Since the pandemic started in earnest this past spring, I have been driving Heather to work and back most days. It started as a way to have a little time together since our family was at home all the time during the early days of Covid but over time it became the norm. With school starting back, it has become a necessity since we have two kids going to school at different times and one of them driving herself on a different schedule than the rest of us. Suffice it to say, this little daily activity has given Heather and I a lot of time to talk while going to and from her office.
One of our recent conversations found us talking about the idea of vocation and life calling and she asked me, “What is your calling?” For those in ministry this is a common question that we ask ourselves on a regular basis. Many ministers—myself included—find the answer to this question changes with the seasons of life at least in terms of the details and way the calling is carried out. At first, I tried to answer her by talking about various ideas about calling and the purpose of calling and vocation—seminary speak in truth—but my wife was asking a very specific question and was not dissuaded by anything other than a very specific answer.
Finally, I quit the theology and got to the personal answer of calling. My answer: to be a disciple to make disciples. Sounds simple, right? It’s the answer found throughout the gospels especially when Jesus is talking to his disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and gives them their marching orders going forward: Go, make disciples. Get out into the community and the rest of the world and find people to teach the stuff I taught to you so they can mature in their faith and understanding of the Way of Jesus and then in turn teach other people.
As I thought about my calling and Jesus words of calling to the disciples, I began to think about the state of the church and how we find ourselves here and now with declining membership and communal influence. Many would say it has to do with everything from a changing world and values to liberalism to conservatism to the imminent return of Jesus. While those things might play a part in it, I don’t think it has to do with any one of those things. I see them as results more than causes. I think the problem is we have become a religion that has made church members but failed to make disciples. We have traded a lifestyle and way of being for creeds and confessional statements. We have become a people who says things about God rather than a people who follows the Spirit of God.
For years now, centuries even in some expressions of the Church, we have used the litmus test of believing rather than being. The test of believing calls us only to offer intellectual assent or mental agreement to certain statements about God or the church: The Apostle’s Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Articles of Religion, and others like them. While these things are good at helping us understand certain ideas about God, they are not a substitute for the Way of Life we are called to as disciples. I believe the true calling, the calling that will draw people to presence of God and the Way of Jesus are teachings of Jesus from the gospels: The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25’s discussion of sheep and goats, The Fruit of the Spirit from Galatians. These are not just statements about what we think, these are teachings about how to be and encourage others to be. I believe many people in the Church has come to think that the statements and declarations of and about God are more important than how they are supposed to live out the Way of Being those documents point to, even when people say otherwise. In this case, the proof is in the actions and the current state of our Church has seen little to no action. Being a disciple—as the gospels illustrate—is giving up the life you thought you wanted for a better life in the Kingdom. It is putting aside self and embracing Jesus as master (one who knows the greater way and is willing to teach you) and lord (one whom you submit to having authority over you and your life). Being a disciple is learning from the teacher to become one who teaches others and the curriculum is a Way of Life and being not a set of propositions to argue about.
There seems to me to be a massive divide in our Church culture between those who declare and those who do. Declaring is easy. Offering your assent or agreement to an idea is easy. Living the way of Jesus is challenging. Living the Way takes work. When it comes to being a disciple, we are called to a Way of Life and being, to not only know but to do what we know. It is my hope that those who claim the title of Christian as those who profess belief will be willing to exchange that for the title of disciple as those who follow Jesus, for the sake of the Kingdom and the Creation it is here to restore.