Personal discipleship has been a lifeline for me between what had become a comfortable and complacent Christian experience, and one that became vibrant, exciting, and very real.
If you search for “personal discipleship” on the Internet, you’ll find a variety of not-very-standardized definitions. So up front, here’s my homegrown definition: personal discipleship is the process in which a believer or seeker takes personal responsibility for investigating the claims and content of the Bible.
While we all appreciate hearing a well-turned sermon in a moving worship service, sitting in a pew is a passive experience. None of us would get very far academically if all we ever did was attend lectures. We have to read, study, work some problems through, write, engage others in discussion, apply ourselves, and prepare to be tested. And so it is with our faith.
Kierkegaard argued that Christians should take the initiative to work out our own relationship to God. But this wasn’t Kierkegaard’s original idea, it came from the Apostle Paul.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or questioning,”
Philippians 2:12-14 (ESV)
Here the more literal ESV translation of the text leads to great doctrine. This is not the Talmud instructing students to “Find thyself a teacher.” It’s the author of half the New Testament telling disciples to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Not to make up our ideas of God, but to reverently and humbly work on our relationship with him. Not to have anyone do the work for us, but to do it ourselves.
If you want a good example of personal discipleship, listen to the Mini Bible College lessons where Dick Woodward talks about his father. Dick vividly remembers his dad sitting in a rocking chair studying Peloubet’s select notes on the International Lessons in the 1930’s. During the Depression Dick and his siblings paid $1.25 per copy for their father to have these commentaries to help him teach Sunday School. While he rocked and read, Dick’s father repeatedly exclaimed, “Oh this is wonderful…oh, this is so wonderful!” Those exclamations made an impression upon Dick that was ultimately passed from generation to generation in the Woodward family.
And they made an impression upon me. That’s exactly how I feel when I study the Scriptures. When I asked Dick what triggered his father’s interest in the Scriptures he said, “No one would take him seriously when he said he wanted to study the Bible.” Ultimately Dick concludes, “God showed up.” I wish I understood the providence of God well enough to better understand this profound reality, but all I can do is say I think I know exactly how he felt. (Maybe if we ask nicely Dick might write a related post on his blog.)
Personal discipleship is like playing a musical instrument. It takes work and perseverance to produce something good, but for those who are willing to put in the time, the results can be amazing. After a little initial effort, things start coming together—like music. Then instead of studying the Bible passively, you get hooked and can’t wait for a quiet time.
The Coming Evangelical Collapse
(I should probably quit writing at this point, but there is pressure to meet Clarke’s Saturday Evening Post content standards so here we go.)
Recently I listened to a Reasonable Faith podcast entitled The Coming Evangelical Collapse, in which the topic was a provocative essay by Michael Spencer predicting a “major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within ten years. For many of us, such a collapse would be quite disappointing to say the least. But listen (below) to what William Lane Craig and Kevin Harris have to say in reply to the essay.
“I am deeply concerned with the superficiality that exists in the evangelical church. My colleague J.P. Moreland has called this ’empty selves,’ and he describes in his book Love Your God With All Your Mind, the kind of church that we seem to be building in the evangelical community—a church that is filled with what he called empty selves—people who are non-reflective, who don’t value the interior life of the mind, who are sensate and go for pictures and visual arts and music rather than intellectual reflection and study and careful discipleship. And I do think that J.P. is right when he says that a church which is filled with these empty selves will be a church that is impotent to resist the encroachment of secular culture, and will ultimately accommodate itself to secular culture. Moreland predicts that in the next generation this kind of church will become its own gravedigger, because through its accommodation to secular culture it will become indistinguishable from it.
…It is the burden of this ministry to provide an intellectually credible and articulate voice for biblical Christianity in the public arena and to train Christians to be similar, articulate and intelligent defenders of the Christian faith.”
William Lane Craig, The Coming Evangelical Collapse podcast
Good apologists do not deny problems, but work instead to attack them. Their answer is not to make church more attractional, but to promote personal discipleship—to help prepare each of us to be “intelligent defenders of the Christian faith.” I am pleased to report, personal discipleship has a huge payoff.
HT: Dick Woodward
December 7th, 2012 at 5:17 pm
very interesting John…..William Lane Craig sounds very interesting. I like his style and approach. Thanks for these educational posts from both you and Clarke!
December 7th, 2012 at 5:20 pm
My pleasure Fred, and thanks for reading!
December 7th, 2012 at 10:49 pm
The Lifeline painting (very cool, BTW) brought to mind how you & Marion our lifeline last weekend — THANK YOU SO MUCH. The Handel’s Messiah continues to inspire (!!!)
…i think personal discipleship is what Papa is all about through the MBC – getting people into the Word & the Word into people where we practically apply it in our lives. Such a Great Tool … I think personal discipleship can also benefit from spiritual mentorship (what we call having a spiritual director…) to guide us deeper into Christ… (a ‘both and’ scenario..)
Thanks for this post, John ! — grace, peace & Lifelines – Virginia 🙂
December 8th, 2012 at 9:11 am
It’s hard to go wrong when Winslow Homer is illustrating your post. It is such an amazing painting. I wish the finer details came through at this small scale, but the composition and execution are so strong that even without seeing any of the rescuer’s face you can’t help but feel his absolute determination through the peril. (Look for more paintings in upcoming posts–a lot of great artwork hit the cutting room floor on this one.)
You are so right about the “both and” of needing spiritual mentors in personal discipleship. As your Dad wrote recently, discipleship and apprenticeship are essentially the same thing. There are so many people who languish in the classroom without putting into practice what they have learned. Part of personal discipleship is taking the training from the master craftsmen and going and doing.
Thank you for all YOU are doing, and for modeling our faith so beautifully.