failure to follow?

I’ve been thinking a lot about discipleship lately, especially in the local church. What does it mean to be a disciple? What are the ‘marks’ of a disciple? How do we grow as disciples? How does the local church help grow disciples? Is “grow” even the right word?

Right now our church is looking at discipleship more seriously and thinking about how we can pour into members of our church community in more concrete ways to help them grow as disciples. As I was thinking about discipleship in the local church, I remembered a chapter from Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

In Collapse, Diamond reviews societies that have failed, or collapsed: Easter Island, Mayans, and the Norse of Greenland, to name a few. They all collapsed in some way because they failed to live sustainability in their environment, and when their environment collapsed, so did their society.

In one of the last chapters of Collapse, Diamond outlines the failures of group decision-making that led to all of the societies’ collapse. There are four places a group can fail to make the right decision:

1) A group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. A group fails to see the problem as it arises- possibly because it is hidden (like the loss of nutrition in the soil), or because they don’t connect the dots to see a problem forming.

2) A group may fail to perceive the problem once it arrives. Sometimes the problem arrives so slowly we fail to see it as a problem, because we have become acclimated to it- it becomes the norm over time.

3) When the problem does arrive, they may fail to even try to solve it. Sometimes we fail to solve a problem because there will be short-term losses or costs, even when the long-term benefit of solving the problem is clear. Sometimes those benefiting from creating the problem stop others from solving it.

4) They may try to solve the problem but not succeed. They perceive the problem and put effort in to solve it, but for whatever reason (too costly, impossible, too late), they fail.

Although environmental collapse of societies and discipleship in the church may seem distant-topics, I think Diamond’s outline of failures in group decision-making are helpful when thinking about discipleship within the local church. To modify it a little bit, it seems like we can have the same type of failures in becoming disciples of Jesus:

1) We fail to perceive Jesus’ call to follow him. We may be “saved’ or call ourselves Christians, but for some reason we have failed to see that Christ calls us to a life of following him- of discipleship. We fail to see that there is something more than ‘getting saved’ or showing up to church on Sundays. We’ve failed to hear Christ’s radical invitation to follow him.

2) We fail to understand what discipleship is. We want to follow Jesus, and know that becoming a disciple is an important part of our faith, but we are unsure what it means to be a disciple or what discipleship looks like. We are either at a loss in how to follow Jesus or we get it wrong and end up focusing on “being nice” and not cursing for a lifetime, thinking that is all it takes to be a disciple.

3) We fail to actually live a life of discipleship. We have heard Jesus’ invitation to follow him and have a pretty good idea of what that looks like and what that means in our lives, but we fail to become a disciple. We want to follow- but it just seems too hard. The costs may seem too great to actually follow Jesus, or we may desire to follow Jesus but lack the ability to actually do so. We may also feel pressure from others not to actually follow Jesus because they are benefiting from our lack of action- they like the status quo and not the upheaval of true discipleship.

4) We try to follow Jesus but fail. We want to follow Jesus, we know what it means to be a disciple, and we put effort and intention and surrender into living a life of discipleship, but keep failing at it.

Thinking of discipleship with these possible hang-ups in mind have helped me when thinking about how the local church can handle discipleship. If we spend a lot of time teaching and preaching on what it means to be a disciple, we address #2 but leave people stuck in other places. If we keep inviting people to “follow Jesus”, but fail to help them see what discipleship looks like through the Scriptures, we leave them stuck at #2. Or we may be doing a lot of inviting and teaching, but are at a loss when everyone seems stuck at #3! I feel like #3 can often be our biggest hang-up, and one of the hardest ones to address. We actually need to get into the grit of people’s lives and walk together in dying to ourselves so we can become more of Christ. That ain’t easy.

As local churches, perhaps it would help to look at all the places we can, and do, get hung-up when becoming disciples of Jesus, and make sure whatever we are doing to create disciples addresses the places we can get stuck. (I’m of course not saying that we actually make disciples- that is by the power of God and the prompting of the Holy Spirit alone, but the local church does have some calling to participating in that and allowing God to work among us.) We need to be invited to follow Jesus, we need to be taught through the Scriptures what that actually looks like, we need people to walk alongside us to help us live as disciples and make the sacrifices and changes it takes to do so, and we need a community of grace to forgive us again and again when we fail to actually be like Jesus, because I don’t think there is any getting past failure #4. We just need grace.

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