All those who have put on Christ are equipped to play the part. To act out our being in Christ is to practice the new life and new covenant we have in him (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2014, based on 2 Peter 1:8-10)
There were many distinguishing elements in the way Jesus ‘discipled’ his 12 disciples, as opposed to the order of the day, the discipleship in the Rabbinic tradition of Israel of its day. Not just that Jesus chose his disciples (invited them), who he chose (often those rejected by Rabbi’s already) and these two are key. Jesus discipleship if offered to all, the condition is to accept the invitation, and it is free.
And it is free. That in a way is the point.
In a re-read of the gospel records, another interesting aspect is the level of functionality of what being a disciple of Jesus was all about. There were undoubtedly tasks that any potential disciple of a Rabbi might have needed to do to curry favour with a Rabbi in the temple, in order to become acceptable, but this was an ongoing burden of slavery. But being a disciple of Jesus also involved practical work. From getting donkeys, arranging room space, rowing, crowd control, and probably a myriad of other tasks unsaid. There must have been, because effectively 13 people and entourage were on the road for the best part of 3 years. The point being, that discipleship was practical, the ongoing formation and learning was done through the practical. But it was practical in the walk, in the journey discipleship. And work was done within a relationship that promised much, that gave the disciples acceptance (even though theyd been rejected previously). In short accepting the invitation was free, but discipleship involved work.
The task of the disciple, according to Jesus, for every one who identifies as a disciple is to ‘make disciples’ (Matthew 28:18) it involves participating.
One of the features of youth ministry in the 1940s and 1950s with Billy Graham, was the offer of an intimate relationship with God, an intimate relationship that in particular young people at the time, and ever since craved and lapped up in their droves. Though ironically, as Andrew Root writes, what the large rally lacked for young people was also the intimate relationships of others. If the mass Rally of Graham lost its cultural signicance by the late 1950’s (Andrew Root) – what wasnt lost, in some quarters, is the influence of the Billy Grahams theology and simple message, that reduced faith to a moment, that would make measuring numerical success easy to do. What was offered to young people (specifically but not exclusivey) was a ‘free relationship’ and acceptance into the family of God, sins forgiven and a ticket to eternal life. All free. Salvation was offered without much of a catch, all that was needed to was accept and believe. Christian faith became an individual free-will choice that was presented through a self-chosen relationship (Root, A, 2007;58)
The problem was then, and still is now, is that this is not what the great commission says. It says ‘make disciples’ , and disciples are those involved in the tasks of God, are on an ongoing process of learning and doing, or forming and performing.
Salvation was offered by acceptance. What is needed instead is Salvation as participation.
A personal relationship with God is not enough, it makes faith too easy, it also doesnt tell the full story. If we’re going to offer anyone the opportunity to have faith in, and an ongoing relationship with God, then we at least need to say that it is a working relationship. We might as well have a 28 day cooling off period as the original ‘contract’ doesnt give all the details.
In this way, from the outset, any who take up the challenge, know that they are taking up a challenge, and that they have work to do, or at least have some responsibility to be joining in with or doing the practical (often in the normal day to day life). They know from the outset that it involves work, effort and dediction to a cause. It is not a free ride. Or a free ride than then has unexpected effort required afterwards. Oh and neither is it ‘faith by works’ – it is accepting a working relationship with Jesus as a disciple, not just the offer of belief (with less strings attached). The oft-quoted research by Christian Smith, that reveals MTD (moral therapeutic deism) rife in American protestant churches, showed that belief was evident, though this belief was in a deism who didnt have any direct impact or involvement on a young person. Faith was a useful add on to current existence and a confidence giver in case of trouble.
Salvation as participation changes the dynamic. What is offered is a part to play. A working relationship with God changes the dynamic, from free personal relationship, to having practical tasks to do anf fulfil as part of an ongoing ‘job’ in the kingdom. If the workers are indeed few – then at least it should be workers who sign up knowingly to being one. Lets make ‘signing up to Jesus’ more difficult, more challenging, and something that might realistic, communicating the costs, and the work involved. Making faith easy, when it is nothing less than an ongoing drama, shoots it too low, and gives an unreal expectation.
It might be easier to declare that the good news is good news to all, especially good news to the rejected, and marginalised. It is of course a free gift to be accepted, yet faith is more than belief, or at least, belief is more than cognitive, it is something that is done, and acted. The difference between the wise and foolish builder was ongoing obedience. It was obedience that experienced fisherman Peter led him to toss the net over the boat on its other side. It was practical obedience in the every day.
In his recent book the American Youth Minister Andrew Root talks about Faith acceptance being a process of deduction. Saying that in Union with/in Christ, St Paul himself realised that this was a process of denying himself, and personal death to life experience. A part played in the divine action of God is to deny oneself, for the other, to deny possessions for simplicity, to deny the pull of selfishness. All of these require work, as in they are not easy. They are not done alone, but that still doesnt make them easy.
Faith is about being called to participate in the life and saving activity of God by becoming ministers (Andrew Root, 2017, p130)
What we need to offer is not a free ticket to heaven on a free ride of belief. And not a personal relationship in which God can dangerously be reduced as a concept who meets the needs of the human, the divine Santa claus who gives only abundantly to satisfy the greed of human requests. But as Volf describes, God also makes demands as he also gives generously ( Volf, Miroslav, 2005: 28). Whilst God gives, writes Volf, he gives in order that others might flourish through us, again, they involve work on our part, to share, to give ourselves. Not only that :
But we were created to be and act like God, participating in Gods gift giving is what Gods gifts oblige us to do (Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 2005, p49)
Of course there is human freedom to choose to give a gift away. But the intention of God in giving is that we do so, and its that costly obedience, and practical and mental effort to do so that is the task of the disciple. Merely keeping a faith to oneself, is impossible for the christian, even more the disciple. But again, it is disciples we are called to make. A movement of disciples being prepared for the hard graft of kingdom building, through acts of grace, love that cause the denial and deduction of themselves.
But participation in the activity of God, through a working relationship with God, who prompts and guides and acts in the ongoing Drama of Redemption. (yes that Theodrama gets in here again). Salvation as participation suggest that everyone arrives having a part to play, and part is to be performed and discovered, and involves the process of ongoing learning and formation. Preparing like any actor- by understanding the plot, script and developing an attuning to the likeness of Christ and playing likewise. Working for the Kingdom of God requires both understanding and action, and these aid each other. Formation is also about being ready to act, ready to participate in the tasks a position that Vander lugt describes as Disponibilite – the awareness of the action in the present needed to be made. Being ready to work as well as being at work.
As Bonhoeffer said:
‘Our Task (as disciples) is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or what we are doing’
If one of the tasks of being as disciple is to be encouraged to make disciples, then it stands to reason that we should do everything possible in all that we do in youth ministry, in churches to create spaces where discipleship, the radical, propehetic, dangerous discipleship can occur. If our young people are hoping for an easy ride in a culture so consumed by technology that makes things easy, then we might just have to be blunt and say that being a disciple of Jesus just isnt for them, as they’re not ready for the practical and costly work that is involved.
To follow Christ is to go after Christ along the way of Christ (Vanhoozer, K, 2014, 1)
Root Andrew, 2007 – Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry
Root, Andrew, 2017, Faith Formation in a Secular Age
Vander Lugt, 2014, Living Theodrama
Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding.
Bonhoeffer, D The Cost of Discipleship, (Taken from Vander Lugt, 2014, p139)