A Discipleship Foreign to the West

Ervin Budiselić, a Professor at the Biblical Institute Zagreb is sponsoring a five-year project investigating Christian discipleship. His project  integrates history with modern practice and draws on the work of pastors, missionaries, university and seminary scholars among others. Three of his wonderful papers (Article 1Article 2Article 3) construct a picture of Old and New Testament discipling that in form is familiar to Western Christians, but in substance, is profoundly foreign to our culture. 

Why foreign? Don’t Westerners do discipleship too? What makes the Hebrew traditions in Jesus’s time different from our discipleship today? 

These terms may be foreign to you (they were to me): Bet Sefer, Bet Midrash, Bet Talmud. Those aren’t horse-wagering tips. They’re three stages of an intense and graduated development for Hebrew disciples during the time of Christ. From early childhood foundations up to adult “graduate level” development, the Mishnah’s three proscribed stages developed well-informed and highly experienced followers of their Rabbinic mentors. In time, after much training and practical oversight, the disciple was deemed ready to take the next step: going out, inviting and developing others, who would come and become the image of the disciple’s mentor’s—a fascinating echo of Jesus’s words in Matthew 28.19-20.

Western discipleship often operates with three dysfunctional assumptions:

1) the resume is the disciple—such as the way I think (theology=disciple); the amazing experiences I’ve had (signs, wonders, tongues=disciple); justice (causes = disciple)

2) participation is discipleship—being a member or a missionary or a volunteer is discipleship

3) Professionals—like missionaries and pastors do the discipling. The rest of us come to watch them perform.

Those mythologies are based in partial truths. Christ certainly educated his disciples, had them participate with him, had them watch him work.

Yet these things were the “oughts” that emerged because of an “is”.  The “is” of the disciple is daily, intentional progressing story of surrender to Christ, setting self-made agendas aside in deference to Christ, pursuing Christ in ways that exploit our personal talents and callings. For the rest of our lives.

Western Christian discipleship can often be described as “microwave prep” in the race to get people trained and inducted as members of a Christian community. They’re taught the dogma, tasks and rituals needed to clear the membership hurdles, and in so doing, often get honorary disciple status in the deal.

The recipe varies a bit, but modern discipling usually involves affirming Jesus as Lord, saying a prayer, signing on with an organization and then perhaps being involved in a few ministry or mission activities. A day, or maybe weeks to get it done. Then we’re good.

To be fair, some people actually do mature in their faith and take it outdoors to others. But the growing majority of new believers lack the “learning plus living”, abandoned to the assumption “now that you’re a Christian” everything is gonna be fine.

This tradition of discipling is the barest gruel for a believer. Unlike the Bet Sefer, such join- up-and-move-along rarely provides deeper exposure to another’s mentorship. Nor does modern discipling offer the external life experiences gained in the Bet Talmud. Years are crammed into a day or a few weeks. This is the dilemma of an anemic discipling culture in Western Christianity—too little experience swapped out for too much information, delivered too fast to make discipleship come alive for people, so too few are even interested.

Where do we go from here? The short answer is we have to change the culture of modern discipleship.

Christian culture is the nearly-exclusive turf of leaders, like you. Only leaders can change a culture. So here’s the truly unfair ending today: this dilemma is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. Are you ready to take on the dilemma?

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