Making Modern Disciples


Last week I had coffee with a mega-church pastor whose congregation numbers well above 10,000 members.  It’s an impressive operation equipped with escalators, elevators and espresso.  Half-way through our conversation I asked him, “how do you all make disciples”?  His honesty was as refreshing as it was terrifying.  “We don’t, we’ve completely missed the boat”, he said.  “It is the single greatest failure in our attempts at mega-ministry.”  Upwards of 15,000 people come in and out of his doors each Sunday, and to his credit, he realizes their failure to develop disciples.  Sadly, modern American spiritual formation, or discipleship, tends to consist of large-scale programs and gatherings, where individuals come together for the greatest show on earth.   We wow them with lights, sound and visuals, and move them to tears with our carefully orchestrated song service.  And, week after week, our “revolving door” spirituality fails to touch the significant depths of the soul. Our congregants long for something more than an opening ceremony of spirituality.   They want lasting change, but where do we start?  Developing and implementing a philosophy of discipleship does not happen through programs or education alone, it involves an intentional, holistic view of formation that understands the complexity of the human person.  It involves seeing the world the way God sees it, and acting in that world the way God acts.  It is living in the place where “to do what God wishes is our pleasure and desire”[1] as we bend our will and passions into alignment with His.  In short, it is our journey toward wholeness.

Christian discipleship is the way we express a living faith in the real world.  It is the sum total of our attitudes, beliefs, practices and actions. Christian spiritual formation is the life-long pursuit of the imitation of Christ.  What makes this so difficult is our natural self, which seeks to fulfill our own desires and our own will.  Spiritual formation is thus the process of bringing our “unruly wills and affections” into right alignment with Christ’s.  In so doing, we restore our mind, heart and soul into right relationship with God.  Learning, being and doing form the foundation for our spiritual pursuit of God.  And, according to Lesslie Newbigin,

“One does not learn anything except by believing something, and — conversely — if one doubts everything one learns nothing. On the other hand, believing everything uncritically is the road to disaster. The faculty of doubt is essential. But as I have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa. The relationship between the two cannot be reversed. ”[2]

In order to be like something, we must first believe in it, and part of believing is knowing.   We are made to learn, form opinions, believe and apply knowledge to every sphere of life.  Cognitively speaking, holistic spiritual formation must include the shaping of what we believe about the nature of reality.  All of us seek to provide systematic answers to life’s big questions:  Does God Exist, What is the Meaning of Life, What Does it Mean to Be Human?  Our ideas and beliefs on these matters form the foundation of our worldview, which shapes how we relate to the biosphere around us.

Yet, spiritual formation isn’t just about what we know; it is about what we love, what we do and how we relate to the world.  Sadly, our post-Enlightened schools and churches have seen the human person as primarily ‘thinking things’ and not ‘feeling’ and ‘loving things’. Therefore, spiritual formation and discipleship have been more about ‘thinking the right things’ than creating a holistic approach acknowledging the human person as lovers and feelers as well.[3]  Effective spiritual formation deconstructs the Cartesian cognitive model and replaces it with a holistic approach to discipleship. Discipleship and spiritual formation are less about erecting an edifice of knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively understands the world in light of the Gospel.  Yes, we are formed by what we think, but we are also formed by what we love and how we act.[4]   Proper spiritual formation returns us to the pre-modern faith-based paradigm which views the human person as a thinking, feeling, believing and loving creature shaped not just by information, but by liturgy, practices and ritual.  To be human is to love, to desire, to know, to believe and to do.  Lasting discipleship consists of forming our humanity so that our precognitive selves can find the proper end for which we were made.  As Augustine reminds us, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

The goal of Christian spiritual formation is the knowledge, love and imitation of Christ.  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2: 20).  This life in Christ is best achieved within the context of a diverse confessing community, public worship, the Sacraments, Biblical scholarship and the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study and service.

Community is therefore the sin qua non of a distinctly Christian understanding of the world and our place in it.  In fact, our place in it is with others, doing life together.  This foundation for life is modeled by God himself, who has lived in community from eternity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  God as Trinity is the core reality of the universe, meaning that community is the primacy of humanity.   Our life in Christ only makes sense as a shared journey of togetherness toward the likeness of His image.

Liturgy or public worship is a second qualifier within the formative process.  The centrality of worship is integral to the task of spiritual formation.  And, at the heart of worship are the Sacraments, those tradition laden acts passed down for centuries by the church, interpreted in various ways by sundry congregants.  Sacramental worship, for all ages, roots us in the habits of the disciple, which when done over and again, constitute an almost second nature.   “Our habits incline us to act in certain ways without having to kick into a mode of reflection”.[5]  For many of us, our spiritual journey started at the baptismal font, recalibrating our lives as we died to sin and took on the new self through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  However, in terms of spiritual formation, baptism has a dual role.  Beyond a public declaration of faith performed once and forever there after considered accomplished, baptism also “provides an orientation to ourselves, our world and our God that must be appropriated day after day”.[6]  The baptismal rite confers upon us certain spiritual gifts that allow us to become more and more like Christ while confirming our place in the Christian community by helping to remind us that our true identify is found in the suffering savior.  Baptism then acts to sustain our spiritual formation, becoming “the daily garment which the disciple is to wear all the time…every day suppressing the old person and growing up in the new”.[7]  Finally, baptism directs our attention to our responsibility to one another in community as we confirm over and again our shared role in the shaping and equipping of the saints.

Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is a second sacramental act that sculpts us into the image of Christ.  If baptism begins our journey, Eucharist provides the nourishment for the road ahead.  The bread and wine confirm Christ’s new covenant within us while continually requiring the remembrance of his death and resurrection.  More importantly, at this alter we encounter the risen Lord.  The layers of profound depth and meaning birthed in this little solitary act are hard to describe.  In breaking the bread and drinking the wine, we actively express our belief in Christ’s historical redemptive act on the cross, while allowing us to taste his sorrow and bear witness to His risen reality. Jesus’ real presence here enables us to recognize Him in the face of the hungry, in the hands of the broken and the feet of the needy.  Our action of welcoming Him here, empower us to love Him more out there.

Common and private prayers are yet another formative action.  At home, at church and within our small groups, we join the human chorus of praise directed toward our God.  Our common prayers remind us over and again that this thing called spirituality isn’t just about me and God.  It is as much about me and my wife, my neighbor, my kids and my enemies as it is about my relation to the Almighty.  We must divest ourselves of the notion that just because our prayer lives are personal, they must also be private.  “Community prayer is meant to bind us to one another and to broaden our vision of the needs of the world and to give us models to steer by and friends to uphold us and encourage us and enable us to go on”.[8]  Prayer, when used as a communal practice, is integral for spiritual formation.  The Lord’s Prayer alone is a prayer of and for community.  ‘Our’ father; give ‘Us’ ‘Our’ daily bread; forgive ‘Us’ as ‘We’ forgive  ‘Others’.  Common prayer, especially in a small group setting, is a powerful tool for spiritual transformation.

One final aspect of ‘doing’, which shapes us spiritually, is service.  Our example is Christ the Lord, who came not to be served, but to serve.  All the books, all the sermons and all the prayers combined cannot change our stubborn hearts like one humble act of service.  It is here, serving the least of these when our hands and feet become His.  Our service in His coming kingdom is not only the public proclamation that a new order is dawning; it is the bodily reminder that to be fully human, we must give our lives for others’ sake.

Beyond these traditions, practices and pursuits, I’m quite certain there isn’t a formula for making disciples.  If there was, the church would have figured it out by now.  Due to our proclivity toward sin and self-reliance, it’s an arduous, life-long journey to put the old self to death and take on the fullness of Christ.  Thankfully, Jesus left a helper, the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts, hearts, actions and desires as we seek to become more and more like the Nazarene.