What Kind of Disciples Are We Making?

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.

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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?

Billy Graham and the Legacy of the Gospel

People around the world are mourning the death of Billy Graham, who passed away yesterday at the age of 99. He was, without a doubt, one of the most influential church figures of the 20th century. 

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I swim in the stream of his legacy. I attended a seminary which he helped to found, and I'm thankful to have his signature on my seminary diploma. This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of his influence.

But I don't want to talk today about his accomplishments or the way he's shaped the Christian church as we know it. If you would care to read more about his life, ministry, and legacy, Christianity Today (of which he was a founder) has a lovely special issue in Billy Graham's honor

Today, I'm thinking about what was even more dear to Billy Graham's heart - the Gospel. As I've been thinking of his legacy, I'm reminded how simple that Gospel message is. It is simple enough that we can summarize its basic truths in one sentence: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16) 

The message of the Gospel is profound. There is a reason why we devote time to understanding the theology behind it, why we want to study it and dissect it and diagram it. There is a reason why we treat it with awe, not wanting to oversimplify it, not wanting to twist it into something it is not. There is a reason why we look at the historical sweep, the context of Jesus Christ's coming, the prophecies He fulfilled and will fulfill. It is right and good to dedicate this thought and study.  

But in the midst of this complexity, the Gospel message is still simple. It is hard. It is beyond our full comprehension. We could spend a lifetime diving the depths of its riches. But it is simple: God loves you. He entered time and space to make a way for relationship with you. In Him you find complete forgiveness, redemption, and restoration. 

This simple-yet-profound Gospel message changes lives. It changes families and cultures. It touches our minds, our hands, our feet. It transforms. 

Billy Graham never forgot this simple Gospel message, and he never forgot its power. This is, perhaps, his most precious legacy.

“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

- Billy Graham (1918-2018)

Let Them Be One: "A Reforming Catholic Confession"

Jesus is staring down a death of shame and torture on the cross, and He stops to pray. He doesn't simply pray for himself - He prays for His disciples, and all who would become His disciples. In the shadow of the cross, Jesus prayed for us. And of all the things He could have prayed for in that moment, He chooses one that continues to convict me. He prays for unity. 

"I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:22-23)

Jesus sees power in the unity of His disciples. This unity, this oneness in the Body, demonstrates to the world who He is. It puts His love on display. 

When I see unity in the church, when differences can be just that—differences—and not a source of division, it makes my heart swell with joy. 

I want to share such a unifying effort with you. It has me excited. 

In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a group of Protestant theologians and scholars came together to draft "A Reforming Catholic Confession." [Fun fact: One of my beloved professors and the adviser of my seminary program was one of the drafters!] This confession of faith is "reforming" in the heritage of the original Reformers, meaning it seeks to continually go back to the Scriptures as the judge of truth. It is "catholic" in the sense of the early creed, in its universal scope uniting believers. The Reforming Catholic Confession is a unifying statement of faith of the core beliefs Protestants have in common.

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When it was released last month, it bore 250 signatures from church leaders hailing from around the globe and from most Protestant traditions. This diversity was shared by the original drafters. As I write this, the Confession has 1162 signatures.

I would encourage you to read the Confession yourself. It's quite in-depth and beautifully written. Remember as you read, this confession of faith represents "mere Protestantism," or the unifying, interdenominational essentials of the faith according to Protestant traditions. In Explanation of the Confession, they say

"While it is tempting to focus on and exaggerate the differences, we want here to strengthen the Protestant cause by focusing on the doctrinal beliefs we have in common, not least for the sake of our common witness to the truth and power of the gospel."

Some may wish to go further than the Confession in their statement of faith. Some may wish to nuance or clarify certain points. But the point was to clearly define—and celebrate—what we hold in common as brothers and sisters in Christ. We can recognize what we hold in common is more important than what separates us. 

The drafters are clear to recognize and appreciate the "distinctive emphases" of the various Protestant streams. They have no desire to dissuade people from differing opinions or to claim those differing matters to be unimportant. But the drafters beg for these differences to be worked out in the context of discipleship and right relationship. I thought the wording was eloquent: 

"We recall and commend John Wesley’s plea...for right-hearted believers to give up their prideful insistence on their right opinions in order to establish right relations with others whose hearts and minds are set on following Jesus according to the Scriptures."

"We wish to discuss our remaining differences in a spirit not of divisiveness but discipleship."

And so they have - and now over a thousand others have joined them. And my spirit rejoices. 


If you want to learn a bit more about A Reforming Catholic Confession, I'd encourage you to read this article from Christianity Today

A Tale of Two Sermons

I once heard two sermons. They spoke of the same little passage—a mere eighteen verses, hardly a column of text. But how different they were. 

It was not merely a matter of skill or style. It was not a matter of truth or falsehood, right or wrong.

One told me what I had to do. 
The other, what had been done for me. 

One sent me off with the suggestion to reflect on what I was doing wrong. 
The other sent me with thanksgiving of the One who came for me in my lostness. 

One piled on guilt. The other mercy.
One gave a word of law. The other the message of grace. 

I am no master homilitician, but I know which I prefer. 
I know which one drives me to awe and praise, and which to morbid introspection.
I know which one inspires me to change, and which makes me despair of ever being good enough. 
I know which one turns my eyes to Jesus, and which turns my eyes to myself. 

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The secret to true transformation is never law. It is never the litany of my wrongdoings, my misplaced loves, my sins. It is never the rehearsal of how I don’t measure up. Yes, I fall short, this I know—the Bible tells me so. But I thought the song was about Jesus.

How easily we forget our own message—the one that tells a story of grace coming to us in our unworthiness, the story of what has been done for us—not of our performance or our rehabilitation. All we truly have to give the world is Gospel—all else is just a Christianized rebranding of the “earn your way” slave drivers. 

Grace transforms us. It transforms my behavior and my attitudes. It possesses me with its glorious, excruciating, intoxicating light.

The Spirit transforms us. He peels away the thick dragon skin of my selfishness and pride and makes me a new creation. He gives me a soft heart, an obedient heart. My life bears His fruit.

To assume that this can be manufactured through guilt tripping or pump-you-up inspiration is to miss the point. It’s to forget our history. It’s to forget the gateway through which we walked into glory.

Our story will always be about grace. Our life will always be shaped and molded through a response to what has already been done for us. It is finished. We respond in thanksgiving. This thanks changes our hearts, and our newly transplanted, resurrected hearts change our lives.

This is the message I can never get enough of. It’s the one my parched soul laps up in rejoicing desperation.

Tweed Jackets, Hospital Rooms, and the Body of Christ

The room had the classic church basement feel—low ceiling supported by strategically placed columns, scattered metal folding chairs. Scott and I stood with a paper plate of danish slices and almond pound cake in one hand and a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the other and surveyed the room. “Where to sit?”—it was always the question. Where was the best place to break in to the space of those already in knowing conversation? We spied two empty chairs and pulled ourselves up to the table. To one side was a burly large man in late-middle-age whose accent told me he was a long-time local. Across from me sat an elderly man, with the thin cord of a hearing aid snaking out of his ear, and a smile that spread across the width of his face. He wore a brown tweed jacket, and I couldn’t help but think how much Scott would love a jacket like that, particularly if it included elbow patches. 

The man in the tweed jacket, Ralph, told us about his childhood home in Nova Scotia, about his children and grandchildren, about his career. It turns out they used to use the same type of turbo engine for electricity production that Scott now helps to create. He proudly told us this year he would celebrate 62 years of marriage with his wife. The secret?—”Always say yes,” he told us with a chuckle. When he gave a nod in his wife’s direction across the room, my eyes follow his gesture to see a horseshoe of elderly women seated along the back and side of a long folding table, strategically positioned to eye up the room. I realized then we had plopped ourselves down at what was clearly the “men’s table.” Oops. 

We had such a delightful conversation, and our new friend Ralph had some interesting stories to tell. It’s in moments like this that I’m reminded of the beauty of fellowship that spans the generations and of the dignity of having someone to listen to your stories.

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