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Paolo Lopes ~ Taking Discipleship Personally

About a year into my first experience as paid staff at a local church, I felt pretty good about myself. Our youth group had doubled in size and was as busy as ever. Our new mid-week contemporary service was beginning to come together, and young adults were getting involved in programs. I had even convinced a group of parents to go through a small group curriculum with me, the young and energetic leader they had always been waiting for! (That last part isn’t true, but I want you to get the idea that things were moving along just fine.)

Or were they?

For some reason, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so I decided to pray about it. A few months later I was with a friend in Chicago participating at a leadership event. It could have been simply leftover thoughts from a conversation I had the night before, or maybe it was the Holy Spirit. I believe it was the latter. Either way, I heard something in my head: a question.

And it continues to challenge me today, almost seven years later. The voice asked, “Where are your disciples?”   

I thought of all the great programs, events, and all the people involved, but I couldn’t come up with a single person I would consider to be a disciple, someone I was deeply invested in.

After quite a bit of processing, I noticed a simple problem I had that kept me from personally engaging in discipleship. What’s worse, I found that the problem is pretty widespread.  

What I noticed is that we tend to emphasize individual Christian practice when it comes to things like prayer, reading Scripture, giving, serving in the church, forgiving, or loving God and neighbor (we say “I pray” or “I serve”). We actually consider all of these as signs of Christian maturity. However, when it comes to making disciples we instead have a tendency of emphasizing our corporate call to reach others with the gospel of Jesus (we say things like “we make disciples” or “the church makes disciples”). Unfortunately, many times we just decide to hire someone to do it (any discipleship directors out there?)!

The problem with this tendency is that by overemphasizing the corporate mandate to make disciples, we dodge our individual responsibility (and privilege) to engage in reaching our families, neighbors, and workplaces with the hope we have found in a transformative relationship with Jesus.  

That’s exactly what I was doing. I went through all the church motions and processes with the assumption that disciples would be made simply by going through my well-oiled programs machine. But I personally was not engaged in deep relationships whereby my friends would grow in relationship and obedience to Christ.

You see, we must realize that organizations, and in this case the body of Christ, can only reflect the sum of the people who are part of them. This is especially true when it comes to core values or purpose.

A couple of college interns at our office this summer decided to visit a church near where they are living. That church, they were told, is (supposedly) known for being warm and welcoming. So you can imagine their disappointment when only two people approached them to say hello during their visit.

Does this mean that people who are part of that faith community are simply not welcoming or friendly? I doubt it! But somewhere along the line, being welcoming became the job of a few people (committee?) in that congregation, as opposed to simply being part of their culture. The point here is that the organization wasn’t corporately welcoming because the individual members were not personally engaged in that behavior.

If the core purpose of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, then every person who is part of the Church must be personally involved in making disciples! If not, we cannot claim that the church is making disciples.

I was struck sometime ago while reading Matthew’s gospel. I noticed something for the first time. I call it Matthew’s “missional brackets.”

(By the way, I’m positive someone else smarter and more knowledgeable than I has already dissected this. I’m also aware that brackets [inclusio] are used repeatedly in Matthew as a means for organizing passages and making important points. I just hadn’t noticed this one myself.)

These “missional brackets” open with Jesus calling his first disciples saying “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matt 4:19) Here we find a clear invitation (“follow me”) followed by a promise (“and I will make you fish for people”). The bracket closes with Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples saying, “…all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)

This time we don’t find an invitation. Because Jesus is now recognized as lord, he gives his disciples a charge (“make disciples”), and once again a promise (“and I will be with you always”). Simply put, I’m convinced that everything we find in between these two brackets can only fully make sense within the context of learning to follow Jesus, and helping others do the same.

I don’t mean to diminish Jesus’ mystery, nor do I mean to deemphasize his work on the cross and his resurrection. My point here is simply to say that as part of God’s ultimate plan of reconciliation and renewal of all things, the Church (you and I) is invited to follow, to be transformed through, and commissioned by Jesus to make disciples.

This invitation is just as personal as it is corporate, because at the end of the day, programs can inform people, but they can’t form or transform people. Everything we do must be placed in the context of discipleship. If developing a life of prayer, or growing in compassion for others, or even becoming diligent learners of God’s word doesn’t feed into our desire to be and to make disciples, then we are missing the point completely.

My challenge for you is this: avoid the temptation of thinking about the people you lead right now, and how you can help them understand their part in this.  

Instead, consider how you might set an example. Are you making time for neighbors? Do you have a small group of people you are investing your life in right now? What’s your next step? 

As for me, I’ll tell you more about a few steps I’ve taken in my next post.