The following is a guest post by Casey McCall, Student Ministry Director at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church.
“Do you love your children all the same?” I have five children, three who came the typical way and two who came through the wonderful means of adoption. All five of them are radically different individuals. One son mimics my every move and loves sports, and one daughter is the mini-me of my lovely wife and pretends to love coffee (because her mother loves coffee). Another son has a smile that lights up every room and loves to “work” (because he sees me and his Papaw work). Our other daughter has a contagious vibrancy to her spirit and will begin a conversation with any stranger she sees (which is sometimes scary for us). Our youngest son goes head-first into everything he sees (ER visits are typical) and has the unique ability to cast a charming spell over his mother. So, when people ask me, “Do you love all your children the same?” the answer is yes and no. If you’re asking me if I love them all equally, then yes, that is our goal. We never want to have favorites. However, we don’t love them all exactly the same, nor is that our aim. They are all unique personalities that God has crafted with particular characteristics that relate to my wife and me in completely different ways. They each have different discipline needs. If we treated them all exactly the same, we would not be recognizing the dignity that they each possess as unique imagers of the Creator. To love anyone is to form a special sacrificial relationship that can never be exactly replicated.
I find it fascinating that Jesus models this kind of particularistic love in his relationships with his disciples, yet I believe this facet of his discipleship is largely ignored. In the dozens of books on discipleship that I own, I don’t remember any author pointing this feature out. I find biblical arguments for why we should disciple and mentor others. I find helpful biblical principles for how we should go about doing it. I find essential theological themes outlined that we should cover with our disciples. But I’ve never once read anything seeking to guide us in discipling men and women in such a way that their unique personalities, giftings, and identities are treasured, valued, and preserved. Each person that God has placed in our ministry context is a completely unique personality; there is no other. With that noted our approach to discipleship should respect the dignity of this uniqueness beyond impersonal personality quizzes and exploitative attempts to categorize into ‘Type A’ or ‘Type B’ structures. We have to apply the universal realities the Bible teaches us to the particular personalities in front of us.
An honest look at Jesus’ discipleship approach reveals a profound respect for individual dignity. The Creator of all things respects his creation and models attention to individuality even as he champions life in community. Patrick Henry Reardon writes in his book The Jesus We Missed, “A somewhat closer look at the gospel texts also reveals, I think, how Jesus related to these original disciples—even from the beginning—as ‘individuals,’ as particular men. He does not permit their specific identities to become lost in the group. Philip, Andrew, Thomas, and the others preserve their individual characters” (40-42). Reardon goes on to point out how Jesus teases these men, nicknaming the brothers James and John, “Sons of Thunder,” which would be the ancient equivalent to “hotheads.” This nickname was not without reason, for these were the very men who asked Jesus if they could command fire from heaven to consume the Samaritans who did not receive them into their village (Luke 9:52-54). He also nicknamed Peter, “Rock”—the very same man who was constantly talking big and then backing down when the rubber met the road. Rock? Reardon nails the irony: “The only time this ‘Rock Johnson’ showed any rocklike quality was on that memorable occasion when he attempted to walk on water!” (42).
Jesus’ discipleship was not a five-step plan. His goal was not to turn each of these twelve men into factory-produced evangelism machines. Instead, he invited each of them to “be with him” (Mark 3:14), where they would eat together, pray together, serve together, and laugh and joke together. Through this process they each formed unique relationships with Jesus, and grew as disciples at different rates and in different ways. The apostle John refers to himself several times as “the one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20), indicating a special tenderness to their relationship that was unique. Jesus even tells John from the cross that he is responsible for caring for his mother as if he were her own son (John 19:26-27). Did Jesus not love the other disciples? Did he have a favorite in John? We obsess over these types of questions as 21st century Americans who are obsessed with equality, but I don’t believe these are the right questions to ask. Jesus loved them all, but John obviously formed a different kind of bond with Jesus—one that would lead Jesus to entrust to him the care of his own mother. Jesus’ goal in leading these men seems to be the maximization of each of their unique character traits and personalities in service to the kingdom of Christ, and that should be our goal in parenting and discipleship, too.
I love Reardon’s description of Jesus “teasing” his disciples, because it’s so human. When I get together with the men I lead in discipleship, that type of teasing is hard to stop. In fact, it’s the way men have related to one another throughout the history of humanity. Take away the jovial teasing and the sometimes irreverent banter between males and you take away their very humanity. Jesus was a human being in relationship with other human beings. He never seems to try to escape that. He never asks his followers to escape their creaturehood in favor of abstract ponderings. The abstract was always manifested locally in real relationships in real time and real space. He broke bread with them. He went fishing with them and then broiled the fish and ate. He probably laughed with them at the funny noises made by the human digestive system after eating such meals—the kinds of noises men have always found humorous. He related to each of them with dignity and respect as unique people.
How do we follow Jesus in seeking to disciple others in such a way that preserves their dignity?
1. Work hard to unite discipleship with real, everyday life.
Is your idea of discipleship an hour meeting once-per-week where you read the Bible or another book, discuss it, and pray together? While I commend those important practices, the one-hour per week method of discipleship is not enough. We need to be around the people we are leading in the regular rhythms of life. Let them see you interact with your family. Show them how you cheer for your favorite football team. Take them out to eat with you family after church. Let them see your failures and your successes, your highs and your lows. If we only ever read the Bible and pray with those we are discipling, we are subtly communicating that those “spiritual” practices are the only parts of life that matter. We are drawing a line of division between the important “spiritual” things we do and the less important “secular” things we do. This division does not exist in the kingdom of Christ.
2. Be brutally honest about the particular character flaws and strengths of each person you are discipling.
I currently mentor three young men who are training for vocational ministry. I have been in a discipleship relationship with these three men for over two years now. Thick skin is a prerequisite to this type of relationship, because they each understand that critiques of character are necessary for them to grow. In fact, while many of them dreaded those types of conversations initially, I’ve begun to see a drastic shift. They now crave criticism. If I don’t offer it, they will often seek it out, asking me how they can improve. I am obligated to each of them to pay attention to how they are growing and in what areas. My job is to lovingly lead them toward Christlikeness, and the only way to do that is to be completely honest about what I see. But I also must pay close attention to the unique strengths and gifts they possess, so that I can help them each to maximize those gifts in service to Christ and his church. There is no one-size-fits-all program in discipleship. Different people respond differently to different methods and need to grow in various ways. Dignity demands that we tailor our approach to the particular needs of the person we are leading.
3. Be brutally honest about your own weaknesses and failures.
The disciple is a flawed human, but so is the discipler. We are all in process together. Paul qualifies his call to discipleship in a very important way, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). There are a lot of things that I do that I don’t need to pass on to anyone else, because those things are not helpful in encouraging others to follow Christ. As I work on my own failures, it is vital that I model honesty and repentance. When we let people get close, they will see those very features of our character of which we are most ashamed. That transparency is a necessary risk in discipleship—a risk every leader must take if he or she wants to be effective. We can’t expect the people we are leading to respond appropriately to our correction if we are not modeling the same type of humility in our own lives. We preserve the dignity of our followers when we are honest about our own inescapable need for the grace of God in Christ.
4. Root your discipleship within the messiness of a particular community.
I once began discipleship with a young college student who was visiting our church. After a few months, he committed to a different church in town but still wanted me to mentor him in the faith. I told him that was impossible and that he needed to find a mature man at his new church to lead him in this way. My life is so intertwined with the particular church body of which I am a member that my effectiveness as a discipler is inseparably tied to this community. My identity is formed in Christ here, in the context of these relationships with these people. If you want to know me, you have to know me here. If you want to follow me, you have to follow me here. Otherwise, you’re not really following me as I follow Christ. Jesus was training his disciples so that they could become the foundation of the “household of God”—the church (Eph. 2:19-20). Any plan for training Christians toward maturity must not bypass the body of Christ. The church is where we learn to die to ourselves in sacrificial service to a particular group of sinners that we cannot escape. The church is where we learn to love others—with dignity.