John Ortberg has some interesting things to say about this. He points out that there are three kinds of people that relate to Jesus.
- There are strangers. The crowds, the people that are curious, who have come to see him, but who simply never get close for whatever reason.
- There are admirers. People who have seen what he does, heard what he says, and say, “That’s good, we like this”. They follow him because of what they see, but it never really changes them.
- Then there are followers. People for whom life is never the same again. They commit to Jesus, they choose his way above any other way and they follow.
But, Ortberg argues, we’ve added a group between admirers and followers. We’ve added users. People who use Jesus to get to heaven. Our modern gospel has become the minimum we need to do in order to secure a place in heaven. And our discipleship has become the minimum we need to do in order to cause the least offence in heaven.
Look at one of the most commonly used illustration about becoming a Christian–The Bridge illustration. What is the focal point of this illustration? Salvation from sin. Two words which needles to say we have to explain to anyone not used to this kind of language, but that we use anyway! The whole point of the bridge is that one is destined for an eternity separated from God if you don’t trust Jesus to get you across the chasm of your sin on to God’s side. Now this is all true, but it’s not the whole story. It is an incomplete gospel.
Jesus was not just in the business of saving souls, he was in the business of transforming lives.
It is this narrow gospel that has caused us to reduce wholehearted discipleship to a matter of religious practice. If we say we believe the right things then we are deemed to be okay. We’ve made following Jesus more about what we know than about what we do, how we live.
A second issue that impacts upon how we understand true discipleship is literacy. We are, by and large, a literate generation. In the UK government figures suggest that literacy rates area as high as 99%. In the church we rely very heavily on being literate. But it was not always so. In the late 19th century around 20% of the adult population of the UK couldn’t sign their name with a mark of any kind. Go back to the First century and I wonder what literacy rates were then.
Now I’m not suggesting that First century followers of Jesus we illiterate, but access to written material was significantly less than it is today, and yet they managed to be fully devoted followers. My point is this: our modern literate society has caused us to define discipleship with reference to reading skills. Perhaps because we’ve produced Ortberg’s “users” it’s natural that we would measure them by literate standards because we haven’t taught them to live differently, just think differently.
This then is the root problem. We’ve reduced the gospel to a minimum level of an expressed commitment which in turn produces disciples of religious practice rather than transformed living. What we need to do is recover a better perspective of what the Bible has to say about following. We’ll pick this theme up in the next post on the matter.