If you had the opportunity to attend a public event at the United States Military Academy in West Point, NY you would see an impressive group of young men and women who are being prepared to go anywhere in the world, under any circumstances and swing into action the minute their boots hit the ground. They are military officers in the making. Upon their graduation they will be commissioned as “leaders of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, and Country . . . prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army”.
Is there any similarity between what happens at West Point and what happens at your local church? Does your local church have a systematic process that produces mature Christian disciples who can pray, share their faith, explain the Bible, defend their doctrine, put the wellbeing of others ahead of their own, stand up under persecution or do whatever they need to do for Christ’ Kingdom wherever their feet hit the ground?
You don’t have to answer that question because we already know the answer. The church is struggling to produce men and women who fit the biblical standard of spiritual maturity. We are failing to produce people of depth – deep in spiritual character, deep in faith, deep in prayer, deep in love for God and others! This process is actually called discipleship and it is not happening in the average church.
The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement speaks to this in Article VIII. It decries the fact that we have, “largely abandoned our Methodist system of spiritual formation and forgotten how to fulfill our Lord’s command to make disciples. We have sought revival without preparing to preserve its fruits. We have emphasized spectacular conversions and neglected the biblical necessity of disciplined growth in faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love”. The end result is that the CHM suffers from too many shallow Christians.
I felt the “push back” and irritation from a lot of conservatives as soon as that last sentence formed on the page in front of me! But alas it must stand! Conservatives face the normal fallout of failing to disciple their people. However they also face another subtle danger – that of appearing to be deep rather than actually being deep! It is very easy for us to look spiritual while actually being as shallow as the carnal Corinthians. Being deep is more than just knowing and honoring the Bible in visible ways (especially those that make us look spiritual in our setting). That can happen while failing to demonstrate the character it commands. One can be meticulous, even legalistic, about his tithe and yet fail ever to develop the spirit of generosity. One can dress modestly and still have a sensual spirit. Sheer knowledge of the Bible doesn’t make one godly. The mere application of a few visible commands doesn’t mean we have cultivated holy character. One can read the Bible daily, acquire significant amounts of Biblical knowledge, adopt standards of dress and behavior, yet have no straight-line correspondence between that and real Christlikeness. One can embrace the conservative creed, adopt its life-style principles, and learn the language of the “old fashion way” and still be shallow.
Many conservative leaders readily admit that the CHM is not getting the job done when it comes to the discipleship of new believers. Some recognize that we also are not taking the second step and engaging in the lifelong mentoring process that creates deep Christians. However, few if any are talking about the problems that result from not discipling – a problem that Thomas Bergler calls the “Juvenilization of Christianity.” When converts are not placed on a deliberate trajectory toward spiritual maturity, the character traits of duty, discipline, scriptural living, holy habit, holy affections, denying oneself, sacrificial loving and giving – all traits of mature Christians – are decoupled from normal adulthood and moved down the road to some future time that may or may not arrive. The shallowness that is left is a self-centered, emotionally driven and intellectually empty faith that is focused more on “being fulfilled” than on “being faithful.”
Discipleship the only Cure!
New believers do not develop into deep Christians on their own any more than a little boy playing soldier becomes a great general on his own. We know this from church history and from personal experience. More importantly, we know this because the Bible gives us examples of how God Himself develops deep people. Jesus chose to spend the majority of His time discipling His twelve disciples. With only a three year public ministry, I think it remarkable that He made a limited number of public appearances and preached relatively few sermons while investing the vast majority of His time in the men who followed Him. Watching this process unfold in the Gospels, it looks like just three years of walking, talking and eating with them. But in reality Jesus was building character, teaching them how to think as He thought and reshaping the spiritual parts of their lives in such a way that would prepare them to live, suffer and die for His Kingdom. This three year investment had such exponential results that we still feel its effect today!
Christians who are spiritually deep people have gone through God’s discipleship program. Whether it is Moses, Paul, John Wesley or John Doe, all deep people have three things in common. Each has been cultivated by God through direct encounters, experienced the character development made possible by difficult circumstances, and has been exposed to deliberate mentoring by resourceful people.
The journey to becoming a deep person begins with a direct encounter with God. This is what the church has called a person’s conversion. No man can or even wants to become a deeply spiritual person who has not had a heart change wrought by the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was such an encounter. He was not only converted to Christ but given his life’s calling. But there are other encounters with God. Some are very personal like Jacob’s encounter with God at Peniel. That was an encounter that gave Jacob a painful insight into his own carnal self and left him with a changed nature, a new name and a life marked forever by an amazing touch from God. Other encounters give us insight into the character and nature of God. Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 34 is an example of this. Moses had asked to see God’s “face” (glory) and was told he would be permitted to see God’s “goodness.” What he asked for and what he received was quite different – a difference that is important. Dennis Kinlaw clarifies this difference with this comment, “you can have a spiritual experience that is very exciting and yet is contentless or you gain an insight into the character of the Eternal that will change you forever.” These encounters with God along the path of life are crucial to our development into deep people.
A.W. Tozer reminds us that, “It is doubtful whether God can use a man greatly, until first He wounds him deeply.” In my almost forty years of walking with the Lord, I have been blessed to receive numerous words of appreciation and kindness. They have encouraged me and strengthened me in my work and walk. However, it has been the difficult circumstances of life; the harsh winds of trial and adversity; the unjust words of a foe; and the dark night of the soul that has done more to shape my character in Christlikeness than almost anything else. Deep people have been discipled by the character shaping experience of difficult circumstances.
Deep people are not self-formulating. Their lives are enriched by the counsel and wisdom of others. All of us need Godly men and women who have experienced life and know God intimately to speak into our lives. Most often this comes in a person to person encounter. However, it may take the form of books or other spiritual resources. Moses had his father-in-law Jethro. Paul had his traveling partner Barnabas. Timothy had his spiritual father Paul. Wesley had his books, his brother and his Moravian friends. The early Methodists had the class meeting – a system that produced a steady stream of deep people. Tozer had the writings of the Early Church Fathers and the Mystics. Deep people will always have someone in their life that affirms, instructs, corrects, and holds them accountable.
The Implications of Failing to Disciple
The CHM has got to stop using the altar as the primary place of spiritual formation. The altar can certainly be a place of spiritual transformation and decision. But spiritual formation and growth takes place in the discipleship phase of Christian living. The work of discipling believers and mentoring deep people can no longer be a point of mere discussion. It must begin in earnest. Our failure to disciple deep people has already created a scarcity of spiritual leaders who have that blend of maturity, wisdom and balance that is needed to lead effectively. If we do not reverse the trend, the CHM could well be headed into irrelevance.
Alan Redpath wisely noted that the conversion of a soul is the miracle of a moment, but the maturing of a great saint is the task of a lifetime. Our Methodist fathers understood this and modeled for us the art of making disciples like no one else in the last 200 years. It’s our heritage—it should be our practice—it may be the key to our survival!