Sunday, July 10, 2005

Disciples Undisciplined

By Kent C. Williamson

Discipleship – It’s probably THE most critical element related to spiritual growth. Sure there are churches that are on target in regards to discipleship, and some are more on target than others. But my thirty-seven year exposure to American Christendom leaves me believing that often churches think they are discipling believers when in actuality they are merely providing “programs” for their members. Many have forgotten that the root of the word disciple grows most deeply in the same fertile soil of the word discipline.

Now when I use the word discipline I don’t mean “punishment” or a “field of study”. I mean (to expound on Webster) “training that shapes, corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties, moral or spiritual character of an individual.” It is important to note that it is impossible to truly shape the spiritual character of an individual without the aid of the Holy Spirit, and by shaping the spirit it is impossible not to impact the moral and mental faculties of the one being transformed.

If there are spiritual disciplines that shape our spiritual character and make us disciples (as opposed to merely “aimless followers of Christ”), then what are these disciplines, and more importantly why are they not being consistently and effectively taught? In a recent dinner conversation with a friend, I asked this question. The disciplines we thought of were prayer, study, worship and fasting. We scratched our brains a bit until my wife mentioned a book she had read nearly fifteen years ago called Celebration of Discipline. She grabbed it from the shelf, dusted it off and handed it to me. This began my latest crusade.

That Sunday as I was teaching an adult Sunday School class, I decided to ask them, “Who among us has ever fasted?” I wasn’t shocked by the response, I was more disheartened by it. Of the twenty-five or thirty people there, maybe four or five people raised their hands while the remainder looked at me as if I had suddenly started speaking Chinese. That’s when it hit me that the Church has failed in teaching the spiritual disciplines to the flock.

At lunch that day as my family filled an oversized booth at The Blue Bird Cafe, I asked my five kids what fasting was. Now my ten-year-old daughter tends to be wise beyond her years. She has been raised in the church and I knew she was about to make me proud with her brilliant response. I looked at her over the half-eaten plates of brunch and she stared back across the booth at me as if I again had suddenly started speaking Chinese. Meanwhile one of my five-year-old twin girls piped up, “Fasting is what we do when we’re late. We drive fast.” That’s when it hit me that I have failed in teaching the spiritual disciplines to my family.

In Foster’s book, he focuses on the following as spiritual disciplines: Solitude, Silence, Fasting, Frugality, Simplicity, Sacrifice, Prayer, Study, Service, Submission, Worship, Celebration, Fellowship, and Confession. Quite a list if you dwell on it. Most churches I have been a part of touch on Prayer, Study, Worship, and Fellowship. Some dig deep into Study while others focus on Worship or Prayer. Most have been pretty good at Fellowship (or at least hanging out together). I’ve never been privileged to be a part of a congregation that was really good at more than two or three of Foster’s list.

How do I teach Service to my children if I’ve never been taught how to effectively serve? How does a pastor teach Solitude if he’s never been taught the purpose of Solitude? How does he teach Fasting when one of our main forms of “Fellowship” is the pot-luck dinner on Wednesday nights? How does he teach Frugality while his church’s new 2 million dollar gym is being built?

There is also a huge difference between teaching by preaching and teaching by doing. All of our preaching about the disciplines is useless if we don’t teach by example and if we don’t provide hands-on opportunities for learning to take place.

I recently finished eighteen days of fasting. Doesn’t that sound impressive? It had been well over a decade since my last fast (you can see how disciplined I am), so I decided to refrain from food… one meal a day for the eighteen days leading up to Easter. It was a wonderfully confusing time. It gave me opportunity to pray more (another discipline) and to experience restraint first-hand. It did not culminate with God showing up in some sort of miraculous vision. It simply ended with a quiet celebration (another discipline) of the Risen One.

Was it life changing? Yes, I believe it was, because in fasting, in denying myself food, it gave me a hunger for far more than a half-pound bean burrito at the Bell…. It gave me a spiritual hunger for discipline. It also gave my children an opportunity to see Fasting up close. My son joined me for a handful of those eighteen days, so now there’s an eight-year-old in Virginia that has a little better idea of what it’s like to taste a spiritually disciplined life. One day during our fast we were in line at the Sam’s Club deli, buying lunch for the rest of the family, and I caught him with his eyes closed and his lips moving. I asked him what he was praying about and he simply said, “I’m praying that I won’t get hungry.”

I was recently invited to speak over lunch to a small gathering of Lutheran ministers about my spiritual journey and about my moving into ministry outside the walls of the church. I was encouraging and challenging these ministers to take the spiritual disciplines more seriously with their congregations, knowing and believing that the result will be men and women of deeper faith, more capable of being ministers of the gospel themselves. It was going very well when I was blind-sided by one of them who thought I was encouraging legalism and condemnation by promoting a deeper understanding and practice of the disciplines. He thought it would lead us to judging the depth of one person’s faith over another, and what about “grace” anyway? We’re saved by grace not by works, so this spiritual discipline stuff seems like works-based faith! This was not at all my intent, but his perception of it troubled me greatly. Are we called to use grace as an excuse for spiritual laziness?

Later it struck me that if pastors encourage the disciplines too much, the result will be deep-faith believers who are less dependent on the Institutional Church and more effective in their ministries in the community around them. Not something you want to hear if your livelihood is dependent on the Institutional Church.

So maybe instead I’ll promote a different cause: Help keep your pastor employed, stay spiritually unfit. Whatever you do, don’t study the disciplines, don’t read Foster’s book, don’t deepen your faith. Things are just fine in American Christendom… please don’t trouble the waters.


Keith Giles said...


Dude...Wendy and I nearly ready to follow in your footsteps. We should talk soon.

BTW- Please go to my blog and download the pdf file/article there by Ray Mayhew. It will change your life.

It did mine.

my blog:

Love ya,

Ron Goetz said...

Kent, sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your post. (Do you need some help cleaning out the spam?)

I am not sure Foster's book will accomplish all you want, at least as described in your concluding paragraphs.

"The result will be deep-faith believers who are less dependent on the Institutional Church."

"Help keep your pastor employed, stay spiritually unfit. Whatever you do, don’t study the disciplines, don’t read Foster’s book, don’t deepen your faith. Things are just fine in American Christendom… please don’t trouble the waters."

First, I concur with these paragraphs and the spirit in which they are written. Their sentiment, and their edge, is necessary.

I just don't think Foster's book has done much to undermine Christendom, or people's mindless reliance on the relics. The book certainly reaffirms the validity of the largest structures of Christendom, the denominations. We simply don't call them denominations anymore.

As I remember, it was first "doctrinal differences." For a while it was "denominational emphases." Now it is "traditions." You hear it a lot. "The Anglican Tradition," "the Pentacostal Tradition," "the Baptist Tradition," "the Calvinist Tradition."

The very structure of Foster's book affirms the validity of a divided "church," since according to his presentation, each "tradition" preserves some good aspect of Christian truth or practice.

Subversive? I don't think so. It is published by a respected publishing house and is reprinted regularly, it has been long-endorsed by pastors from the pulpits, it is used in seminary classrooms.

Certainly it is a very valuable book. It broadens our understanding of what Christianity includes. It takes us out of our narrow individual experiences of a handful of congregations, or one or two denominations, which can only be healthy.

It stimulates us to new thinking about our faith. But it makes us feel like we are "cutting edge." It can make us feel virtuous for simply having read it, or even for just having it on our book shelf.

There is no good book that will be the "key" we've been looking for. Some will provide immense help to us, and I endorse the understanding and wisdom books can contain. But Christendom (like the two party system) will co-opt any contenders by incorporating the schtick of the new kid on the block into their own system. (And besides, God save us from the contenders!)

There is no reform movement, alas I fear, not even the Emerging Church, which will "solve" our problems.

Are our problems the problems of the individual or of the community? Yes to both. But even if we agree that our problems include our community, that doesn't mean that reform of the denominations is what we're talking about. By community, we must mean the small communities we form for ourselves.

Christendom will endure, not forever, but long enough to trouble every believer until the End.

Many people prize a concept which I don't, which concept is "balance." You may search the Scripture a long time for a person characterized by "balance."

The most "balanced" group of people mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures are probably the false prophets, who never took extreme positions, but always prophesied what the people and the hierarchies wanted to hear.

What ails Christendom is untreatable and incurable. That is why Jesus said that the scribes and Pharisees treated the people's wounds like they were not serious. That is why commands like "Come out of her my people" are posted for our benefit.

I believe that Foster legitimizes Babylon, legitimizes the worldliness and hierarchy of Christendom. Individuals may change, but the structures, the hierarchies and the retirement accounts remain intact.

It'll take something more than another book, or another blog response like mine, to do what is necessary.

And here I sit in a United Methodist Church. *sigh*

I believe I have sufficiently overstated my case.