Discipleship and The Institution

Justin Bertram
begun in May of 2003
last edited in December of 2006
introduction

Many of my friends and I feel a powerful pull on our lives to go anywhere and do anything for Jesus. We also feel compelled to be engulfed in communities of “brothers” and “sisters” where we can live out our divine calls in Christ. Yet we are confused and frustrated because now it seems that the quest to know Him has been compounded by questions about who we are and where we belong. The journey to being more like Jesus is always filled with questions, but I have never before heard questions like these asked, let alone answered.

Of all the things I wish to accomplish by writing this, there are a few things I wish to avoid. I want to avoid any polarization. This article is not about “us vs. them;” no one is the enemy. I want to avoid any pride. This article is not about “smarter vs. dumber;” there is only One who is wise. And, ultimately, I want to avoid more confusion or frustration. This will be difficult, though, because I will cover many topics without going into much depth on any particular one. Even so, I still believe it is profitable to make the reader intellectually aware that these questions are legitimate, important, and have answers (though not necessarily mine).

Before I set the context for the questions though, I must issue a strong caveat. Very little, if any, of what I will discuss can truly be understood by reading. It must be experienced. I oftentimes wonder if writing about it gives the opposite impression since so many books, not least in Christendom, boil down to a few “easy” steps toward success. I have little interest in providing a quantitative guide to these topics (as if one could ever be provided) and great interest in giving the reader a taste or otherwise qualitative perception. That is why my efforts have yielded a story more than anything else.

discipleship – a personal history

In the winter of 1999/2000 a man named Lewie Clark introduced me to “discipleship.” I had recently become a follower of Jesus, and although I didn’t realize it, I desperately wanted guidance. Lewie and I met the previous summer in a Bible study that he led, but we had never spent time cultivating our relationship outside of that study time. During my Christmas vacation from the University of Arkansas Lewie called and scheduled a dinner with me. I remember being a little puzzled at this because we had no apparent reason for meeting. Our ensuing conversation over sandwiches at McAlister’s Deli changed the course of my life.

From the moment we sat down together I could tell Lewie was engaged in our conversation. He didn't look at his food or the floor or other people in the restaurant. He looked at me. He was intent on listening to everything I had to say. His interest was disarming because our conversation wasn't about philosophy or politics or any other “interesting” topic. The conversation was about me. He asked me profound questions about my dreams, ambitions, and my relationship with Jesus. He would often pause and think about my answers and ask more questions, probing my statements for their true meaning. He told me things about myself that I had never realized - things he had observed during our study time together and in my interaction with others.

When I got in my car to drive home I was incredibly excited. I was excited about being alive. I was excited about following Jesus. Looking back I now understand that Lewie had bestowed tremendous value on me through our conversation. Our conversation was so surprisingly refreshing that I didn't notice the specifics at the time, but it is clear that Lewie took specific steps to communicate his interest in me and his interest made me feel incredibly valuable. Consider that he pursued a meeting with me, asked me deep questions, took my answers seriously, pointed out strengths in me that nobody had ever noticed - and that was just the first 10 minutes. What's more, the ease with which he engaged me was disarming and trust inspiring. I already respected Lewie a great deal for his wisdom and teaching insight, but after our conversation I admired him for his courage, his authenticity, and his faith. I felt as if I had just had a conversation with Jesus. I didn't realize that was to be the first of many such conversations.

In the next months and years Lewie taught me about discipleship – a simple, but radical, way of life bent on fulfilling Jesus’ commission to His followers (i.e. to teach people to obey all that He commanded and baptize them – Matthew 28:19-20).

This instruction came through the friendship that he forged with me. Just as Jesus’ twelve disciples learned about His Kingdom and were prepared to proclaim its arrival by being “with Him” (Mark 3:14), so too did I learn by being with Lewie. He spoke truth into my life just as Jesus had done with his disciples, but his exemplary friendship impacted me more profoundly than his words. By being my friend he taught me about friendship, revealing to me what Jesus had revealed to him and thereby fleshing out Jesus’ words from John 15:15. He encouraged the development of both my heart and mind, displaying to me the radical call of Jesus to live for the glory of God in a thought provoking and deeply heartfelt way. He bought me biographies of men that stirred my soul. He took me with him to speaking engagements (he taught frequently at local church and para-church organizations). He introduced me to other Godly disciples. He asked for my prayer and opinions on weighty matters. He identified with and admired my convictions. He nurtured within me an abiding love for the Scriptures. He told me that God had something extraordinary for my future. He didn’t tell me what he thought I should do. Instead, he partnered with the Spirit to encourage what Jesus was already doing in my life in order to push me to the next level. He fanned the flame of the Spirit within me. What’s more, he was the initiator, the pursuer. Just as Jesus first loved me (1 John 4:19), so did Lewie.

As I already mentioned, during our first dinner together Lewie asked me about my dreams. I told him that I considered proclaiming Christ in a foreign country. He immediately began exploring the idea with me and before dinner was over he told me of an opportunity with an organization called the International Mission Board to be a “Journeyman” missionary. A few weeks later I received a package in the mail with the details of how to put my dream into motion - a package that Lewie had requested on my behalf. A few months later Lewie was in Brazil with some other elders from our church. While he was there he took the initiative to sit down with an American missionary working in the city of São Paulo named Danny and ask him, “What if I could send you a young man who could make disciples?” (of course that “young man” was me). Danny was reluctant at first because he felt a Journeyman would need a fair amount of supervision – supervision he might not be able to give. Yet Lewie explained to Danny the vision of discipleship he had shared with me and the potential he saw in me to carry it out. Danny soon agreed to create a new missionary position for me to come and fill. When Lewie returned back to the States and shared this with me I was stunned. Other than Jesus himself, no one had ever been such an advocate for me. I cannot express the love and empowerment I received through that experience. I could go on.

Practically speaking, Lewie’s method was anchored by questions (among other things) that were like keys to unlock meaningful moments. No question was asked more frequently and with more genuine interest than, “Why?” As Lewie joined the Spirit in molding me to Jesus’ image, we discussed many grace-covered areas of sin in my life. He took my sin very seriously, but he never tried to convince me that my sin was sinful. He didn’t remind me how bad it was in order to motivate me not to do it anymore (which was how sin in my life had normally been treated). Rather, he explored with me why I chose to disobey. By God’s Spirit, I already knew my sin was sinful. I already understood the gravity of its destructive power, but at that time I rarely understood my deep motivation for sinning. The overly simple explanation of, “I am just a sinner, I am depraved,” wasn’t adequate. He showed me how to dig into my thoughts and feelings and find the snowball that caused the avalanche (e.g. disappointment, frustration with God, loneliness). He provided me with the spiritual, mental, and emotional wherewithal to understand and be honest about my deepest motivations, to not just understand what my sin was but why I was sinning. We discussed Scripture, but even then, he didn’t quote it to me as if that would magically solve the problem, nor did he simply say, “Believe the promises of God.” His unassuming questions helped me realize how much he wanted to understand me and my problems and not just give me advice or artificially smooth things over with Scripturally proof-texted platitudes. He wished to provide a context of healing where I would experience the cross-centered love of Jesus. He entered into the pain with me. He empathized. He got as close as possible to actually bearing my pain like Jesus had on the cross, and he powerfully demonstrated his own belief in the promises of God. Through his instruction I learned not just what to believe but how to believe it. The sin mortifying joy I experienced was unprecedented in my life.

Lewie’s questions demonstrated his commitment to using the raw materials of life as a primary teaching medium. It was simple, profound, and refreshingly different. As I said before, he didn’t simply give me advice or quote Scripture to me. Nor was our time centered on or even facilitated by some curriculum or book. It was about the relationship, about our lives coming together in friendship in Jesus’ name. It often appeared like Lewie wasn’t prepared. He didn’t have a topic of discussion every time we met. He didn’t have a glorious vision to cast. He simply had his life to share. This made him much more prepared than it first seemed because every question I asked was met with disarming interest and surprising insight. I say “surprising” because many times there was no “answer,” but that in itself showed me that men of God are filled with the Spirit as they follow Jesus, thinking His thoughts after Him. They aren’t filled with rigid answers to all of life’s questions. At the end of the day, that was a glorious vision – a glorious vision of Jesus.

Before my relationship with Lewie no one had ever modeled for me, in a relational way, what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. By “in a relational way” I mean that nobody ever established a relationship with me where the relationship itself, the dynamic between us, was the facilitating avenue through which I learned what it meant to be like Jesus. Nobody came along side me, got to know me, asked me about my life and my dreams, listened to me, helped me face my fears and insecurities, shared my struggles and joys as if they were their own, and peered deeply into the Scriptures in an effort to answer tough questions and cultivate a profound love for truth. I had listened to countless sermons, witnessed other Christians on Sundays, attended Sunday school, participated in a “youth group,” but I was always left with a nagging feeling that there was something more, something that I was missing. My relationship with Lewie changed that. I saw in Lewie a rich, authentic love for Jesus. The way he talked about him was beautiful. I could tell they were best friends. The way he lived for Him was compelling; it was clear He was Lewie’s King. Lewie’s passion for Jesus and making disciples of Him was utterly contagious. Amazingly enough, transferring his own zeal for Christ to me was the most loving thing he (or anyone else) could do. In the end, I began realizing that for so many years I was missing authentic love.

Thankfully, though, God didn’t stop there.

While I was finishing college God gave me a relationship with Mark Kincannon. Mark was working for a local church whose services I attended, and, at the behest of Lewie, I approached him and asked him if he would disciple me. I really didn’t know what I was asking for, but looking back the basic question I was asking was, “Will you be my friend?” He said yes and we embarked on a relationship that changed my life. I found Mark to be a very easy person to know. At least once a week I would ride my bike to the church’s building and we would sit and talk for over an hour. Those were very important times for me because, like Lewie, he bestowed a special value on me when we talked. Periodically he would ask a deep question, challenge my thinking, or help me understand my motives, but for much of the time he just listened. Among other things, this simple act showed me that he loved me; he cared about what was going on inside the deepest part of me. Mark would be the first to admit that he didn’t do or say anything special, but he did. I am a different man because I saw Jesus through the love of Mark Kincannon.

I was eager to fill the position that Lewie helped me secure in Brazil so I remained at school during the summer after my junior year to take a full semester’s worth of class. Most of my friends went back home for the summer, which meant that, aside from my studies, I spent my time in private meditation and with Mark. As we spent time together it was clear to Mark that I enjoyed teaching. Near the end of the summer he approached me about leading a group of underclassmen in a study of apologetics during the fall semester. This was a massive testimony of Mark’s love and his belief in the Spirit of God within me. Further, before I left for Brazil Mark had me return and share a bit of my story in front of the whole church. Again, this simple act was like Mark waving a banner in the air that said, “I love you, I’m behind you, you are following Jesus well!” It was profoundly encouraging.

After I graduated from college I went to Brazil, spending most of my fifteen grueling months in the mega-city of São Paulo. During this time, God blessed me with John Marshall. Between the time that Danny created my new position and the time that I arrived in Brazil, John and his family moved to São Paulo to make disciples of college students, the same demographic with whom I was to work. I knew from the moment that I met John that I wanted to work with him. He had a spirit of compassion and friendship that was magnetic. For over a year we walked the same path together, watching God work in our midst with the college students. John imparted a great deal of wisdom to me, but the most important thing he imparted was love. Among all the things I missed when I was in Brazil I missed friends, and John was just that. He helped me understand Brazilian culture, pay my bills, meet students, and otherwise be a successful missionary. He confided in me, prayed with me, and modeled how to be a God-fearing husband. I would have done anything for him and him for me. I am not able to put into words the thankfulness that fills my heart at the thought of him.

Occasionally teams of Americans would come down to Brazil to help us perform a particular ministry task. Hosting such teams, while profitable, was always a great deal of work. This shocked me during the first team that I helped host. Being an introvert, I tend to withdraw from people when I get tired, and this was the case with the team as well. Unfortunately, some of the team perceived this as dislike or apathy toward them. However, John (like Jesus, Lewie, and Mark) was a great advocate for me. He knew my introverted tendencies and, without my knowledge of any of this, explained to the team the truth of the situation. Soon after, he came to me and encouraged me to sacrifice myself for the student’s sake. He helped me realize that it was a great opportunity for discipleship. Brazil was very difficult for me, but John was always there helping me stay on track. That wasn’t the last time we had a heart to heart conversation.

During my relationship with John, God used my experiences in Brazil to remove my simple, naïve, American perspective on the world. Before I went to Brazil I didn’t even realize how much I took my American, “christian” worldview for granted. Thankfully, God changed this. I cannot fully explain what it is like to have one’s vision of Jesus expanded by living in a different culture. Much of my worldview was challenged and discarded for the better simplicity of following Jesus in a way that would cross cultures. I saw that attempting to cross cultures with my own cultural, “christian” distinctives is unnecessarily difficult and usually destructive. I learned that if I wished to make disciples I could not transplant my personal understanding of “church” and then fit Brazilians into it. There was no other way but to simply build relationships with them and teach them to follow Jesus (Matthew 28:20). My time in Brazil left me with, among other things, a great sense of God’s glory manifested in the single-minded, culture-crossing simplicity of Jesus’ call to be His disciple.

Occasionally during my time in Brazil Lewie would email me or we would talk on the phone. We talked often about the process of discipleship and he affirmed many things he had previously said. However, it was clear that God was showing Lewie something new. He spoke about community and how as John Marshall and I worked among the students we were, in essence, extending to the campus the community we had between the Spirit and one another. I was intrigued but didn’t fully understand. He told me that he had recently assembled a group of guys together and was having amazing experiences discipling them one-on-one and amongst each other (i.e. in community). As before, I had difficulty grasping all he described because I simply had not experienced it. However, he encouraged me and told me that all the guys were eager to get to know me when I returned home.

When I finally did arrive back in the United States I was in a tumult of spiritual warfare, doubt, and counter-culture shock. As Jesus would have it, the community of men He led Lewie to establish was an amazing source of healing. Much like when I am tired, I withdraw when I am in pain or under stress. However, the same kind of question asking, loving listening, and encouragement that was so profound before served me well again as I was drawn out of my painful reverie by (among other things) individual conversations with Lewie and Michael Copas (whom Lewie had been discipling for some months) as well as being able to share my Brazil story during our community gatherings. The profound loneliness that paralyzed me in Brazil was replaced with an overflow of Godly friendship. It was the dawn of one of the darkest nights of my soul.

As these events unfolded I began to understand Lewie’s new excitement on the phone those many months ago. Lewie had always discipled men one-on-one the way I have already described and he continued doing so with each member of the group, but bringing those men together provided a new, rich context for discipleship. When we came together we knew we were loved at the least by one other person there (Lewie), and as we continued together the love Lewie had for Jesus and us spilled over into our relationships with each other. I think we all came to see that we could not only effectively reinforce for each other what Lewie was doing with us individually, but we could find new ways to love and push each other deeper into relationship with Jesus. The call and creativity of each individual was being tapped so that we were, in essence, discipling each other in largely unforeseen ways. As the months passed we deepened our fellowship together – eating, conversing, praying, studying, sharing each other’s burdens, etc. It completely changed my view of Jesus in community.

Another integral piece of the discipleship puzzle of my life is John Piper. Lewie introduced me to John Piper soon after our first dinner together, encouraging me to read Desiring God. Read it I did, and after some soul searching battles with God, I fell in love with the picture that Piper painted of Him from Scripture. In God’s Passion for His Glory Piper writes, “When I was in seminary, a wise professor told me that besides the Bible I ought to choose one great theologian and apply myself throughout life to understanding and mastering his thought, to sink at least one shaft deep into reality rather than always dabbling on the surface of things. I might in time become this manís peer and know at least one system with which to bring other ideas into fruitful dialogue. It was good advice.” Indeed it was. For Piper, Jonathan Edwards was the subject of his study, and as Edwards is to Piper so Piper is to me. I have read many books and sermons and listened to countless hours of sermons, especially in Brazil. Simply put, he helps me understand the Bible and fans the flame of discipleship within me. I feel strongly that, at least in a very narrow sense, John Piper has discipled me.

As all this time passed I became more and more enthralled with Jesus and this picture of Him in discipleship. Being a disciple and making disciples of Jesus became a mountain of passion, and weekly services and classes fell into the shadow that mountain cast. It wasn’t as if I no longer found services, etc. profitable (although they often weren’t), but the profitability of discipleship loomed so large it almost completely eclipsed everything else. In other words, discipleship started to become the most important means in my life of ministering and being ministered to.

the institution

Growing up, I attended church services most Sundays, was actively involved in a “youth group,” and was formally educated at a private Christian school essentially run by a local church. However, my relationships with Lewie, Mark, John, and my post-Brazil community caused me to question how I could have persisted in those environments for so long without experiencing this authentic, Christ-exalting love. Granted, I met Lewie and Mark through church activities, but our meaningful time together had nothing to do with any program or class that the church sanctioned. It seemed as if there were two churches, one that was institutionally defined by programs, classes, services, etc. and another that was relationally defined by simple, Christ-like love and friendship.

I began to be dissatisfied with the status quo of the “institutional church,” (as I will call it). I have heard many stories of people being dissatisfied with “church,” stories of people deeply hurt and consequently embittered, stories of people wandering from place to place in search of an institution that “does church” their way, etc. To be clear, my dissatisfaction was not like this. I wasn’t disgruntled by something negative or scandalous about the institutional church. I was gripped by something positive, something exquisite, namely the vision of Jesus and his church that I had experienced with my disciplers, my discipleship community, and (most importantly) that I was increasingly uncovering in the Scriptures.

Before going further though, I need to clarify what I mean when I say “institution.” One of Merriam Webster’s definitions of “institution” is, “an established organization or corporation (as a college or university) especially of a public character.” This is mainly what I mean when I say “institution” or “institutional church” – the established, public organization around the people. The organization consists of many things including professional titles, services, programs, guaranteed salaries, non-profit government status, classes, conferences, retreats, bulletins, websites, various wares, etc. To get a clearer picture of what I mean think about passing a building that has a sign saying “Catholic Church” or “Baptist Church” or “Bible Church.” Those buildings, whatever their sign says, are not churches. A building might house a gathering of Christians, but (generally speaking) it is the people gathered that is the church, not the building. The people could meet anywhere they wanted and they would still be a church. That is an example of what I call the “institution.”

Further, Merriam Webster defines “institutionalism” as, “emphasis on organization (as in religion) at the expense of other factors.” This definition hits close to the center of what I am trying to communicate. Simply, the institutional church’s focus on organization has certain emphases, many of which I believe exceed their Biblical warrant for attention. These institutional emphases come at the expense of many glorious aspects of Christ-like life. It is clear to me that institutional thinking de-emphasizes love. It de-emphasizes discipleship relationships. It de-emphasizes the simplicity (and complexity!) of following Christ.

This examination of the institutional church has led me to a broader examination of the other institutions in my life. One thing that seems clear is that as a Westerner I think in terms of institutions by default. The way I thought about my life growing up was mainly focused on the institutions of which I was a part. For example, who my friends were and what I did was based on where I went to elementary school, junior high school, high school, college, and church, not least. For almost twenty years institutions defined my main relationships and categories of thought. This institutional thinking was revealed in the fact that I defined myself, in many ways, by where I went to school (e.g. “I'm a Razorback”), what I studied in college (e.g. “I'm a computer science major”), where I went to church (e.g. “I'm a Baptist”), etc. Generally speaking, this institutional involvement was based on activities, with which there is absolutely nothing wrong. To restate, I see absolutely nothing wrong with being involved in any of those institutions or, in some small way, defining one’s self by them. However, in all that institutional involvement I never stopped to question what affect it was having on the most important part of my life, my relationships with Jesus and others. However, the more unfortunate thing is that I didn’t even consider relationships to be the most important part of my life. I do not think that institutionalism was fully responsible for this, but I do think it played a significant role.

discipleship and the institution

One of the major reasons my focus on relational discipleship grew was the mounting Biblical support I was finding for foundationally orienting my life on Jesus in this way. I can only mention a fraction of that evidence here, but let me say first that “disciple” just means “follower.” To be a “disciple of Jesus” simply means to be a “follower of Jesus.” The Gospels ring with the call of Jesus to follow him (Matthew 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 10:38, 16:24, 19:21, Mark 1:17, 1:20, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21, Luke 5:27, 5:28, 9:23, 9:59, 9:61, 18:22, John 1:43, 10:4, 10:27, 12:26). To follow Jesus means that we obey all that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We are to be like him. We are to do the types of things He did the way He did for the same reasons and in the same power (i.e. Spirit) He did them. This is the core of what it means to be His disciple. Yet Jesus says very little about any other trappings. We have been given a few precious symbols – baptism, the Lord’s supper, the cross – but He adds nothing else. He continues this austere trend in his description of what it means to follow him in John 15. I believe that this passage is the verbal culmination of Jesus earthly ministry because he explains the goal of his three years with the disciples and of the consummation of God’s salvific work throughout history, namely the crucifixion. The crux of his explanation is simply love. To love is what it means to follow Jesus. To love Jesus, then others, is the summation of all His teachings; love is how disciples are made.

I was also discovering how Jesus ultimately taught His disciples about love. Here again, John 15 gives great insight. Jesus said, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you…This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends…I have called you friends.” Three years after choosing his disciples that they might be with him (Mark 3:14), he gave them this explanation of their time together – love. The next day he brought his time on Earth to it’s appointed climax by demonstrating his love for his friends through his God-exalting death on the cross - just as he described. It is important to note that this love was, as all true love is, primarily a God-focused love, bent on glorifying the Father (Psalm 86:12-13, Romans 15:8-9, Ephesians 1:4-6). For Jesus, this kind of God-exalting, demonstrative love was primary in his life; it was the basic building block of his ministry. I was beginning to see that if I was to follow Jesus then this kind of love must be primary in my life as well. I had no choice but to glorify God by demonstrating my love for my friends through laying down my life for them.

It may sound strange, but I do not think I would have understood these objective, Biblical insights if I had not experienced the subjective love of my disciplers. But, then again, it isn’t so strange because that is the way God makes disciples of Jesus in the first place. Jesus, the Gospel, and the Bible all appear as foolishness until God makes us understand His love, at which point we submit to Him, fall in love with his Son, and put our faith in Him as our only hope and source of satisfaction (1 Corinthians 5:18, Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:19). Why, then, would the primary mean by which we come to follow Jesus more closely be any different? That is to say, if we were saved by God calling us into fellowship (i.e. a relationship) with his Son (1 Corinthians 1:9) why would we not grow (i.e. be sanctified) through relationships, primarily with Jesus and then with others through Him? With that understanding, it is easy to see how God has mightily used my relationships with Lewie et al. to help me learn how to follow His son, and also to help me understand why it is important for me to make disciples in this Christ-following fashion. I didn’t learn this because I went through a Bible study with my disciplers, although we studied the Bible deeply. I didn’t learn this because of some framework of principles they applied, although they applied many principles. I learned this because they loved me, because they demonstrated the cross of Jesus to me. The love of my disciplers enabled me to understand that disciples of Jesus don’t follow models that Jesus set forth, they don’t mainly follow the strategies of Jesus, they follow Jesus; everything else flows from that. Following Jesus is mainly an identity, not an (institutionally defined) activity.

Although I do think that discipleship relationships occur between people in the institution, the form of “discipleship” that is intentionally practiced in the institution is rarely akin to what I am describing. Most times when I hear people talk about discipleship they are typically referring to a class, study, or program in which they participated. Perhaps it was a weekend retreat or series of conferences focused on discipleship or an entire summer or semester curriculum looking deeply at the life of Jesus and his discipleship ministry. It could even involve some type of “mentoring” relationship where people are matched together from a pool of candidates. The discipleship of which I speak is emphatically not those things. It may contain a curriculum, participation in a class or conference, and a retreat here and there, but those things are peripheral, even coincidental, but definitely not central. The person of Jesus is central. The relational communication of love (i.e. friendship) is central.

My discipleship relationships helped me separate my understanding of following Jesus from my understanding of the institution. They helped me to understand that Christianity was not mainly about “accepting Jesus Christ as your lord and savior” or “getting saved” or “asking Jesus into your heart,” and that following Him was not mainly about having a “quiet time” or “attending church.” Those clichés, so often used in the institution, do not include the verbiage that Jesus used nor do they embody the fullness that Jesus meant when He called a follower to Himself. Yet the fact that they are used so often gives the impression that they are the most important aspect of following Jesus, whether those that use them really believe that or not. Unfortunately, those phrases, and others like them, seemed to have been embedded into my subconscious understanding of Christianity. My disciplers helped me see the contrast between those ideas and Jesus’ stunning declaration of discipleship in Matthew 16:24. He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”

Further, I began to see the contrast between institutionally focused methods and Jesus’ and Paul’s methods. Jesus’ could have done anything he wanted to make disciples, but he chose to have twelve men “with Him” (Mark 3:14) so that he could love them, befriend them, and therefore teach them about His kingdom and lay the groundwork for His church. They were to be lead servants, advancing His kingdom after He left. If they hadn’t “gotten it,” I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that Christianity would have ended. Likewise, Paul had a variety of methods available to him, but he chose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. He lived among people as an example to be imitated. He loved through pain, laying down his life for them. The nature of his letters (most of the books of the New Testament) demonstrates this. He wrote as one intimately acquainted with the readers, expressing his love for them through encouragement, prayer, and tears. The more I discovered and explored the Scriptures’ emphasis on love and the more I experienced that love through my disciplers and my discipleship community the more I realized that following Jesus was utterly different than anything in the world. Being “in” an institutional church or attending services or classes did not seem to be a priority to either Jesus or Paul.

Another thing that my discipleship relationships taught me is the difference between interpersonal and institutional relationships. Interpersonal relationships are foundationally defined by the identity of the people involved and are not changed by anything related to an institution. In other words, interpersonal relationships don’t change because one person might go to a different school, attend the services of a different church, or believe a different set of evangelical doctrines. For example, I have several friends with whom I have never gone to school, worked, attended church services, played organized sports, etc., but we are friends simply because we met and enjoyed one another’s company. On the other hand, institutional relationships are foundationally defined by one’s presence or involvement in an institution, and if the institution changes or one’s involvement with that institution changes then the relationship changes correspondingly. For example, in college I had many relationships with my classmates, but I never spent any time with them outside of class other than preparing for a test or doing homework. Those relationships were not interpersonal; they were institutional because our time together was specifically and exclusively related to the class (i.e. institution) of which we were a part. Institutional relationships are not bad or unhealthy; I affirm that they are a good and necessary part of life. However, it was frustratingly easy for me to confuse institutional relationships with interpersonal relationships, and that confusion negatively impacted my life.

Corollary to this, I realized that interpersonal and institutional relationships are mutually exclusive. That is to say I can have an interpersonal relationship or an institutional relationship, but not both at the same time with the same person. Interpersonal relationships are foundationally defined by the identity of the people involved, and institutional relationships are defined by one’s presence or involvement in an institution. I believe I can move from one type to the other, but both “identity” and “institution” cannot define a single relationship at the same time. For example, I originally met Lewie Clark through an institution (“The Summit Church”) when he led a Bible study I attended. At that time, our relationship was institutional because the only reason we had the relationship was because of the Bible study, which was an institutional activity. However, several months after the study completed, Lewie called me and asked me to dinner. At that point our relationship ceased being institutional and became interpersonal. To this day we maintain and tremendous interpersonal discipleship relationship despite the fact that my life transitioned back to college, to Brazil and back, and away from attending services at “The Summit Church.”

At this point I must further quantify discipleship relationships. While discipleship relationships are at least interpersonal, they are a great deal more. I have had many interpersonal relationships that I wouldn’t consider to be discipleship relationships. Discipleship relationships go much, much further than both institutional and regular interpersonal relationships. They delve deep into the very core of one’s soul. In discipleship relationships, first with Jesus and then with others through Him, a person is freed to be who God made them to be. Fears melt away and trust is freely exchanged in the love and unity only Jesus can sustain. I believe this is the context of many of Paul’s statements such as, “I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4), “I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort” (2 Corinthians 4:7), “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy” (2 Timothy 1:4), “I have you in my heart…I long for you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:7-8), “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1), “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?” (1 Thessalonians 2:19). I could go on.

We are made in God’s image, and we were made to reflect that image into the world. Among other things, God's image is loving fellowship. The Father, Son, and Spirit are one. Their fellowship is the most loving, most deep, most authentic fellowship in existence. As his followers we must reflect this image into the world by having deep, authentic relationships of our own. We do this first by being in relationship with Jesus, by abiding in him and his love.

As he so often does, the Apostle John gives us the guidance we need. On the most important of nights, the eve before his death, Jesus speaks with the disciples. In chapter 15 he says,

Abide in me, and I in you…Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit…By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples…As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.

Here Jesus draws a parallel between his relationship, his abiding, with his father and our relationship, our abiding, with him. As the Father loved Jesus, so Jesus has loved us. As Jesus keeps his Father's commandments he abides in his Father's love. Likewise as we obey Jesus commandments we abide in his love. But there is more. Jesus not only abides in the Father; the Father abides in Jesus. Likewise we don't simply abide in Jesus; Jesus abides in us as well. This type of relationship with his disciples was a primary goal of Jesus. He continues in John 17,

Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one…I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me…I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

In this passage we continue to see the relational interplay between Jesus and the Father, but Jesus takes things a few steps further. It isn't incredibly hard to think that we might have a relationship with Jesus like Jesus has with the Father. But here Jesus says that we “may be one” even as Jesus and his Father are one. In other words, one of Jesus' primary goals was not only to give us a relationship with himself, but to give us the same type of loving relationships with one another. Further this relational oneness between Father, Son, and disciples is, “so that the world may believe,” that the Father sent Jesus.

Discipleship relationships, in both an individual and communal sense, are important and effective because when a person loves someone else in the name and the power of Jesus Christ for His sake there is a power exercised and a glory displayed that is unlike anything else in the universe. God’s image, His very essence and nature is brought to bear on the world. Discipleship relationships are life-long, life-changing relationships because God’s glory is displayed in them and experienced through them. It is not unlike what occurs when we are made to understand the love of Jesus in the first place; it is life changing. It is very difficult to articulate, but if one knows Jesus then I believe one can imagine what it would be like to experience a relationship with another person like their relationship with Him. I believe that is the type of relationship that Jesus had with the disciples, Paul had with many of the disciples he made, and that we are commanded by Jesus’ great commission to pursue.

From the very beginning of the learning process I just outlined, Lewie was consistently reading and studying contemporary American culture, philosophy, etc., to get a handle on the world-view shift he was seeing in men my age. He was realizing more and more that “my generation” related to the world quite differently than his own.

Enter postmodernism.

a growing dichotomy

Although postmodernism has been a definable cultural influence for the past few decades, it wasn’t on the radar of mainstream, American Christianity until around the turn of the 21st century. I believe the affect of postmodernism on our culture has been one of the main catalysts that God has used to drive the recent inspection of the institution. At the center of the Christian debate have been the large philosophical and social differences between modernism and postmodernism and how the contemporary, modern, institutional church could impact this growing demographic.

One paragraph cannot give an adequate definition of just what postmodernism really is. However, I will say that postmodernism does, at least, the following:

The dichotomy between modern and postmodern has revealed many areas of ineffectiveness in mainstream institutional church philosophy and strategy. Not content with this lack of effectiveness many Christians, Lewie not least, began analyzing the complexities of postmodernism’s cultural influence and rightly questioning the strategy that those within the institutional church had adopted, or not adopted, in order to address it. Most agree that postmodernism divides people along generational lines with generations under 40 years old having significantly more postmoderns than older generations, and most agree that traditional services and “Sunday school” are barriers to reaching postmoderns.

However, the proposed solutions to these issues are varied. Some institutional churches offer “contemporary” services with upbeat music geared to appeal to young married couples and singles. Some institutional churches preach about “relevant” issues. Some have combined their preaching with other forms of media (video, art, etc.). Some have created new service environments using candles and couches. Some have dropped Sunday School for some sort of “group” strategy that meets in the evening during the week. Some have moved their service to some other time than Sunday morning. Many have used a combination of these as well as other creative programs.

It needs to be said, however, that not every institutional church that has made such a change has done so explicitly to reach postmoderns. Although this trend is changing, many institutional church-goers in America don’t even know there is a growing dichotomy between people influenced by modern and postmodern thought. Despite wide documentation and publicity in many Christian books and websites the reality of postmodern philosophy and its affect on our society are often misunderstood and, at worst, denied. Many institutional churches have implemented such changes merely because “times have changed” or something similar. It is true that times have changed, but that explanation is overly simplistic.

the real questions

Along the way of questioning the strategy for reaching postmodern individuals something surprising happened. Questions began popping up about not just the form or content of services, etc. but the entire foundational structure of the institutional church. Many of us began looking at services, etc. and instead of asking, “How should we fill them?” we began asking, “Why should we fill them?” We began to ask each other questions we had never asked before. Questions like the following: “Why do we center our churches on services?,” “Why do we say ‘go to church’ when the church is a people, not a place?,” “Why do we make the most important time of the week a classroom setting?,” “Are we really making disciples and fulfilling our God’s commission to us?,” “If Sunday morning activities were removed from the average Christian’s life, what would be left?,” “If discipleship relationships (first with Jesus, then with others) are the most important, God-glorifying thing then why do we seem to be prioritizing our lives around institutional activities?”

It is important to explain that these questions though, unlike the others, are not about effectiveness. While we have been led to these questions by examining our effectiveness, these questions are not about effectively “reaching” postmoderns or anyone else. They are about Biblical faithfulness, faithfulness to Jesus. They are not so much about being effective disciples of Jesus as they are about being disciples of Jesus at all. We want to know what it really means to follow Christ, to be a Christian. We want to know why Jesus conducted his “ministry” like he did. We want to know what came into the heads of the eleven when Jesus said, “make disciples.” Ultimately, we don’t really care about what it means to be modern or postmodern; we want to know what it means to be children of God.

To restate, it is crucial to know that these questions are primarily about Biblical faithfulness and not effectiveness. According to His great, sovereign grace, God blesses and uses many things we, His children, do. Just because He ultimately uses them for His glory doesn’t necessarily mean we should continue doing them. Consider the un-believer who is unwittingly used by God to teach a disciple about His character, should that person continue in their un-belief? By no means. Also, consider the men and women who became followers of Jesus through the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. Was Luther justified in calling for sweeping, radical reform even though God used the Catholic church? Yes, he was absolutely justified (note, however, that I don’t equate myself or anyone else I know with Martin Luther, nor do I equate our current situation with the Reformation).

The bottom line in our quest to follow Jesus is what He has revealed to us in the Bible through the Holy Spirit. To address these questions we absolutely must strive to understand the Bible as it was intended to be understood which means seeing through our American culture, seeing through our paradigms (modernism or postmodernism), asking historical questions about how the institution came into being, asking why it takes the forms that it does in our country, etc. and getting through to Jesus himself. I echo N.T. Wright’s comment in The Challenge of Jesus, “For me the dynamic of a commitment to Scripture is not ‘we believe the Bible, so there is nothing more to be learned,’ but rather ‘we believe the Bible, so we had better discover all the things in it to which our traditions, including our “protestant” or “evangelical” traditions, which have supposed themselves to be “biblical” but are sometimes demonstrably not, have made us blind.’” This is what we have been trying to do amid all these questions.

the institution in our lives

At the risk of oversimplification, I will say that there exist at least (but not limited to) four identifiable camps. Roughly put, the first camp believes that, at its foundation, real disciple-making has so little in common with the “institutional church” that the institution should be abandoned in order for the real fullness of disciple-making to be realized. The second camp more or less believes that the institutional church is the appointed means by which God will impact the world and the institution should encompass all work to that end. The third camp sees the point of the first camp, but even though they disagree with the second camp about the scope of the institution they believe that the institution, despite its flaws, is still the best option. The fourth is the largest camp of all, containing those who are unaware that this is even a topic of conversation.

Nice categories are helpful in discussions, but unfortunately this description is a gross simplification. While it is true that many, including myself, fall into one of these four camps there are also many who simply don’t know what they believe or their beliefs transcend these distinctions. Each person’s experiences have guided them into, around, and beyond any easy classification.

For many of us who have years of experience in “institutional church” these questions are strange and unsettling. Never before have so many people in my sphere wrestled with such foundational questions. Our identity in the institutional church is being called into question. This has proven to be a very powerful force. Many don’t feel they “belong” or “fit in” any longer and question whether they ever really did. Many of those who still feel like they can function in the institution question whether they still should. Many are finding that our identity is mistakenly wrapped up in where we belong rather than to whom we belong; it is mistakenly wrapped up in what we do rather than who we are. It seems to me a very strange phenomenon, but it is true that institutional thinking has dominated so powerfully that many cannot imagine fulfilling their destiny in Jesus through any other means. People are having a hard time answering the question, “Can you imagine thriving in your Christian life without the institution?”

In their struggle to find God’s best, some of my friends are paralyzed by the tension between these ideas of following Jesus and what they see as practical Christianity. By practical, I mean that the institutional church provides many conveniences that make participation easy. These conveniences include childcare, nice buildings, professional staff, enjoyable music, smiling faces, generally uplifting messages, and ample places to “plug” into ministry. Compare this relative ease to what is required to make disciples as I have described. One must often be inconveniently, and sometimes painfully, flexible with their time, money, and other resources to meet the spiritual, relational, and practical needs of the other members of the body. One must be ready to live oftentimes without concrete definitions of “where,” “when,” and “how,” but instead must be ready to stand on the rock of the love of Jesus in whatever Bible-affirming way He demands. One must be ready to sit eye to eye with brothers and sisters (and therefore Jesus!) in honesty, humility, and repentance rather sit in a pew or chair. In spite of these difficulties, however, I am not dissuaded that they are thoroughly Biblical, profoundly Christ-exalting, and therefore necessary.

toward an answer

As I continued in my post-Brazil community and studied the Scriptures my passion for Jesus and what I saw as His vision of discipleship grew. As I grew I also maintained my presence in the institutional church. The dissatisfaction I experienced up to that point wasn’t enough to send me away from the institution. Whether I should remain in the institution or not wasn’t even a question at that point, though it was obvious to me that it was my time with my disciplers, my friends, that encouraged my spirit, instructed my mind, and gave me an overall clearer picture of who Jesus really was. It became more and more obvious to me that I learned what it meant to be a disciple and how to make disciples through those relationships and my personal time with Jesus, not my time in the institution.

As this realization developed my status in the institution changed. As I have already mentioned, I fall into one of the “camps” that I described above. Although I sympathize with the third camp, I have come to believe that real disciple-making has so little in common with institutional church that the institution should be abandoned in order for the real fullness of disciple-making to be realized. This sounds radical, even rash. However, I strongly believe that form reveals foundation, and the form of the institution reveals that its foundation is not Jesus because Jesus didn’t do any of those institutional things. At the same time, I don’t commend abandoning all institutions dedicated to Kingdom work. I think there is a great deal of fruitful work done with the poor, needy, sick, and suffering through institutions administered by disciples of Jesus. However, the difference between them and institutional churches is that they focus on a single area of practical ministry and don’t confuse their particular institution with church.

My wife and I, along with several other couples and friends, stepped away from the institution in mid 2003. It has been an amazing and bizarre experience. “Amazing” in that I really think and feel we are doing what Jesus, his disciples, and Paul did. “Bizarre” in that the longer I am away from the institution the more clearly I see I was missing the simplicity and authenticity of Jesus’ call. We no longer have our focus drawn to services, classes, or Bible studies and trying to rigidly apply the principles that we learn there. We focus on following Jesus, that is loving Him and others. That doesn’t mean we aren’t exposed to solid teaching and Bible study, it just means we aren’t exposed to it in the institutional way. We both read and study on our own and discuss issues with our disciplers, our friends/community, and each other as well as asking them what they are studying and learning from them. The difference is that the foundation of Christ-like love in those relationships makes the truth of Scripture shine with an incredible light. Applying the Bible in a relational way where Christ-honoring love is the goal does not dull its double edge or nullify its objectivity; it accentuates it and causes Jesus to stand from its pages more powerfully. As Paul says, “the goal of our instruction is love” (1 Timothy 1:5), “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10), and “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

As well, not being involved in an institutional church has not significantly narrowed our opportunities to serve or meet new people. Instead of volunteering to serve food at a potluck or handing out bulletins before services, we cook and serve food to people in our home getting to know them and seeking to encourage them in their pursuit of Jesus. Likewise, instead of meeting new people in services or classes we are introduced to them by our friends or simply introduce ourselves. Since many of our relationships were institutional before we left the institutional church it was hard to imagine life without that means of building relationships, but with some Spirit-driven creativity we have found no lack new friends or opportunities to serve.

Since we stepped away from the institution I have been much more keenly aware of my Kingdom responsibilities. For years, institutional thinking clouded how I understood my responsibilities in the body of Christ. I was often hindered by what is called “diffusion of responsibility” - a situation where I believed “others” were doing the necessary work and I could coast. I have really begun to feel the paradoxically light weight and easy burden (Matthew 11:30) of following Jesus, discipling my wife, bridging to the lost, etc. with no institutional aid. I no longer have the option of inviting someone to an event in the hopes they would hear something penetrating, of hearing from someone else what I should be telling them myself. The help for doing such things now comes only from Jesus himself and my fellow disciples, namely my community of friends. Sometimes it is difficult, sometimes overwhelming, but I am always left with a glorious sense of fulfillment.

Also since we stepped away I have realized that all the really significant moments in my spiritual life have been in relationally intimate settings – either alone with Jesus, with my discipler, or with a small group of close friends. I have not mainly matured through participation in worship services or other normal institutional means of spiritual formation. Reflecting on my journey, I can see this clearly. My “call” (as the Apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 7:18, Ephesians 4:1, Philippians 3:14, etc.) occurred when I was alone in the middle of the woods. My main growth from then until I went to Brazil occurred when I was alone with Jesus, Mark, or Lewie. My growth in Brazil occurred either with John or in abject loneliness, crying out to Jesus for help. When I returned to America (as I coped with dizzying cross-culture shock) I again grew mostly in my times alone with Jesus, with Lewie, and my time with the band of brothers to which Lewie introduced me. My profitable times alone usually consisted of prayer and meditation on Scripture by reading the text directly, learning about the text from a good book, or listening to a sermon off the Internet. I believe this dearth of traditional institutional influence made my transition away from the institution smoother than it would have been otherwise.

Over time, my extra-institutional experiences have made more and more sense. As a follower of Jesus my fundamental identity is relational, I am a child of God through my relationship with Jesus. Why, then, would the rest of the most important things in my life be any different? Relationships are the things that matter most, first with God and then with others through Him. Jesus himself even states that our two greatest commands are to, “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) and to, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). The need for relationships in these commands is implied because no one can love in a vacuum.

To be sure, this is not a step away from objective, Biblical doctrinal integrity. Obviously, King Jesus is the one who maintains the truth of His Gospel and its corollary doctrines, and we would do well to meditate on our place under His headship, particularly in this regard. Yet, we His children are called to be practical instruments of that maintenance. To that end, institutions typically rely on preaching, classes, formal membership, statements of faith, etc. as the main provisions for doctrinal integrity. I do not believe there is anything wrong with those things in and of themselves. They can be quite helpful in certain contexts. Yet, generally speaking, they are put forth as the main, if not the only, provision for upholding truth among the body. Even in situations where preachers/pastors extol the benefits of friendships and small groups where discipleship relationships can thrive, they themselves are oftentimes not making disciples by laying down their lives in intimate relationships like Jesus and Paul. Understandably, this oversight renders their admonitions all but meaningless and, despite their efforts, keeps the full weight of doctrinal integrity on the ill-equipped shoulders of institutional activities.

On the other hand, discipleship relies on relationships as the main practical provision for doctrinal integrity. Practicing discipleship as the foundation of one’s practical ministry does not unnecessarily risk the compromise of doctrinal integrity. Rather, I believe it is the best way to initiate and maintain it. Among all the doctrines that are taught in institutional churches, the “doctrine of love” (as I call it) cannot be foundationally taught in an institution for reasons that I have already explained. Further, the context of discipleship relationships offers an unparalleled opportunity to teach the objective truths of the Bible and to make sure that the one receiving the instruction really knows and applies the Scripture to his life. A discipleship relationship of love and trust puts the discipler in a position to speak potentially difficult truth into the life of the disciple. It provides the discipler with the opportunity to clarify confusing theology and explain its relevance with personal, practical application. It provides a context for all of God’s attributes (not only His love) to be explored and fleshed out. When a disciple is made, his doctrinal integrity and overall fitness for ministry (even vocationally) is not foundationally influenced by a seminary degree or the completion of a workbook or class. It is based on his relationship with God first, his relationship with his discipler(s) second, and then his relationship with the greater community.

All this doesn’t mean that discipleship doesn’t include any institutional forms of instruction. In my experience, discipleship relies a good bit on academic institutions where research is performed, ideas are critiqued, books are written, debates are held, etc. I simply wish to make clear that those types of things are best experienced in the context of a discipleship relationship of love and trust. In fact, I believe those things find their deepest meanings in such a context.

This also isn’t a step away from structure and organization. It is, however, a step toward a very different form of structure and organization. I do not deny that structure and organization are required to advance the Kingdom. The question is, “What kind of structure is most Biblically faithful?” I have heard it say that God created everything with structure. This is true. Yet it is also true that the structure of every living thing God created is organic. Organic structure has unique and wonderful characteristics. It is not a cold, hard structure, but a fragile one that requires the right environment to thrive. It is not a clean, precise structure, but a messy, adaptive one. It is one that, with the right stimuli, heals with time and in many cases becomes stronger than before. It is a structure so complex that men have not been able to reproduce it; clumsy, rigid machines have often been the fruits of such labor.

I believe this kind of organic, living structure flows out of the interaction between two people; it is called “relationship.” The language used when discussing relationships reveals their implicit structure. Relationships are “built,” “repaired,” and “broken.” Consider a relationship of intimacy and trust with a long-time friend; practically anything could be said in comfort and confidence. The structure is solid, yet flexible, bending to the dynamic needs of both individuals. However, consider a relationship with a co-worker based only on mutual employment and a few similar interests, heart-to-heart talks would be highly out of character. It’s not that the co-worker himself isn’t capable of hearing your deepest thoughts and feelings, it’s that the relationship wasn’t constructed with that capacity. The structure is rigid, only comfortably allowing certain types of interaction.

On a larger scale, when various discipleship relationships converge, a structure called “family” arises. Such is the case with the body of Christ. We are a family of disciples. According to Jesus, we are spiritual brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers (Matthew 12:49-50). It is amazing to consider that almost every time Paul directly addresses his readers he refers to them as his brothers, and he refers to those whom he has discipled as his children. The church itself is referred to as the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10) or “household of God” (Ephesians 2:19, 1 Timothy 3:15). Even the leaders, the elders, of the family of faith are required to lead their immediate families well before they can lead a larger, spiritual family. The clear implication of 1 Timothy 3:15 is that the elder’s role of husband and father relating to his immediate family is a model for how he should lead the larger, spiritual family. In other words, the necessarily exhaustive time a father takes to disciple his wife and children should be a guiding standard for eldership (and leadership in general) in the family of faith. Moreover, as a child implicitly understands the love and authority of his parents and, therefore, his place in the family “structure,” so too, I believe, will disciples understand their, and other’s, place in a family whose “structure” is facilitated by Father-like elders laying down their lives for their family in a disciple-making capacity.

I have often heard organic structure contrasted against institutional structure, yet it appears that this organic, relational structure is what the Bible commends, all the way from our individual relationships with Him to Jesus’ marriage relationship with the church to our love-filled, familial relationships with one another. Yet, rather than approaching it from a foundationally relational, familial perspective, institutions rely on a combination of programs, a hierarchy of professional clergy, and approved “lay people” for the leadership structure and organization. Rather than allowing Father-like love and servant-hood to be the foundation for leadership, such responsibility falls on one’s position in the institution (e.g. youth pastor, children’s pastor, etc.). Rather than building rapport and trust with those they lead, like a father would with his wife and children, people are often just told who their leaders are. Rather than pooling practical resources by loosely knitting individual families of faith together into a sort of extended family, each with their own elder leadership and practical distinctions, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people are lumped under a relatively small number of elders or worse, one “senior” pastor. This institutional tendency to centralize isn’t ultimately healthy for either the leaders or the led. It places far to much responsibility on too few which means those few are overburdened while many others are not being discipled. Ultimately, I believe focusing on discipleship relationships (i.e. making disciples) and “building” a family out of such relationships provides a more Biblically faithful and, therefore, effective structural and organizational paradigm.

why is this important?

We must not shirk the weight of these questions. We need to face them. Indeed we must face them in order to become more like Jesus. For the sake of the glory of God in our lives we cannot walk down the path of least resistance. We must stand on Jesus himself, the Scriptures, and history to rightly face these questions, this confusion and frustration. I believe that we must even embrace these questions knowing that following Jesus always pushes His followers into such difficult arenas.

In my mind, the question of discipleship and the institution is one of Biblical faithfulness and love in the name of Jesus, namely, “are we following Jesus in love in a way that is faithful to the Bible?” Jesus said in John 13:15, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” To say it another way, how we as children of God act toward one another, that is to say how we love each other as a “household of faith” (i.e. church), is how the world will know we follow God. Also, how we love each other as a household will determine if our actions will be worthless or fruitful. According to 1 Corinthians 13 it is possible to have “all faith, so as to remove mountains” and to “surrender my body to be burned,” but if love is not present then “I am nothing” and “it profits me nothing” respectively. Ultimately, the question of if we love as Jesus commanded us is one of the primary ways we know if we are children of God at all. The Apostle John makes this clear in the fourth chapter of his first epistle, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

The subject of love is of staggering importance in Scripture. It is so important, in fact, that after Paul admonishes the Corinthians to pursue gifts of prophesy, miracles, healing, speaking in tongues, interpreting, and even teaching he finally says, “I show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, emphasis mine), with which he follows his famous treatise on love in 1 Corinthians 13. In that treatise, Paul says love is greater than faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13) and everything we do should be done in love (1 Corinthians 16:14). Elsewhere Paul says that faith works through love (Galatians 5:6), love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10), the goal of our instruction is love (1 Timothy 1:5), Peter says that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), and John describes the very nature and character of God as love (1 John 4:8, 16). John quotes Jesus saying, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you…If you love Me, you will keep My commandments…This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends…I have called you friends” (John 13:34, 14:15, 15:12-13, 15).

The conclusion from all of these statements is stunning and of utmost importance. Based on the presented Scriptures, I do not think it is an overstatement to say that love, as for the glorification of God and our enjoyment of Him, is the most significant aspect of the Christian life, and the most significant expression of that love is to follow Jesus by laying down one’s life for one’s friends. Further, if we as His broken, sinful followers do not love as Jesus loved in the grace that He gives us, then Scripture makes clear that we do not know Him.

There are not only significant implications for us as individual followers of Jesus but for our local communities of believers as well. Because our humanity is so profoundly twisted and depraved we need to be changed from the inside out. This is exactly what happens when Jesus establishes a relationship with one of His children; He changes their nature from the inside out, and they become new creations. However, the Bible also makes clear that we must persist in new life otherwise we will not be saved, proving that we were never renewed in the first place (Mark 13:13, 1 Corinthians 15:1,2, Colossians 1:21-23, Hebrews 3:14). Discipleship precisely involves this work, to seek to make sure that our brothers and sisters are genuine followers of Jesus, that they continue following Him, and are in unity with one another in Jesus (Ephesians 4:2-3; Colossians 3:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13, 10:24-25). It is because discipleship relationships are rooted in the power and truth of Jesus and our individual relationships with him that they provide a context for healing and change unlike any other. We must have relationships in this context, making disciples of one another through love in the laying down of our lives. As a community of Christ-followers we cannot take each other’s healthy, Spirit-filled lives for granted. We cannot assume that a person is changed; we must foster an environment of discipleship so that each member of the body is in discipleship relationships. If we fail to do this I fear we are missing out on one of the most basic commands and joyful privileges we have as followers of Jesus, namely to love His body in a salvation sustaining manner.

More generally, this is important because truth and the relating of truth are indivisible and both must be deeply understood to fulfill Jesus’ commission to us, namely to make disciples. If Jesus is the truth (John 14:6) and Jesus is God and God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) then surely His love is a profound, albeit mysterious, form of truth. In my view, therefore, the best way to relate truth is through personal relationships centered on the love of God. To be very clear, I am not an advocate of some happy-go-lucky, feel-good, love-is-all-you-need, all-you-need-is-love vision of the Christian life. If the truth I was entrusted to convey was fun and easy and if the commands I had weren’t so clear about how to relate it, I wouldn’t be very much concerned about these issues. But the Gospel is as tough as it is beautiful, and we have been commanded to relate to the world and our fellow believers in love. Further, I am not advocating a vague, over-spiritualized, or otherwise Gnostic form of Jesus-centered love. No, the Jesus that I follow is rooted in historical acts committed on the dusty streets of first century Palestine – real actions that inaugurated a real Kingdom, not simply stating truth but relating it in love to real people so that disciples might be made, His Kingdom might advance, and all creation might be renewed according to His design.

conclusion

In all this talk about interpersonal relationships and discipleship do not hear me nullify everything else. Do not hear me draw a line in the sand and dictate where Jesus can inject His love. That is one of the beautiful things about Jesus, he can show a person His love and change their life in an instant if He desires. It is crystal clear from Scripture that Jesus shared the love of God to people with whom he didn’t have intimate relationships. The feeding of the five thousand, four thousand, and His many healings are perfect examples of this. However, through it all He lived with his disciples, loved them, and taught them. He invested three solid years in them. Could it be that all the demonstrations of love that were not relationally intimate, while full of intrinsic value, were points Jesus wanted to make to his disciples, to love them, to teach them? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it does seem clear that his relationships with his disciples were of paramount importance to Him and such relationships should, therefore, be of paramount importance to His followers as well.

First, based on what I have presented, I wish to impart that glorifying God by following Jesus (i.e. loving God and others as He did) is, by far, the most important and fulfilling thing that we can do. Everything else (e.g. services, seminars, hymnals, pulpits, tracts, etc.) is far, far down the list of priorities (if on the list at all). I have not argued that the institution is somehow morally wrong or sinful. However, I do believe that it is lacking Biblical basis and, because it consumes so much attention, is generally distracting from those things that do have very solid Biblical basis.

Second, I wish to emphasize the differences between institutional and discipleship relationships. I affirm that two people can be thoroughly involved in an institutional church yet still have discipleship relationships. However, because of the fundamental differences between institutional and discipleship relationships, the institution is largely irrelevant to discipleship relationships in both a practical and relational sense. In my experience, discipleship relationships are uncommon in the institution because of this very difference, despite the place of paramount importance that they took in Jesus’ life.

To avoid confusion I feel I must belabor this point. I am not saying that the institution doesn’t or hasn’t helped people in any way whatsoever. The services, classes, etc. do help facilitate change in people’s lives. Nor am I saying that no one in the institution “gets it.” There is absolutely no question in my mind that there are people in the institution who understand these concepts. However, my argument, again, is that as followers of Jesus we must follow Jesus, and Jesus didn’t conduct services or teach classes, etc., He made disciples through deep relationships in which he demonstrated His love. This truth is rooted in the very character of God as revealed in the Bible and is further supported by our foundational identity in Him as followers of his Son. I believe that if one were to strive for communities of John 15 types of discipleship relationships he would be so captivated by the God glorifying, God centered, Biblical faithfulness of it that the institution would fade, perhaps completely, into the background of his life’s priorities.

I feel the need to make clear that the book on this discussion is not closed. In fact, the book is probably just opening. This paper was designed, in part, to stimulate discussions and promote a fresh examination of the New Testament. In my community there is still a great amount of discussion taking place about the nature of the body of Christ (i.e. the church), the role of institutions in our lives, the importance of relationships, etc. There are many unsettled issues, and I imagine there always will be. However, despite our imperfections and misunderstandings we have a great hope and confidence that Jesus will perfect his work in us (Philippians 1:6), in the context of an institution or not, with brothers and sisters who completely agree or not. We are also confident that in spite of these questions we, as the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), can “put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Colossians 3:14) so that the glory of God in Christ may shine forth from our lives. I pray that as we follow Jesus together “outside the camp” we may “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” that He may be pleased (Hebrews 13:13-16).

appendix a – questions

I have written a document addressing frequently asked questions surrounding some of the ideas I have put forth here.