The High Adventure of Discipleship

Today the blog is devoted to the Introduction to my new book–Preaching in the Soundbite Age: How a Collaborative, Image Drawn, and Skeptical Generation Can Reshape Our Sermons. It’s a case for radically changing the way we preach and teach.

I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you will give me your feedback, or share my email signup link with someone you think could be interested!

The Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage. It is a not a journey to a shrine which has limitations of space and time. It is a journey into life, a life so rich no limitation of space or time is able to contain it. But is this how we perceive the Christian life? We go to church, worship, study your Bible, etc. But where do they call for the high-adventure?

Francis DuBose, God Who Sends

The people in our churches are crying for the high adventure. They’re dying for it. Especially our young people. They might not know they want it, but they do. Behind the entertainment, the adrenaline-fueled Sunday morning gatherings, and the guaranteed-no-fail discipleship programs, people in our churches hunger for something they haven’t quite defined.  

They hunger for participation, not spectatorship, in the kingdom of God. Once they’ve experienced it, they don’t want to return to the passive sidelines, watching their faith but not shaping it. They’ve found the joy of discovering what God is doing with and through them and living the process with their community. They want to know why no one has told them before that discipleship isn’t a program but an on-the-field, glove-in-hand team sport.

It’s not an easy sell.

Most worshipers are used to being fans in the stands, not players in the arena. They won’t warmly welcome a radical change in that plan. They aren’t going to be excited about taking the reins of their own spiritual growth—at first. They might be like the high school classes I taught years ago. 

Used to sitting in their seats and listening to the teacher lecture about sonnets and Steinbeck, those teens looked at me like I had asked them to teleport to Neptune the first time I said, “What do you think?” The strange new teacher asked them questions instead of feeding them information. What was this sorcery?

Yet within a few days, those same students engaged in conversation about Shakespeare, voiced their opinion on Jonathan Swift, applied Jane Austen to their daily life,. and told me that classes had never been so interesting. I even had the rare privilege of a senior coming back to thank me for teaching her to think, thus getting her into her college of choice.

Pedagogy has known for decades what churches haven’t grasped—people learn, and change, when they engage and invest.

Monologue had created a dislike of literature and a distrust for its relevance in my students. What is it doing in our churches, where the stakes are far higher? The adaptive change necessary for preaching and teaching in a completely new way will take time, finesse, and patience. Do we want to be whipped by the potential backlash? Is the difficult work, both in crafting something new and in convincing people to accept it, worth the effort? Can we afford the possibility of attrition in a church already beset by loss?

Here’s the more important question to ask:

Can we afford not to?

In a spiritual climate where we’re already losing our next generations in high double digits, can we afford not to put in the struggle to retain them—not for their butts and bucks but for their, and our, spiritual well-being? Just as in the Babylonian exile, their well-being equals ours, too (Jeremiah 29.4). The older generations’ faith is only viable as it gets passed on. It’s only fresh and flexible as we’re learning from others.

If we are not making disciples with our preaching and teaching, what are we even doing on Sunday morning?

As I wrote this last year, I sat in my home office, in isolation because of COVID-19. Racial trauma roiled our country. We feel the stirring of God doing something different in his church. We know in our hearts things will not be the same when this is over. For some of us, we’ve been feeling the need for a wave of change long before pandemic forced our hand. We’ve been looking out to sea, watching the horizon, waiting for the sails to come over the edge that signal God taking us on a different journey. Some of us have been longing for it more than we ever imagined. 

Things will not be the same. Preaching should be one of the things that changes.

We’ve realized the value of community and the preciousness of input from others in this time of uncertainty and isolation.

Interactive preaching is the perfect tool for putting teaching and community together to disciple our churches. 

Our people don’t need programs and workbooks. Why would we offer them a classroom when we could be putting them on the field? They need to be equipped, as the early Christians, to disciple themselves toward being like Jesus. They don’t need information so much as awareness of how to filter the information they’re already surrounded with 24/7. They need the skills to learn deeply, slowly, and permanently, the things of God to change their lives from the inside out. This we can give them, if we learn to change ourselves first.

Pastors, preachers, church leaders, boards, and elders—it’s time.

Jesus Would Make a Terrible Church Planter

Jesus doesn’t appear to have any judgment at all.

We’re in week three of exploring what it would have been like to meet the real Jesus for the first time. What would an encounter have felt like, looked like? How would it have changed us? Who is Jesus, really? We’ve been introduced to him. We’ve met him in baptism.

And now here. d2eb5-img_4584

“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

(Matthew 4, John 1)

The next time we see Jesus encountering people for the first time, he’s calling them. Straight up telling them to follow him. No introductions. No “Hey, what are you doing, do you think you could take a break for a while?” Not even a “Who are you and what’s your resume, anyway?” Just this script which, if we take at face value, we cannot think of as anything but odd.

Jesus has bided his time for thirty years in Joseph’s house making end tables. Now he’s been baptized, beaten satan in the wilderness, and finally, the time has come. He gets to start what he came for. Key is in the ignition, suitcase is packed. And because he’s God and all, he’s smart enough to know what many leaders, Christian and otherwise, have yet to figure out. He needs a team.

He gets a chance to assemble his core, his dream team. I’ve worked in church planting—I know how important your core team is. You live or die by those people. If anyone could compile a dream team, Jesus could.

And what does he do? He goes and snags anyone who happens to by lying around that day with nothing else to do. Fishermen taking a break. People napping under trees. Grown men who can’t join him unless they bring their brothers and friends along for moral support. Seriously, who does this? He’d be fired as a manager.

a1fd6-img_0309I know—Jesus prayed and all. I understand all the theology behind this. But looking at it as a normal person would have at the time, which is how were trying to see Jesus in this series, it makes no sense. It’s a desperate, loser move. Jesus’ team is doomed from inception.

Yet something compels these people to follow him. It may be the same thing that compels us.

The disciples knew of Jesus. They would have heard the talk about his unusual “fringe” ways and his ability to handle God’s word. They’d understand people were watching him to be a big deal. They would have known he was an up and coming name.

They would have known no one with those credentials would bother with them.

No rabbi would bother with day laborers and farm workers. They amassed followers from the educated elite of Jerusalem. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Nathanael—they did not imagine any teacher would stop to discuss the things of God with men such as themselves. They had their place—and it was limited.

Yet, one day on the side of the lake, when nothing else is happening, a rabbi calls them. The rabbi calls them. He is not joking. Is it really any wonder they drop everything and follow him? We look at that with such amazement but really, if we realized the gravity of what’s happening, we would not be so surprised.

A rabbi is calling me. Rabbis don’t call fishermen. Rabbis don’t want people like me. I have never been good enough, smart enough, connected enough to be noticed by a rabbi. And now The Teacher has used my name. Mine. I can’t drop this net fast enough.

It would be like Lionel Messi telling some young kid in the vacant lot, “Hey, stop kicking that soccer ball around and let me teach you how to play.”

You know what else is amazing?

A rabbi is calling you.

He’s looking at you, wherever you are, whatever your employment, level of education, lifestyle, or background, and he’s saying, “I want you. Follow me.”

a3c7f-img_4682Look at Jesus’ first encounter with potential disciples. Really look. It’s like he just glances at people and says, “You want to come? You’re in.” You skeptical? You’re in. You uncertain? You’re in. You unworthy? You’re in. Whatever, people. If you want to come, you’re in.

Think about that for just a minute, and let it sink in how people must have felt about that. Let it sink in how we should feel about that.

We’re in. We’re called. On those days when you feel all kinds of not enough, put yourself on the shores of that lake and hear those words – follow me. Whoever you are. Wherever you’ve been. No matter what. Be mine.

Jesus’ first encounter with his followers was not a test of fitness but a call toward fullness.

He doesn’t ask for a resume; he asks for a reception.

I think that’s a Jesus we can love.

I think that’s a Jesus we can serve.

I think that’s a Jesus we can follow.

In the words of one of my favorite quotes of 2015:

Jesus created a motley crew, plucking us from every context and inaugurating a piecemeal clan that has only ever functioned with mercy. We should be grabbing hands, throwing our heads back, and laughing that God saved us all, because surely this is the messiest family ever and He loves us anyway. Our shared redemption should keep us grateful and kind, because what other response even makes sense? (Jen Hatmaker)