Brooklyn Museum - Jesus Discourses with His Disciples (Jésus s'entretient avec ses disciples) - James Tissot

James Joseph Jacques Tissot [Public domain]

I am struck by how many times I hear discipleship described as apprenticeship, a term that has fallen into disuse today. Many pastors I know came out of seminary with an understanding that they should hesitate about sharing personal life in the pulpit. They also learned not to be close friends with those in their parish, to keep a professional distance. The problem is, this posture of aloofness does not allow for the kind of life-on-life discipleship that Jesus demonstrated in his three years of work with his disciples.

Jesus lived with the disciples, walked with them, worked with them, slept with them, ate with them. They got the full treatment. Paul and the early church leaders understood this idea of apprenticeship. He said in 1 Corinthians 4:15-16: Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul says in Chapter 3: 6-9
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.

The author of Hebrews, identified as a friend of Paul’s close companion Timothy, twice makes the exhortation to imitate. We see the call to imitate first in Chapter 6: 12: We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. Again, in Chapter 13: 7, we see: Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. In this letter, we can see that this tradition of life on life discipleship being passed on from one generation to the next.

Consider how hard it is to imitate someone from afar. Without some close contact, the attempt to imitate will be fruitless. Discipleship happens life on life. Rob Bell, in his Nooma video Dust, talks in these terms.  As Bell describes it, the disciple would be covered in the dust of his Rabbi as he followed him from town to town, trying to learn to do what the Rabbi did. Jesus equipped his Disciples, and then sent them out to heal and cast out demons in His name. And, they did.

For a couple of years, I’ve been using the Renovare Life With God Bible. The study notes are all focused on applying the lessons of Scripture to your daily life as we try to walk with God. I was intrigued by what I saw about apprenticeship to Jesus from the Renovare preface to the book of Revelations:

Apprenticeship to Jesus remains a widespread ideal, but there is often little understanding of what it means for spiritual formation in Christlikeness. Now, only in the rarest of cases do we find in Christian churches purposeful, continuously progressive, and all-inclusive spiritual growth through discipleship to Jesus. Through the ages we have seen many brilliant examples of what discipleship can be, but on the present scene what we generally face, and what the world sees, especially in the West, is a Christian culture without discipleship to Jesus.

I have found this to be true in my walk across the church. I did an event with Mission Developers from the Lutheran tribe. I asked the 20+ pastors in the room this question, “Pastors by what means will you disciple people in your new church plant?” I then invited them to discuss their strategies in triads for fifteen minutes and then asked them to share with the room. There was not a cogent thought in the room about discipling.

Mike Breen explains it this way. An Anglican priest by training, he says, “I was trained for Temple duty. Most pastors have been trained by Seminary so that their operating system is the church. Unfortunately, that is not the operating system of Jesus. His operating system was discipleship. We start churches and hope discipleship happens, and it rarely does. When we start with discipleship, God will build the church.”

Mike uses this diagram to describe the discipleship process:

Discipleship begins by giving Information, sharing the Gospel with people. Then you invite them into apprenticeship through joining a huddle. As Mike Breen’s partner Steve Cockram said, "Imitate those parts of me where you see Christ. The rest of the stuff, don't imitate." So, imitation is the next step. Through the huddle process, people are formed into disciples.

The final step is innovation. As people, through prayer and meditation, become fluent in the ways in which God has gifted them, they can discern a calling of God in their lives. This calling will take them on a path unlike anyone else's. That unique path will take us through the stage of innovation, as we figure out and live out our unique calling. For more about Gifts and Calling, look here.

So, the mission developers I worked with were trained in the operating system of the church, and did not have clear strategies for discipleship. It is truly the missing link.

The Renovare preface continues: Apprenticeship to Jesus Christ, under the direction of the revealed Word of God and the administration of the Holy Spirit, is the single most powerful and beneficial transformational process known to humankind. Suffering turns away “lukewarm Christians”, but those who face suffering and death on Jesus’ behalf will without doubt be his intensely devoted apprentices. Movement forward in Christlikeness, for the individual of for society is highly time-insensitive. Character is costly, and only choice and experience through time can produce it. Apprenticeship to Jesus in the fellowship of his people is the only assured path of life under God. On that path we move from faith to more faith, from grace to more grace, and are able to walk increasingly in holiness and power.

I have found these statements to be the truth. It amazes me that most churches I’ve seen have somehow lost discipleship. How do we let the main thing not be the main thing in churches? I just don’t get it.

I’ll leave you with one more quote, this one from the Renovare Bible notes to 2 Timothy 2:10: The Christian faith is contagious. If we are to endure as Christians, it must be through apprenticeship-observing more experienced and well-formed Christians, following their moves, taking up their way of life, inculcating their virtues. Through such observation and imitation, we take up the practices of faith and come to embody those practices for ourselves. The church must look for ample opportunities for its members to be observed by and to observe one another as we mature in the faith.

So, pastors, what have you done to make your spiritually mature leaders visible and to encourage them to mentor others on the path? Let not those gifted people labor under the radar at your church.