After Church: Commercializing Discipleship

16 But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. 17 When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. 18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “ All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

– Matthew 28

Jesus wants to make disciples, followers of Christ. He wants them to show the world the enormous power of pure love, driven by God above. Imagine what a task it is for the disciples to show this, not only through miracles but through speech and action. They were effective precisely because they spoke against all the cultural norms of their time; they gave a message that they personally believed transcended all boundaries, that Jesus’ commands as the Son of God went above all earthly powers and cast down the wisdom of the wise. There wasn’t anything comparable at all to the glory of the Lord. They weren’t friendly and cute about it, but blunt; it was their way or the highway. Check out Ana

Just imagine meeting one of these guys. Sure, they had their own faults, but they had faith. They believed it with all their heart, and it showed; a billion Christians in the world currently attests to that fact. This was real, not some thing I put into my mental scheme and then closet away so I get to “heaven”. They also weren’t a particularly cuddly bunch: check out Ananias and Sapphira:

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.

Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.”10 And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.

Does a handshake and a smile go that long a way in comparison? Does telling people “Jesus loves you” really that effective? How is that love expressed, other than to remove yourself from culpability for your actions? There’s something deeper than “how I feel” here;  they were killing people, and they were still spreading the Gospel. Their words were backed up by actions and their lives. God made known that He was in their midst and responded accordingly. How many of us can say that?

I ask this in the sense of evangelism. How, exactly, can the Gospel be spread in the modern era? Was it easier to do this in a pre-rational era? I would imagine so! In their time, religion was a factor in nearly every aspect of human life. If you were part of the Roman Empire, social mores demanded participation in public religious rituals to the pantheon of the Roman (previously Greek) polytheistic system of which the Emperor was the living embodiment. Failure to obey led to death – or martyrdom, if we’re showing the Christian side to this phenomenon.

We don’t have much of the same fervor they had at that time; the playing ground has slowly changed beneath our feet. Sure, there were atheists and agnostics in every age, but they weren’t as great an influence as the success of science has had on culture. The emphasis on an increasingly materialistic view of the universe has, in turn, shown the “lack” of success on the part of religion to stop disease, etc. This is all a matter of perspective, of course, but anyone who doubts the power of judging religion on “results” has plenty of good and bad history to examine. Even Christianity, as a human institution, isn’t immune to these effects.

A great deal of people would say that the current movement into Africa and Asia solely works due to a lack of education. Since they don’t have the mind of the Western world (at least in terms of post Enlightenment rationalism), Christianity appears an enviable reality, and thus they accept it due to a combination of wishful thinking and ignorance. That’s quite harsh, I think, but it’s definitely the opinion of our current movement away from organized religion and into some weird hybrid of social justice and atheistic beliefs. It’s an obvious fact that Christian affiliation has gone down in America within the past decade, moreso in liberal denominations than in conservative ones. It’s a downward trend nonetheless, and that tends to bother a great deal of people: how do we get people into churches?

That’s exactly the wrong frame of mind. Sure, hell’s not a particularly great destination, but you can’t place a religion (yes, it is a religion) without the heart of the enterprise straight at the center. That’s what we are missing in this discussion; we like to pass off the issues that aren’t “helpful” to “snag” someone. It’s almost a sin of omission, akin to lying. Commercialization, advertising, big prayer meetings, etc – these glamorize the lifestyle. They make it easy. There’s the first step, certainly, but that can’t be all that you give people. See the Great Comission above; you’ll notice that it doesn’t say to make Christian (as most know, they were first called “Christians” at Antioch for ease of identification). Instead, Jesus tells the Twelve to make disciples of all nations.

The Synoptic Gospels (the first three, in our current canon) don’t tell you that belief is all you need – it says you need to be a disciple. The term disciple is derived from the koine Greek word mathetes, which means a pupil or an apprentice (to a master craftsman). A disciple is different from an apostle, which instead means a messenger, he that is sent. While a disciple is one who learns from a teacher, in other words a student, an apostle is one sent to deliver those teachings or a message to others. In fact, the last part of John doesn’t even contain the Great Comission at all – just an admonishment for Peter to tend to Jesus’ sheep (i.e., disciples).

What has happened, with our churches, is that we’ve reduced the entire Christian message to a creed, a set of beliefs to which we adhere, rather than a faith commitment. We’re disciples; Christian almost feels derogatory, in some sense. It’s descriptive for those on the outside, certainly, but in truth we’re just fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s not a one time commitment; it is an entire life that you dedicate to this faith, and if you’re not up with that, you’ve been taught exactly the wrong thing.

To frame this in a different sense: Christianity has transformed into a set of true propositions that one either believes or disbelieves. Most people frame apologetics in this way, used to “give an account for your faith” and disprove the other person. Apparently, the reality of being unable to prove or disprove God’s existence hasn’t stopped anybody from pursuing this path; they think browbeating and arguing will get someone to “belief” in Christ as savior. Why would that ever work? You’ve given the playing field to the dominant culture before you’ve begun the evangelizing.

If we want to evangelize, we must believe that Christianity isn’t something derived from human wisdom, or that can be found naturally through “the light of reason”; rather, it’s an otherworldly force. We all believe that, to some degree; why not show it? It’s not subtle, nor is it always pretty, but it’s the truth. I imagine we can’t be that afraid to offend, or else no one would ever be saved. The whole message IS offensive because it doesn’t fit in with the standards of human nature.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.