I wasn’t sure if I was being invited to a cult or on a date. It was certainly an odd question to be asked while smoking hookah outside a rundown ex-frat house, but it was posed with such casual earnestness that I couldn’t help but say yes. You see, I had recently moved to San Luis Obispo (SLO) to attend the local community college, Cuesta. However, I wasn’t your average college sophomore trying to somehow manufacture passing grades while hung over. That was high school. God had just utterly leveled me with his gospel and called me to preach the Bible. I moved to SLO in order to grow up, live missionally, serve in a local church and find a way to marry my girlfriend. My late nights playing video games had transformed into late nights voraciously reading Scripture and theology textbooks.
SLO, the Central Coast town home to Cal Poly, boasts one of the best Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) programs in the country. It is a ministry that I have a deep appreciation for and where some of my closest friends serve on staff. However, in Cru, under-classmen would be “discipled” by their upper-classmen Bible study leaders. Though most had 2 to 4, it wasn’t uncommon to hear of someone having more disciples than Jesus Himself had. On that Friday night smoking hookah, I would get my chance to be discipled so that one day I could hopefully make disciples of my own!
Coffee was awkward. It became clear that my discipler was not prepared for a disciple that was eager to talk about John Calvin, covenant theology and inaugurated eschatology. I had some burning questions about ecclesiology that I was hoping he could help with. He couldn’t. Sadly, though maybe we could have been friends if we had just started by, you know, being friends, he avoided me for the next three years like I was some sort of shadow of his own inadequacy.
Fortunately, this incident did not cause me to lose faith in the importance of discipleship. In fact, I now believe discipleship to be not a mission of the church, but the mission of the church, as Jesus said it was in His Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). However, can we just admit that every time we attempt to “implement” discipleship, things get weird? So what’s the deal? Jesus gives us a good start a couple chapters earlier in the book of Matthew.
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12 ESV)
The context here is a warning against Pharisaical pride. However, there is a principle laid down that applies to us today: though we are to respect authority both outside and inside the church, no Christian is “above” another (1 Peter 2:13-14; Hebrews 13:17). We are to make disciples of all nations, but there is to be no dichotomy between discipler and disciple in the body of believers. We all have equal standing before God because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ and we are all members of the His body (1 Corinthians 12:13). To promote divisions in the body is to demote the gospel that made us a body. It is only in remembrance and gratitude of this gospel that we grow to be like Christ (Romans 6:11; 2 Corinthians 3:21). That is why, at iNVERSION, we aim for a flexible culture of discipleship instead of a rigid program.
My pastor, Heath Hardesty, once told me that “our culture is the incarnation of our core affections.” Culture is what we love becoming flesh. In simpler terms, our culture will reflect what we care most deeply about. For example, in 2011 I started my first job out of college as an outside sales representative for a beverage company. In this job, I spent (and still do) at least 30 hours a week in my car driving all around the Bay Area. Needless to say, I quickly burned out on all of my own music and every song on the radio started to sound the same. So within a couple of weeks I had settled into the common routine of listening to sports talk radio. Soon, my healthy enjoyment of the San Francisco 49ers turned into an unhealthy obsession and a culture began to develop. There was clothing (49ers hats, jerseys, even, yes, pajamas), language (defensive formations, offensive plays, trade speculations), fellowship (Sunday mornings with fellow fans in front of the TV), a holy land (Candlestick Park) and even gods (players and coaches). There were legends (Joe Montana to Dwight Clark) and enemies (the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers). By spending every weekday nurturing my affection for football until it became my core affection, I had created a virtually meaningless culture that gave a hollow joy in a good team that eventually became a dull ache for something more satisfying.
What does all of this have to do with discipleship? Hang with me here for a second. What is God’s core affection? As a Trinitarian being, a perfect community of three-in-one, God is not a lonely deity that creates in order to love. God is love in Himself because His core affection is Himself. And the wonder and haunt of Christmas is that God’s core affection, God’s perfect Image of Himself, fully divine, incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ. The culture of God is the life of Jesus Christ. It gets deeper. When God woos us as individuals to respond to His Gospel by the movement on our hearts of His Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ becomes our core affection. What then is our culture? It is that affection, Jesus, becoming flesh again. When Jesus is our core affection, we become the body of Christ, the hope of the world. Jesus as our head is our Great Shepherd, our Master and Instructor, and we enjoy fellowship with Him and one another by His Spirit. This is not an ideal to strive for, but a reality created by the gospel to be received and enjoyed. It is a reality that causes all of our plastic attempts at implementing discipleship programs look trite and flimsy.
Our greatest need is not one spiritually mature person to disciple us. Our greatest need is Jesus. We need the members of His body to relay messages to our heart, reminding us of what He has done for us and of our need for Him. We need pastors to teach us to interpret the Scriptures that testify about Him. We need a flexible care structure of comGroups with leaders that demonstrate the missional, servant heart of Jesus. We need older men and women to demonstrate in their marriages the steadfast and sacrificial love that Christ displayed in His life and death. We need young men and women to infuse us with Christ-like enthusiasm and earnestness. We need children to model for us Christ-like dependence. We need friends to bear with us as our True Friend Jesus does. We need a culture of discipleship with the Gospel preached weekly in the pulpit and daily to ourselves and one another, keeping Him as our core affection.
Does this mean discipleship is never intentional? Can there be seasons of life where a stronger Christian walks beside a new or struggling believer to help them understand and apply the truths of Scripture? Of course! These sorts of relationships are essential and beautiful. They are at the heart of discipleship. But without the core affection of Jesus recreating and revitalizing His body in the church, discipleship programatized becomes discipleship marginalized or discipleship idolized.
My hope for this article is to provide an answer the constant, frustrated refrain in so many of our hearts: “Why aren’t I growing? Why aren’t I being fed?” Maybe the remedy to our restlessness isn’t so complicated. Perhaps Jesus was right when He told us to simply repent and believe. Repent of making an idol of your exhausted (or non-existent) discipler, turn to Jesus and dwell with His people. He is right where you are and He doesn’t awkwardly ask: “Hey, can I disciple you?” He lovingly says “Come follow me.”