This is one of my favorite sections because it led to a long conversation using kung-fu as an extended metaphor. And that is just fun all around. Though I hope to never again use the word “Discipler”.
The minister as disciple is a crucial function. If you are not trying to follow Jesus, then you’re sort of a fraud. What I mean by following Jesus is two-part – doing what Jesus in the gospels instructs to the best of your ability (which he didn’t just make up, but was taken from the Hebrew Scriptures to a large degree – so study those too), and on the other hand trying to embody Jesus in your own life and behavior. The second kind of discipleship requires you to be able to abstract and derive and synthesize. The story needs to be in you, and the more that it is in you, the more that you will live it out.
This is difficult because as Americans we are also full of other, competing stories which will also be lived out in our lives. We can even get confused which is which. We get confused when we sing the national anthem in church, or when we wed ourselves too closely to a particular political party, or when we become just another social service organization. When we do this, we aren’t being disciples of Jesus.
I think there is an important difference obeying Jesus and seeking to be like Jesus, and I think that we should, as ministers, be engaged in both. A disciple does not become one to remain one forever. A disciple is there to accept the discipline placed upon them in order to be changed into something else. You choose a master, as a disciple, based on what or who you want to become through discipleship. This works with kung-fu. You climb to the top of the mountain to learn White Crane technique from a particular master because you have heard and seen that his kung-fu is strong. You do this so that your kung-fu will also, someday, be just as strong, if not stronger (especially for the inevitable showdown with your rival school’s master). Jesus’ kung-fu (which just means “hard work” in Chinese) is very strong – maybe the strongest kung-fu there is. But we are here, I think, to learn kung-fu, not just to wait for Jesus to bail us out with some impressive wire-work. The chopping wood and carrying water and practicing forms isn’t just for show, and it isn’t just busy-work.
(I hate the word discipler, and my use of it here is sort of tongue-in-cheek…but I do like the double implication of making disciples and also doing what disciples do.) The minister as discipler is where the “e”-word comes into the discussion – that e-word is “Evangelism”. Dun-dun-dun! I think that the “mainline” churches (which of course haven’t been “main” anything for a few decades now) are especially allergic to this idea – and with good reason. Looking back in history, most efforts to spread our religion have been horrific. I’m pretty sure that what Matthew had in mind when he (and whoever was helping him) wrote the end of that gospel wasn’t “convert or be exterminated”, but that’s mostly how we’ve interpreted it in history.
Even gentler forms of evangelism have been profoundly arrogant and Euro-centric, as if Christianity was equivalent to dressing and acting like a European. This has, generally speaking, been a sad and disgusting process of destroying indigenous cultures and language-groups in a frantic attempt to make everyone just like us. It has been primarily motivated, I think, by arrogance and fear. Arrogance that we have all of the answers, that our expression of Christianity is the only valid one – and fear that people might hear the gospel, think about it, understand it, and reject it because it wasn’t for them. Which makes us look pretty stupid.
The antidote, I think, is humility and courage – humility because we need a chemotherapy-strength dose of it in the western church. The center of the church has already moved to the developing world. We are now the periphery in everything but money and ego. They are going to be telling us what Christianity is, and we need to get ready because we’re not going to be in control anymore. We’re going to have to actually ask and listen. This is going to be a blow to our inflated sense of our importance in the grand narrative of salvation, but it’s a good kind of pain, one long prepared and earned several times over, which at its best can be a healthy corrective for what is a bankrupt hegemony.
In our specific ministries, I think we still need to ask and listen. We don’t arrive on the scene in a whirlwind with “discipleship” all worked out, which we then inject into parishioners. We figure out this stuff together. The advantage that we as ministers have is that we have a lot more time to put into the work than most other people do because they have jobs outside the church. The only special thing we have is more time, and if we’re not taking that time to be disciples, the time is wasted on us.
We also need to approach other people with humility. There are a lot of people out there who never go to church, have no interest in ever going to church, and seem content with their lives. We can’t assume that the world thirsts for what we possess – that’s really arrogant, and I hear it all the time when we talk about evangelism.
When we’re “making disciples”, I think that what we should be doing is demonstrating that there is an alternative way of living which is rich, life-giving, peace-making, transformative, passionate, and so on, which is placed in opposition to the way that we are living right now (which is consumptive, apathetical, supportive of the status-quo, rooted in violence, life-denying…). We need to demonstrate this first by being disciples, by living it out, and then by talking about it. But if we are not “discipled” first, we won’t disciple anyone else. If we don’t practice kung-fu until it is indeed strong, then everyone will rightly just go someplace else to learn kung-fu.