You can say one thing about the modern Christian vocabulary. It is colorful. We keep adding all those exotic Greek words—keratin, kimono, diagonia—as if gospel, fellowship, and service were somehow inadequate.
Action words are also big. “Thrust” is still having its day. No one ever has just an evangelistic effort; it’s always an evangelistic thrust. But then one day I heard one of those “thrusts” being referred to as an “evangelistic invasion,” and I wondered if we had started beating our pruning hooks into spears and our plowshares into swords.
I’m disturbed today by another fad word—”discipline,” or, in the infinitive form, “to disciple.” We all know about disciples, for they were people who followed Jesus, but suddenly the noun has become a verb and we are urged to go out and disciple people. Never mind that. In the Great Commission we are told to “make disciples,” which places the emphasis on the learning process. That’s what “disciple” means—learner. We have shifted the emphasis from the learner to the teacher, as in “become a discipline.”
Brand new converts are being told, “Find someone to disciple,” and they are urged to enroll in discipline seminars. It has become a fad word, an easy word, even an egotistical word.
And I don’t like it.
It’s a fad because we’re forgetting what the word means. It’s easy because it implies little more than some quick in-and-out preachments. It smacks of egotism for it seems to say, “Sit down and I will teach you all you need to know about Christian life.”
Sometime ago I was at a retreat for college-age young people. They were being exhorted by their leaders to “disciple someone.” Feeling that this was a responsibility not to be taken on oneself casually and lightly, I sounded a note of caution, reminding them of James’ words: “My brothers, not many of you should become teachers, for you may be certain that we who teach shall ourselves be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1, NEB).
While some more mature Christians may indeed be gifted and called to teach, even teachers need to continue to be learners. After all, to “disciple” someone else—if such a word makes semantic sense—is to be learners together.
How much better it would be, I said, if we approached someone with the confession, “Friend, I’m a pilgrim, too. Can we walk together and help each other?”
I can honestly say I have never met a man or woman or child from whom I couldn’t learn something. Some of my best learning has been done in some of the most out-of-the-way places among the most so-called primitive peoples. I’m not talking about learning how to weave baskets of bamboo or build a house of logs and bark and vines.
I’m talking about learning how to live without air conditioning, color television, running water, supermarkets, and all the rest which have become our essentials. Learning how to cope with poverty, hunger, disaster, and early death. Learning how to receive because you have nothing to give.
Those are the hard lessons.
As my respect grew for their family loyalty, their battered aspirations, their spiritual reaching, so opened the channel through which I could share my own spiritual reachings and findings. Because I love them, I could tell them about the Savior who loves them. These people were not my chore for the day nor even my good deed for the day. They were my fellow strugglers, my fellow learners.
I have seen more character in the faces of some men in breechcloths than I have seen in the faces of some church elders. In those same sun-browned, wind-burned faces I have seen the yearning, the waiting friendliness, even the ready humor: It has occurred to me that one of the troubles with a lot of our so-called “discipling” is that we don’t take time to look into faces. We think we are the only ones with anything worth sharing, and that we can do it by rote or by writ.
In the story of the rich young ruler, there is an interesting progression. We are told in Mark 10, “Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him….” The order is not insignificant. First, Jesus beheld him, then loved him, then spoke to him.
Often we get it backwards, figuring that saying is the place to start. Sometimes we follow our words with loving and occasionally with “beholding,” but I fear that much of what passes for witnessing operates sight unseen, touch untouched and feelings unfelt.
As if it all took place in a vacuum.
That is why I think one who has been a Christian six months or sixty years had better think twice and pray often before sitting someone down willy-nilly for discipling.
For a discipler is someone who not only teaches.
But who learns.