When the Church becomes a machine | creed of jesus
Ever since Jesus gave his church the command to make disciples all over the world, we have struggled to define the best way to achieve what Jesus requires of us. The first problem is to understand what Jesus meant by “discipleship”. In Jesus’ time, his disciples were easy to find. They usually stood around Him. Now it is a little more difficult to recognize a follower of Christ. We don’t have a specific outfit. We don’t have a secret handshake. So how do you know?
Defining a follower of Christ is notoriously difficult because of the terms we use to describe a follower of Christ. For starters, terms like “love,” “grace,” and “obedience” are fuzzy terms. It’s almost impossible to nail them down with clarity. Take for example the command “love your neighbour”. What does that mean? Does it mean feeling positive towards the family that lives next to you? Or do we expand “neighbor” to mean anyone we meet? Besides, does our love require anything other than a good feeling? Does it require action? If yes, how many shares? If my neighbor is sick and I bring him a saucepan (that’s what the Baptists do), is that enough? How many pots do I have to take before I can say I really love my neighbor?
This vagueness has frustrated the American church for years. Being typical Americans, we set out to remedy that. We watched all of our friends in the company being efficient and goal-oriented, so we wanted to be efficient and goal-oriented as well. To accomplish this, we have introduced business strategies into the church. Now I get it, good practice is good practice wherever it is practiced. After all, accounting is accounting. The problem came when we tried to mechanize discipleship. We wanted to start with a sinner on one end and spit out a fully mature disciple on the other end.
We created classes to attend, selected Bible verses to memorize and prayers to quote, and if we did all of these things, we would earn a gold star and be called disciples. From what we could determine, the programs were generally successful. Sure, we handed out lots of certificates and pins, but we rarely made disciples. Most of the time, we ended up painting a veneer of Jesus on a well-behaved church member.
Building followers is not an organizational process like making widgets. Making disciples is an organic process like harvesting. Jesus talked a lot about agriculture. There is a reason. Making disciples is a lot like farming. Good farmers do all they can, but even the best farmer will tell you that much depends on God – when the rains come and when the harvest is ready. Everything is a mystery.
Discipleship is a very inefficient process. First of all, no one starts in the same place and no one deals with the same issues. For example, several years ago when I was teaching in a worship service for young adults, I discovered that many of my young listeners were blocked in their discipleship journey by poor relationships with their fathers. When I said, “God loves you like a father,” that locked them up. I had a great dad. The thought never occurred to me that others weren’t doing it. We had to stop the show and talk about what the metaphor of God as Father meant.
Again, becoming a disciple is a slow and messy process.
Another challenge in using the American idea of effectiveness in the discipleship process is that we are never done becoming a fully formed disciple of Christ. We are constantly walking deeper and deeper into our souls, confronting our weaknesses and failures at their source. We are improving. We are getting stronger. We become more like Christ, but we’re never done. Have you ever known a deeply matured follower of Christ? Every time you talk to them, they’ll tell you how far they have to go. During this journey, no one “arrives”.
Probably the worst part of using this mechanized process is that we start trying to judge the raw materials of discipleship. As Materials Evaluators, we want to give people a grade for their potential to be a good follower. If someone comes from a good family and attends services regularly, we believe they will make good disciples and encourage them to take discipleship courses. If someone is a little rough around the edges, then, well, we ignore it until they get their act together. If we had been responsible, the church would have missed some of our most important followers – including the apostle Paul.
I thought about that when I heard about the Texas school shooting. A friendless young man, increasingly isolated and therefore vulnerable to the web’s darker influences, sets out with heartbreaking consequences. Every student minister knows this young man. They don’t fit in. They are sullen, angry and violent. They are not the ones we think we want to know about being a disciple.
Yet they are the ones most in need of discipleship. I say. When you talk to young people like that, you want to give up. We don’t see how we can do that. The fact is, we don’t make disciples. The Spirit does. It’s a long, slow process before Saul the murderer becomes Paul the Apostle, but that’s what making disciples does. It is not a business process. It’s an organic.
The church is not a machine. It is a living, breathing organism with a heart that remains broken for all the sheep that have yet to be found.