The Adventure of Discipleship

A few days ago I received my latest copy of Youthwork magazine. It’s always a good read with plenty of interesting and insightful articles which give me plenty of food for thought.

Today I felt I wanted to write about an article called “The Adventure of Discipleship” by Kenny Wilson who is the Senior Tutor in Youth Work with Applied Theology at the International Christian College, Glasgow (Youthwork Magazine, February 2011). I’ve read it through a couple of times now and I find what he says interesting but ultimately I’m not sure I agree with what he says. Initially I did but after processing it a bit more I’ve kind of changed my mind.

If possible, I suggest you read the article yourself although I’ll do my best to convey what I think he’s saying. He suggests for the earliest Christians, discipleship was a daily adventure of discovering how they might share the love of God with others. He goes on to suggest that we have lost the idea of discipleship as an adventure and he poses the question “where has the adventure gone”

He thinks there are a number of reasons. The one I want to concentrate on is that he feels that as evangelicals we have emphasised the Great Commission over the Great Commandments. When Jesus is questioned as to which is the most important commandment he says the most important is to:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31.

Wilson says these sum up the law and are the foundation for the Kingdom that Jesus was ushering in and I think he’s quite right. He’s also probably quite right that as evangelicals we are perhaps guilty of emphasising the Commission over the Commands. But surely real love for others, for the lost, is to tell them about Jesus and their need for a salvation and forgiveness? The Great Commission is part of the fulfilment of the Great Commandments.

I believe that many evangelicals have gone too far in overemphasising the Great Commission, even to the point of almost completely rejecting social action or good deeds which are divorced from gospel proclamation. For example, I know of some people who are extremely critical of Soul Survivor’s “Soul in the City” initiative in 2004. They argue that it had no real long term effect in terms of bringing people to Christ as it was just social action without proclamation. I don’t know how much truth there is in this in terms of the effect it had. I would imagine that it opened doors that were previously closed, and so even though it’s initial phase wasn’t about speaking the word it was still a positive step for the gospel, and had long term gospel proclamation in mind. However, some evangelicals would reject this type of action completely as it doesn’t explicitly set out to speak the word. But if it leads to opportunities later then I think it can be a good thing. The question is really whether we are looking for those opportunities and whether we take them.

This is where I struggle with the articles  view. Wilson uses an example of some young Christians who wanted to live out their faith  amongst their friends. The group of friends in question all had bikes which they used a lot. In order to live out their faith they went through a period of “liberating” their friends bikes, doing them up, before returning them to their owners with only a card saying “From the Nice” left in the spokes. Throughout the whole time the young people remained anonymous but word of “The Nice” spread like wildfire around the school.

Now I really think what they did is brilliant and so does Wilson. It was an act of loving their neighbours. But what Wilson really likes about the act is that it was done by stealth.

“What attracted me most to their actions was the fact that they wanted to remain stealth disciples….Despite (and I suspect because of) the fact they kept their actions secret, the power of their actions spread far and wide.”

The problem for me is this. How does this bring people into relationship with Jesus? How do these actions tell people of their need to repent and come to Jesus? Quite simply, by themselves, they don’t. They’re just good deeds done by anonymous people. It doesn’t point to Christ because no-one knows it’s Christians that are doing it. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, you’re just over-emphasising the Great Commission. These guys were loving their neighbour like they should be.” Yes they were loving their neighbours to an extent but surely the most loving thing we can do for our neighbour is to tell them about Jesus. To do these things as stealth and deliberately decide to remain anonymous doesn’t point anyone to Jesus. What they did was brilliant, but wouldn’t it have been even better to use that as an opportunity to tell people why they wanted to do that for them, to tell them about Jesus and their need for a saviour? Isn’t it more unloving not to tell people about Jesus? It seems they had no intention of doing that in the long run either or at least it is never mentioned.

I don’t really agree with this mindset and it reminded me of the words of Penn teller, the famous atheist magician. He that he has no respect for Christians who don’t evangelise. He says if you believe that there is a heaven and a hell and that people might be going to hell, you’d have to hate someone a lot not to try and warn them about it. You can see the video of him talking about this here.

But Wilson clearly thinks the example of stealth set by those young people was a good one. He goes on to say:

Was it not Jesus who told us not to proclaim our good deeds, our ‘righteousness’ from the hilltops as the Pharisees did? Was it not Jesus who asked some of those he healed to ‘say nothing’ and not broadcast what he did? Perhaps we should take his advice more seriously and involve more stealth discipleship in our work, and so create that frission of adventure, that ‘who dunnit mystery’?”

I can’t really agree with this at all. Firstly, by not mentioning any other alternatives, Wilson seems to suggest that the only other alternative to stealth discipleship is to proclaim your deeds from the hilltops. This isn’t true. It is possible to do loving deeds for our neighbours with the motive of blessing them as well as creating an opportunity to tell them about Jesus. It’s not a choice between stealth and self-righteousness. Secondly, I think it’s an illegitimate use of scripture to apply Jesus’ commands to people/demons to stay silent about his identity, to us today. That was part of the specific plan of the incarnation, not a command for all believers for all time. The Great Commission is itself a command to make disciples by spreading the good news of Jesus, not by doing loving but ultimately anonymous deeds. I think Paul sums up the need for telling people the gospel in Romans 10:13-15:

for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Let me quote Wilson again:

” When it comes to working with young people I think that we’ve got things the wrong way round. In our evangelical desire that others should know how wonderful it is to know Jesus, we have emphasised the Great Commission over the Great Commandments. In a strange sort of way, what we have done is to ask young people to go and share their faith often before they’ve had the chance to live out their faith. We’ve encouraged them to go and make disciples before they’ve discovered what it means to be a disciple.”

There’s a few problems here for me as well. Firstly, lets remember that the Great Commission is itself a command. Secondly, is not making disciples part of being a disciple? I think Wilson creates a false dichotomy between living out your faith and sharing your faith. As far as I can tell, they are inextricably linked. At what point do we know enough about what it means to be a disciple to allow us to think about sharing our faith? I feel that if you know why Jesus died for you, then you know enough to begin sharing your faith. He goes on to say:

“I can’t help but wonder that if our emphasis on discipleship followed biblical chronology: to love God first, our neighbours second and then the Great Commission of ‘making other disciples,’ we would see more discipleship among young people.”

Obviously God must come first, but I just don’t agree that there is a distinction between loving our neighbours and the Great Commission. Nor do I really agree about there being a right order (apart from loving God first). It’s not so much that we’ve put the cart before the horse but more that the two must always be together. If one appears without the other we are lacking as disciples.

What I’m saying is, we need both love for our neighbour and sharing our faith. This is what Wilson concludes in his article but I think we use the same words meaning two different things. I get the impression that he thinks we need both but that they can be separate, just like in the example of the teenagers who fixed their friends bikes. I think we need both because the two must always be linked. If you love your neighbour with no intention of ever telling them the gospel, then it’s not really love. If you fix someones bike with no intention of ever telling them the gospel, then it’s not really love.

That’s why I can’t agree with stealth discipleship. I think the problem is this. There are a number of Christians who are very focused on preaching the good news. The over-emphasis on this often leads them to dismiss ever doing any other kinds of loving acts for their neighbours. A kind of ‘if it isn’t preaching then it’s not worth doing approach.’ These would be the kind of people that dismiss Soul in the City but I think this really misses a trick to show distinctive living to non-believers and to build respect for the Church. At the other end of the spectrum are Christians who think they can just do good deeds and so never need to tell anyone the gospel. This is equally flawed. The two are inextricably linked. It’s not a matter of one way or the other and I think to suggest to our young people that it is one way or the other seriously impoverishes our discipleship.

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