Christian discipleship began with vocation, with the “call” of Jesus to some fishermen. Jesus’s call was a call to relationship: “Come, follow me.” Whether among first-generation Jewish followers of the Way, third-generation Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, or twenty-first-century Western church folk, discipleship is grounded in the calling to relationship with God through Jesus.
In the summer following second grade I had a consuming crush on a boy named Bruce. While I barely registered on the status meter of elementary-school social hierarchy, Bruce was quite popular, and try as I might I could not get him to return my affections. On warm afternoons I would hike down by the cool creek that ran beside our yard, thinking about Bruce. One day I picked a daisy and began plucking the petals, reciting, “He loves me. He loves me not.” I convinced myself that if I ended on “He loves me,” Bruce would magically return my ardor. Plucking the final petal, I shivered with excitement, “He loves me!” and yet, his sentiments didn’t change.
Magic cannot create relationship. In fact, magical thinking impedes relationship. Whenever we participate in activities designed to induce another to act, think, or feel a certain way, we are engaging in magic, precluding relationship by turning the other into an “it” rather than a “who.” Yet it is surprising how easily magic creeps into Christianity.
When I find myself feeling disillusioned about Sunday mornings I often wonder when worship as celebration became “going to church” as an act of obedience that appeases God. If we approach worship, Bible reading, participation in rituals, financial donation, or other “religious activities” as attempts to win God’s favor, they become magic, every bit as much as dancing around a fire chanting incantations on moonlit nights. If, on the other hand, we approach these practices as ways to spend time with God, then we are involved in relationship.
Relationships are powerful. I recall a friend who had been all “prickles and burrs” in seminary. His anger was notorious among the students, and his hostility frequently erupted in tirades against professors. He didn’t just have anger—he was an angry person. I developed a friendship with this man when we worked on a project together. I learned that he had had a damaging upbringing and had recently experienced a difficult ending to an incompatible marriage. These relationships had left him in a perpetual state of defensiveness. I wondered at graduation time how he would fare in ministry or, more pointedly, how a church would fare in his hands. A decade later I was leading a seminar when I noticed my old angry friend among the participants. The face was familiar, but I saw differences beyond those made by the passage of years. At break time I connected with my prickly friend. Only he wasn’t prickly anymore. He radiated a gracious, gentle spirit and laughed easily, in a way that seemed to celebrate sheer joy in life. As we were speaking, some people joined us, and he introduced me to a small entourage from his church. These people obviously adored him. His final introduction was of a gentle-faced woman with whom he exchanged looks of obvious devotion. “This is my wife,” he said, beaming. The cause of the difference was clear. This man’s relationships with his church members and with his wife had created a safe place within which he could reclaim his inner kindness and joy. Relationships with others have the power to change us.
The power of human relationships offers a mere glimpse of the capacity of relationship with God in Jesus to transform us. Jesus promised us “an Advocate, the Spirit of truth,” who abides with us and in us (John 14:15–17). This indwelling Spirit makes possible a transformation of self that affects all of our other relationships. Our primary vocation to be in relationship with God, which was redeemed for us by Jesus, makes possible restoration and renewal.
As most of us know from experience, this oneness of self is neither a static state nor one fully achieved in earthly life. Unkind people, challenging circumstances, and habitual self-denigration all conspire to rob us of the relationship with ourselves made possible through God’s grace. Again and again we need the Spirit to remind us who we are and to empower us to grow toward what the second-generation Pauline communities called “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
Discipleship is grounded in the primary vocation of redeemed relationship with God through Jesus. A foundational question for discipleship formation then is this: How do we teach vocation?
Education is an invitational endeavor. We cannot compel, manipulate, or otherwise coerce people to enter into relationship with any subject matter. As relationship with God is the primary vocation of discipleship, the principal experience for discipleship formation is encounter with God through Jesus.
When I was a pastor I was blessed to serve in a community that had a remarkable ecumenical ethos. One summer night we gathered as several denominations in the Presbyterian fellowship hall for an evangelistic event for older children and teens from the community. The evening began with a group of bodybuilders giving testimonies and continued with the guests breaking up into discussion groups. Since I wasn’t assigned to a group, I spent my time helping with snacks and visiting rooms to see if anyone needed anything. As I approached one doorway, I heard a young woman pleading, “Even if you don’t believe it’s true, just do me a favor and say the prayer with me. If it’s not true, you haven’t lost anything. It if turns out to be true, then you’ll be saved, and when you die you will go to heaven.” This was the first time, but not the last, that I heard this shocking approach to “evangelism.”
Reducing Christianity to a matter of final destination is manipulative, of course, but this approach also suggests that how we live out the faith in our earthly lives is of secondary importance. Most readers would likely agree that the practice of repeating particular words—irrespective of belief and regardless of desire for relationship with God—as a guarantee of going to heaven is pure magic. The question for those of us who reject this and other magical approaches is, what do we do instead? How do we encourage and nurture the primary vocation of discipleship, which is relationship with God through Jesus? The enterprise is complicated by the fact that Jesus is not physically present to us, at least not in the ways that we typically understand physical presence. We need to identify, therefore, the ways in which Jesus is present and invite people to an encounter with Jesus through those venues.
Although they described the experience in a variety of ways, the earliest Christian communities were formed around the very presence of Jesus. Jesus was present through his Spirit, who gave believers the power, discernment, and skills necessary to live out Christian community. He was present in the gathered community as master teacher and guide. His presence was evidenced in the love that members shared with one another, the ongoing ministry of his followers to the world, and the traditions that were taught as the gospel was proclaimed.
For us today, teaching the tradition makes Jesus present and provides opportunity for encounter with him. By nature discipleship is dynamic. We were created for relationshi
p with God, we become disciples through Jesus, and we continue to evolve in discipleship through the practices of transformed relationships. To become fully the disciples we are designed to be, we need to practice the vocations of discipleship through which we develop intimacy with God and move toward “the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
It is more important than ever that we know and share our tradition. The risen Christ is actually present in the telling of the Christian story. It is essential that we tell the story—not talk about the story, not give directives based on the story, not modify or abridge the story—but tell the story. We need to tell the story with our words, through our relationships, and in our actions, and to trust its power as a vehicle of Christ’s presence.
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Adapted from Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities by Cassandra D. Carkuff Williams, copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Learning the Way:
Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities
by Cassandra D. Carkuff Williams
In Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities, Williams explores early Christian communities and their practices in order to identify principles for discipleship formation. She then offers expert advice on how to approach modern-day issues of Christian education and discipleship formation based on the examples set forth by our earliest forebears in the faith. This book provides an overview of the past in order that we might take the proven example of early Christians and apply it toward our present and our future.
Tell It Like It Is:
Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony
by Lillian Daniel
Lillian Daniel shares how her congregation reappropriated the practice of testimony one Lenten season, a practice that would eventually revitalize their worship and transform their congregational culture. Tell It Like It Is features the testimonies worshipers heard and reflections from both those who spoke and those who listened to these stories about God at work in the world.
A Praying Congregation:
The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice
by Jane E. Vennard
“I believe that God is calling all of us into deeper prayer and is longing for our congregations to become places of prayer,” writes Jane E. Vennard. Pastors and others who want to develop their skills as teachers of prayer and spiritual practices will find in this book not only wisdom for themselves but easily accessible lesson plans, enabling them to share Vennard’s insights with others while infusing the activities with their own spirit and creative ideas.
Listening to God:
Spiritual Formation in the Congregation
by John Ackerman
People today are less interested in thinking about God while being much more interested in knowing God, observes spiritual director and author John Ackerman, who served as a parish pastor for four decades. In this insightful book, Ackerman outlines ways congregations can promote members’ spiritual growth toward a greater intimacy with God. This book is about the whole system—individuals and small groups, lay leaders and clergy, worship and education—everything we do in a congregation to form us more fully into the body of Christ and to become aware of Christ in us.
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