Here’s a question I used to ask people I taught in church: “What do you think of when you hear the word discipleship?”
Some people would play word-association and I’d get a string of adjectives in response: difficult, trusting, adventurous, obedient, and so on. I don’t recall many people thinking too long about the question.
Very quickly somebody would offer up the “right answer”—at least, the right answer for our context—“Discipleship means following Jesus.”
Christian discipleship does mean following Jesus. It means following Jesus wherever he goes. It means lashing ourselves to him like a sailor in a storm-tossed boat might lash himself to the mast. If the ship goes down, so do we.
If the mast gets struck by lightning, so do we. When church people say “Discipleship means following Jesus,” I think they tend to picture a group of sun-tanned dudes in cantata-quality robe costumes peacefully strolling through green pastures, perhaps stopping here and there under the comfortable shade of a tree to watch Jesus smile at them and tousle the hair of precocious children scampering about at his Birkenstocked feet.
Or maybe I’m just cynical. When I ask “What do you think of when you hear the word discipleship?” I’d love to hear people answer more along these lines:
“Believing God has a plan for me even when I’m afraid he doesn’t.”
“Believing God loves me even when I feel like nobody else does.”
“Trusting that God is doing something for my good even though my life has always been terrible up till now.”
“Following Jesus even though my feelings speak more loudly.”
“Denying myself to do what’s right although I don’t really want to.”
“Imagining a time when I won’t hurt as much as I do now.”
“Imagining a time when my spouse or child won’t hurt as much as they do now.”
You get the idea, I hope. None of those responses really suffices as a definition of discipleship like you’d find in a theological dictionary, but they all put more skin on the word, I think.
Sometimes I read books and articles on discipleship and I wonder who in the world they’re written for. And then I remember: Oh, yeah—for people who give the Sunday school answers in Sunday school but save the real life-or-death, grasping-for-meaning, gasping-for-breath grappling with God for those rare moments when they’re all alone, undistracted, and unable to fend off the crushing sense of their own inadequacies and apprehensions about the world and their place in it. A lot of the ways the evangelical church does discipleship seem designed for people who don’t seem to really need it. It’s like the uber-toned Crossfit junkie who adds a spin class to his weekly schedule, because, well, why not?
I wonder sometimes how all of our steps, tips, and quasi-spiritual lifehacks come across to the Christian woman married to an unbelieving husband completely apathetic to the things of God, to the young Christian whose parents aren’t saved and hate that he is, to the husband whose wife seems more interested in Pinterest than in him, to the working-class guys and gals who see through the slick pick-me-ups of the privileged, and to the frequently discouraged, the constantly disappointed, and the perennially depressed.
For those of us who have struggled our whole lives to get our acts together, what does a discipleship built around getting your act together eventually do?
Well, I don’t know about you, but it about made me give up.
My publisher, Baker Books, wanted me to write a book on discipleship. I said, Okay. But I had one condition: it has to be printed with my blood.
Naturally, they had some health concerns about that—for me and for you. So I clarified: I don’t want to write the kind of discipleship book most people are too afraid to say they’re sick of. I don’t want to write a discipleship book for people who put notches on their Belts of Truth every time they read a discipleship book. I don’t want to write about being extreme or radical or taking it to the limit or maxing out your potential or reaching the stars or drinking cloud-juice or whatever.
I want to write a discipleship book for normal people, for people like me who know that discipleship means following Jesus, and we know that following Jesus is totally worth it, because Jesus is the end-all, be-all, but we often find that following Jesus takes us to some pretty difficult places. I want to write a book for the Christians whose discipleship has gotten them a little bloody.
So I said, “How about a book on discipleship for people who don’t feel saved each morning until they’ve had at least two cups of coffee? How about a book on following Jesus for the guy or gal sitting there in small group always wondering if it’s safe to say what they’re thinking? For the sake of the cut-ups and the screw-ups, the tired and the torn-up, the weary and the wounded—how about we demystify discipleship?”
And they said, astonishingly, “Okay.”
This book on following Jesus is for all of you people who, like me, are tired of the mass-marketed, self-helpy “be a better Christian” projects. It’s not printed with my blood. But I did bleed on the pages a little bit.