Saturday, May 21, 2011

Taking Discipleship Personally

Recently I wrote this short article for Candour Magazine and I thought others might be interested in it.

Discipleship as personal interaction rather than programme

In my early days as a Christian I was taken through the Navigator discipleship stuff (the Design for Discipleship Series): Bible study, memory verse, giving my testimony, the whole nine yards. Actually, it was good foundational material that contributed to my Christian growth. But what was most influential was my time with the man who led me through this course. I learned much more from the personal interaction with him than from the discipleship course itself and our relationship lasts to this day. He was an elder in a Presbyterian church and led the youth group and a home group. During our runs together I learned about a pastoral heart when, to my initial annoyance, he would allow our run to be interrupted by stopping to talk to someone we met. I learned about prayer from praying with him. Our prayers became more desperate when his first child had complications during birth. We weren’t sure if she was going to survive. It was a first hand example of trusting God in the midst of a trial, and then praising God together when his daughter survived and thrived.

Character discoveries occurred and rubbed off on me. One Sunday evening I was helping him show a gospel movie at church. We had invited lots of people who didn’t normally come to church. A good crowd had gathered, popcorn was popping and we were all praying, excited at the opportunity for changed lives! The movie was on an old reel-to-reel movie projector (before the days of data projectors) and just as we began, the film began jumping at the projector gate – chunkety, chunkety, chunk. Unless we could fix it, our carefully planned outreach evening was going to be a disaster. In the stress of the moment, I heard my mentor muttering under his breath and thought, “This will be interesting.” I leaned closer to find out what he was saying and heard the words, “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

My mentor sometimes addressed me “Martin, Martin my son” (from words attributed to one of Martin Luther’s mentors who said, “Martin, Martin my son. I see nothing but a cross before you.”) Once, when I had moved to another city, he phoned me and my flatmate answered. Mistaking my flatmate for me he said, “Martin, Martin my son...” My flatmate called out, “Martin, it’s your Dad!” We laughed, and yet in a 2 Tim 1:2 kind of way it was my Dad.

I have benefitted from many programmes over the years, and I have so appreciated the mentoring that people are able to do from a distant century through their writing, but my most significant discipleship moments have been with people like this man. It takes time, but it is lasting. Their personal interaction has shown me what life is like as an apprentice of Jesus.

We need to take discipleship personally, and not rely on programmes, because it works and of course because Jesus modelled it. But there is another reason. I believe life on life interactions are crucial in discipleship because of the nature of truth we are seeking to pass on to others. A Christian disciple is not someone who simply understands and gives assent to certain doctrinal statements. A disciple is one apprenticed to the master, who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Lesslie Newbigin wrote: "The manner in which Jesus makes the Father known is not in infallible, unrevisable irreformable statements. He did not write a book which would have served forever as the unquestionable and irreformable statement of the truth about God. He formed a community of friends and shared his life with them."  [Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 89.]

Thankfully we can read in the scriptures what Jesus did and taught, and the effect Jesus had on those around him. But when we are discipled we experience another dimension to learning that is beyond reading a book. Michael Polanyi observed that the skills of a master are lost if they are not passed on first hand to apprentices in the next generation. The line of apprentices who made violins like Stradivarius has been broken.

"It is pathetic to watch the endless efforts – equipped with microscopy and chemistry, with mathematics and electronics – to reproduce a single violin of the kind the half-literate Stradivarius turned out as a matter of routine more than 200 years ago."

"To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things, even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art... " [Michael Polanyi,  Personal Knowledge  (London: Routledge, 1958), 53.]

That sounds a lot like discipleship to me.

In my current role I contribute to discipleship in a variety of programmatic and structural ways. I preach, pray, lead worship, foster small group life, and ensure a range of programmes are running, including intentional discipleship using material such as the Omega studies. However, my most lasting impact is probably still time intensive, life on life discipleship. I think of the delight in seeing young ministry interns mature in Christ and go on in Christian ministry. I think of the challenges and joys of seeing people (including my own children) take steps in following Jesus. This doesn’t impact big numbers of people quickly, but I remain committed to having at least one person I’m relating to in this way. I’m taking that personally.