When the Church Becomes a Machine
Since Jesus gave His church the command to make disciples of the whole world, we’ve struggled to define how to best carry out what Jesus requires of us. The first problem is to understand what Jesus meant by “disciple.” In the time of Jesus, His disciples were easy to find. They were usually standing around Him. Now it’s a little more difficult to recognize a disciple of Christ. We don’t have any distinctive attire. We don’t have a secret handshake. So, how do you know?
Defining a disciple of Christ is notoriously difficult because of the terms we use to describe a follower of Christ. To begin with, terms like “love,” “grace,” and “obedience” are fuzzy terms. It’s almost impossible to nail them down with any clarity. Take for instance the command to “love your neighbor.” What does that mean? Does it mean feeling positive toward the family that lives next door to you? Or do we expand “neighbor” to mean anyone we meet? For that matter, does our love require anything more than a good feeling? Does it require action? If so, how much action? If my neighbor is ill and I take them a casserole (it’s what Baptists do), is that enough? How many casseroles do I have to take before I can say I really love my neighbor?
This fuzziness has frustrated the American church for years. Being typical Americans, we set out to remedy this. We looked at all of our corporate friends being efficient and goal-oriented so we wanted to be efficient and goal-oriented too. To accomplish this, we brought corporate strategies into the church. Now, I get it, good practices are good practices wherever they’re 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’d get a gold star and be called a disciple. The programs were usually successful as far as we could determine. Sure, we passed out lots of certificates and pins, but we rarely made a disciple. Most of the time we just ended up painting a Jesus veneer on a well-mannered church member.
Making disciples isn’t an organizational process like making widgets. Making disciples is an organic process like making a crop. Jesus talked a lot about agriculture. There’s a reason. Making disciples is a lot like farming. Good farmers do all they can, but even the best farmer will tell you a lot of it depends on God — when the rains will come and when the harvest is ready. It’s all a mystery.
Discipleship is a very inefficient process. First, no one starts at the same place and no one deals with the same issues. For instance, several years ago when I was teaching at a young adult worship service, I discovered that a lot of my young listeners were blocked on their discipleship journey by bad relationships with their fathers. When I said, “God loves you like a father,” it locked them up. I had a great dad. The thought never occurred to me that others didn't. We had to stop the series and talk about what the metaphor of God as Father meant.
Again, discipleship is a slow and messy process.
Another challenge in using the American idea of efficiency in the process of making disciples is that we’re never finished becoming a fully formed disciple of Christ. We are constantly walking deeper and deeper in our souls, confronting our weaknesses and failures at their source. We get better. We get stronger. We become more like Christ, but we’re never finished. Have you ever known a deeply matured follower of Christ? Whenever you talk to them they will tell you how far they have to go. On 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 disciple-making. Like material graders, we want to give people a grade for their potential of being a good disciple. If someone comes from a good family and attends services regularly, we think they’ll make good disciples and we encourage them into discipleship classes. If someone is a little rough around the edges, then, well, we ignore them until they get their life together. If we had been in charge, the church would have missed some of our most important disciples — including the apostle Paul.
I thought of this when I heard about the shooting in the Texas school. A young man with no friends, increasingly isolated and thus, vulnerable to the darkest influences of the web, strikes out with heartbreaking consequences. Every student minister knows this young man. They don’t fit in. They are sullen, angry, and abusive. They aren’t the ones we would think would want to know about being a disciple.
Yet, they are the ones who need most to be a disciple. I know. When we talk to young men like that we want to give up. We don’t see how we can do it. 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 this is what making disciples does. It’s not a corporate process. It’s an organic one.
The church isn’t a machine. It’s a living, breathing organism with a heart that stays broken for all of the sheep who haven’t been found yet.
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