.

[10]The Book of Acts consciously or unconsciously shows the apostles recapitulating in their lives the same mighty deeds, messages of power, and persecution and rejection that Jesus experienced in his life.

Beginning a New Series on Discipleship

The Beginning of a New Journey

Several weeks ago, I mentioned that I would begin a new series of weekly posts after Labor Day. It is after Labor Day! For the next eighteen weeks or so, I am going to be posting essays that form chapters of a book I have been writing on discipleship. I solicit comments, suggestions, etc. This is probably as far as the project will go, but I am hoping that people will be energized and enlightened by the work. Good Reading.

In the 1930’s the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a Christian classic, “The Cost of Discipleship” in which he spoke about the dangers of “Cheap Grace.” [1] Today, perhaps because the institutional churches in the West did not take seriously the implications of The Cost of Discipleship, Christians face a “Crisis of Discipleship,” which is the theme of this series of essays. As a friend put it to me recently, “We have already lost an entire generation in the Church, and we are in danger of losing another.” We cannot overcome our crisis of discipleship unless every Christian is motivated to be an authentic disciple of Christ, not simply a “believer.” For this to happen, the leadership of Christian congregations must take the Great Commission and discipleship training seriously.

My mentor, co-pastor, and friend, Dave Schieber, frequently repeats a refrain, “The Church is always only one generation from extinction.” [2] The church in the West is shrinking in numbers and influence. The impact of Christian faith in the lives of individuals and society has been dwindling for some time, longer than most people realize. Today, even so-called “evangelical” groups that grew rapidly during the post-World War II period, are shrinking in numbers and spiritual influence. The growth of larger, so-called “Mega-Churches,” has not prevented the decline, because much of their growth is from other Christian fellowships.  We are now within a generation of a collapse of authentic Christian faith and practice in America and the West.

Denominations, churches, pastors, and others have devised programs and strategies to stem the decline, with mixed results at best. The problem cannot be addressed effectively by worship strategies, programs or advertising savvy. It can only be addressed as individual Christians become committed disciples of Jesus, sharing God’s love with a broken world in obedience to the Great Commission.

My wife and I have a life-long interest in discipleship. Before we were married, she was in young adult discipling programs. We met in a small Bible Study of young people, who were new Christians or seeking God in some way. (I was one of the seekers.)  Over the last forty years, we have sponsored groups in our homes and churches. A few years ago, we published a practical study guide and workbook called, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship. [3] Salt & Light was (and is) an attempt to provide a simple lay-training method for Christians and local congregations to learn to make disciples in an orderly and effective way in contemporary culture.

The Great Commission was not given just to twelve first century people, professional clergy, and exceptionally gifted laypersons. All Christians are intended to share the Good News of Christ and make disciples of those who respond. Crisis of Discipleship: The Way of Love and Light for 21stCentury Disciple-makers(the name for this series of essays) builds on the practical guidance of Salt & Light, clarifies causes of the crisis of disciple-making, and shares a deeper theory to guide contemporary disciple-making, and Salt & Lightin particular. Hopefully, readers will understand the crisis of discipleship in the West and more effectively lead disciple-making groups as a result of these essays.

In successive essays, Crisis of Discipleship will look that the crisis of discipleship in our time, its causes, the culture from which the crisis emerged, and the challenges our culture poses for those sharing their Christian faith. Having set the stage for the current crisis, Crisis of Discipleship shares a Biblical understanding of how Christians can reach out and share their faith with others. All the essays address the implications of the Great Commission, which might be paraphrased, “Go everywhere and make disciples of everyone you are able, bringing them to faith and teaching these new disciples to follow the teachings of the Messiah, who will always be present with those who go about the business of making disciples.”

This series of essays is intended for any reader who wishes to learn more about the Way of Jesus and how to share it with others. The collection is not a theological treatise. It is a compilation of practical discipleship theory and practice. The essays are designed to help those who desire to understand the barriers our culture places in the path of those who desire to share the Way of Christ in the contemporary world. There will be a brief analysis of the emerging postmodern world—a culture that is rapidly becoming world-wide due to the globalization of Western, and particularly American, culture in the late 20thCentury. Once this has been accomplished, the goal is to speak of the way in which small groups of Christians can learn to reach out within their network of relationships and make a difference in the lives of people.

Please join with me in a journey and conversation as we seek to think about ways to communicate God’s love to others in our culture. Perhaps we can have some small amount of the dedication Paul reveals when he told the Corinthians, who were much like contemporary people”

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

May the Lord bless and keep each reader.

Chris Scruggs

Labor Day 2019

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Collier Books, 1963).

[2] Dave embodies the relational mode of evangelism and discipleship that this book is intended to illuminate. He began with six persons and built Advent Presbyterian Church in Cordova, TN into a 1,500-member congregation all through a deep love for people and a willingness to enter into their world in a loving and wise way,

[3]  G. Christopher Scruggs with Kathy T. Scruggs, Salt and Light: Everyday Discipleship(Collierville, TN: Innovo Publishing, 2017). The book can now be advanced ordered.

Christian wisdom for abundant living

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