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Does disciple-making have a future? | Provoketive Magazine
18 Sep 2012

The Author

Church leader in London (U.K.), doctoral student, blogger, theology tutor and occasional lecturer, I feel like I'm part-time everything and full-time nothing! But fortunately I have an amazing and supportive husband who helps me keep God first and everything else (mostly!) in balance. As well as God and my husband, I love leading and learning. (And strong coffee, good wine and almost any variety of chocolate!) To follow more of my reflections on life and leadership, check out my blog, The Art of Steering.


Does disciple-making have a future?
Some rights reserved by Lieven Soete  http://www.flickr.com/photos/lievensoete/3063508196/

“Spiritual disciplines are activities in our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.” – Dallas Willard in The Great Omission.

There is something so true about this statement.  Spiritual disciplines are the way we train to become what we cannot become in any other way: Christlike.

Yet they have a bad name.  Because no one likes discipline and no one actually likes hard work.  If you plan to run the London Marathon, you don’t go on training runs in the wet grey of the London streets with the traffic thundering because you actually like said experience.  But you go because you have seen the glory of the prize.  You go because at night you dream of crossing the finishing line and in the day you live and breathe the vision of what could be.  You do the training because you long for the goal and you know that training is the one thing in your power to do which will enable you to do that thing you cannot do by direct effort – getting out of bed one day and running 26.2 miles.

And spiritual disciplines are the same.  Those who have walked long and faithfully with Christ have stayed the course not because they strained for what was impossible but because they understood that faithfulness is made up of daily decisions to pray, to read the Bible, to give, to worship, to celebrate and gather in community, to fast or to serve another without gain.

Yet there is a generation coming for whom discipline is perhaps even worse a word than it is for us.  There is a generation coming – or perhaps half-generation in reality – of those in their twenties, many of whom do not see any reason to do that which is personally costly in their discipleship.  They are Christians, yet many do not read their Bibles, they pray only snatched words as they run for the bus in the morning, they spend their money freely on going out but balk at the idea of saving to go on a missions trip or a training day to equip them as disciples in their workplaces.

I want to be as fair as I know how here and so I must say that I know many in their twenties who are not like this but I have also never seen a generation for whom there seems to be such a rise in the tide of the rejection of spiritual disciplines.  I sometimes wonder if we are on the front edge of it here in London, a place where the internet and mobile culture of hyper-connectivity has taken hold so strongly, a place of many broken and complex family situations, where parents exhausted by the pace of city life have no strength at the end of a working day to discipline their children and so allow the children to bring themselves up within their own tribe of ‘young people’.

Perhaps it is not as pronounced elsewhere in the country but here we are beginning to see the effects of this culture on those who have hit their twenties.  It is there in those of us in our thirties too, but to a lesser extent, I think, presumably because fewer of our teenage years were formed by this culture of hyper-connectivity and immediacy.  After all, I was 15 before we got the internet at home and I didn’t send an e-mail until I was 18; I also didn’t have a mobile until I was 22.  Those facts alone are more than most of the twenties I lead can believe; it also makes me ancient to the teenagers who send between 3000 and 5000 texts each month.  (Work that out as texts per waking hour – you might start to feel ill!)

There is a spirit of independence in this new generation: these men and women have grown up knowing how to take care of themselves and their experience tells them that no one else knows like they do what is best for them.  They don’t tend to save much because there is a despair about that: they know they won’t get on the housing ladder unless they get help from parents or land themselves a professional job and they don’t even care what saving for a rainy day might mean because all that matters is surviving in the now and having as much fun as possible.

And fun means hanging out with the tribe, clubbing, drinking and then posting the pictures on Facebook.  Because that is how community is created, community which depends on the shared memories of a Facebook timeline and which is fuelled by instant messaging via BBM or whatsapp.  They don’t talk by phone any more really, it seems; that is too intrusive, so it is all about exchanging messages which can be interacted with as and when it is convenient to the recipient.

When it’s time to relax, the answer is screen time.  Even for those who admit to once having been readers.  They freely tell you that it’s easier to check Facebook, to watch TV on demand, download a film or surf the web randomly.  And I know this is true because I have noticed changes in my behaviour over the last three to five years, during which time the internet has increasingly become an option for diversion.  I have seen my concentration span drop off slightly; I have seen my efforts to multitask increase, although productivity is almost certainly inversely proportional!  So, I understand the temptation, its insidiousness as this hyper-connectivity worms its way into our lives, destroying our ability to concentrate, to engage with anything which requires something of us personally other than to be an observer.

And then, in the face of all of this, as a disciple-maker I am bringing a message about spiritual disciplines.  A message to a generation which has already largely decided that they alone must be the arbiter of what is right, that anyone who suggests that there must be a better way is automatically pressuring them.

It’s not only that even the very gentlest of calls to discipleship by another are still perceived as a massive and unacceptable threat to their own authority over their lives; it’s also that this is a message about a faith which cannot simply be added to one’s life as another interesting diversion but which demands to be worked into every part of our life, a faith which requires participation not observation.  A faith which requires submission to spiritual disciplines as our guides in the process of becoming.

And, despite all the joys over those who ‘get it’, I despair some days.

I wish I didn’t.  But I do because I feel utterly unprepared for ministry which looks like this.  My training, such as it is, is largely outdated already, save in so far as it has taught me how to think theologically and to innovate in a context of rapid and discontinuous change.  I don’t know how to reach a generation which claims Christ as its own yet which has little concept of discipline, of preparing for a future day.

And, in a way, why should they?  That’s not embedded in the culture anymore, that we would make preparation for our future, because our future looks bleak.  If we haven’t run out of natural resources by then, if we haven’t seen the kick-off of World War III, if we haven’t lost the war on global terror and if we haven’t seen the melting of the polar ice caps or a worsening of the hole in the ozone layer, we’ll certainly all be working until we’re 90 and then paying extortionate nursing home fees until we die.

We don’t have the culture on side anymore for emphasizing the value of preparing for a happy future.  This generation doesn’t even think about the future because it’s not attractive and so it is to them as if the future will never come.  And if the future will not come, then a future experience of heaven and the goal of a journey towards Christlikeness might as well also be a pipe dream.

In the face of all of that, why would you invest yourself in spiritual disciplines now?  When reading the Bible is hard and sitting still to pray for even ten minutes nigh-on impossible without checking Facebook at least once, why would you pay that price now if you have no concept of the future it’s preparing you for?  And who would run London’s rain-slick pavements as the cold bites and the traffic fumes choke if there was never an expectation that there would one day be a marathon to run and a medal to claim?

And that is where I end up with this.  I long to make disciples, to teach them of the power of spiritual disciplines to form character and habits, to introduce them to how a progressive laying aside of lordship over one’s own life is a journey of the most incredible becoming that ever was.  And, God knows, in this church we will keep trying.  But I am more and more convinced that what is needed more than anything else is a move of God where thousands upon thousands of this new generation have an encounter with Christ which is more real than Facebook, more tangible than instant messaging.  An encounter which will have them dreaming at night of crossing the finishing line, knowing whom they have believed.  An encounter which, in the daytime, will see them living and breathing the vision of what could be.  An encounter which will empower them to do the training because they now long for the goal like never before and know that training is the one thing in their power to do which will enable them to do that thing you cannot do by direct effort – getting out of bed each day and running the race.

I long to see the work of God in this generation of twenties and thirties and in those who are still teenagers.  I long to see the things of which I first began to dream twelve years ago when I started to hear God speaking to me by his Spirit about the church in the UK.  And I am becoming increasingly convinced that – though the church’s leaders may play their part, struggling as we toil – the work can only be achieved with his energy which he so powerfully works in us as we struggle to present everyone mature in Christ.  Today, perhaps like never before, I am utterly convinced that, in this disorienting new world of never-ceasing and rapidly speeded-up change, the future of the church in this nation depends on a move of God by his Spirit to give us a new encounter with Christ.

And it breaks my heart to think what kind of church we will see in fifty years’ time if I don’t see that in my lifetime.

Picture credit: some rights reserved by Lieven Soete

  1. No relation, I think.

    I am 65. When I grew up, being religious did not mean being on the lunatic or stupid fringe; it was normal and accepted, even highly values by most. That, as you have pointed out, has changed. The reasons are multiple and complex for this state of affairs but it is, as I see it, on the rise. I am beginning to hear a lot of Christians prefacing admitting to their faith, explanations that are really apologies. Many look for other labels than Christian, such as “Christ-follower” or “Christ Disciple” or anything but plain old Christian. The slings and arrows we now face are not aimed at an our irrepressible (foolish) love and sacrifices but for holding ridiculous ideas about science

  2. Sorry, post in error.

    Be that as it may, I have a different view on this discipline thingy, and these facts are pertinent to that vision: I was a long distance runner and played football (American version) and loved every part and aprticle of it. Perhaps I was a strange kid. I remember after one track meet where I won four gold medals, the kids at school heaped lavish praise and I kept silently waiting for just one of them to say the praise was God’s for how he made me. Still waiting.

    In these things, sacrifice was celebration; burden, loss, and suffering were not involved. There was no prize down the road or price to pay. There was no way to train for the moment was in, no thought of what could be: Oddly graced, I suppose, it was really all joy as is.

    “And who would run London’s rain-slick pavements as the cold bites and the traffic fumes choke if there was never an expectation that there would one day be a marathon to run and a medal to claim?” This really gets to the crux and I feel is the fork (therein the rub) where our paths divide. I did not such a motivation. It used to truly puzzle me the fuss about competition and winning, although to watch me at either sport you would have thought me the most fanatical of competitors. It was just this love that was in me, put there, I felt, by Christ; I could never see how I could have produced it. A gift, end of story, and Christ was always with me in it.

    I see a spiritual discipline in much the same way. The toil is not what makes it a dsicipline or adds to my maturity; the toil shows me where I am off the mark and lacking in maturity; there is no merit to it. This is no cause for depression or guilt or re-doubling one’s efforts. It is time to be still and allow the source of that resistance which produces toil to surface, to place ourselves as securely as we can in God’s care. It is a time to trust more, not try harder. What fruit of the spirit we may appear to gain, is simply the removal by grace of what diminished or blocked the working of the spirit. Unlike the body that builds strength, the soul grows by reduction, losing all of what we have made of ourselves for what God would have us be.

    • Hi Gerard/Jerry, I see you are the same person by your e-mail address for these comments so will reply after the last of your four comments. :-)

  3. If there is actually such a thing such as fellowship, a word or two about your opinion is in order.

  4. Complaint is not the best way to renewal.

    • Hi Gerard/Jerry, I have been trying to understand your four comments (the first of which I think you posted in error?) but I think you may have misunderstood the tenor of this piece. It is in no way a complaint but an honest recognition that the Facebook generation is completely other that any which we have ever known. I don’t know whether this is a U.S. experience yet or whether the U.K. has transitioned more rapidly into this context; perhaps you are able to advise there?

      In any event, I am glad that your experience of following Jesus has been all joy and that you have found the ‘toil’ of spiritual disciplines to be helpful in showing you where you are ‘off the mark’, to use your phrases. I wholeheartedly agree that this is their purpose and that, used rightly, their pain is tiny compared with the joy we gain through learning to abide more fully in the Father’s love. However – and it is this which is the crux of my argument – it takes maturity to think this way as well as an ability to choose what is hard for the sake of the joy set before us, yet this is something which is increasingly not hard-wired into the Facebook generation, who often see no reason to pay the price of discipline now for the sake the joy of a life more rooted in Christ later. I think this tendency is partly attributable to postmodern culture, as well as this generation’s experience of liminality in their context: in essence, everything seems temporary to them and the present is often the only reality they can conceive because the future seems so unsure.

      Hopefully, this explains where I am coming from. I love this generation; they are my primary ministry context and I have been making disciples amongst them, as well as leading a church full of them, for about six years now. They are the future of the church and, though they bring challenges like any other (half-)generation such as mine or yours, I trust that God will work sovereignly through his Spirit to give them (and us, I pray) a new vision of his glory in Christ. And that, friend, will be enough for them and for me!

  5. (Jerry is a nickname for Gerard, a name I hated as a child so much I could not stand to spell Jerry with a “G.” Jerry is sufficient.)
    Thank you chloe, for your thoughtful reply. My first post is not an error; I accidentally posted before finishing my comments was the problem. What I said there goes to my observations in America and fit with yours.

    Instant messaging, fast food, and high-speed internet: I want what I want and I want it NOW! Spell-check and calculators. Disposable lighters, phones, and cameras. Degrees in your PJs. Heck, work in PJs. There seems to be many things that have added to what you see as a deterioation of the “persevere mode” in consciousness. And I whole-heartedly agree.

    What I found that varied from my view was not meant to come off so pompous and hyperbolic. My apologies. I will try to coax it down off its high horse..

    My twenty-five years of alcohol abuse appears to be a perverse and unintentional spiritual discipline (pun intended). The self must die daily–and it did, although from a misplaced devotion. If a spiritual discipline is meant to reduce our worldliness or whatever may block a full surrender and dependence upon God, to be truly hidden in Christ, then alcoholism acted like the path of the saint. I was utterly defeated and thanks to saving grace, my brokenness became clear.

    Yes, I know, I appeared to give this undending joyful union with God as my perpetual state. The exception to my normal shame-based and troubled self as a young man was sports. And I truly loved it all, for I felt this was what God gave me to be close to him. Jesus ran by my side, gamboled with me in football, and sweated through the practices. Looking back, I see it was definitely more inspired than motivated. That is the difference in the approach to spiritual discipline that I was trying to make, ever so annoyingly.

    “But you go because you have seen the glory of the prize.” That would be motivation and it had nothing to do with why I ran or why I follow Christ today. (Again, probably because I was a strange kid.) The “present was the only reality I could conceive of” or desire and that had nothing to do with an unsure future or lack of imagination. Keeping both eyes on this moment is my best vision of tomorrow. Why strive for perfection or anything when to be still is to know God. Ah, but how do we get mature enough to “be still,” even knowing Jesus said “the work is to enter the rest” and present day society says, “Manana.”

    To me, a spiritual discipline is all about reduction of my resistance to godliness and my dependency on self. No practice adds a jot of godliness to me, yet it can reduce what diminishes or blocks a complete abandoment to divine providence. The appeal is to have warriors for a new paradigm, to boldly go where few have gone before. (Or in our vernacular, be Christlike.) Ask, want the greatest thrill and challenge you will ever face, the ultimate test of who you are? It is far more death-defying in a way than any X-Factor experience. Why? Because it welcomes death, it does not defy it.

  6. Chloe, I was raised heavy-duty Irish Catholic: I think you know what that means. Couple that with this:
    I had a NDE when I was seven. Though my eyes were open under water and seeing the sun, what I was seeing inside was Jesus running through an open field to me, calling my name with great welcome, as if I had been lost a long time and he was overjoyed to see me. Difficult to describe but the sun was felt like his radiating love, a way ofembracing each other. Then Mrs. McDermott got between me and the sun and with her flabby arms was reaching to pick me. I tried to tell her I was fine, really peachy-keen right where I was, but she kept coming. The next thing I remember is looking up into the face of Andrew McDermott, a fireman down to visit his mom. A true blessing, or was it? My mother was so angry with me for wandering off and relieved I hadn’t die, embarrassed vying with grateful I guess, that she alternately pulled me down the beach and stopped to hug me, red faced one minute and crying the next. I never got the opportunity to tell her what I saw but when I stated looking up at the sun, I got a smack. “Don’t lie to me, young man, you were found floating face down.” Well, words to that effect; a little juicier. She was German.

    I got pretty strange, as I already noted, after that, and still hear the stories from my cousins. For instance, during the rest of the summer I practically spent all my time visiting the elderly on their porches. I only recall brief snatches of this activity but my family has a much more vivid (and amused) memory. My ambition was now to be a saint by martyrdom, defending the chalice from invading pagans (protestants were included in that) from the public schools. The fantasy had me materializing after death at recess before the whole school, all of them entralled to see such a holy person so young. By twelve, other fantasies started to enter but the saint idea lingered. Even in the throes of my alcoholism I felt God had separated me out.

    I went through a few years after sobriety of being a Recovered Catholic. I hated the Church. If you have heard what it was like in the Fifties and Sixties, then you may understand. I am not sure if my NDE made me such a distracted day-dreamer but it my day-dreamer did make me a target, and an easy one. But I never abandoned my love of Christ, just the vehicle I had known. TVangelist got most of my wrath. Along with my growing study and practice of Zen Buddhism, I started an intense study of the Bible in order to beat them on their home field. Hard to say which got me back in the fold. Not the mainstream fold but mysticism, which seemed much like buddhism in a way and had the added appeal of being hated by most Christian sects.

    All this by way of explaining why I do not translate well when talking to most Christians. My ineptitude at grounding

    • …it more in scripture and doctrine, and using identifying Christian terms to clarify or define my points, is a failing I once need to apologize for.

      • Jerry, thank you so much for such open and vulnerable sharing. I have just had a week of craziness(!) hence the non-reply until now but I do appreciate your response to my thoughts, thank you!

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