Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s seminal work “Cost of Discipleship” first impacted my life during my undergraduate years. Later in seminary I re-read “Cost of Discipleship”, along with everything else Bonhoeffer had written, and several biographies about him. Yet, of all I have read by Bonhoeffer, it is the opening pages of “Cost of Discipleship” that are etched in my memory: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Costly grace was not an abstraction for Bonhoeffer, for in the closing days of World War II, his earthly journey of discipleship closed in a concentration camp, all for the cause of Christ.
Frenetic entertainment and consumer driven cultures can enculturate us into accepting what is shallowness at best, sinful at worse. Sometimes we have created church cultures that have implied that as disciples of Christ, we block out Sunday mornings as the sole expression of our commitment to Christ, and possibly define discipleship as the hours we spend managing and funding the organization referred to as the church. We substitute the generic for Jesus, whether it be fraternity, ideology, or a vague sense of wellbeing, continuing to search out what will cost us less than following Christ. While professing to be disciples of Christ, we welcome other identities which will simply cost us less, thus maybe their seductiveness. But what if to be a Christ follower, we live individually and together as ones who are ever deepening our relationship with Jesus Christ? What if the solution to declining, drifting church bodies is casting off into the deep, leaving the shallows behind? Could it be that to be Christ’s disciple is accepting the cost, as one sealed as Christ’s own?
Lately I have been ruminating over churches being cultures of discipleship, thriving as centers of sanity in a crazy world where people become Christians and follow Christ. American Baptist Churches of Vermont and New Hampshire has concluded our formal partnership with Fresh Expressions. We have learned a lot about moving from “The Steeple to the Street”, about building relationships with those beyond our pews, and have engaged in some self-examination. It is logical to ask “What is next”? On July 20th, the Region Trustees met and unanimously agreed that the next Regional emphasis should be on making disciples or growing church cultures of discipleship. I think we do have a vision and a sketch or two on how to proceed. The Great Commission is the closing statement of our Region’s Mission Statement. The weight and mandate of our own Mission Statement is to go and make disciples, who will make disciples, who will make disciples, etc. Discipleship cultures are like hot houses where life thrives. Discipleship cultures are the opposite of spectator cultures, or entertainment cultures, or image management cultures. Discipleship cultures are rich in biblical knowledge, genuinely relational, servanthood driven, and joyfully exude knowing Jesus Christ. Discipleship cultures grapple with a “costly grace”. Disciples need pastors, mentors, teachers, spiritual directors, mature friends, and a myriad of other Christ followers to navigate the journey between the cross and eternity. Disciples understand themselves as living under Christ’s reign; a reign of salvation, transformation, witness, and servanthood and sometimes sacrifice. We can learn from one another how the greatest commandment is forming our lives together. We can experience the joy and discipline of being Jesus’ apprentices, while inviting others into the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Yet, every local church has a context. Discipleship in a brownstone on Boston’s Beacon Hill, will look different from prayerful conversations at deer camp. Discipleship in a non-Anglo, non-English speaking congregation will look different from discipleship in a rural isolated community. One must always understand the context of a local body of Christians. But, it is the same Holy Spirit working to form disciples. Discipleship can become a growing new nature among believers. The Spirit gains precedent over the flesh. The life we lose to find a new life, is the life of costly grace, and costly grace is inexplicably rich. During this next year we will prayerfully pursue a focus on growing cultures of disciples and movements of discipleship. We have much to learn from one another. Can we recapture a passion to be deeper disciples and make disciples as Christ commands?
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