A quick, educational history on Discipleship

by Jessie Cruickshank

Thankfully, there is new wave of impetus on discipleship in the church. Because of that new recovered interest in the subject, many rush to publish books on the best methods and curricula. While these are helpful and a great place to start, it is very important to think about the historical background and current cultural paradigm that implicitly informs and under-girds our concepts of discipleship – and discover how they are hindering our fulfillment of the Great Commission.

To draw the best picture, it is important for us to consider how discipleship has changed over time. First, we need to consider some of the history of education because how we have made disciples is directly and intimately correlated with the types and methods and ways we have thought about education.  Because the church is not that much more creative than the culture, the way the culture has thought about education becomes the same way the church thinks about it as well.

Neil Cole (and others) have written about how Paul thought about and made disciples. An examination of those methods is beyond the scope of this paper other than to identify that 1) it was done as a community or town, and all persons participated; 2) apprenticeship was the main method of education; and 3) the purpose of discipleship was to increase one’s union with God in all aspects of life.

These foundational characteristics remained intact up until about 300 AD when, as we all know, Constantine entered the storyline and created the separation between clergy and laity. Suddenly and catastrophically, we abandoned the concept of equally discipling everybody and equal standing as disciple-makers. It became Clergy’s responsibility to be educated and trained, and everyone else’s responsibility to follow them.  It is a concept that has only seldomly been challenged in the last 1700 years.

To pick up our historical thread, starting in 300 AD, people are being trained for clergy status and there is a very specific process for that. Additionally, because it’s also an illiterate society, there remains an enchanted aspect to discipleship. People are not really able to learn through text, so they are being discipled through stories and encounters with the spiritual realm. The world is enchanted, much more magical, much more mystical, full of angels, omens, relics, and supernatural encounters. Apprenticeship as a means of education remains, but it is an isolating experience.  For example, if one became interested in ministry, wanted to learn more about God, or had an interest in the spiritual, they would leave and attend a monastery. There they would learn how to read and write, but they would be taken away and secluded from the rest of society in order to be trained. Moreover, their practice is not for everybody and there are few to discuss the ideas with. So essentially it is fairly isolated process of education.  Essentially, discipleship as Jesus spoke of it doesn’t exist.  Rather, individuals are being trained in a mystical profession.

Then comes Martin Luther into the storyline, and the Age of Enlightenment in the 1500s and 1600s. As people are beginning to learn to read and literacy is increasing, the value of individual bible reading strongly takes hold.  Yet there remains the clergy-laity split, the clergy wielded great power over people’s lives in how they read the bible. Many, many people were killed for reading the same scriptures and coming to alternate conclusions. Massacres of different Christian sects were common.  Yet, because of this sectarian violence that dominated the first 200 years after the Protestant Reformation, and until about 1900, there still remains little to no value in making disciples for every person.  As the varying Christian sects articulated their differing theologies, theology itself became an academic pursuit. This means that to gain clergy status, one had to read, study, and become an academic.  The faith life and discipleship loses its mystical quality.  It loses it’s enchantment and becomes very rational, very western, very Aristotelian.  Instead of mystery, we gain knowledge by measuring and defining.  In the Enlightenment era, society doesn’t believe something exists unless it can be measured, defined, and explained.  People believed they could know the quality of what exists by how they measure it. This includes God, and faith, so society develops a new science: Theology.

The Western world begins to build schools, seminaries and universities where people study theology, hermeneutics, and exegesis.  In this era, the purist of God functionally takes the shape of looking at one’s own understanding of scripture in order to discover the truth. Different people come up with ways to interpret the Bible.  The study of theology comes to include learning the languages of Greek and in the Hebrew.  And at its foundation, the pursuit of God is an academic one.  Because in the Enlightenment, we realized that man was smart and could study the things of the past, building on previous knowledge.  We also learned we could interact with our world to measure and analyze it.  People were determining how the heavens are made with the ways the stars are laid out and the celestial bodies.  They were discovering and inventing the sciences of physics, calculus, and many mathematical means. The result is that the spiritual components dropped out of the development of clergy, and it becomes a very academic pursuit.

The corresponding result in society is that disciple making also became an academic pursuit.  Disciple making became educating people in the book of the Bible, becoming educated in what we knew of biblical times and culture, and becoming educated in the languages of the Bible.  But again still, there is little value for the discipleship for every person beyond that “Christian Education.” Clergy status becomes less of a calling, and more of a vocation, like being a physicist. It losses that enchantment quality.

Then, something very interesting happens in the early 1900s. The Pentecostal Revival breaks out, including the Azusa Street Revival, and the enchantment comes back to our spiritual quality.  Through the revivalist era, there is a desire for every person to have an authentic encounter and an authentic relationship with Jesus.  There is now a value of every person being involved in a personal relationship with Jesus, as opposed to a state church or social religion.

But interestingly, at the same time as the spiritual life is becoming re-enchantment and there gains a value for authentic discipleship, you also have the Industrial Revolution and this idea of schooling for everyone.  The reason for creating schools for everyone, for establishing public education, was explicitly to create a labor force.  The educational architects at the turn of the last century decided that society needed to make an every man a quality worker.  This quality worker was defined by specifically identifying the “normal man” or “average man.” This created by the effort to “normalized” or to make every person the same so they could work a job in a factory interchangeably. People needed to be able do the same job the same way because they were working with the same machines or they were working with the same components. It didn’t really matter who an individual is, how tall they are or how long their arms are.  Schools were also designed for everyone to be trained in the same skill set, to a very detailed level of specificity.  For example, it should take 3 seconds to grab the milk and it should take 2 seconds to pour the milk in the vat, and it should take 1 second to discard the empty vessel over here. Labor skill sets were program-ized.  By design, schooling worked to eliminate qualities of individuality.  The goal of school was to create uniform persons who could fit into the work force like identical cogs in a wheel.  Ford, the automaker, was very intentional and influential in designing American schools this way.  It was not just a philosophy of creating a labor force; it was his philosophy for how society worked best.  He believed that every person should be average, every person should fit the same mold, every person should be exactly the same, and it was society’s duty to help individuals conform to the average as much as possible.  Any deviation from the average was a problem; was something that was mal-formed.  Today we have taken that so far that we diagnosed things outside of the ‘norm’ as a disease. The physicians’ reference is huge because everything outside of this very narrow ‘normal’ is now named and often medicated. We sacralize the “widget-making” by saying we want to help everyone be “like Jesus,” rather than helping people become who Jesus created them to be.

As we enter into the 1920s, those who envision a “normed” society become influenced by those who believe in the class system, and that some people are inherently better than others, and “average” becomes something that is “less than.” As America is evaluating its military there arises the need to separate common soldiers out from potential military leaders, so the IQ test is invented to rank people.  Society has fully embraced the ‘normal’ bell curve, and people are ranked across it.  The ideal is no longer the normal or the average; the ideal now is the above average.  The ideal becomes the thin part of the bell curve that says you are better than everybody else.  This is literally why we have grades in school.  The purpose of grades is to rank. First, you normalize everybody along the bell curve, and then you rank them.

But how does this influence our understanding and practice of discipleship? If you take the concept of the ideal as being above average, and layer in the clergy-laity split, the resulting conception is that a person is called to ministry if they are above average in reading the Bible. Or one is called to ministry if they are above average in their spiritual encounter. Or one is probably called to ministry if they are above average in their passion for the gospel and sharing it with others.  Our philosophy of discipleship has and continues to follow the same paradigm of schooling.

Today we have the value of educating everybody in the Bible and every person having their own relationship with Jesus, but we have an implicit normalized bell curve of discipleship, and we still have the same process for everyone.  Ford’s goal was to create uniform widgets out of people and our philosophy or paradigm of discipleship has not gone beyond that.  We are still trying to uniformly create widgets of disciples.  And the resulting widget it not a disciple in the rabbinical sense as much as it is a person who is educated. Because if we look at the trajectory of history, a disciple is still defined by their education, as defined by the Age of Enlightenment.  And because of the Industrial Revolution, we want to mass-produced them.  In our process of mass producing widget-disciples, we have the form of church that we have, where they are laid out like school and have big sermons.  Churches are often designed and laid out the exact same way as a school, with a teacher up front with everybody sitting in their own happy, little rows to be uniform, to be controlled.   That is an atmosphere and a layout that is intentionally designed to control behavior and create conformity.  That is how many churches have envisioned making disciples.

In the last 30 years, we have gotten a little better.  We have gotten more creating and developed different paths and methods of discipleship.  But we still hang onto the implicit goal of the uniform widget disciple.  We still do not see the individual.  We still do not see individual calling, and our discipleship has not yet embraced the biblical call for everyone to be a disciple-maker.  We haven’t gotten there yet, but hopefully this is somewhere we can start to turn the tide.

Currently, most churches are using one of three basic processes of making disciples.  The first one is the mass-produced member, where the discipleship process is really a membership process, focusing around membership classes including more about the denomination of the church and discipleship is ‘process’ of becoming part of the church.  This is extremely common method.

Another very common method is what I call the HR-recruitment strategy.  This is where you may or may not have membership, but you need people to staff and volunteer all of the roles within a church.  You need ushers, you need hospitality team, you need Sunday school teachers.  So the discipleship process looks like inviting people to connect, giving them a ministry gifts test, and then plugging them into the church ministry that seems like the best fit for them.  And that is what that church calls discipleship.  Most churches that do not have membership and if you ask them their philosophy of discipleship, it involves plugging a person into a ministry team and letting them serve.  Because in that paradigm, service is discipleship.  That’s a very shepherdy kind of paradigm. This is not a derogatorily statement; shepherds can make disciples. But they know how to do that by being in proximity with people. The basic paradigm is that when we are all each other doing something, then we are disciples.  The limitation of this is that it is just one fifth of what it means to be a disciple and one fifth of what it takes to make disciples.  The HR-recruitment strategy is the shepherd’s version of making disciples.

There is another method that is less common, but definitely employed, which is the curriculum strategy.  It is usually a book, which is often paired with a workbook with some great teaching videos. In this paradigm, disciples are made by reading the book together and discussing it.  This is a very teacher-esque philosophy of discipleship.  Again, that’s just one fifth, and it doesn’t meet everybody’s needs.  Personally, I read near 100 books a year.

My husband reads 100s of articles on the web, but he does not read books and does not learn well from them. So the teacher-paradigm of using curriculum to make disciples does not work for him.  Also, he is an introvert.  The worst thing I did for our marriage was make him volunteer on the usher team with me.  That did not go well.  So if you are asking him to serve other people publicly, he is not going to fit.  And if you are asking him to read book, he doesn’t fit in that.  So how does my husband be a disciple?  How is he being made a disciple of Jesus, when 2 of the main strategies completely miss who he is as a person, and miss the way God created him?  It is not a character flaw that he doesn’t learn through reading a book.  It’s how God made him.  So there has to be a different method of discipleship in order to reach him.  He is not a widget.  He is not a blank slate.  Disciples are not blank slates either and yet we treat them like that.  They come into church and our discipleship process, they come into a small group, and we think of them as a blank slate of having never encountered God’s truth, having never heard God speak to them, until He did so through us or our discipleship process.  And that is not very acknowledging of the sovereignty of God and that’s not very acknowledging of the passion of the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth.  Because that’s the way culture thinks about education, that’s the way the church thinks about education.  And the church has not been more creative than culture in leading people into truth and walking with them on their journey of discipleship.

Something that is very important to me whenever considering discipleship is that a true philosophy of discipleship or a true method of discipleship needs to be employable by every person, every place, every time.  If your philosophy of discipleship or your method of discipleship focuses on everybody coming to church, then it is not movemental.  If your philosophy or process of discipleship involves everybody going to specific home group or hearing from a specific teacher, then it is not movemental.  If your philosophy or process of discipleship cannot happen from any person to any other person, then we have missed it.  We have missed the mark. If you require your disciple-makers to have a seminary degree or really have amazing theology in order to make disciples, then it is not movemental.

We have missed the mark.  And we have thought too highly of our own theology.  All of us have broken theology.  All of us have things when we get to heaven and say, “Oh, I didn’t know that.  I totally messed that up.”  There can’t be this level of exactness.  There can’t be the requirement of coming to a specific place.  There can’t be this level of maturity even that’s required in order to make disciples.  Because, if we do that, we have missed the beauty of Jesus promising to be truth incarnate in our midst.  And we have missed the threshold of what is means to be a disciple-maker, which is not a call to specific level of education or to a specific power of calling, but to everyone.

Our discipleship process has to grow beyond our concepts of education in our society.  It has to be something that becomes much more viral, much more movemental, much less rigid, much more enchanted, and much more dependent upon the Holy Spirit to lead us, to guide us, to speak through us.  Only the Holy Spirit can actually make a disciple through an immature believer and it’s exactly supposed to be that way.


2 thoughts on “A quick, educational history on Discipleship

  1. Maurice Smith Reply

    We create classrooms. Jesus creates yokes.

  2. Steve Simms Reply

    Great history, concise & easy to follow, Jessie. You hit the nail on the head with the 3 ways commonly used to “make disciples.”

    I would like to propose a 4th way, that I call ekklesia, the lost word of the Bible. Ekklesia is what the Greek New Testament called an assembly of Christ-followers who met “in the name of Jesus” to be actually led by the living Jesus (not just to be taught about Him). Here’s a book I wrote about how we can return to ekklesia in the 21st century. http://amzn.to/2lQmfL9

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