Impossible Discipleship

Preston Sprinkle

One of projects I’m working on is a book about the state of discipleship in the American evangelical church. What is discipleship? Are we making disciples? What is working? What isn’t working? How do we know if it’s working? Or, to show my hand: are we seeking to produce moral Americans or exiles in Babylon? NavPress will publish the book in conjunction with the Barna Group, who is performing an extensive survey on the state of discipleship in the church. As has been my practice in writing, I’ll be blogging quite a bit about this topic over the next year or so.

My view of discipleship was challenged on a recent visit I made to San Francisco, and I’m still processing what I encountered. I visited a discipleship house called Project Bayview which is led by Shawn Gordon—an ex-con turned pastor. Shawn talks about (and models) discipleship in ways that I don’t often hear today. The level of commitment that Shawn calls people to is enough to empty most suburban churches of its attendees, leaving only a small remnant who are unwavering in their devotion to join Jesus on the cross. When you hear Shawn’s story, you can see why he’s so singularly minded.

Shawn was raised in the projects. His dad was a pimp, who regularly abused Shawn and his sister. The abuse ended when his dad was stabbed to death in his driveway when Shawn was 14. Shawn’s mom died of aids when he was 19. His grandpa was also stabbed to death on Market street in downtown San Francisco. “I became like a pit bull who snapped his leash. If I couldn’t trust the people closest to me, how would I view people I didn’t know? The world was my enemy.”

Shawn turned to violence, gang activity, and a rather successful drug dealing career, which landing him 12 years in some of the most dangerous prisons in America. And it’s here where he met Jesus.

After being released, Shawn was on the streets of San Francisco trying to figure how what it meant to be a Christian in the real world. He had no role model, no mentor, no examples to follow. 28 days after being released, Shawn met a pastor on the streets who invited him to live in his own home. “As a Jesus-follower, you’re just as close as my own flesh and blood family,” the pastor said. “Come live with me and we will follow Jesus together.”

The pastor had a modest sized house, a wife, and (then) six children (now seven). Shawn also had a wife and child. The pastor not only took Shawn and his family in, but told them to stay in his master bedroom for as long as they needed. You can start to see how Shawn’s radical (he was just say “Christian”) view of discipleship was formed early on.

“We didn’t do Bible studies together. We didn’t meet for coffee once a week. We didn’t do anything all that formal or programmatic. We just lived life together. It is here where I saw what it meant to be a Christian in the daily routine of life.”

(At the risk of perpetuating the Christian celebrity culture that I abhor, the pastor was a guy named Francis Chan, whose identity is shaped by a cross and not a stage. Fame seekers take note.)

Shawn Gordon now heads up the Project Bayview, a holistic discipleship ministry in one of the roughest neighborhoods in San Francisco. The ministry is based in a two story building; the upper floor houses 12 men who are paired up in mentor/mentee living relationships. The bottom floor is the home of Huli Huli, a tasty Hawaiian BBQ joint, where the live-in disciples learn how to work, cook, serve, wash dishes, and integrate the gospel into everyday life. Outside Huli Huli is a garden where they grow their own vegetables and beautify their community. All around the house are people who need the love of Jesus and experience it through the hands and feet of a bunch men who most Christians would try to avoid if they saw them on the streets.

“True discipleship can’t happen through two hours on Sunday,” Shawn and his mentor explained. “It doesn’t work when it’s reduced to a once a week meeting, and you can’t manufacture disciples by running them through a program.” Shawn’s mentor was blown away at how quickly Shawn grew from an ex-con with little clue what it meant to be a Christian to a

Disciples who are turning the world upside down

qualified pastor with an in-depth knowledge of the Bible, the skills to disciple and re-produce other pastor-leaders, and the ability to run a profitable business. It took a couple years. But the number of hours they spent together in those 2 years would take 4 lifetimes of just going to church every Sunday.

I left San Francisco with a healthy mixture of conflicting responses. Why I’m I not living like this? Could I live like this? Does every Christian who cares about discipleship (yes, that’s redundant) have to live like this? Is this life-on-life holistic discipleship one way to do it? The best way? The only way?

I’ll be chewing on these questions for a while. The one take away that I can easily affirm is this: we’ve made discipleship too easy. Which means we’ve made Christianity too easy. Yes, the gospel is free, and yet it costs us everything. The gospel announces, “it is finished,” and it also bids us to come and die. Following the crucified Lamb is not a choose your own adventure story, and it’s not for those who want to add Jesus (or religion) to their life. It’s for those who want to trade in their comfort for a life of suffering, persecution, ridicule, and unending joy.

Discipleship is impossible. So impossible that Jesus had to walk out of a tomb for us to begin the journey.

Watch this video for more about Project Bayview and how you can get involved

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