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Never Let Go - Freeing Discipleship from Formulas

“You want to be a missionary? Got that missionary zeal? Let a stranger change your life How does it make you feel?”

Paul Simon

“Hurricane Eye”

I was brought up in a tradition that looked at discipleship as a repeatable formula. There are an endless number of books, most useless, on how to deploy the right methodology.

As a layman I’ve learned these models were obstructive to creating a true connection with another human being. Discipleship models attempt to force a relationship into a flow chart and have created more harm than good. These formulas create frustration, burn-out and do not consider human psychology. When certain perceived goals are reached there is division, segmenting and a wrong idea of what it means to “send Forth”. These models fail incredibly at providing content.

Our church is ailing from these models. As with advertising, people now have better B.S. detectors and can identify the difference between someone’s genuine interest in their lives and a church program to create more attendees.

We need not create a graph of how to replicate, we may simply read the words from Jesus Christ, His first disciples, the early church fathers, and the ancients. If we will listen to them and emulate elements of their actions, we may be fortunate to have a life of genuine relationships.

If we go at people with a formulaic model and a goal of carbon copy culture making, we will continue to fail miserably.

In this essay I want to share with you the thoughts of wise men and the simple application of their words to provide a starting point of reflection on discipleship, and as an encouragement to dig deeper into the lives of those before us, so you may, develop their faith in a way that does not generate people for pews, but experience the wonderfulness of serving someone out of love and not duty.

Discipleship is simply serving another with a sincere desire to see them grow; to see them grow in their thought life, actions, faith, and relationships. This is serving your spouse, children, friends, and coworkers. It is meeting people where they are and beginning a lifelong conversation and commitment to an individual.

Discipleship is a commitment you make to, ‘living life’ with another person for the entirety of your life.

You’ve heard it said that discipleship is replicating. I think the word replication can become dangerous in its modern religious interpretation. It would now seem to insinuate making someone just like me. It would be much better to look at discipleship as imparting, as there will never be another person just like you in space in time. Yes, there are truths we want those we serve to know, but this comes through a permission-based relationship that imparts wisdom.

Replication implies a cookie-cutter process; a one size fits all. This in never the case in human relationships. It is a disrespect and disregard of the great gift of God: individuality and uniqueness. Contemplate the last few words in this observation of Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century: Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others; Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected; Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it; Refusing to set aside trivial preferences; Neglecting development and refinement of the mind; Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.”

There is no timeline to follow. You must not view your service to others as having to meet specific goals in a set amount of time. Again, everyone is different and this goes as well for their pace.

Discipleship is a life-long commitment. No matter the circumstances, progress, life changes, you should commit yourself to someone for life. How you serve them, how often you see and interact with them may change, but the obligation of service should never leave you until your last breath. The person in whom you invest may reject your service, but this will simply change your service to one of prayer and a push for reconciliation.

Yes, there are some relationships that may end up caustic or stale and create separation. These will be the exception and not the rule. Again, the service will change to intercession and hope and effort for reconciliation.

People are not projects. Projects are tasks that are completed, people are reflections of the master of creation and deserve the greatest care and attention.

Much of modern discipleship is project and program driven, where those encouraged into ministry soon find themselves disconnected from the care of others into the wheel of production.

Never let go. Out of love and care chase individuals all the way to the gates of hell and push them upward toward the floor of heaven while your back gets burned.

You do not go into the service of others with the idea of “winning”. You go into discipleship with gratitude. If someone is willing to walk through life with you, the only way to look at this is as a gift. The gift of relationship.

We have in the New Testament Jesus telling his disciples to “Shake the dust off their feet” if they were not welcomed or rejected. Do not misunderstand this statement. Evangelism has gone awry with a heretic approach using this quote. There may be people who do not welcome a relationship with you for many reasons. This is human nature as people are different and at different stages of life. There is no need to force yourself into someone’s life. But the statement ‘Shake the dust” which is the same as to ‘wash your hands of it” is not a tell once, move on permission.

There may be a time in a relationship to make a proclamation. This should be done with extreme caution and used sparingly. Jesus was teaching a few men with a limited amount of time before his earthly ministry would be completed.

I said earlier, this is not about winning. Again, you are fortunate to have the opportunity to invest in another, their decisions are theirs, not yours. The results of their choices belong to them. Imparting may bring growth or judgment, but you do not get to claim victory in their lives, nor declare a final judgement on them; this is God’s business. Investment, imparting and interaction are the business you are called too.

Look at the people who changed your life. Did they ever give up on? Shake the dust from their sandals before you?

Goals should be focused on your walk not others. The questions you may continuously ask yourself: What more do I need to learn? What sin do I need to confess? Where am I failing as a spouse, father, friend, employee? How do I correct my mistakes? The person investing in others is focused on the obligations placed upon them. It is then for you to encourage those you are committed to set goals for themselves. They set their own goals and you encourage them to achieve them.

Do not tell God what you are going to do. He has already laid the tasks out to you in a book written by one of His disciples, Matthew. “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.” It is simply your task to embrace.

This command from Jesus was not reserved for those in professional ministry, it is a directive for all of us who have confessed faith. You will also find many opportunities to invest in others right where you are. You need not rush to another nation to make disciples. If you are called for such a task the demands upon you are much more. If you do not know the language and are not immersed in the culture - you are in the wrong place.

Most of us are called to serve right where we are with our family, friends and colleagues. If Christians would just accept the task where we are, the world would change. The people currently in our lives need so much care. French philosopher Chantal Delsol speaks on this in her book, “Icarus Fallen”. She writes, “We are nourished with material goods, culture and artistic appreciation, power and reputation. But the amount of vigilance, care, friendship, and patience that must be given to any person, if he is not to be driven insane or to despair is almost literally incredible.”

​ Programs want to give you a formula for reaching out to people. This is silly as everyone about you has a need; simply meet their needs. Don’t meet their needs in order to get permission to speak into their lives. Meet their needs, and if they give you permission to impart ideas to then, consider it a gift.

Be a friend. Cicero gave us a guide to friendship even before Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem. In his Treatises on Friendship he wrote, “All I can do is to urge on you to regard friendship as the greatest thing in the world; for there is nothing which so fits in with our nature, or is so exactly what we want in prosperity or adversity.”

Cicero did not have the knowledge of Christ, but he understood something about the human heart and how we should serve others. “Let this, then, be laid down as the first law of friendship, that we should ask from friends, and do for friends, only what is good. But do not let us wait to be asked either: let there be ever an eager readiness, and an absence of hesitation. Let us have the courage to give advice with candor.”

Everyone, even the introvert, needs trusting relationships. Commit to friendship for a lifetime when possible. As Thomas Aquinas said, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” Aquinas, the genius of theology understood, that all of theology points to relationships.

Stop looking for perfect scenarios, or people just like you, or waiting for someone to set up an opportunity through a church program. If you have a spouse or children then you need look no further for opportunities to speak into lives, not that we stop at these relationships.

People have different educations, employment, experiences, cultures, capacity, and time. Serve those before you. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together” said it best, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

G.K. Chesterton in his book “Orthodoxy” gives us the way to look at others when he wrote, “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a free sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.”

Don’t try to build a church. This is not about church planting at all. Church planting is an archaic process. The church is already planted. Introduce an individual to the content and hope of the cross and if they believe they become a part of the church. Introduce them to Jesus and they meet the church leader. Introduce them to Jesus and they will want to meet others in the body. Introduce them to Jesus and they encounter the Word. Invest in them and they gain content and knowledge of the catholic church. This is about serving an individual and accepting the blessing of investing in their growth. There should never be an end game of getting them to attend your church or program. The process of discipleship is always and only about the individual and their growth.

Did Christ seek you out individually? Of course, he did. He speaks to each us as individuals, and we confess as individuals; we grow in an individual relationship with Him. Our relationship with Him admits us into the christian church and each of us engages with Him in different tongues, places, and styles of worship. Don’t think for one second your form of the Christian faith is somehow holier than another. Nor that you should disciple someone into your cultural framework.

“The church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” (The Catholic Church and Conversion, G.K. Chesterton, 1926, The Macmillan Press, pg. 38)

We are called to make disciples. This means we must also seek people not in the faith. People we can introduce to their creator. Those around us may have no interest, be hateful toward religious ideas, have different cultural experiences, have a different faith, be apathetic, and be swayed by an endless list of ism - these are the very people in whom you should invest.

Remember, this is not about winning, this is about serving. What did Christ do first? He loved us. Where we were and as we were he loved us and this is our first step in disciple making and discipleship.

Do not vomit the Roman Road process on your new-found friends or to your children before you’ve given them a wealth of content. Get to know someone. Get involved in the things that interest them. Invite them to go and do the things you enjoy as well. Spend time with the people about you and over time permissions will be granted to discuss higher things.

Pope John Paul II gives us a great example of how to connect with others. He struggled as young priest to get men interested in church and to attend mass. He started inviting men to go hiking, and as they walked in the woods of Poland he was given permission to discuss higher things with them.

I have friends of many different faiths and friends who are atheists. I love learning about their beliefs. I spend more time listening than I ever spend speaking and because of this I’ve learned more about them and the world in general. As a listener, at times, I am given permission to share my thoughts through questions and requests.

In Life Together, Bonhoeffer encourages us to get into the forgotten ministry of simply listening. “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”

In service we should always listen before we speak. People are much more interested in the content from a listener than a talker. For someone to ask about your thoughts has a much greater impact than you speaking out of turn. Further, we should listen because people are so endlessly interesting and complicated and diverse. As listeners we are learners.

Don’t keep your sin profile low. Even with those in whom you are investing, confess your sin. They need to know that what they are experiencing is normal. That everyone in the faith is “working out their faith”. Each of us has our struggles – do not hide these as that hides reality from them. You have not reached perfection, therefore, do not pretend as if you had.

Bonhoeffer writes, “If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. … How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?”

Evangelism is part of Discipleship. It begins with a genuine interest in the life of another person and as I have shared, in time you may gain permission to talk about the big ideas. This may take place in three days, three weeks, three years, or thirty years. If the number of people involved in street evangelism would simply invest in one person over time, the results, as they view them, would be greater.

Young people can be swayed into a belief in a brief moment, but adults will not be without content. A street performance or Roman Road explanation will not set the foundation to survive life’s storms. And, as one grows older and interacts with mature adults they will become disillusioned when they learn these methods fail as the intellect and experiences grow.

I've seen countless converts from this process say things like, "I'm trying this again." I've also seen them fall into other faiths from a street witness program, as these fail to add discipleship. Run to the other side of the world with no opportunity to provide content and you will make more enemies of the faith than converts.

I have a friend that went through a life crisis in his mid-thirties. He was seeking understanding and I had earned permission to share my faith with him. I spent one afternoon sitting in my car with him outside a restaurant and walking him through how faith sustained me, who Jesus was, how it stood with reason and reality. And as I was trained I gave him the opportunity make a decision. He rejected my absolutes and was not interested in confession. As we parted he said, “Well, does this mean our friendship is over?” I was confused by the question and he explained that others have shared this message of faith and when he told them he was not interested they didn’t pursue his friendship any further.

I was shocked, but immediately connected with his expectation as I had seen it happen around me. I told him, “I am your friend no matter what choices you make. I would be a lousy friend if I did not share what I have discovered to be true and good, and as a friend I might share it again, but I love you and I am interested in your life no matter what roads we take.” After 25 years we are still great friends, and he is still not interested in faith. But we both continue to have permission, out of a concern for one another, to speak into each other’s lives.

The “tactics” used on young people will seldom work on mature individuals.

Now we are seeing young people leave the faith at an alarming rate, this is because after these ‘techniques’ they were never given content to assist them in a big vast universe full of big ideas.

Emotions and experiences are a part of the Christian life, but they will not keep people in the faith without the addition of content.

“Most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society, the way that a child catches the measles. But people with understanding realize that their presuppositions should be ‘chosen’ after a careful consideration of which worldview is true,” wrote Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.

Solid foundations are poured with care and with the proper mixing of ideas and investment and at the right time.

I am heartbroken at the number of people who shared the same faith with me as children, but who are now non-believing. This is fully because a conversion experience and Sunday attendance is insufficient. No one made a true long term investment in their lives, and as Francis Schaeffer states, failed to offer "honest answers to honest questions."

In order to serve others we must always bear their troubles and sufferings. We must be there with them in the difficult, the ugly and the moments of despair.

“The Christian, however, must bear the burden of a brother. He must suffer and endure the brother. It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated. The burden of men was so heavy for God Himself that He had to endure the Cross. God verily bore the burden of men in the body of Jesus Christ.” Writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Life Together”

One of the saints of the early church, Aurelius Ambrose of Milan directs us in 350 AD, “There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”

If you want to speak into the lives of others you’re going to need a wealth of content. A Sola Scriptura repertoire will be insufficient to connect with the majority of people. Remember, most people do not know these books or do not like these books. To engage you must be reading and interacting with a wealth of content. You must be willing to read and engage with the material they value. You must be reading more of your enemies than friends if you wish to understand where people are and how they think.

Sunday sermons will fail to prepare you for interacting with the whole of humanity, it is going to take a lot of effort on your part. The laziness of cookie cutter discipleship has made us stupid and irrelevant to current conversations. "It is far too easy for us to base our claims to God on our own Christian-religiosity and our church commitment, and in so doing utterly to misunderstand and distort the Christian idea,” writes Bonhoeffer in “Life Together”.

“If Christians cannot communicate as thinking beings, they are reduced to encountering one another only at the shallow level of gossip and small talk. Hence the perhaps peculiarly modern problem - the loneliness of the thinking Christian,” write Harry Blamires in The Christian Mind.

We want to help people think well, and encourage them to think about the big ideas. This requires much more work on our part. We are in a battle of ideas. Louis L’Amour warns us in his book, “Education of a Wandering Man” when he writes, “We do not at present educate people to think but to have opinions, and that is something altogether different.”

Current forms of discipleship and evangelism are designed to pull heart strings, if modernity has taught us anything, it is how fluid and uncontainable ideas from emotions become. This is the reason there is an exodus from faith, no content to the emotions felt in a moment of conversion, which, later is seen as a moment of weakens and a lack of reason by the now failed conversion.

I had an experience of speaking in tongues when I was in my thirties. I shared this experience with a close friend the next day. He warned me that very soon I would question the reality of the experience and that I needed to continue to seek understanding and content or my emotions would dismiss the experience. He was right. Had I not continued to talk about the experience and reading content related to the subject it would have been filed in my mind as self-created and self-directed and would have caused more harm than the good. Because I added content I gained a greater understanding of how it fit into reality and how it was right and reasonable.

We must resist the spirit of our age, emotional reactive judgment. We must help those we serve to do the same. This will only come with an investment in learning.

Communicating content takes effort. We must make the time to be learners in order to be teachers. Francis Shaeffer wrote in his “Two Contents Two Realities” booklet, “Not everybody must know everything -- nobody knows everything; if we waited to be saved until we knew everything, nobody would ever be saved -- but that is a very different thing from deliberately or thoughtlessly diminishing the content.”

I started with a lyric from Pail Simon’s song “Hurricane Eye”, “Let a stranger change your life - How does it make you feel?”

We will fail to change the world as strangers. We must understand the culture, language, experiences or lack of experiences of those around us if we are to offer any valuable commentary. We must never look at people as prizes. We must be a friend to those radically different and we must be interested in the elements that make us different. Individuals are rightly skeptical of strangers. There are enough strangers in politics, economies and religions and they seldom bring good into our lives. Let us step out of anonymity and friend those in our spheres and offer the care giving so needed in one human life.

"Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior". Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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