To ‘make disciples,’ first become one

“Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’

“But the people said nothing.” (1 Kings 18:21)

“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)

I spend about a half hour or so each day scanning Christian blogs, ministry websites, news, and of course the Comments section attached to each. (I don’t use Twitter and no longer have a Facebook account.) Frankly, much of it is not very inspiring: ill-informed, insipid, hidebound, cliché-ridden, recycled from someone’s book they read five years ago.

What influence do these persons hope to have on a watching world? If the salt has lost its savor, it really has nothing to offer.

Of course, the cross-section I read every day is not necessarily representative of the whole church, any more than Twitter is of the world, or Letters to the Editor in the hard copy news age. But pastors get awfully discouraged about discipleship, and that’s not just a topic trending online.

The first observation I have, based on 44 years of experience, is that churchgoers aren’t ready to make disciples. They need more teaching, training, experience and refining first.

This statement is bound to trigger rolling eyes in the Oh brother, here we go mode, meaning a church that descends into ingrown, navel-gazing, Bible-highlighting lethargy.

I don’t know the source of this piece of conventional wisdom, but I know what the source isn’t: the teaching and example of Jesus.

This is the original call: “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mk 3:14-15).

I used to wonder if “that they might be with him” was a superfluous detail followed by the meat-and-potatoes of ministry. (Sorry, if you’re vegan, I don’t have a vegan metaphor. If you have one, pass it along.) But Mark’s gospel is not known for superfluous anything.

There was a stage in the apostles’ lives when this was what was going on. They were with him. They observed his exchanges with ordinary people and religious leaders, they heard his responses to questions, they heard firsthand his new teachings (“a new teaching—and with authority!” Mk 1:27), they had glimpses of the power of the kingdom that Jesus said was “at hand.”

I don’t know how to say it in Aramaic, but this was the “watch and learn” phase of discipleship. The Lord chose not to minister through them but to them.

I don’t think I need to belabor this. In time, in stages, Jesus sent them out to minister. But this with him stage was packed with more discipleship material than is typically recognized. Look at these same ordinary men later on in Acts: Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-15), the apostles performing many miraculous signs and wonders (Acts 5:12).

Interesting detail: “When they [the Sanhedrin] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

As they were Galilean (one strike: “Can anything good come from there?”) fishermen (strike two), with no rabbinical training (you’re out), they had nothing to recommend them but this one, apparently well-known, fact. That and what they had in common with the apostle not yet on board: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (1 Cor 2:4).

The point here is not to induce guilt or shame because this kind of power is noticeably absent in most churches. In some respects, of course, these accounts are of historically unique events. Peter, John, Paul and the other apostles occupy unique places in the history of the faith.

But here is the point: Every apostle—whether unschooled and ordinary or trained by Gamaliel—was made into a “fisher or men.” They didn’t start out that way or instantly change.

Peter thought Jesus was out of line to talk about his suffering because that didn’t comport with Peter’s concept of the kingdom. The disciples rebuked those who brought children to Jesus. James and John wanted to call down fire on an unreceptive Samaritan village and came to Jesus asking for a promotion.

Making includes teaching, correcting, even the occasional rebuke. But also commendation: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Mt 16:17).

And joy: “At that time [when the seventy-two returned with great reports] Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned [cf. “unschooled, ordinary men”], and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do’” (Lk 10:21).

I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope, and “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rom 5:5).

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