My elbows were propped on the dark wood of their table as I listened. They were friends we didn’t see often, and there was much to catch up on. I settled back in my chair, and the rungs nestled into my back. My full belly and the thick warmth of the summer evening were soothing after a busy week.
They were sharing about the challenge of finding a new church. The perplexity was familiar. The questions from those who didn’t understand why they were leaving. The sudden lack of community, lack of friends, the starting from scratch. The uncertainty of how to decide—the criteria of how to make a good decision.
I asked, “Why did you decide to leave your old church?”
This question serves up such a variety of responses.
They looked at each other, their chins tilting as if to say, “Do you want to take this one?” Finally one of them spoke up. “We saw the type of Christian that church was making, and it wasn’t the sort of disciple we wanted to become.”
* * *
When we become Christians, we respond to Jesus’ invitation to “come follow Me.” Follow me into your work and your play. Follow me into your relationships, your dreams, your financial decisions. Let me transform the way you see the world and other people, the way you see yourself.
Obviously, there is a personal component to our discipleship. We spend time reading the Bible, in prayer, and engaged in other spiritual disciplines. We seek the guidance and molding of the Holy Spirit, to weed out our sin and to allow Christlikeness and obedience to flourish.
But discipleship is also inherently communal. Our Christian life is as a part of a Body, in which all the parts work together and encourage or discourage our health. This is obviously true in our friendships. I think we’ve all seen how the people close to us shape our thinking, words, and attitudes. We see this in our family life. Hopefully we get to experience this in a discipling relationship, in which a mentor invites us to follow them following Jesus and shapes our growth with their hard-bought wisdom.
The church community as a whole fosters our discipleship. We are taught about the highest good and the ideal picture of the Christian life. We learn about how we should engage the culture and the vast world outside of the church walls. We are taught about right belief and right practice—and perhaps taught which of those beliefs and practices are more important than the others. We are given a model for faithful living.
Ideally, this discipleship is occurring explicitly (more on that another time), but discipleship is happening in the church, whether we intentionally engage in it or not. These lessons are communicated implicitly in what we celebrate and teach, what we model and how we teach people to think. The question is not whether it’s happening, but rather what sort of disciples we are making.
Are we making disciples whose lives are marked by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5)? Do we see people who are compassionate and kind, humble, slow to anger, quick with self-sacrificing love? Are we teaching them to idolize marriage and children, to think their work is only meaningful if it’s explicitly “spiritual”? What are we teaching about pain or how to support others when it strikes? Are we cultivating a love for God’s Word, a desire to obey it, and equipping people with tools to study and apply it themselves? Are we making disciples who are grace-obsessed and grace-dependent, or ones who still think they have something to prove in order to earn God’s favor?
The litmus test could be long. Ultimately, though, we must ask: are we making disciples that look like and abide by our particular brand of Christianity? Or are we making disciples that love Jesus, submit to His Lordship, and look like Him?