The default discipleship model can fail the disciple

This is the first of a two part post on discipleship models. The first is common, organizational, and easy to fall into. The second model is uncommon, relational, and takes a good amount of thought and effort to be strong in. The first model fails most disciples, and the second will help them to succeed.

The first model I call the default discipleship plan since many evangelical communities slide into this style of discipleship. There are three elements in the default discipleship process: qualifying faith, reciprocal community, and functional knowledge.

The default process starts with faith. That sounds good, doesn’t it? However, this faith is qualifying. Without faith, one cannot enter into the rest of this discipleship process. Many call this saving faith or faith in Christ. The first goal of this model is to get people to agree with a faith statement. Once they agree they enter the church community.

This community works off of mutual benefit. It’s reciprocal in that each member is expected to benefit from the work and resources of the other and each is expected to contribute to the work and resources of the whole. What a disciple does for the community benefits the whole community, therefore, they are accepted into the group as contributors. Typically, in this system discipleship becomes getting people to volunteer within their church. The most “mature” disciple are directed the most visible and authoritative ministries. We often call them preachers, pastors, directors, elders, or other terms that set them apart from the community.

Finally, the default model of discipleship, as one would expect of a discipleship system, is to build knowledge. Knowledge in this system is predominately functional. It functions as a help for the disciple to fit into the community. It connects the disciple to the vision of the church. Functional knowledge teaches the disciple to volunteer, how to volunteer, and how to contribute to the church community.

This default model of discipleship is common, but it isn’t necessarily good. It works as a delineator of the community, and helps people to feel more comfortable within their community. The problem is that neither delineation nor creating comfort are the goal of discipleship.

The goal of discipleship is to guide people toward becoming more like Christ.

Each of the three elements fails the disciple on the path to becoming more like Jesus Christ.

Qualifying faith fails the disciple. Yes, faith is the way to salvation and a part of becoming a member of the church. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8). This passage demonstrates that faith is a part of salvation, but not a qualifier. Grace is the qualifier. Faith flows to the disciple as a gift. Qualifying faith fails because it has become an entrance test into the community. Church membership should be a gift—a gift from a body of people with open arms.

Next, the idea of a reciprocal community fails the disciple. It fails because in the default discipleship model the disciple becomes a commodity, and the church is a marketplace for disciples to exchange goods and services. A Christian community should not be about the equitable exchange. It cannot run on a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” kind of contract. I’m sure few churches will think they are doing this, but when money talks resort to statements about the church needing money in order to offer great programs, or volunteer drives exhort people to sign up so we can have better ministries, they have acknowledged a bent towards commodification of their disciples. This is a problem because if discipleship is about becoming more like Christ, we must welcome those into our community who have no intrinsic returnable value to the community beyond just being.

Finally, the idea of functional knowledge fails the disciple. Of course, knowledge of spiritual things will be useful in some way, but the goal of knowing Christ is not functional or programatic. This particularly cannot be true as a manner of making disciples more acceptable or more desirable to the community. The knowledge that we teach in our churches needs to be more hopeful for the recipients.

This default model of discipleship is easy to slide into. I admit that I often shift towards discussing the work of the church in these terms. This model fits our organizational churches, but it is not beneficial for the development of disciples.

Next week I’ll write about a better form of discipleship. A model that is comprehensive and leads toward the love, faith, and hope that is in Jesus Christ.

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