Conversion: Thoughts on the Great Commission and Discipleship

I’m sitting in my regular coffee shop, reading, milling around on the Internet, and I’m listening to a man on the couch eight feet from me try to convert a man sitting in the adjacent armchair. The man in the armchair is elderly. He wears a UCLA cap and a fleece pullover. He’s been there for over an hour, listening to this other man talk about his devotion to Jesus. As he sits, his children and grandchildren have been coming in to check in on him to say hello. They’ve been shopping or engaging in some of the festivities that are happening downtown—doing things that this man is too tired to do.

The man on the couch is a regular. I haven’t seen him often, but I know he must be because another regular whom I see every time I’m in here no matter what time of day is sitting in a different chair, chiming in and asking questions with some familiarity. The man on the couch is in his 40s, clean cut. He prods the elderly man:

“Have you ever been to church?”

“Do you know what Jesus says about you? That he loves you?”

“Do you know what the book of Revelation says about the end of the world?”

This question has piqued the interest of the regular who sits opposite the elderly man. He asks a question about the worm who never dies and what that means. He asks about the mark of the beast. The two of them believe that it will be a chip implanted in our skin which will be the only means of making purchases anywhere.

“Would you get a chip implanted in you if you knew it were the mark of the beast?” the man on the couch asks.

“Oh I don’t know about that,” the elderly man replies kindly.

This goes on for quite some time; all the while, the elderly man in the armchair smiling and responding politely, excusing himself from the conversation for those moments when his grandchildren come running into the coffee shop to tell him about something they’ve seen or done outside.

The man on the couch keeps repeating this phrase: “Jesus called me to follow him 21 years ago. I figure the least I can do is give him my life by telling people about him.”

Up until a few years ago, I would have thought this man was noble. Yes, some of the directions he guided the conversation were bizarre. I’ve never thought scaring people into the arms of Jesus was the way to go. But he was kind. He had a genuine heart and desire to see others come to Jesus, and he wasn’t afraid to share that.

Here’s the problem: Is that what making disciples looks like? In Matthew 28, Jesus commands his disciples to make disciples themselves of all the nations. He doesn’t follow that with any sort of explanation for how to go about making disciples. But he doesn’t have to. The entire gospel preceding this point has been a handbook on how to make disciples.

Call someone into relationship with you. Walk with them. Challenge them. Help them acquire the language and knowledge necessary for discipleship. The timing will always be different for each person.

Brad Kallenberg in Live to Tell describes this much. He gets into philosophy of language, the ways in which we acquire knowledge, but the most important practical point is that those who are not Christians are typically not equipped with the knowledge necessary to make a solid commitment to follow Christ. First, they need to be disciples.

That sounds backwards. When I was a kid in Sunday School, discipleship class was for the really churchy kids. The ones who had memorized whole epistles and large sections of the gospels. That led me to the conclusion that discipleship was the meat of Christian faith, that new converts—let alone those who had yet to accept—were not ready for the challenges that discipleship had to offer.

But why should discipleship just be one thing, one level of difficulty? It’s clear from the gospels that Jesus’ disciples were novices. They did not understand what Jesus was doing—they only believed that it was something important, something worth devoting their lives to. Aren’t the best relationships born that way? When someone is willing to pour significant time into us, we respond in turn, wanting to seek that person out, to pick up some of their interests, hoping of course that they’ll pick up some of ours.

And Christianity is a highly relational faith. Much of Jesus’ teaching is about human relationships and how they affect our relationship to the kingdom of God. Above all, we are called to love people, to care for them, to be humble and put their interests before our own.

Sounds like a really great friendship to me.

For Kallenberg, this is the only way to effectively bring someone to Christ—to let them see your life completely, to be ushered in to and made familiar with the language of Christianity, before making a decision. Is that decision prompted by the Spirit? Sure–why not? Ultimately, that isn’t what is at stake here. Rather, the concern is how we have been defining discipleship, expecting that people first convert and then be discipled in order to make that decision stick.

What would American Christianity look like if our focus were discipleship rather than conversion? Wouldn’t that be a more faithful commitment to the command of the Great Commission?

I probably won’t see this elderly man again. I don’t think the man on the couch will either. Even if he had tried the discipleship route, to befriend this man, one could argue that the chances of them striking up an enduring friendship were probably slim—that in this case the most effective evangelistic method was simply to come at it straight and ask the guy if he was a follower of Jesus. I can’t argue with that first point—who knows what would have happened? Friendship is volatile, relationships fragile.

So is a commitment to Christ born out of fear, confusion, or coercion.

by Joel Harrison

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One thought on “Conversion: Thoughts on the Great Commission and Discipleship

  1. heroldsroses says:

    Amen

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