If I’m reading the gospels correctly, and it may be the case that I’m not, I see a particular pattern in the ministry of Jesus: he calls people to follow him; he teaches through repetitious questions, stories, and modelling; and along the way he continues to assess whether his disciples understand who he is. And if I’m reading the gospels correctly, for most of the journey the disciples don’t understand. It takes several years of following along hearing the message of the cross, hearing Jesus deconstruct their expectations of Kingdom and Messiah; yet even right up to the moment that Jesus is arrested and killed the disciples don’t seem to really get it.
Here’s the weird thing though, if I’m reading the gospels correctly, Jesus sends his disciples out to preach and teach about the gospel pretty early in their relationship. He first calls them to follow, but then he turns around and sends them out to find people of peace and preach the kingdom. When they come back he does some more modeling and teaching, then he has them put that in to practice. Jesus has disciples who minister and practice his teachings and all the while they’re ignorant and immature and in a process of coming to know who Jesus truly is and what it means to follow him. It seems like a pretty messy affair. And apparently, it’s discipleship.
One of our tasks in NY is to train and develop every person we work with to be a disciple-maker. We believe that any disciple of Jesus is part of the priesthood of all believers and is equipped to share the gospel, start churches, and disciple others. So it was in this context that I was speaking with a friend about the people in her life that she is sharing with. There are a few young women she knows who are meeting with her to study scripture and who she’s been mentoring, and when she was telling me this I asked her, “What are you doing to encourage them to put those teachings into practice and to begin sharing what they’re learning with others?” And her reply struck me; she said, “Oh, no. They’re not mature enough for that yet.”
I was curious, so I tried to dig a bit deeper and asked, “Are they baptized?” She said that they were. “So they see themselves as Christians?” Again yes. “So what else do they need before we can ask them to start acting like disciples?” And her reply, again, made me pause, “Well they just don’t know enough yet. They haven’t grown enough to ask them to be sharing their faith.” Essentially, they’re not mature enough to be disciples.
I love and trust this friend, but at the same time I see in her answers something that I think is true of a lot of ministries, but that I don’t think is true of Jesus: she sees discipleship as a higher tier of faith. My friend sees a dichotomy between those who follow Jesus at a basic level and those who are disciples. And I think this happens more than we care to admit.Throughout the history of the western church, we often seem to act as if discipleship is for those who have a larger measure of faith, and that ministering and sharing the gospel is for a select group who are gifted and called in ways that we shouldn’t expect of the rest of the body. But is that the case? Does our ministry reflect Jesus’ when discipleship, rather than a starting point, is for the graduate level Christians? Does it respect people more to invite them to follow as disciples so that they learn who Jesus is, or do we wait to ask them to become disciples until after they are finished learning? I would ask that we consider separating the word disciple from any notion of hierarchy or special status. If I’m reading the gospels correctly, rather than being the special forces, disciples begin at the most basic level of learning; yet Jesus trusts his disciples to think and discover and discuss and tell others. It seems like a pretty messy affair. It seems like discipleship.