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Entries in discipleship (37)

Two Vital Needs of Every Disciple

Paradoxes are fun--they’re like brain-teasers. Some people love to talk about them. It’s something else altogether to live inside of them. Jesus modeled living inside the most difficult paradoxes. For example, how can the ruler of the world become an example of obedience? How can the object of worship himself become an example of how to worship? How can the perfect Son of God call others to follow him, and then demonstrate the way to follow? It’s part of his genius, his glory and his nature. What’s more, he not only showed us how it’s done, he empowered us to do the same. 
Jesus calls us to follow him, and teaches us how to call others. I’m not talking about evangelism, I’m talking about making disciples. Real discipling is about making a way for others to approach the Father. If we’re only talking about Jesus, most of us are comfortable with this paradox, but our comfort is not his first concern. He told the twelve, “I’ve discipled you, now go and do the same.” (Matthew 28: 16-20)
As his followers, we are called to make disciples as well, teaching others to obey everything he commanded. There are two great problems as we attempt to live up to this commission today:

First, many of us see discipleship only in terms of following Jesus--almost never in terms of leading others. How many of us receive the call to be his disciple as a personal call from God to become a leader? That’s right, he’s talking to you. We may come to him because we need a Savior, but if we choose to become a follower of Jesus we must also realize we are also choosing the responsibility to lead others. This is what it means to follow him: we act on his behalf in the lives of others. It’s more than “sharing our faith.” It’s taking responsibility for other people’s lives until they are mature followers of Jesus. He showed us--in very practical ways--exactly how it works.
Second, if we try to lead others, we run the risk of demanding from other people obedience to Jesus without actually equipping them to obey him. Jesus gave his disciples the tools necessary to live a healthy life with God. He did more than demand, he empowered his followers. He did more than point the way, he was the way. He pointed to issues of the heart, he included his students as partners in ministry, giving them hands-on experience, and he introduced them to the Holy Spirit, effectively opening the resources of heaven to each of his disciples. What about us? As disciple makers, do we interact with those God has given us in the same way? Do we teach about heart-matters? Do we release our students into ministry? Do we introduce them to the Holy Spirit?

It starts with a paradigm shift: we cannot equip others until we believe we are called to lead others. It will not do to claim, “I have no one to lead.” Jesus is our model: he came in obedience to the Father and simultaneously became a leader of others. We must do the same. God has provided venues for our leadership: in our homes, among our friends, at work or school, or in our community. We were called to change the world by allowing God to change us--and by becoming change agents wherever he leads us.
Both these challenges are critical to our personal development as students of Jesus. Our personal spiritual growth depends on coming to terms with these challenges, and the destiny of others depends on our response as well. Plenty of Evangelical churches encourage their people to share the gospel. Few of them call their people to disciple others in the Way. By disconnecting evangelism from discipleship our churches are effectively suggesting to believers that’s OK to have spiritual babies and abandon them. 
What if our spiritual growth depended upon raising others in the faith? In fact, our spiritual growth depends on that very thing. Any responsible parent can tell you that having a child--and raising it--changed their lives for the better. When we look to the development of another our selfishness dies away. When our concern is for the spiritual success of another we are forced to determine what really works in the Christian life--and what doesn’t. Something is missing in us until we make disciples. Something is missing in the world around us when we fail to teach others how to obey everything he commanded us.
Who knew discipleship would require everything we have? I suspect the Jesus did.

Monday's Meditation: The Cosmic SitCom

It’s the stuff of sitcoms: the authority figure leaves the scene with one final instruction: “Don’t push that button,” or “Don’t drink the wine.”  Halfway through the comedy, the rule is broken, the cover-up begins, hilarity ensues. It’s inevitable, right?
I suspect many people have the same view of their relationship with the Heavenly Father. From the very beginning, God is the one who is absent, the one who leaves behind some kind of warning: “Don’t eat from the fruit from this one tree,” or, “Don’t engage is this (or that) activity.” We are the screw-ups in a mad-cap cosmic comedy: eating, drinking, messing up and covering up. It’s inevitable, right?
Except we give such a viewpoint more respectable, religious, language. We are simply “miserable sinners,” constantly in need of grace and forgiveness, provided without measure by Jesus Christ. It’s inevitable, right? 
It’s true--his mercy and grace flow unending, constantly meeting our need. Yet many followers of Jesus find themselves trapped in what Dallas Willard calls Miserable Sinner Theology: our destiny is constant failure; his ministry is unending forgiveness. When we limit the work of Jesus to nothing but forgiveness, we lose sight of the possibilities of experiencing a new kind life with him here and now.
This week’s meditation finds it’s source in two passages and two questions:
Passage One: “Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” (Deuteronomy 30: 11 - 14)
Passage Two: “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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 18-19)
Question One: Is obedience possible?
Question Two: Is Jesus the kind of person who would demand of us something we can never give?

Most Popular Posts vs My Favorites (I Lose)

Apparently, gentle readers, we don’t always see things eye to eye, you and I.  On Monday I listed my twelve favorites posts of 2010. Today, as I list the five most-visited posts, only one of them was among my favorites.

Students of Jesus welcomed readers from 105 countries on all five inhabited continents. Next year I'm hoping the penguins in Antarctica get wi-fi. And Students of Jesus reached all 50 of these United States. I'm particularly grateful to that one guy in Cheyenne for putting Wyoming on the map (I hope he comes back next year as well).
The final week of the year is the traditional time for retrospectives, and I’m nothing if not traditional. So, in the continued spirit of all-about-me narcissism, here are Students of Jesus' most-visited posts of 2010. 
When Famous Christians are Gay When Christian singer Jennifer Knapp came out as a lesbian (with simultaneous interviews in The Advocate and Christianity Today) I ventured away from the center of Students of Jesus and gave my opinions on the church, on sin, and on the abuse of scripture. Not surprisingly, my views satisfied no one--not even myself.  This post generated 25 times the normal traffic to my blog, but it wandered away from the premise of Students of Jesus by commenting on current events and the church at large. I’ve learned that such posts generate a lot of heat and almost no light.
Monday’s Meditation: Sex, Celebrity and Discipleship Just four days later, shocked at the traffic that flooded my little dog and pony show, I tried to get back to the core of my concerns (I'm actually quite proud of this post). I commented on why issues of sex and celebrity draw an audience 25 times larger than the issue of discipleship. Really? Sex and celebrity garners more attention than following Jesus? Who knew? A crazy side effect of this post is that because the title contains the words sex and celebrity it draws traffic every week from search engines around the world. I feel sorry for the people who eagerly click on the link. The average length of a visit to this post? Less than two seconds.
The Great Fall of Wisdom This is the only overlap between my top twelve and the most-visited posts. I suggested that an omniscient God isn’t impressed with how smart we are. I also suspect that the reason it was visited so often is that 22.6% of Reformed-theology seminary students came to laugh at my reasoning (I made that last statistic up, but I stand by it nonetheless). I still like this post, and I would appreciated if all four of my regular readers would email it to Zondervan, Lifeway, and Thomas Nelson.
Monday’s Meditation: Three Important Questions I’m not going to tell you what the three questions are, but believe me, they’re important. This post also generated the most comments of any post all year, but only because I shamelessly ended the article with these pathetic words: I’m begging: tell me what you think.”
Monday’s Meditation: Indigenous Worship (dot com) I thrilled this post was well received because my dearest friends launched a website dedicated to songwriting and creativity in the local church. It’s an awesome site, and you should definitely check it out, but you should always do so by going to Students of Jesus first and then following the link to their site. Then they might buy me lunch.

One glimmer of hope for people who search the InterWeb is that the sixth-place post was actually written in February of 2009. Somehow, among the millions of people using Google-dot-antichrist, several hundred found their way to Students of Jesus by searching “How Can We Humble Ourselves.” That just provides just enough hope for me to keep writing another year.
That’s it, friends. 2010 is in the books, and my prayer for all four of you is that you will experience God’s richest blessings in the year to come. And hey, what would you like to read about in the coming year, I’m begging: tell me what you think!

Discipleship: not a choice, it's the mission

When I told one of my best friends that for my (third) career I wanted to be a writer, he gave me life-changing advice: "Try to imagine talking about your subject every single day for two years. If the idea still thrills you, you've found your topic."
This Christmas will mark two years of writing Students of Jesus, and I can report my passion has grown! Becoming a disciple of Jesus--and making disciples of others--takes me deeper and deeper into life with God. When I encounter familiar old Bible passages on discipleship, they seem constantly-fresh, filled with life: always revealing the new possibilities of following the Lord.
Will you allow me to share a few of these ever-new passages? Here are three foundational passages for anyone who longs for something more than a fire-insurance relationship with Jesus:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • If heaven is the ultimate goal of the gospel, then discipleship is merely an option, like a choice in the cafeteria. But discipleship is not a choice, it's the mission.  There is something lacking in each one of us until we become disciples and until we make disciples of others.
  • Discipleship is open to anyone willing to worship Jesus. Intellectual curiosity is not the ticket in, nor are good works. And here is the really good news: doubt does not disqualify you from worship.
  • At the place of worship we discover that Jesus considers us partners in his mission. He never intended the original twelve disciples to be the only ones: he intended they would reproduce themselves. Amazingly, he intends the same for us as well.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)
  • The good news is better than we think: the Father intends that each of us can become conformed to the image of his son. This is staggering: if we are disciples of Jesus, the Father has set a destination for each of us--Christlikeness!
  • Jesus is unique: the only begotten of the Father. Yet that same Father is determined to have a large family. He sends a spirit of adoption into our hearts. We see him as our true Father and we discover our older brother is none other than the Lord of glory.
  • When we first heard the gospel--presented as Jesus‘ sacrificial death on our behalf--how many of us imagined the Father had a destination in mind better than Heaven itself?
At that time Jesus declared, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)
  • If the destination of Christlikeness seems too far-fetched, Jesus comes to our rescue. He himself offers to be our guide and instruct us in the kind of life that flows from being with our Creator moment-by-moment.
  • We can simultaneously learn from him and find rest in him. For example, anyone who has tried to learn a new language, skill, or life-habit understands the hard work involved. Yet Jesus tells us that when we are hooked-up in right relationship with him we will experience new life and refreshing at the same time. No university in the world can offer that combination.
  • Human models of training and leadership depend on intelligence and worldly wisdom for their effectiveness. In this passage the King himself looks heavenward and gives thanks that the kids at the head of the class have no advantage over the rest of the us. In fact, they are in the dark--God rejoices that human intelligence is inadequate while offering the benefits of relationship to all who will simply come to him. Who wouldn’t take a deal like that?
So in the same year I’ve qualified for the seniors discount at Denny’s I’ve discovered that two years isn’t near enough to explore that possibilities of life with God. I’m delighted you’re along for the ride. In fact, I’d do it whether or not I ever find a publisher. (On the other hand, if there’s a publisher looking for a passionate soul with growing skills, you can reach me at ray.hollenbach@gmail.com)

The Fellowship of Low Expectations

Across the spectrum of Christian worship, our churches are filled with individuals who do not believe Christlikeness is possible.  Individual believers have camped beside the river of God’s grace and drink daily of his forgiveness, unaware that this same grace can can provide spiritual transformation into Christlikeness.  Discipleship, they suppose, is for those few super-saints called into the ministry.
Perhaps even more striking is the number of church leaders who have largely abandoned the task of making disciples.  In the first years of my work as a pastor I attended a weekly breakfast “prayer meeting” of local pastors.  I was looking for practical help in fulfilling my vision of equipping every believer to do the work of the ministry.  Assembled were church leaders from a variety of faith traditions, both liturgical and Evangelical, representing a variety of the American denominational spectrum.  In two years of regular meetings with these shepherds of the flock, the only subject which drew complete agreement was their low opinion of the people they were called to lead.  Each pastor shared story after story of petty arguments and disagreements, all to the same point: the people were impossible to lead!  Clearly, I had fallen in with the wrong crowd.  It will come as no surprise that by the time I celebrated my fifth year in the pastorate, every single pastor who attended the prayer breakfast had moved on to other churches or left the ministry.
Our difficulties embracing discipleship occur not only at the individual level, but also at the level of Christian leadership.  Pastors rarely describe their task in terms of reproducing the character and power of Jesus in the people of their congregations.  Nor do the people of the church expect their pastors to be spiritual mentors.  Sadly, many pastors do not think the image of Christ is reproducible in their charges.  As a result, leadership in Christian churches looks less and less like the Biblical model and more and more like models drawn from the secular world.
Individual Christians struggle in their relationship with Jesus, and his call to become like him. Pastors struggle with the same thing: the idea that Jesus calls each one of us to become like him.  When pastors do not have a realistic expectation that every Christian can live up to the example of Jesus, pastoral ministry becomes about something other than making disciples.  If pastors are not convinced of the Christlike destiny of each person in their charge, the role of Christian leadership drifts away from the Biblical example toward any number of earth-bound substitutes.  These earth-bound substitutes may each be a moral good in their own right, but they will miss the high calling of developing a royal priesthood capable of demonstrating the glory of God to a watching world.
How many pastors carry the vision Peter expressed for the people in his charge?
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.  Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (I Peter 2: 9 - 12)
These four verses express high expectations for the assembled people of God.  Consider this partial list drawn exclusively from these four verses:
  • The people are chosen by God to do ministry;
  • God has a regal view of his people;
  • The people are ordained to represent God;
  • The people are the light-bearers for the world;
  • The people have a new identity with one another;
  • The people have a reason to embrace life-change.  

Peter presents a vision that the everyday conduct of “average” Christians will elicit praise for God from those who are not yet believers.
In my personal experience pastors rarely present such a high view of those they are called to shepherd. Many pastors lack the vision of a church filled with mature disciples. Is it any wonder the church at large is powerless? 

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