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For Such a Time: Disciples Not Customers

August 17, 2010

If any idea has been central in this series of writings, it has been this:  I believe the only way the testimony of the church becomes powerful in our postmodern world is to differentiate ourselves from the culture by emphasizing what is unique about our faith.  The modern tendency is to emasculate ideas by seeking a common denominator, thus creating a powerless and bland form of the original.  I am not advocating extremism, and I caution all to stay away from any form of Christianity that builds upon foundations other than the gospel of grace through Jesus Christ.  However, there is a softened version of following Jesus and then there is a radical version.  The former conforms the life, teaching, and death of Jesus to fit more comfortably with our lives, all the while focusing on His benefits rather than His calling.  The latter emphasizes what is unique by conforming our lives to the life of Jesus in full force. 

One of the ways we are tempted to soften the call of Jesus is to separate the “expert minister” from the recipients of ministry.  We have a professional clergy, and often everyone else in a church is understood to be a customer who receives the services the clergy provides.  This is a grave error that has created several problems in our churches which diminishthe proclamation of the gospel. 

First, it limits the church’s impact by reducing the number of people who are dispensing the gospel.  The professional clergy are small in number and limited in output.  When the entire body of Christ understands every member to be a minister of the gospel, then we increase our impact through sheer numbers. 

Second, it turns vocational ministers into customer service agents rather than leaders of mission movements.  Many churches are full of members who feel they are entitled to services the clergy offer, resulting in vocational ministers spending much of their time and energy catering to the membership rather than equipping and empowering the saints to a collective mission (Eph. 4:11-12). 

Third, it diminishes the growth of believers.  Customers operate with a selfish entitlement.  A consumer approach to church membership accentuates the logos of the world smack dab in the middle of the kingdom of the cross.  We very easily begin to look at church existing for “me.”  We pick a church with music for me, sermons for me and programs for me.  In the end, this form of Christianity perpetuates a spirit that opposes the heart of Christ.  It also lowers the vision of individual spiritual growth in each member. 

Fourth, it places the greatest investments into the lives of those who are already saved rather than those with the greatest need (Matt. 18:11).  Some estimate 4.5 billion people in our world do not know Jesus.  Without Him, they will live and die eternally condemned.  Do we really need another place for Christians to ride a stationary bike?  Do we really need another potluck when thousands of people will die of starvation today?  Of course, we must take care of the sick and hurting within our church.  That is our Christian duty as well.  However, we must also discern to a greater extent what is a “perk” for members within our churches and what is an extension of the gospel. 

We must, instead, see every believer as a disciple of Jesus.  For too long, we have tried to overcome the “consumer” tendency by offering better customer service.  That is like putting gas in a car with a faulty engine.  Instead, we have to begin articulating to every believer the exciting news that God has not only saved them from hell through Jesus, but has also called them to be disciples and missionaries for Him. 

The word “disciple” is synonymous with student or apprentice.  So what does the life of discipleship look like?  First, disciples give full allegiance to the rabbi.  Every other aspect of life is made secondary to the teacher.  Peter and the other fishermen quit their jobs, dropped their nets and made Jesus the center of their lives (Matt. 18-22).

Second, disciples pattern their lives after the example of the rabbi (John 13:15-16).  Disciples aren’t trying to know what the teacher knows.  They are trying to be what the teacher is.  Jesus’ invitation to discipleship is “follow me.”  This means we learn from Jesus not only from what he taught, but also from how he lived and died. 

Third, disciples desire to represent the rabbi and make other disciples.  The great commission in Matthew 28:16-20 is the moment that Jesus launches his apprentices into the task of representing him through imitation and making disciples of others.  He ends with the promise that He will be “with you always.”  Unlike other disciple-relationships, we have the Spirit of the teacher intimately connected to us through indwelling. 

I believe our skeptical world can sense when Christianity operates according to the same logic as the rest of the world.  They know when we are selfish, defensive, territorial, and entitled.  This world hears Christians gripe when they don’t get their way in church.  They see organizations that spend millions of dollars on their “customers” and often do very little to invest into our broken world. 

However, if the world sees disciples, they will have a different reaction.  They will see a different logic – the logic of our rabbi (acts of love, sacrificial generosity, and costly service).  This world is longing for something to orient their lives around.  If they want to be a customer, they will go to the mall, not to church.  But radical, adventurous and significant discipleship will compel many to the call of Jesus.

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