With the glow of Easter still hanging in the air of our homes and our churches, most of us who have placed our faith in the risen Christ want to make more disciples for him. We ourselves want to be better followers of “the Jesus way” (to borrow language used regularly in my own congregation), and we want to help those around us do the same.
So, it seems to me that this is a good time to reflect on what discipleship is, what we are trying to accomplish when we make disciples, and what challenges we might face along the way. Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to take a slightly idiosyncratic approach to this task. We are actually going to start by looking at the obstacles that we often encounter when we try to be and make disciples of Jesus. Then we are going to look at the goals that we are trying to achieve when we engage in discipleship. By doing these two things, I think that we will come to a clearer understanding of what a disciple is and how being a disciple ought to impact our lives.
Obstacles to Discipleship
Anyone who has ever tried to get better at following Jesus knows that there are certain things that get in the way of our efforts. Anyone who has ever worked in the church knows that obstacles of this sort seem to multiply when you get people together.
Perhaps it would help us understand our task better if we could put the many and varied obstacles that we encounter in some simple categories. The categories we construct need to be broad enough to capture the wide variety of challenges we face and to make those challenges manageable, but they also need to be specific enough to illuminate our thinking about and practice of discipleship.
Obstacles Related to Biblical and Theological Knowledge
I would like to propose that there are three categories of obstacles that we all will encounter when we try to become better disciples of Jesus and when we try to make (better) disciples of Jesus in our churches and communities. The first category of obstacles includes those related to biblical and theological knowledge. Sometimes, we just do not know enough about Jesus, his life, or his teachings to be good disciples.
Obstacles of this sort usually derive from one of three sources.
- Unwillingness to Learn – Many Americans seem unwilling to learn the things that need to be learned if we are going to be good disciples of Jesus. Indeed, in some quarters of American evangelicalism, there is an active hostility to learning. If it doesn’t meet a felt need, some people just aren’t interested.
- Learning the Wrong Things – Some Christians have actively engaged in the process of learning, but they have learned the wrong things. They have a view of God, the universe, or their own story that is inconsistent with the truth, and those wrong “facts” have a peculiar way of insulating them from the truth. In other words, once someone learns something, it can be difficult to convince them that what they learned is wrong.
- Application Errors – Sometimes, people are willing to learn, and they manage to learn the right things. Nevertheless, they have difficulty applying what they have learned in the real world. The life of the mind is extraordinarily important, but its importance is rooted in the impact that it has on how we live our lives.
Each of these obstacles to discipleship can bring harm to the individual or to the congregation in which he or she participates. In spite of what some people would tell you, theology does matter. It shapes the way we see ourselves, the way we see others, and the way we see God. By affecting how we see ourselves, others, and God, theology has the power to free us from destructive habits and painful feelings. Or, it has the power to reinforce them.
Obstacles Related to Spiritual Practices
A second category of obstacles can be described as obstacles related to spiritual practices. What do we mean by “spiritual practices”? We mean those things that keep us connected to God, that build our biblical and theological knowledge, and that connect us with other followers of Jesus. In other words, we are talking about those things that the Holy Spirit can use to communicate His presence and accomplish His work in our lives.
Some practices are mandatory. These include prayer, Bible reading, worship, and fellowship. Other practices may not always be required but are strongly recommended for those who want to stay connected with God, with their follow believers, and with themselves. These include fasting, silence, solitude, journaling, and confession of sin and/or weakness.
Sometimes, the problems related to these practices originate in the fact that we just do not do them enough. Sometimes, they originate in the fact that we do not know how to do them well. At other times, they originate from the fact that we do not do them with other believers or from the fact that we do not get feedback from trusted spiritual guides about how we are doing them. Regardless of why the obstacles exist, they can cut us off from the interactive relationships—relationships with God and relationships with trusted others—that have the power to correct our misperceptions and to heal our brokenness.
Obstacles Related to Emotional Healing and Maturity
And this brings us to our third category of obstacles—those related to emotional healing and maturity. There are a lot of wounded people walking around our churches—people whose hearts have been broken by God, by a parent, by another authority figure (coach, pastor, etc.), by a lover, by a friend, or by someone in the church. The suffering that these individuals experience is bad enough to deserve our attention, but, all too often, their woundedness results in destructive behavior towards others in their family, congregation, or community. And now there are more wounded people whose suffering must be addressed.
Moreover, we all have growing up to do, and this is especially true for leaders. In order for people to be ready to lead—whether it be in their own family, in the church, or in society at large—they have to grow up emotionally. And when they don’t grow up, they inflict wounds upon themselves and upon others.
Maturity doesn’t just happen. It takes intentionality. It takes work. It takes time. And, sometimes, it takes help from someone who has walked the road of emotional growth ahead of us.
Broadening Our Perspective
I haven’t really said anything new here. So why am I bothering to write a blog like this? For one thing, it sometimes helps us to state the obvious. Sometimes, we just need to be reminded of what we already know. For another—and this is the real point that I want to make—discipleship is about more than we often think. It is a broad and integrated endeavor, drawing from various aspects of the human person and seeing how they are deeply embedded within one another.
If we fail to do this, we will treat what ails ourselves, our neighbors, and our churches with the wrong medicine. For example, let’s say that a church discovers that its leaders do not act like Christ when the pressure is on. What is the solution? Some would say that the church needs better leadership training initiatives, and that may be true. Some will say that the leaders need to pray more, and that may be true, as well. But it is unlikely that the problem will be adequately addressed until the church’s leaders develop an identity that is really oriented around the work and witness of Jesus and address the wounds which sin has inflicted upon their psyche. In other words, prayer and Bible study may not be enough to address the emotional baggage that the leaders have brought with them into their vocation.
We must come to recognize that discipleship is not just about the acquisition of knowledge, about the consistent pursuit of God through spiritual disciplines, or growing into healthy, well-adjusted adults. It is about all of these things, and each one of these things has a profound impact on all the others. Recognizing the breadth and interconnectedness of our task will challenge us to radically reconfigure our approach to discipleship, and it may even challenge us to acquire new skills in order to complete our task.