Today I continue my 2013 Discipleship Interview Series with Joel Lindsey. Joel is the lead pastor of Grace Church in Racine, WI, and a writer. His recent projects include For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel (with Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter), study guides, articles, and worship songs.
Discipleship is such a broad term, often a junk-drawer term that has been used to describe many things. How do you define it? (Parts of my answer could also work for the last question on anchor passages)
I define discipleship as the life-long process of increasingly embracing the new identity provided for us in Christ. We cannot follow Christ until we surrender to him, and to the degree we embrace the freeing gospel of grace, that our identity before God is determined solely by Christ’s redemptive work, to that degree we will surrender and follow.
Two passages are key here: Ephesians 4:20-24 and Colossians 3:1-17. In both passages, Paul says that the Christian life is essentially about putting on the new self, getting more and more comfortable in your new skin—who you are in Christ. The more we do that, the more the Spirit removes us from the old worldview and old choices of life apart from Christ.
What has changed, for good and bad, in the practice or methods of discipleship in recent years?
I believe the church has confused biblical discipleship with typical leadership models you might see in the business world. I’ll call that approach “mentoring” or “life coaching.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Mentoring and life coaching can be helpful, but these methods don’t get at the heart of what I think discipleship is about. Those methods are about productivity and increasing skill capacity. Discipleship, at its heart, is about increasing submission.
In mentoring and life coaching you have two roles: an expert and a novice. The information sharing is pretty much top-down. The expert imparts wisdom to the novice. In the Christian context I can see where this comes from: Jesus taught his disciples everything. It was definitely top-down. But when Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 28:19 to go make more disciples, he didn’t mean for them to create individual disciples who followed them. He meant for them to go and more disciples of Jesus.
Even in v. 20 when he says “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded,” I don’t believe the call is to simply impart wisdom in a top-down way. The teaching Jesus is encouraging is about doing and obeying. Maybe it could be said this way, “Go make disciples…teaching them through your own obedience what it looks like to obey.” This is much more relational, much more side-by-side than top-down. This is the shift in emphasis at Grace since I’ve come on board (a year and a half ago).
In terms of discipling new believers, what is of chief importance?
It is of utmost importance that new believers (all disciples really) understand that the Christian life is worshipful before it is behavioral. We have to get that order right. Paul hammers this home in Romans 12. That chapter marks the transition of the whole book from primarily theological (chapters 1-11) to emphatically practical (chapters 12-16). But before he gets to the behavioral marks of the Christian life (generosity, compassion, feeding the hungry, etc), he says you have to understand worship. You can’t be merciful until you are worshipful.
I see Christians get this order out of whack most when it comes to accountability. When I became a Christian in the early 90s, discipleship was all about accountability partners and accountability groups. And that’s great. Mutual accountability is in many ways what discipleship is supposed to look like.
The problem, at least as I saw it in my own experience and the experience of my friends, is the emphasis in accountability was always about what you were doing wrong–how you were sinning. I think that misses the mark and can lead to a moralistic lifestyle, as if the goal of the Christian life is merely to avoid sin. While we are certainly to avoid sin, the only way to do that is to love something more than sin. In other words, accountability needs to be much more about what we need to start and keep doing rather than what we need to stop doing. It’s less about stopping sinful behavior and more about pursuing Jesus. That may seem like a simple shift in language, but it is actually radical in its impact. I think Thomas Chalmers had it exactly right in his take on Galatians 5: “The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.”