Defining discipleship can be tricky. We say we want to “become more like Jesus” but we interpret Jesus through a cultural lens of American Christian values. The porn-free, drug-free, gospel-preaching “Jesus” that we’re seeking to imitate isn’t bad. We need to be like this Jesus. He’s just not as radical as the Palestinian peasant who loved His enemies that we read about in the gospels.
Another question I have about discipleship has to do with how we define success. According to a lot of stuff I’m reading, discipleship success is often measured in terms of individualistic morality. If someone is swearing less, being a better parent, faithfully attending a Bible study (along with church of course), and being wise with their money, then they are being a good disciple of Jesus.
One survey asked 450 self-proclaimed born again Christians “What is the single most important thing you would like to accomplish in your life?” (Barna, Growing True Disciples, 39). The response was both frightening and comical.
29% said “being a good parent, raising good kids, having happy kids”
14% said “financial security, comfort, retirement funds, wealth”
7% said “completing/furthering my education”
6% said “having good health”
I laughed and cried all at once. None of these made it on Jesus’s value scale and some of them, like “comfort, financial security, and wealth” directly contradict it. Our ideal of “becoming more like Jesus” needs to be reshaped by looking at who Jesus actually was and what He actually taught.
I also think our concept of discipleship needs to be broader, or more holistic. For example, 52% of Christian teens aspire to science related careers, and yet only 1% of youth pastors addressed issues related to faith and science, according to a study in 2009 (Kinnaman, You Lost Me, 140). This means that even if these teens are “being discipled,” such discipleship is not holistic; it’s focused on personal holiness but leaves the gospel out of a huge aspect of their lives.
Or what about sex? The church has become better at talking about sex over the years, but we still have a long way to go. Most humans, including Christians, learn way more about sex from watching movies, talking to their friends, listening to music, or testing it out with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Or they just keep silent about it until their honeymoon and then realize that the love scenes in chick flics were full of crap.
Most of our sex education is untouched by the gospel. People think about sex all the time. The Bible talks about sex quite often and gives a beautifully complex picture of how the gospel relates to our sexuality. And yet sex is rarely a main topic in our models of discipleship other than “keep your pants zipped until you get married.”
I’ll never forget when several years ago my wife and I made some new friends and it wasn’t long before they asked us, “How’s your sex life? Are you satisfied? Do you both feel fulfilled? Is there anything we could help with?”
I was like, “Help with? What kind of creepers are you?”
“No, no! We mean, like, help you guys talk through?”
“Oh, whew! I was going to call the cops.”
After realizing my friends weren’t offering a hands-on lesson, I still remember my wife and I feeling uncomfortable because good Christians didn’t talk about sex, even with another married couple. And yet, as you married folks know (and probably as many of you unmarried folks also know) sex can be super difficult, complicated, weird, painful, shameful, and can cause serious emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical problems in a marriage. It’s also such a fundamental part of our humanity. And the gospel has much to say about sex. And sex can be the source of all sorts of destructive sins.
So why doesn’t a huge part of our discipleship consists in deep discussions about sex, since sex is at the forefront of everyone’s mind (except for moms with small children, where sleep, not sex, is the fantasy de jour).
If many of our youth are passionate about science-related vocations, then why isn’t the topic of faith and science a massive part of our discipleship training?
Music, art, beauty, technology, vocation, and identity—these are all integral to our lives and yet most Christians don’t know how to think Christianly about them. Even if they’ve been through a 40-week discipleship program.
Is someone a “good disciple” if they post Bible verses on their Facebook page every day, and yet they get really depressed if their post only gets two likes?
Is someone becoming “more like Jesus” if they don’t drink alcohol, but own 20 pairs of shoes?
If a Christian fasts and prays every morning, yet somehow finds a way to wiggle into their daily conversations the fact that they fast and pray every morning, are they becoming more like Jesus or more like a Pharisee?
I don’t want to discount the morality that’s been held up as “Christ-likeness.” I just want to expand our categories to include a more holistic Jesus who speaks authoritatively into our whole lives. Every square inch. Especially into the windows of our lives that are constantly open and running.