Philip P. Bliss was one of the greatest hymnwriters of the 1800s. Here is a Spotify playlist of some of his greatest works:Read More
We live in an era of mass-production. We mass-produce our cars, our computers, our clothes, and just about everything else we encounter in our daily lives.
But we cannot mass-produce discipleship.
What is Discipleship?
When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He didn’t just leave His Church with instructions of what to teach until He returns. He also told us how. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) calls us to make disciples of all nations. God’s plan for church growth is for one person or family at a time to come to saving faith, be mentored by more mature Christians, and eventually go on to disciple others. What does it mean to make disciples?
Even an effort to define our terms reveals how much mass-production has impacted our thought processes. In portions of American Christianity, we hear the term “discipleship” and assume the speaker is talking about an older and a younger believer going through a book or video and answering study guide questions. That can be useful, and it can be a part of discipleship, but it’s not what I’m talking about here.
Discipleship, as modeled in the New Testament, is the process in which newer believers learn from mature Christians who are teaching and living out all areas of Christian doctrine and practice. It’s when an elder of a church takes a young man along on a hospital visit or a widow visit. It’s when an experienced evangelist takes a newer Christian along street preaching or on a prison visit. It’s when experienced parents help newer parents work through a toddler’s discipline issue. It’s when a wise, financially responsible older man or woman helps newlyweds build a budget.
There’s more to discipleship than the study guide.
Scripture does not forbid mass evangelism. In fact, we see an example of it in Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost itself. Three thousand people came to saving faith all at once. Fantastic! But what immediately follows? One-on-one discipleship:
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:42-47, KJV).
Whether people come to saving faith one at a time or in droves, the Scriptural pattern is that discipleship always follows. And discipleship cannot be mass-produced.
Make no mistake, the American church has tried. Celebrity authors write mass-produced books about any imaginable aspect of the Christian life. Celebrity pastors distribute their weekly sermons via radio, television, and the Internet. Multi-site churches simulcast a celebrity pastor’s sermon—a video-screen pastor preaching to congregants he has perhaps never met. Celebrity speakers headline Christian conferences, seminars, and festivals.
Some of these resources have merit, and God sometimes uses them to accomplish His purposes. But just like a sword or a firearm, these tools can cause as much harm as good. The Biblical pattern is that you learn doctrine, how to be a Christian parent or spouse, how to raise children, how to wisely steward finances, and countless other topics from mature Christians in your church—Christians you see every Sunday, and hopefully also throughout the week. (An aside: If you’re in a church where everyone is at your level of maturity, and there’s not a single person discipling or being discipled, it might be time to look for a church where discipleship is happening.)
The Consequences of Mass-Producing Discipleship
God can and does use books and seminar messages to teach us valuable lessons. It’s normal and healthy to learn a few valuable insights from one book, and a few more from another. It is far less healthy to immerse yourself in a comprehensive plan for living the Christian life put forward by a celebrity speaker, and try to replicate that plan in your life. That isn’t a hypothetical situation; I have known several families, some of them dear friends, who have tried this.
Not too long ago, two of the Christian celebrities with the most devoted followings among my circle of acquaintances fell into personal scandals. Witnesses came forward to testify that there was an extreme disconnect between how they presented themselves on stage and how they actually lived their daily lives. When this news came out, my friends were devastated and felt personally betrayed.
I have also seen less dramatic stories. I have known several families who follow a celebrity closely, though perhaps not as closely, and eventually find themselves facing a major trial or life decision. I have seen them reach out to their celebrity of choice to ask for one-on-one counseling, only to be devastated when that celebrity simply doesn’t have the time.
The Challenge of Discipleship
God’s plan for discipleship means that we learn from other redeemed saints still struggling with their sin nature. If we spend enough time with them one-on-one, we’ll know it, too. Facades don’t hold up permanently under the spotlight of living life together in regular fellowship. But, as contradictory as this might seem at first, that isn’t a flaw of the discipleship process. It’s (part of) the point. We watch fellow believers battle their besetting sins and learn how to battle ours.
This is perhaps the most important part of discipleship. It’s where the rubber meets the road, where iron sharpens iron, or, to use a Biblical phrase, where faith becomes works.
It’s also the part that doesn’t happen when discipleship is mass-produced.
Sometimes we assume that a celebrity Christian has it all together. It’s easy to use that as an excuse to ignore our local mentors and imagine ourselves as disciples of these celebrities. But the end result is that we are imitating an artificial image of the Christian life. Speakers can intentionally cultivate an image of perfection; I’ve spent enough time in the spotlight to feel the temptation to paint myself in the best possible light. (Speakers can do that on stage, but not with the friends who know them best.) And sometimes the audience creates that image of perfection on their own. Either way, it’s a misconception.
We know the weaknesses and sins of our local mentors. We often don’t know the weaknesses and sins of Christian celebrities. Trading a real-life, flesh-and-blood mentor for a mistaken image of celebrity perfection is a grave error.
Important cautions are in order: It’s not like every celebrity mentor has a bad effect and every one-on-one mentor never messes up. Sometimes God works through mass-produced discipleship, and sometimes a new Christian is mentored one-on-one by a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is certainly merit to learning valuable lessons from classic Christian books and sermons, and a few new ones. I still read a number of Christian living books every year.
But I try to be intentional about modeling myself after the mature Christians who are closest to me, who know me the best and whom I know the best—my parents, and a few couples my parents’ age or older at my church. And I strive to remain aware of the impact my successes and failures have on the children and young adults in my life who watch me.
Real discipleship isn’t always perfect. It isn’t always pretty. But it’s God’s plan. So it works.Read More
James McGranahan was a noted composer of the late 1800s, writing music for songs like “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” and “There Shall Be Showers of Blessing.” Here’s a Spotify playlist with several renditions of both songs, plus several of his other compositions.Read More
Christians are commanded to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Sarcasm usually fulfills neither command and almost never fulfills both.Read More
Exactly the same spiritual realities happen for each person who becomes a Christian. The Gospel is proclaimed, we repent from sins and believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, and then God forgives us of our sins, declares us justified, and adopts us as His children. But in different denominations, cultures, or theological traditions—not to mention different centuries—the ways we share our testimonies of conversion can be strikingly different.
If you hear a testimony in a Lutheran church, it might sound something like this:
I had been involved in a Christian college ministry. They’d read God’s Word and say, ‘What does this mean to us, and how can we keep this as we should?’ I thought Jesus Christ was just a law-giver, and I came to a point of despair. But I read a book by C.F.W. Walther, God’s Yes and God’s No, and that is the book that converted me. It changed my perspective on who God was and what His grace really meant. No longer did I have to keep the law for my salvation, but I was able to trust in God’s grace for me and the work that Jesus had done.
A testimony in an independent Baptist church in the South might include phrases like “the ole devil” and “till I prayed through,” and end with something like this: “I remember the day, at an old-fashioned altar, that God changed this ole boy’s heart!”
A testimony in a charismatic church might sound like this: The pastor said, “You know, I’m not primarily interested in having people join our church. I’m interested in having people discover Jesus Christ, and the abundance and eternal life that comes from people having an eternal relationship with Him. This is what Christianity is all about; it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship with the personal, living Lord. But only you can make the decision to enter into that relationship, by inviting Christ into your heart, and accepting His free gift of eternal life. No clergyman or parent can do it for you. Christianity involves a personal decision to receive Christ in your life. It’s a personal decision you must make for yourself. God has no grandchildren.”
I was sitting at my old wooden desk, reading about the person who wanted to give me eternal life. For years, the Gospel had gone in one ear and out the other as it was read during mass. But now, as I read, each living word, the person of Jesus was coming alive. Finally, at the end of the Gospel of John, I closed my eyes and tried to hold back tears that were welling up. Turning out the light, I sat in a sea of darkened tranquility. And in a whisper, I began to pray: God, it’s been so long since I’ve talked to you. I’m sorry, yet somehow, it’s all different tonight. All my life I felt You were high and holy and unreachable. That’s why I gave up on You. And now I see that all my life, You’ve been waiting for me to realize how much You love me. Oh, Jesus, I want Your love. I will come unto You. Please help me, Jesus, please. And I wept like I hadn’t since I was a little child.
A testimony at a hipster church might be punctuated with sentence fragments like “Because Jesus!” and “But God!” and be described with phrases like “authentic” and “it’s been real.”
And that’s not even to mention testimonies from other centuries. Take Martin Luther’s:
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.'” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scripture from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
And I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred with which I had before hated the word “righteousness of God.” Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.
At first, while I remained so obstinately addicted to the superstitions of the Papacy, that it would have been hard indeed to have pulled me out of so deep a quagmire – by sudden conversion, God subdued my heart to teachableness.
J. Hudson Taylor:
One day, which I shall never forget, when I was about fifteen years old, my dear mother being absent from home some eighty miles away, I had a holiday. I searched through the library for a book to while away time. I selected a gospel tract which looked unattractive, saying, there will be an interesting story at the commencement, and a sermon or moral at the end; I will take the former, and leave the latter for those who like it. I little knew what was going on in the heart of my dear mother. She arose from the dinner-table with an intense yearning for the conversion of her boy, and feeling that, being from home, and having more leisure than she otherwise would, there was a special opportunity afforded her of pleading with God for me. She went to her bedroom, and turned the key in the door, and resolved not to leave the room until her prayers were answered. Hour after hour did that dear mother plead for me, until she could only praise God for the conversion of her son. In the meantime, as I was reading the tract, The Finished Work of Christ, a light was flashed into my soul by the Holy Spirit, that there was nothing to be done, but to fall ‘on my knees and accept this Savior and his salvation, and praise God forevermore. While my mother was praising God in her closet, I was praising Him in the old warehouse where I had retired to read my book. When I met mother at the door on her return with the glad news, she said: ‘I know, my boy; I have been rejoicing for a fortnight in the glad tidings you have to tell me!’
Jackie Brown, a circuit rider in the early 1900s:
It came to him sudden. He had been to a meeting and heard Bobby Brook preach, and he was riding over to Gasper Pyles to get his dinner, when he felt the power moving him and he knowed he was sanctified. He got off of his horse and laid on the flat of his back on the dusty road and slapped his hands and began to holler. A man by the name of Jack Frog was going down the road at the time, and when he saw Jackie Brown, he thought it was some man drunk or crazy. And so he [Jack] taken out around the other side and lit for home and never stopped until he got there. When Jackie Brown got up, he run his hands into his pockets and pulled out his plug of tobacco and thronged it into the woods, and then he done went home to his farm, where he had half an acre of tobacco growing, and he takened a hoe, and hacked it down, and threw it over the fence. He said, if it was not right for him to use tobacco, it was not right for him to grow it and sell it to other people. His neighbors got after him and said that as he was poor, he should have kept the tobacco and marketed it. But he said, The Lord would not let him starve. They say he become a most power fine preacher after he was sanctified.
Different eras, cultures, and theological traditions have vastly different ways of expressing testimonies. Each has its formulas, its phrases that are standard and familiar. (Note that I’m using “formulas” here in a matter-of-fact descriptive sense, not a derogatory sense.) Just like there are literary genres, one could almost say there are testimony genres.
It’s not like all of these genres are created equal. Some are more theologically precise. Some are more heartfelt. Some are more gritty. Many Christians, without even thinking about it or articulating it, don’t have as high a regard for a testimony from another genre as one from their own. It’s altogether too easy to dismiss a testimony from another tradition as, say, less theologically precise. It may very well be, but someone from that tradition would be just as likely to dismiss testimonies from our own tradition as, say, less heartfelt. And perhaps both statements would be true.
Songs from each theological tradition generally reflect the testimony genre of that theological tradition. So in a similar way, it’s altogether too easy to dismiss songs from one tradition as insufficiently precise, songs from another tradition as insufficiently emotional, and songs from a third tradition as insufficiently heartfelt.
But once in a while, we hear a testimony of God working in a miraculously radical (or miraculously ordinary) fashion that is theologically accurate and heartfelt and authentic. These testimonies have a way of deeply moving listeners across theological and cultural divides.
In every generation, countless songs have value to the era, culture, and theological tradition within which they were written. But from each era, there are a few songs that last beyond that era to be passed along to future eras, cultures, and theological traditions. We call them “hymns.” Countless thousands of songs from each era do not survive that era. The hymns that last tend to last because they are theologically accurate and heartfelt and authentic and speak to Christians of many eras, cultures, and theological traditions.
It is a great thing to introduce new songs in every generation. A few from each generation will transcend our generation, culture, and theological tradition, and go on to be future generations’ hymns. But as we introduce new songs, we would be wise to keep singing the songs already recognized as hymns. In all likelihood, if they have spoken to Christians of this many generations already, they’ll also speak to the next generation.Read More
As a lunch-break project, I recently created a Spotify playlist of the songs of V.B. “Vep” Ellis. Ellis was a pastor and songwriter whose most prolific period was from the 1930s-1950s. He was the greatest master of counterpoint in vocal harmonies that the Southern Gospel genre has ever seen.Read More