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Making Disciples: The Problem & Promise of Spiritual Formation

I’m taking a few days for rest and reflection with my family. This week I’ll be reposting some of my favorite guest posts dealing with spiritual formation. You cannot read these and reflect on them too many times.

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I find myself very unlike Jesus. You probably are too. The church I knew as a kid was wonderful. I loved it, and love it still. But I have come to believe that a failure to sufficiently understand what it means to make disciples existed in that church, and that correcting this failure could help many people take hold of blessings that God wants us to enjoy. The following story, a strong memory of mine about church one Sunday, might help explain what I mean.

I was about ten or twelve years old, attending the A&M Church of Christ, and we worshipped one particular Sunday in the large high school gym. Before the event, we invited other area churches and took out an ad in the local paper. We wanted lots of people to know that we were going to have worship in the gym on that particular Sunday. It was very well attended, and lots of people “went forward” following the sermon. I don’t remember the name of the preacher who was brought in for this event, but he made an impression on me. I remember one moment when he was discussing how terrible it would be to look across that great divide between heaven and hell and meet the eye of a hell-tormented friend I had known from life and realize that I never took the time to tell them about Jesus. The preacher was trying to impress upon us the importance of making disciples. One of the reasons my church scheduled this event was, no doubt, to make disciples.

I agree that it is important to make disciples, but I worry that my tradition never properly informed me about what a disciple is, nor how to go about making one. I knew that a disciple was a follower or student of Jesus, but I never reflected on what it really meant to be Jesus’ student. I can be a student in Mrs. Evan’s math class without ever caring a lick about math and without ever trying to be like Mrs. Evans. As a result, it took a long time for me to grasp a mature picture of what it means to be a student of Jesus. Unlike being a student of Mrs. Evans, one cannot be a student of Jesus without coming to care a great deal about what Jesus taught and who he is, nor can one be a student of Jesus without making progress in becoming like him.

Like I said,  I find myself very unlike Jesus in many ways. In the waters of my spirit there is too much salt. I am short tempered with my kids when Jesus would laugh. I ignore my kids when Jesus would discipline. I forget the things I could do to show love to my wife when doing those things would come quite naturally to Jesus. I extend anger in the office when Jesus would extend grace. I wonder how an event will cause others to think about me when Jesus would wonder how the event was impacting others. I fill my daily thought-life with questions of money when Jesus’ daily thought-life would be filled with things of the Spirit.

It is a mistake to become too discouraged. A student is still just a student. It is also a mistake to spend too much time worrying about where the line between struggling student and non-student lies. Instead, we should spend our energy being a student, being a disciple. It took me a long time to know how to do that, since the church of my youth, which I love and respect dearly, thought that ‘making disciples’ meant something like convincing people that Jesus is the Son of God, getting them to say so publicly, getting them to try to quit cussing and what-not, and getting them to get baptized. Once they had done that, we seemed to think, that person was a disciple and had received everything that God has to offer – they get to go to heaven when they die.

But being a disciple is about learning to become the kind of person who can enjoy being with God in heaven (Tweet That). I am a disciple when I make use of the power of the Spirit to become the kind of person who loves my family well, who sees myself and others clearly, who is of the Spirit, and not of the flesh. I wish the church of my youth had known that making disciples is also about helping those individuals who make up the church to actually think, feel, and react like Jesus would. The abundant life that Jesus offers extends beyond the walls of paradise, and Jesus wants to help us enter that abundant life.

Understanding this, it is easy to see why spiritual formation is a vital and essential component of a healthy church. Without it, a church is not properly following Jesus’ call to make disciples. Putting ads in a paper is fine, but we also need to take the spiritual disciplines seriously. Without them, we miss out on the transformation that Jesus offers. His promise that he has come to give the abundant life rings hollow, because we have churches full of people who are unable to take part in the abundant life. Without transformation, those in our pews behave no better, love no more fully, and see no more beauty in the world than those who sleep in on Sundays.

We need practical advice on how churches can intentionally help church members be disciples, and in doing so participate in the transformation that Jesus offers. I have some ideas, and Rhesa’s blog post earlier this week has some great suggestions and fantastic resources. The first step is to begin investigating those resources and working creatively to get church members actually using the tools suggested by these resources. Personally, I think small groups can be used more effectively toward this end, but effective implementation is difficult and has to be done intentionally. The disciplines themselves are still foreign to most church members, and churches like the one I grew up in will not simply stumble upon an effective use of these tools. If we want to help the young people in our church today be able to say that the church of their youth did everything it could to give them the tools to become like Jesus, we need to continue the conversation we’re having here.

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europe 2 74Kraig is an old basketball coach and non-profit director who, after reading Dallas Willard while working in urban Houston, became interested in philosophy.  He decided to pursue a PhD in the discipline.  Having successfully defended his dissertation, he is now teaching at Baylor University and McLennan Community College while taking graduate courses from the Department of Religion at Baylor.
Kraig has presented at the American Philosophical Association, the Society of Christian Philosophers, the Evangelical Philosophical Association, the Christian Scholar’s Conference, The Institute for Faith and Learning, and numerous other academic conferences.  On occasion, he has also been asked to preach in various congregations, and enjoys doing so.

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  • BrandonBaker

    Thanks, Kraig. I agree that there is a failure in the church to “sufficiently understand” and “properly inform” regarding discipleship. I think these failures are not significant when comparing them to the failure of imagination and failure of nerve that could lead to the practical advice needed. We need practical advice from church leaders who are willing to go a step beyond saying, teaching, unpacking, blogging, and in all other ways transferring knowledge about what disciples should do, and help the church imagine what disciples look like through regular demonstration. The church needs more mentors, small group leaders, coaches, and friends. The church needs to value leaders who leave the library, the office, and the sanctuaries of their private disciplines once in a while so that they can spend as much time “doing” as they do “saying”. It would require us to come out from behind a laptop screen in Starbuck’s, pretending that human observation is the same as incarnational living. (Comment typed on my laptop, deep within my church office sanctuary)

    How do you think small groups could be more effective? What would intentional small group discipleship look like? What do you think are the implementation difficulties?

    • Brandon,

      Thanks for reading the post. If you don’t mind, I’m going to just try to give you a brief answer to your last question, since I think it also provides something of an answer to the first two questions. So let me tell you about the difficulties Susan and I faced when we started looking for a small group that could help us practice the disciplines more regularly and thoughtfully. The only order there is in the following list is as they come to me:

      1) These kinds of groups can’t work unless each member of the group understands what they are getting into and wants to participate. A heel-dragger kills the group. Most people at our church grew up in churches like mine, and they couldn’t agree to participate in the group beforehand, because the whole concept was foreign to them. They couldn’t possibly make the decision to join this group (and for a successful group it is necessary that each member does make this decision), because they didn’t understand what the group was. We overcame this just by repeatedly talking, in classes and other places, about the disciplines and how they help us live more fully and become more like Jesus. Eventually, a couple of other people decided they wanted to be a part of something like that, and we did it. But it didn’t happen quickly for us. We needed to find people who understood what we meant, with whom we were comfortable, and who was comfortable with us.

      2) Group size. Our church does small groups on Sunday night, and much of the focus is on getting as many people as possible involved in these groups, which is understandable. But that creates pressure to make the group too big; I think an effective spiritual discipline group can be no larger than 8 people.

      3) Kids. Our group is made up of four couples, each of which has small children. There is no easy solution here. Homes are the best places to have these groups, but you need someone to watch the kids. We hire a babysitter to watch the kids in a different area of the house. This is still not ideal, as the noise sometimes distracts. But its the best we can do right now.

      4) Our group is made up of four couples, which is both good and bad. There are some advantages to have groups in which spouses do not participate. A good spiritual discipline group involves intentionally working to become more like Christ, and that necessarily involves talking (at least to some extent) about the ways in which our feelings and thoughts and actions need transformation. Sometimes those conversations are more difficult in couples.

      There are other obstacles, like the busyness of life and the fear of vulnerability, but my reply has already been too long. Not everyone is at a place where it is even possible for them to be a part of a group like this. But these groups are incredibly beneficial, and one doesn’t get the privilege of being a part of such a group unless someone intentionally (and with patience) begins to try to form one.

    • Jan

      this is so true. What is a disciple, exactly? Someone who learns from
      the teacher (rabbi Jesus), copies, teaches, does. The church can be very
      vague about what it’s trying to acheive.
      If I wanted to be a
      disciple of Budda, I’d want notes from lectures, perhaps
      pictures/diagrams, practical examples, advice, mentors.
      What about
      community development, doing simple things like getting young people to
      do car washes, gardening (although not biblical, they are helpful), did
      the disciples wash and take care of the donkeys and horses, I suspect
      they did but we don’t know.
      Do they (church) want us to visit the
      sick, feed the homeless, visit prisoners? if so, get the ball rolling,
      we can’t follow until you lead (not push).

  • Kelly

    I think we could spend a good deal of time honestly discussing the statement, “I am a disciple when I make use the power of the Spirit to…..” Like you, I grew up in a tradition that believed in the Father, Son and that other thing we do not mention. How do we become a church who realizes that transformation is dependent on the Spirit at work through the disciplines?

  • Pingback: Getting Over The Biggest Hurdle of Spiritual Disciplines | The Palmer Perspective()

  • BrandonBaker

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Kraig. Good thoughts.

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