In the Franco Zeffirelli film Jesus of Nazareth, there is a scene in which Peter begins the actual process of following Jesus. He has crossed the Sea of Galilee with Jesus and the other disciples. Now he is sending his boats back across the sea. He pushes the tiny vessel into the fog and watches as a lone young fisherman looks back at him, uncomprehending.
In a moment, Peter’s entire previous lifestyle fades into the early morning mist. His security and identity are now gone, to be found in an unknown future with Jesus. This scene captures the aspect of discipleship that Western Christians have struggled to find, value, and practice. Our lives are deeply invested in the ostentatious evidences of the American dream of personal prosperity, a prosperity so pervasive that to not have a flat screen television is considered real poverty.
One does not have to look among the fans of the outright prosperity gospel to see this tension. In thousands of churches, Bible studies, and small groups, there is a massive disjunction between what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and what it means to have whatever possession, experience, or fashionable indulgence that seems appealing. The weakness of Protestantism on the subject of personal discipleship in an affluent culture has laid groundwork where the logic of the prosperity gospel rarely bumps into anything that seems to be at cross-purposes with being a disciple of Jesus.
The result is the Christian who feels manipulated or guilt-tripped when the simple ethics of having Jesus as Lord appear anywhere near where his definition of “normal and entitled lifestyle” has taken root. Discipleship, now relegated to discussions around a class or small group, becomes about not being legalistic, pious, or pharisaical.
The actual processes and content of discipleship are lost in the fog between easy-believism or a too-academic version of what Jesus commands his apostles to make: Jesus-imitating disciples.
The Dangerous Consequences of Discipleship Divorced From Lifestyle
In an increasingly post-Christian world, this kind of discipleship will simply not suffice. Christians who want to define discipleship themselves within their own cultures and subgroups now find that the challenges to Christian belief are not being made by those who merely disagree with our ideas. A newly aggressive secularism, armed with the rhetoric of the new atheism and the confidence that religion itself can be portrayed as the root of all evil, now demands a response from a fully embodied, experiential, and engaged Christianity. Without demoting our response to the intellectual and rhetorical challenge, we are now called out of the classrooms, conferences, and church auditoriums to demonstrate the life that adorns the doctrine.
A disconnect between discipleship and lifestyle has created an evangelicalism that is openly siding with the wealthy. Church plants rarely happen among the poor. The spirituality of poverty sounds simply nonsensical to many evangelicals.
To take the New Testament’s views on economics seriously would force vast numbers of evangelicals into choices they simply are not equipped to make because they have been told they do not apply. For those who take the lifestyle and economics of Jesus as seriously as a St. Francis or a John Wesley, there are few places to find support and encouragement. For many contemporary Christians, the call to discipleship in the post-Christian world has called them to look at the church in new and realistically critical ways.
Why is the gospel of so many Protestants orthodox but not transforming? Why do our churches resemble the culture’s version of organizational success rather than the culture-crossing, community-creating, church-planting movement that Jesus empowered with his very own Spirit? Why are so many evangelical leaders engaged in the promotion of doctrinal reformation and worldview articulation but not in the creation of the processes of transforming, missional discipleship?