Discipleship in Progressive Christian Contexts

While many of us might bristle at the term, I still think the concept makes sense. I just don't know how to do it, yet.

I remember being in college studying for my bachelor’s degree in Pastoral Ministry and taking class after class designed to prepare me for the work of full time ministry.

Central to such preparation involved learning about the methodology and necessity of discipleship.

DISCIPLESHIP IN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY

Discipleship, to put it crudely, is the process of training to become a better Christian.

While that me be overly reductive, it’s also not entirely untrue. For in the world of Protestant Christianity (especially in America’s version, and especially especially within the evangelical world), it’s not only possible to be a better (or worse) Christian, it’s actually one of the main goals: Do Christian’ing better.

The typical road map is as follows.

First, you must become saved. This is often done by reciting a particular prayer and/or participating in specific rituals.

Then, once you’re saved (meaning, your soul has now reserved its spot in Heaven, glory hallelujah!), now the goal becomes discipleship.  First by being discipled (you’re the padawan) and then doing the disciplining (as the Jedi Master).

I suggest the following three components to discipleship.

  1. Doctrine Education
    Discipleship is about learning to read and understand the Bible so that you might also believe and defend Christian doctrine.

  2. Spiritual Practices
    Discipleship is about regular engagement with spiritual practices such as Bible study, prayer, worship, charitable work, tithing, volunteering, baptism, and communion.

  3. Right Living
    Discipleship is about holy living. In theory, the better you believe, and the more you practice spiritual practices, the less you sin. And the less you sin, the better.

THE CONCEPT OF DISCIPLESHIP IS NOT BAD

On the whole, it’s not a terrible setup.

I’m not attacking the overall concept of discipleship, here. Sure, there are aspects of it I take issue with (especially the gratuitous emphasis on needing to believe the “right” doctrinal teachings, and certainly reject the shame-based approaches to behavior modification). But when I step outside of some of things that really activate my frustration and cynicism with Christianity I find that by and large I’m not against the approach to life that goes something like:

  • My life, if left unexamined and uncared for, will at best drift in to a land of meh, and at worst decay into meaninglessness.

  • Therefore, I desire to find and make meaning in my life.

  • Christianity (on its best days) has a long track record of offering such meaning.

  • In response, I am interested in and willing to set my aim at a uniquely Jesus-shaped way of living.

  • Therefore, I must learn, and practice... and learn more, and practice further. Otherwise known as, some kind of “discipleship” work.

I don’t think I’m too off base in saying that anyone who has ever found deep peace and joy and contentment in life has (likely) done so as a result of some sort of the above formulation (well, not always in the “Christian/Jesus” vein obviously, but the same general outline for sure).

So maybe you could say that discipleship is simply the process of aiming of our lives in a particular direction or path, and then doing the work required to hit our aim more often than not.

DISCIPLESHIP IS CARING FOR THE SOUL

Dieting is about setting a goal of losing a certain amount of weight and then engaging in the necessary steps to get there.

Exercise is about setting goals like building muscle mass or improving cardio and then engaging in the necessary steps to get there.

Those with vocations in certain trades do the same kinds of sequencing: set the goal, learn how to achieve it, and practice. If you want to be an electrician you must undergo a kind of “discipleship” training of learning about the trade, learning from those more advanced than you, and then practicing the craft. Or if your goal is to become a lawyer you must learn and study and train and practice, etc.

When considered in this way, this is why I don’t outright oppose discipleship as it pertains to the religious life. It’s just like some of the above examples but instead of working on our physical bodies or our mental knowledge or our vocational desires we are working on our soul.

Maybe discipleship is nothing more than the intentional development and the nurturing of our soul.

DISCIPLESHIP IN PROGRESSIVE CONTEXTS

However, within much of evangelicalism, discipleship has been more about belief conformity and behavior modification—two things that folks (such as myself) were more than fine with leaving behind with we shifted away from more conservative religion.

Stop telling me what to believe, and stop policing my every move.

And yet, now that I’ve done a solid decade of ministry outside evangelical Christianity, I confess that the ditching of discipleship has left a bit of vacuum when it comes to those in faith communities who might still be interested in some of the above formulation (desire meaning, aim for meaning, practice how to achieve said meaning).

If we pause long enough to consider it, I think we’ll realize our souls still need tending to. No, of course we just can’t go back to the world of discipleship as we knew it. For so many reasons it just won’t work. The aim is off, the goals are wrong, and the practices are often counter-productive.

So then, what to do?

For years now I’ve been asking some form of the following question, “What—if anything—does discipleship look like in a progressive Christian community like Sojourn Grace?”

So far I have very little to show by way of answers. Mostly I’ve just come to see what I’ve named here in this article.

The idea of discipleship is an understandable turn-off for many of us who left more conservative/evangelical spaces. And yet, many of us have come to see that just throwing out discipleship altogether isn’t the solution (that is, if our goal is something akin to living a whole-hearted life characterized by things such as love, peace, mercy, and compassion. However, if our goal is just to tear down the systems that brought us and others harm, then sure, don’t ever give the idea of discipleship another second of your time).

Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking lately.

  • Is there another word/term that we can use (other than discipleship) to convey a similar meaning but hopefully wouldn’t trigger people?

  • Are we able to articulate what our aim is? (Declaring what our aim isn’t, or isn’t any longer, is only half the battle. Great, we’re not trying to memorize Bible verses or defend Baptist theology… but what are we trying to do?)

  • How might we do this neo-discipleship in a way that emphasizes that yes, in fact what we believe does matter (because our beliefs inform our behavior), but without also communicating that you must believe certain things in order to be okay with God?

  • What (if any) spiritual practices from our religious heritage are worth keeping?

  • Instead of a puritanical approach to behavior modification, how might a reimagined idea of “sin” inspire us to see that “living righteously” is still, actually, a very noble and worthwhile endeavor?

Anyway, that’s some of what I’ve been chewing on for a couple years now.

I’d sure love to hear any thoughts you might have!

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Today on The ALTER

Speaking of evangelicalism, have you heard about @TheNewEvangelicals?

It’s this thing started by Tim Whitaker that originally was just an Instagram account dedicated to an honest critique of American evangelicalism, and now is growing in to a larger movement dedicated to pushing the church forward, together.

And speaking of Tim Whitaker, he’s going to join me today on The ALTER to talk about what’s next for The New Evangelicals.

Come stop by at 2pm PST if you can! Otherwise, catch the reply on my YouTube Channel.