I can never be what I ought to be
until you are what you ought to be. 
   — Martin Luther King, Jr.

In life, people are driven by many things: passions, ego, acclaim, and self-aggrandizement. In God’s economy, He wants us not to be driven by these forces of nature but to be led by his Spirit of Promise. Sadly, living for “self” seems to have won the cultural battle.  It has been wisely observed by many that over the past century, Western society has made the shift from communal living to individual living and our approach to Discipleship has unwittingly adopted this same approach.  Here is how Erwin McManus describes our descent into emotional isolation.

The conscious self quickly developed into the idolized self. We not only began seeing ourselves as the reference point for everything around us, we understood reality as an extension of ourselves. Now we own not only possessions, like cars and houses, but have “my style” and “my preferences.” Sometimes it goes to absurd extremes: “get out of my space,” “you’re breathing my air,” or “I have my own personal truth.”The idolized self quickly becomes the fragmented self. The more we look inside, the more confusion sets in. We’ve lost touch with what it looks like to be whole, but we’re more than clear on the many facets of brokenness. This has spawned the entire science of psychiatry.[1]

The cultural norms outlined above have led to the general view that when there is emotional dysfunction, the problem can be fixed through professional counseling.  Rarely is selfless-discipleship in a strong Christ-centered community presented as a real solution.

Ron Bennett is one Christian writer who embraces typical Western self-centered approach.  In his book “Intentional Disciplemaking,” Bennett asserts that becoming a disciple can only happen in complete independence from both community and mentoring relationships.[2]  Bennett claims that God sees every Christian as an “Abraham” who will be the beginning of many generations.[3]  While it is true that each disciple must have their own set of teaching and “self-feeding” skills, this truth does not in any way demand independence from the community of faith.  The “self-feeding” skills Bennett mentions are valuable, but they are only viable within the context of community.

Bennett’s unfortunate use of Abraham as a “type” for every single Christian also raises some significant problems in his individualized discipleship model. His analogical correlation between Abraham and the Christian strips the person of Abraham from his historical context, eliminates his unique standing in God’s salvation plan and supplants the biblical paradigm that Christians are the children of Abraham and replaces it with each individual becoming their personal “Abraham.”

Bennett’s individualistic-model of discipleship is indicative of the problem outlined in the quote above by McManus.  People are valuable but the individual should not be celebrated over, and isolated from, our communal identity as the people of God.  It is this individualized approach that leads to so much of the brokenness we see among Christians today.

Larry Crabb, a Christian psychotherapist for more than two decades, takes a different approach in his book entitled, “Connecting.” His contention is that people do not experience dysfunction because they lack therapy but because they lack community. Crabb concludes that, “many of the struggles we assume are symptoms of a psychological disorder are in fact evidence of a disconnected soul.”[4] Individuals who seek healing from their spiritual disharmony through segregated and self-centered means will not find the answers they seek.

The question then becomes, how do we move would-be disciples out of brokenness and into integrated wholeness?[5] The answer for each individual is to seek out and live in a Spirit-led community of faith.

“I have come to believe that the root of all our personal and emotional difficulties is a lack of togetherness, a failure to connect that keeps us from receiving life and prevents the life in us from spilling over into others. I therefore believe that the surest route to overcoming problems and becoming the people we were meant to be is reconnecting with God and with our community.”[6]

This life of communal discipleship is modeled most clearly in the life of Jesus. “Those first followers of the Messiah seemed to understand more clearly than we do today what it means to be a disciple. There was no way a follower of Jesus could accept the salvation of Christ without also accepting Christ’s communal mission.”[7] Discipleship for the individual requires that each person develop the characteristics of Jesus Christ and be an active part of the community of Faith.

“To be a disciple in the broadest sense is to be a follower or learner of Jesus Christ. In the narrower sense used by Jesus later in His ministry, it means to be fully committed to follow and learn from Him in a life of self-denial and obedience to His Word.”[8]

Overcoming individualism, without undermining the value of the Spirit-gifted individual, lies at the heart of our modern challenge to foster communal discipleship.

FOOTNOTES

[1] McManus, “Broken People Can Become Whole Disciples,” 48.

[2] Ron Bennett, Intentional Disciplemaking: Cultivating Spiritual Maturity in the Local Church (Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress, 2001).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Crabb, Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships: A Radical New Vision,26.

[5] McManus, “Broken People Can Become Whole Disciples,” 48.

[6] Crabb, Connecting: Healing for Ourselves and Our Relationships: A Radical New Vision,32.

[7] Tom Sine, “A Different Discipleship,” Discipleship Journal, no. 49. electronic ed. (1999).

[8] Charles C. Bing, “Coming to Terms with Discipleship,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 5, no. 1. electronic ed. (1992: 2002): 49.

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for emerging leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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