Something is happening, there is a new movement emerging in the land. And I don’t use the word movement carelessly, I use it with precision. A movement is a series of activities by people with the same concern that converge to create energy toward a common goal. At first it may be isolated pockets of passion, but God anoints it and He starts connecting the kindred spirited people and it grows like a tsunami. It seems like a fast growing segment of church leaders are ready to take the plunge. The growing superficiality of the Church and of leaders’ lives has finally created desperation. There is a call going out, “ Dive, Dive, lets go deep with God.” The academy calls it spiritual formation, others spiritual direction, practioners refer to it as discipleship. Leaders are traveling to and fro in order to conduct summitry about it. A spate of new literature is coming onto the market; it just seems like the evangelical world is tired of religious activity without transformation. There is an ache located deep in the hearts of many; the evangelical soul is very close to rejecting success that doesn’t matter. It has finally occurred to many of us that the great commission has more to do with depth than strategy. As Dallas Willard has written, “ The way to get as many people as possible into heaven is to get heaven into as many people as you can.”1 Let there be no misunderstanding, this is about the great commission, we are to make disciples of all nations2, and we are to do so with power.3 Spiritual depth for spiritual depth’s sake is as much a heresy as self-denial is when we fail to take up our cross4.
There are a number of ways to talk about this movement of God. It is a clarion call to choose the life. Definite article, not just life, but also a certain kind of life, a special order or society. It is an intentional decision to follow Jesus as a submissive disciple. We don’t drift or accidentally stumble into a life of discipleship; this choice doesn’t come automatically with the salvation package. It is a life that must be chosen, and frankly, the majority of Christians have not made that choice because it hasn’t been taught as normative. There are two segments to my presentation:
1. The need for the life
2. The call to the life
There has never been a time when Christians and Churches have needed depth more. American culture is a fertile breeding ground for the superficial. The Church’s need for significance and meaning can be easily satisfied with bodies, bucks, and buildings. But as mentioned above, these traditional benchmarks of success are breaking down. Evangelical church attendance is still stalled or in decline, followers of Jesus don’t seem to have distinctive lives. The watching world doesn’t see any compelling reason to attend church. In fact many people who do attend church are searching for a compelling reason to continue.
My pastoral experience tells me there is something wrong. It has troubled me for years, but particularly in the last four. It is the feeling and the fact that we are engaged in a routine of religious activity that is not working. We put so much effort into our weekend services, bible studies, small groups, and outreach events. Yet it doesn’t work because we are missing transformation.
The spiritual formation concept comes from Paul’s word in Galatians. “ My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” 5
All of us have a spirit that is formed or shaped by forces around us. The problem seems to be that many influences apart from the transformational power of the scriptures and the Holy Spirit have shaped our spirits. Because of this the life most disciples have followed has been one of attending, serving, and giving. These are wonderful things and are evidence of sincerity of heart, but the acceptance of these activities as enough has led to generations of believers whose lives are a mile wide and one inch deep. This in turn has led to a church that lacks passion, perseverance, and a commitment to reach the world around them.
George Barna’s research tells us the reason many people have chosen not to invest in a life of serious discipleship.
1. Lack of passion
2. Too busy
3. Satisfied with process or activity without regard to product
4. Satisfied with good activity that doesn’t challenge to transformation.
Barna concluded in his study of the Church and its commitment to making disciples “ I will argue that unless we embrace a comprehensive and far reaching commitment to radical change in how we conduct our lives and our ministries, we are doomed to minimal results.” 6
We have now reached that point so eloquently spoken by George Orwell, “ We have now sunk to such a depth that the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” And what is that obvious duty? It is to consider the command to make disciples the first duty of the Church. It is for church leaders to choose spiritual formation as their primary work. But what does this mean? In order to answer the question we must ask what did it mean at the time of Christ to be a disciple?
There were several characteristics that made a person a disciple.
1. The person would make an intentional choice to follow a teacher. Luke 6:39,40
2. The student would choose his own Rabbi. Jesus was unique in that He chose His disciples John 15:16
3. The disciple would submit to his Rabbi’s interpretation of scripture and way of life. I Corinthians 4:14-16
4. The teacher would teach the student everything he knew Luke 6:40
5. The student would eventually graduate to Rabbi John 15:15 From servant/slave to friend. This would then require the new Rabbi to repeat the process with others.
Choosing the life of discipleship was very much like joining a special order or group. There were rites of passage and it was to be a life of submission to spiritual authority. This is why I have stated that our discipleship hasn’t been working, it has been too program oriented and frankly too superficial to really change people. The new movement is attempting to restore the original intent to the Church’s work beginning with the leaders. So how would this look in today’s world? What distinctive would be a follower of Jesus have?
Definition of a disciple: “ A disciple is a follower of a person or cause who has decided to attach himself to another person in mutual submission in order to become capable of doing what that person does or what that person is. It is the intention to join with at least one other kindred spirit to break through obedience barriers, to learn everything you can and experience transformation.
This is radical in that it makes it impossible for a person to keep an arms length relationship to Christ and others. The majority of church people become genuine believers, but the only transformation they experience is forgiveness of sins and membership in the body of Christ. They only know Christ as savior, but they don’t experience Him as teacher or leader. Therefore, their lives are tragically stalled out and they don’t reach the pinnacle of a high impact life that comes from the spiritual depths. A soul that has been deeply crafted by the disciplines of the Spirit of God. The belief that being baptized and attending church will make you a full throttle disciple of Jesus is to misunderstand the teaching of the New Testament. “ Finding forgiveness for our sins and taking his yoke upon us and learn[ing] of him, the idea that these two things can be separated” as A.W. Tozer said, “is a modern heresy.” 7
The Church’s cardiovascular system is clogged with immature disciples who agree with all we’ve said but don’t act. The Church is up to its eyeballs in agreement, but only standing ankle deep in behavioral change. This is primarily a leadership issue; leaders are not modeling spiritual formation as the first and most important task of the Church. Again, spiritual greatness in our culture is all about size, size of the churches, and size of book sales, size of crowds at special events. The church is drunk on the wine of success and size; it is time for an intervention, to challenge our addiction and to do the right thing.
The need is obvious, and so is the call. “Then he said to them all”… “ If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world and yet lose or forfeit his very self.” 8
Some have contended that this call to follow Jesus was not intended for everyone. This is based on the fact that Jesus was talking to just the twelve. It very well may be true that he was speaking only with a few, but his statement is unequivocal—it applies to everyone and that is clear by his use of the words “if anyone.” This is not elitist, in Luke 14:25-35 his language is even stronger concerning commitment level. The call to follow Jesus as our leader is to be normative. The abnormal is the halfhearted disciple who limits his commitment because of a lack of trust in God’s ability to lead. There are four dimensions to the call that will clarify the essence of transformational discipleship.
The challenge of the transformational discipleship movement is how can this growing interest actually spread and diffuse into the churches? It all begins with understanding the words “if” and “anyone” “if” indicates that it is not automatic, that a choice is required. Every converted person much subsequently chooses to live a certain kind of life. As already stated, we don’t just amble our way into a discipleship life. It is a clear and intentional choice to follow Jesus as our leader and to live under spiritual authority embodied in another person or persons.
“Anyone” means that it is for everyone and that means the truck driver that hasn’t read a book in thirty years, the housewife with four children under foot, the knowledgeable elder who thinks he knows it all and the teenage boy who just recently made a decision to accept Christ. Following Jesus as a disciple requires a clear decision, and it is not out of the reach of the common person. There is a stereotype for a person interested in spiritual formation. Since the term comes out of the academic world, this stereotype includes spending long hours in prayer, journaling your prayers and thoughts, and reading ancient mystics named Theresa, Blasé, and Henri, mediating and memorizing scripture. Doing it for hours and loving it, doing it for years and it flows out of you. Yes there are people like that, but to play into such stereotypes will hurt the cause. There must be a way for the non-contemplative common man to practice the disciplines and experience transformation that is not laden with the academy.
The other stereotype comes from the classic discipleship literature. It has been heavily influenced by the para church movement in groups like Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ and others. The classic discipleship literature has been task oriented. Engineers and athletes have been drawn to it. It tends to be linear with steps and methods. It works real well for task-oriented people who are looking for results. So discipleship took on a program approach, a regime to finish, a project to do and a goal to be reached. This has tended to cut out people with non-linear learning styles or those who are repulsed by task oriented programs. Have I painted with a broad brush, of course I have. But to be successful, we need to blend the best of both the spiritual formation movement and the classic discipleship movement. Either one alone will be dashed on the sharp rocks of real life. Following Jesus in a serious fashion is for everyone and it must go beyond temperaments, learning styles, and contemplative types. We must find the principles.
Jesus names the issue, “if anyone would come after me” to follow Jesus means we have to give up something. That something is any part of self that makes it impossible to say yes to Him. Self-denial for self-denial’s sake is useless, but to follow him is a clear decision. The proof that so many baby disciples or carnal disciples are not following Jesus is that they are bored. Churches are filled with bored people, I would venture to say many more men than women are bored. They are being told that a good Christian attends regularly, commits a good chuck of cash annually, and serves on a committee or task force. Joining a bible study or fellowship group would also be a good idea. This is what I meant earlier; there is routine religious activity that is not working. We are skating right over transformation, we can see it just below the ice, but we can’t seem to get at it. It is because the ice needs to be broken, so we can start working on those things that really matter to the soul of every person. So many people feel they are following Jesus, yet you can’t follow Jesus and be bored. Were Peter and John bored, were the apostles yawning their way to martyrdom, was the Apostle Paul holding on until retirement? Following Jesus is the most thrilling, difficult, threatening, fulfilling, passionate experience any person can know.
I remember in the Spirit of the Disciplines Dallas Willard speaking of the high cost of non-discipleship. I have written and taught that concept for years now. The cost to the church and to human lives in not following Jesus is incalculable and tragic. When I think of giving up something for Jesus, the parable of the pearl in Matthew 13: 45 comes to mind. “ The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
Only a fool would decide not to follow Jesus. When we find him we are willing to give up everything to have him. That is the reason I am convinced that Christian leaders have failed those under their care. They are under challenged, under trained and under used. If they only understood the value in following Jesus, very few with the life of God resident in them would ever say no. We must rescue the normal call to follow Jesus from the grip of the enemy who has used stereotype to keep people away. We must find a way to have them stop saying, “that is too hard, that isn’t for me”, and start saying “I would be a fool not to follow him and to give up anything that would get in the way.”
The only reason that self-denial is essential is so we can take up our mission. We say no to self in order to say yes to God. Sacrifice comes from love; I get great doses of joy from making sacrifices for those I love. Buying a needy friend a car or loaning them what they need, it brings delight to the soul. A serious problem facing the Church is the majority of the people don’t know what their mission is. The cross was Christ’s mission and is symbolic of ours. It is only however when we are following Jesus, saying no to self in order to say yes to God, that he introduces us to our unique mission in life. Therefore, we have too many Christians always wondering what they should do, going to seminars and seeking counsel, trying to find a mission off the path of obedience. It is only on the path of obedience that we find it. It may take much self-denial, many mistakes, many troubled and painful moments, but it is always there for the serious follower. The word daily is not incidental; it is integral to the process of spiritual formation. Every day we make the decision again, “ will I follow him today” Because each day has new and sometimes requirements that we fear. This is the reason for attachment to another person. We don’t follow Jesus alone; we follow him together in submission to his will and to the others around us.
When we answer the call to the Society of Jesus, that special order of disciples who follow him seriously, there are great rewards. There is a joy knowing that our lives are a bull’s eye with God. John 15:11 there are the comforting words that every servant want to hear, “ Well done, my good faithful servant.” There are the inspiring words of Paul near the end of his life, “ For I am already being poured out like a drink offering and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge will award to me on that day\9 That is every disciple’s dream, to live a life that has great meaning and fulfillment. But that life does not come to those who drift about as immature converts. It belongs only to those who choose the life, the life of transformational discipleship.
God is rising up men and women all over America who are hungry for God. Leaders who want to be the revolutionaries that Christ intended us to be when He told us to make disciples of the world, to teach them everything that Christ commanded. But first we must teach ourselves what Christ commanded. First we must commit to allowing Him to form our spirits. First we must make it the most important and exclusive task of all. When passion and power return to the church populace, then the revolution can begin.
To begin the Journey click here.
1 Willard, Dallas Renovation of the heart , Navpress , Page 239
2 Matthew 28:18-20 The depth has no meaning unless it leads to obedience to what Christ has commanded
3 Acts 1:8 After the Holy Spirit comes on the Church, then the mandate can be carried out.
4 Luke 9:23 the only reason to say no to self is in order to say yes to God.
5 Galatians 4:19
6 Barna, George Growing True Disciples Water Books page 10
7 Willard, Dallas Renovation of the Heart , Navpress 2002 page 242
8 Luke 9:23-25
9 2 Timothy 4:6-8