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Discipled to Christ in a Post-Christian World

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According to missional leader Mike Breen, a disciple is someone who is learning to have the character and the competency of Jesus. It’s about faithfulness and fruit. Or as Dallas Willard once described it: a disciple is what it would look like if Jesus were you.

“As a disciple of Jesus… I am learning from Jesus to live my life as He would live my life if He were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything He did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that He did all that He did.”
Dallas Willard, Divine Conspiracy

This requires that we exercise our spiritual muscles so that we might flex our God-given imaginations, seeing ourselves in what the New Testament calls our “glorified” state, where and when we are fully formed into the image of Christ.

A New Identity in Christ

Have you ever considered that? What would it look like for you to live like Christ? If Jesus were living your life, what would it look like?

If we can’t see in our mind’s eye what that would look like, to live into our new identity free from the power of sin and death, how can we ever hope to become like Christ? What are we aiming for if it’s not the image of Christ?

I’m convinced that visualizing our inclusion into Christ was everything for the Apostle Paul. The mistake we make in the West is only to think of an abstract, theological position. But instead, Paul is advocating for disciples to actually “see” themselves in Christ with a disciplined imagination.

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Romans 6:3-5 NIV

You see, when our sights aren’t really on Christ, we run the risk of settling or selling out for a more culturally palatable message that says you should merely seek to be a better version of yourself.

But please understand, that message is much different than saying you should die and become like Christ, which is the calling of all disciples.

The gospel and the culture are still very much at odds when it comes to our identity. Who are you? What about you is to be accepted? What is to be rejected? And what does the Lord Jesus think?

When Peter watches Jesus miraculously provide fish, despite his skepticism, and then recognizes that Holiness is in the boat with him, he tells Jesus to go away from him for he is a sinner (Lk 5:1-11).

Notice that Jesus doesn’t deny this. He doesn’t try to affirm Peter with, “No.. no.. you’re just the product of your environment” or “I like you just the way you are, Peter. Besides, all those impulses you have were given to you by God.”

Instead, Jesus invites him and the others in the boat to a life of discipleship. He wants them to embark on a life-changing journey that will result in “catching people” up into God’s Kingdom, a path that begins in cross-bearing and the denial of self (Lk 9:23-26). The cross will be a help or a hurdle to you.

Christ gives us a new identity. Please hear that. You’re made in God’s image, but you’re also broken and not as you should be. Don’t expect to hear that message from the world, cause you won’t.

Jesus loves you the way you are, but he cares too much to leave you that way. Yes, Jesus affirms that you’re a product of the divine, but you’ve also been born into a world that is presently groaning and longing for release from its decay (Rom 8:18-22). Therefore, be prepared to lose some things.

So you can’t become like Christ as his disciple without repentance, divine power, and a little imagination. Imagination is critical as we visualize for ourselves what it would look like if we lived in love and in perfect faithfulness to God, if we grew up into Christ. We can do this work together.

Make Disciples, Not Converts

Discipleship is the word we use to describe that journey of becoming more and more like Jesus. It isn’t optional for Christians. It is the very reason for which we’ve been included into his Kingdom, and of course is visibly made manifest in the community life of the local church.

If you’re not cool with that calling, if you’re not willing to sacrifice your life and agenda to walk this road of discipleship, I’m afraid that you’ve misunderstood Jesus and his eternal purpose for the church.

Then Jesus came to them [his disciples] and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Matthew 28:18-20 NIV

Jesus isn’t interested in religious converts or simply acquiring members for your church roll. He isn’t looking for a few conservative pew-sitters, nor is he looking for progressive social activists only interested in baptizing their justice efforts with Jesus-lingo. Far from it.

Jesus is interested in your self-denial and radical regeneration. 

He is calling disciples to follow him daily and take on a new identity and a new allegiance with others in the church. It’s his authentic recipe and his sanctifying way for seeing all things made new in the world. Period.

Discipleship is about taking off the old and putting on the new (Eph 4:22-24). We are called to manifest new creation right here in the midst of the old one.

If we’re going to be obedient to Christ’s command to go and make disciples (Matt 28:18-20), we must first be personally undergoing the sort of training that leads to our own inner transformation.

Disciples are learners. But we do not make disciples by teaching folks abstract concepts in a classroom. Discipleship is about learning from Jesus in a real master-apprentice relationship and learning from others who are a few steps ahead of us in the pursuit of Christlikeness, mentors if you will.

We need faithful (not perfect) examples of Jesus that we can engage in relationship and emulate as we’re working out our salvation.

Are you being discipled this way?

This way of discipleship demands humility, teachability, patience, and perseverance—the kind where you put your hand to the plow and don’t look back (Lk 9:62). This was Jesus’ invitation to his first disciples.

Discipleship isn’t for the faint of heart or for those who are only interested in keeping up appearances in church by attending some worship services, participating in some meetings, and going through the religious motions.

No, Jesus wants more than that. The world can do all of that “religious stuff” in its own strength. Nothing to see there.

As Jesus modeled for us with his first disciples, we need churches that are intentionally calling people out of the social and public spaces where we “fellowship” and enjoy corporate worship. Jesus invited people out of those spaces, be it in a synagogue or on a hillside, for the deepening of discipleship within intimate and personal spaces.

Who do you think knew Christ best? Was it the fans who followed at a distance, only showing up for some singing and open-air preaching, or those who met around the campfire with Jesus? Why would it be any different today?

Let’s be clear. Jesus wants you to do everything with him.

Jesus invites you into his inner circle with other disciples. He is interested in followers, not fans. He isn’t looking for folks satisfied with religious services. If you don’t come closer than that, you’re not putting yourself in any relational context that allows for deep spiritual growth.

It’s within the intimate and personal spaces of the church where we can build trust and discover what it means to confess, practice accountability, discern the Scriptures, share our joys and struggles, and learn to pray together.

Where are those places in your church? Are you present and active there?

Abiding in Christ

Jesus wants you to abide in him; to live and move and have your being in him. He isn’t to be contained in a family or an ethnic tradition; our faith isn’t to be relegated to a Sunday morning or whenever it suits our schedule and level of comfort. Jesus must be more if we’re going to be his disciples.

To be a disciple, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “he [Jesus] bids a person come and die.” Your person, your plans, and your preferences must be nailed to the cross with Jesus if you want to follow him. He becomes Lord over all of your life, not a therapist for some of your life. And this is good news!

Jesus said he has come to give us life to the fullest (Jn 10:10). If we want to experience the abundant life of Jesus, we must first recognize, as Paul did, “I have been crucified with Christ, I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). If we want to live, we must die first.

We must be willing to say “No” to all that conflicts with God’s best for us. This means we must surrender our lives to Christ.

It’s in this state of surrender that we are able to abide in Jesus.

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:4-5 NLT

Jesus makes it crystal clear that if we are not abiding in him, we cannot bear the fruit of discipleship. For every Christian that hears that, there should be a deep concern to not only understand this “abiding” business, but to be about whatever this practice looks like.

So what does it look like to abide in Jesus like branches in a vine?

It’s simple, really. It’s an answer that might seem ho hum to those who have grown up in the modern church, but nevertheless, it’s still the way the historical church has always taught we come to have an active relationship with Christ.

If you want to remain in Jesus like a fruitful branch getting its life from the tree trunk, you must be practicing some basic spiritual disciplines. These practices shape our identity, our character, and bring order to our scattered lives. Only then can we become competent like Jesus and be about the Father’s work in the world.

They are the spiritual disciplines of daily prayer & meditation, Scripture reading and study, fasting, worship, communion, etc. These practices exist for our spiritual formation as disciples, for the deepening of a real relationship with Jesus. Without them, we invite the world to shape us instead.

Discipleship Requires Resistance

Without a regular practice of the spiritual disciplines, we will inevitably fall prey to the spirit of the age and the forces of culture that are always at work to form us into the mold of the world. You literally must do nothing to be formed by the world. If you live in it, it’s working on you.

While not all of culture is malevolent and hostile to our faith, much more of it is contrary to Christ than we’re often comfortable admitting today.

Therefore, if we aren’t intentional about doing contextual theology and working at the discipled-life together, we will succumb to the prevailing secular liturgy of the day. At most, the church will become a nicer version of our fallen human selves–no good to Christ and no good to the world.

Like the decline of mainline liberal Protestantism has shown us over the last 50 years, people eventually wake up and see if all we’re calling them to is to be nice and care about social justice, then Jesus isn’t really needed. You don’t need to believe in the resurrection or in resurrection living brought about through discipleship. You don’t need the church calendar, communion, or her liturgy.

If all that is needed for energizing people spiritually is to read some poetry or hear a motivational speech one day of the week, you can get that in a book club or by watching TED Talks on YouTube.

The sort of church that discards the commands of Jesus and opts for a more user-friendly, do-it-yourself spirituality, is powerless and pointless, according to Jesus. It’s there that spiritual disciplines and Christian theology and liturgy in time become irrelevant. You won’t find disciples there. Not for long, anyway.

But, if Jesus and what we call the Christian faith is about becoming like Christ, in character and competency, through the process of discipleship, then we must hold fast to what rests at the heart of our faith: an insistence that being a Christian is about knowing the resurrected Christ in community and becoming like him in everything. All of this to the glory of God for the sake of the world.

And we can’t be disciples and do what disciples do without being intentional in resisting the pattern of this world.

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
Romans 12:1-2 MSG

Church, if we aren’t abiding in Jesus regularly, if we aren’t being disciplined in our spiritual formation, we will have nothing to help us discern and filter out all of the messages thrown at us today. We’ll have nothing to offer the world.

If we aren’t full of prayer and Scripture, if we aren’t committed to worship and Christian discipleship, we step out into the world spiritually unarmed and unable to discern what God’s will is for our lives and humanity.

What happens when we’re not being discipled? We are left with no choice but to operate off of our own sin-saturated thinking, our own feelings, and what is acceptable and deemed tolerant by society and culture at the current time. We then forfeit our power to shape the culture for Christ.

Throughout the history of the church and her engagement with the world, it has always worked this way. We will be discipled by Christ through our intentional efforts to be spiritually formed, or we will be discipled by the world.

Where We Go From Here

I suspect this has much to do with where we are today.

When I look at the current state of the church in North America, I think to myself: Why does the church lack the life-changing power of the early church? I know it’s really multi-faceted, but the simple answer is:
We’re not being discipled to Christ.

It’s not that the church isn’t doing some good things. On the contrary, many folks in the church are running crazy trying to make a difference in the world. But this is what I’m getting at: we have put the work before the worship; the doing before the being; busy religious life before discipleship.

If we want to influence our world for Christ and do the faithful work of disciples, we must first be a disciple. We will go out with power if we’ve been consistently living life as a disciple. Jesus sends out his disciples only after they’ve spent significant time with him in the intimate and personal spaces.

A simple reading of the book of Acts reveals that the Holy Spirit is the one who empowers a movement of God. The Spirit comes upon those who are committed to Christ as his obedient and submissive disciples.

Discipleship is how we raise the sails so that the Spirit has a way to move the church forward into God’s good future.

Jesus shows us that discipleship propels mission and evangelism. In other words, it’s transformed disciples that transform the world. All good things follow from discipleship. Really? How so?

When folks are being discipled to Christ they are getting in touch with God’s voice and his will for them and the church. It’s from that place that he sends us out to continue his mission in the world.

So where do we go from here?

(1) I think the church needs to recognize that she has largely lost sight of the Great Commission; (2) we would do well to repent of the many ways we’ve tried to change the world without first being willing to change ourselves; (3) we must seek to prioritize our lives and our local churches around the matter of discipleship–seeking to be disciples who make disciples.

Finally, I think our increasingly pluralistic and secularized culture will present us with some exciting new opportunities in the years ahead.

I’m hopeful that after losing the culture wars and whatever Christian power and privilege once existed in the US, we may soon be led by the Spirit to return to our primary calling that will surely revive the sacredness of our assemblies: making disciples.

So in the meantime, while we wait expectantly on a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit and for a movement of God to sweep the dry and barren landscape of American spirituality, my prayer is that we recognize that now is the time to return to our first calling to do the patient work of being discipled to Christ.

I’m looking forward to being a part of that kind of Kingdom revolution.

D.D. Flowers, 2016.


Talking to Jesus on the Back Porch

Have you ever struggled with prayer? You may not be quiet as analytical as I have been with prayer, but maybe you have at some point wrestled with the purpose and the practice of it—even doubted its power to make any difference at all.

Let’s be honest. Prayer is a mysterious thing. But even those of us who are willing to embrace mystery often stumble over deterministic theology (everything is already settled), well-meaning sermons on prayer that only brought the ceiling closer to you, and marque slogans like “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes you.” It’s enough to make you want to become a Buddhist.

About 6 or 7 years ago I entered into a new understanding of my identity in Christ. I had recently come out of vocational ministry and was burdened down with a work-centered faith. In many ways I suppose it was like hitting the reset button on all the things I thought I knew about Jesus, the church, my identity, and prayer. I needed it. Ever felt like that before?

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus, Matthew 11:28

If you want to experience the Lord afresh in intimate fellowship with the Father by way Jesus, then I think it’s necessary to see prayer as a way of resting in the Spirit. It’s amazing how often you can do this throughout the day if you’re intentional about it. Prayer requires intentionality.

“But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private.” Jesus, Matthew 6:6

While we’re told to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), it would be wise to listen to Jesus talk about prayer as a personal retreat. The intimate times with the Lord enable us to pray continually from a renewed identity with sensitivity toward the Spirit.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Ever find yourself saying, “Was that you, Lord?” Maybe you’ve wondered, “Was that my thoughts, or was God speaking?” I’m willing to bet that you’ve been there before. We’ve all been there.

A few years ago I decided to make an intentional effort to move out of the “roaming” mode of prayer—that place where I’m skeptical about hearing from the Lord—like a bad connection. I became convinced that God speaks to us through our thoughts into our spirit.

When I finally let go of this paranoia and unhelpful skepticism, knowing that I certainly wasn’t having a conversation with myself, I then began to experience intimate moments with the Lord, and much more frequently.

I simply trusted that the Lord was listening, and that he always desires to speak to me. He is closer than a brother (Prov 18:24).

Meeting Jesus Around a Campfire

If I have a place to “go away” by myself and “shut the door” (so to speak), it’s my back porch. Over my fence looms a forest of pine trees. I enjoy creation around me as I sit next to my cast iron chimenea (Mexican-styled fire pit) at dusk. A cup of hot tea or coffee aids in relaxation.

I enter into a place of solitude within my soul, opening myself up to the Lord, as I stare into the fire and close my eyes… waiting… expecting.

I imagine the Lord there with me, I see him just as I might see the face of a loved one. The real difference is that I’m not simply visualizing or remembering. I’m creatively imagining for the sake of conversing with a real person. I’m not talking about delusions of grandeur here.

Since I haven’t seen Jesus with my own eyes, not yet anyway, I borrow the face of Christ played by Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004). That may seem strange at first, but it’s perfectly safe and effective.

The first time I did this I imagined myself on a beach at dusk. I saw the Lord’s face through the fire as if he’s sitting across from me. Within myself I said, “Lord.” He looked at me and began speaking with, “My son, I love you.” Those are usually the first words I hear him speak to me in prayer.

While my mind often races and seeks to be interrupted by intruding thoughts or slip into “roaming” mode, I resist the distraction and focus on the Lord—remaining in the moment as long as I can.

If I will stay open to the Lord and allow my imagination to move freely with the Spirit, I have found that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a rush of words from Christ, who is the embodiment of the Father.

Jesus Wants to Get Personal

“Though most believers are comfortable speaking of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus,’ few concepts are so greatly celebrated and little experienced.” Wayne Jacobson

I feel that I’ve only begun to experience Jesus in a fresh way. I’m what you would call an aspiring Christian mystic. What I hope to inspire with this post is a courage to try a method of prayer that treats the Lord as a real person, and a dialogue between two beings. Don’t pray like the hypocrites.

What’s keeping you from a fulfilling prayer life? Where’s your back porch? Does your prayer life suffer because of bad theology? What about your ability to creatively imagine the Lord being present in your life?

Give it a try. Take some deep breaths, close your eyes, and see the Lord there before you in the power of a disciplined imagination.

D.D. Flowers, 2013.

For more on prayer, see the following books:


Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Two

Scot McKnight is an American author, New Testament scholar, historian of early Christianity, and theologian. He is currently the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University.

Prior to joining the NPU faculty in 1994, he taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. McKnight will join the faculty at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary this Fall 2012.

McKnight has written more than twenty books. His book, The Jesus Creed, won the Christianity Today book award for 2004 in the area of Christian living. He currently has one of the most popular evangelical blogs online. He has written widely on the historical Jesus and early Christianity. He is an authoritative voice for evangelicals today.

The next book I’m recommending in this series is McKnight’s most recent work, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Sept. 2011).

His book comes with a forward from N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard. Wright says, “This book could be one of God’s ways of reminding the new generation of Christians that it has to grow up, to take responsibility for thinking things through afresh, to look back to the large world of the full first-century gospel in order then to look out on the equally large world of twenty-first century gospel opportunity.”

As you might have guessed with a subtitle like, “The Original Good News Revisited,” McKnight sees that our biggest evangelical problem is “that we have an entire culture shaped by a misunderstanding of the gospel” (p. 27).

He is confident that this problem is evident by some sobering statistics and the failure of the church to transform society with the gospel. McKnight points out that, according to the Barna Group, 75 percent of Americans have made some sort of “decision” for Christ, but only about 25 percent of Americans actually attend a church fellowship regularly (p. 19).

McKnight writes, “We cannot help but conclude that making a decision is not the vital element that leads to a life of discipleship.” He continues with, “Our focus on getting young people to make decisions—that is, “accepting Jesus into our hearts”—appears to distort spiritual formation” (p. 20).

While McKnight affirms the evangelical conviction that a person must be born again or saved, he contends that this salvation must always and only be understood within the biblical narrative and a call to radical discipleship—the way in which it is proclaimed in the New Testament.

He writes, “Evangelicalism is known for at least two words: gospel and (personal) salvation. Behind the word gospel is the Greek word euangelion and evangel, from which words we get evangelicalism and evangelism. Behind salvation is the Greek word soteria. I want now to make a stinging accusation. In this book I will be contending firmly that we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really “evangelical” in the sense of apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians.”

He goes on to say, “Here’s why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. Hence, we are really “salvationists.” When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) “salvation.” We are wired this way. But these two words don’t mean the same thing, and this book will do its best to show the differences” (p. 29).

McKnight believes that the apostolic gospel was a gospel culture gospel, not a salvation culture gospel. He believes the early church did not have the struggle that we now have in America. The salvation culture gospel “will always create the problem of discipleship.”

A salvation culture does not require The Members or The Decided to become The Discipled for salvation. Why not? Because its gospel is a gospel shaped entirely with the “in and out” issue of salvation. Because it’s about making a decision. In this book we want to show that the gospel of Jesus and that of the apostles, both of which created a gospel culture and not simply a salvation culture, was a gospel that carried within it the power, the capacity, and the requirement to summon people who wanted to be “in” to be The Discipled. In other words, it swallowed up a salvation culture into a gospel culture (p. 33).

McKnight sets out to convince evangelicals that its time to rethink the gospel according to the Scriptures. From a critique of the Reformation efforts to reshape the apostolic gospel into a “salvation” gospel, to the popular efforts of modern day men to reduce the gospel to a sinner’s prayer, McKnight deconstructs the current evangelical proclamation in order to construct a NT-styled evangelism. He calls it “gospeling” a Christian resurrection gospel—retelling the saving story of Jesus as the completion of Israel’s story.

In order to further whet your appetite for this book, here are a few comparisons that McKnight makes between the King Jesus Gospel and the salvation gospel of many evangelicals today:

(1) the gospeling of Acts summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as Savior; (2) the gospeling was not driven by the salvation story or the atonement story. It was driven by the Story of Israel; (3) neither Peter nor Paul focuses on God’s wrath when they evangelize in Acts, nor do they describe the saving Story of Jesus as an escape from hell; (4) NT gospeling was politically subversive to the agendas of empire; (5) the early apostles evangelized by telling the complete Story of Jesus within the Story of Israel (pgs. 133-144).

McKnight says, “Our gospel preaching and evangelism tend to tell the story of how to be saved personally. There is a major difference between the Story of Jesus and a Plan of Salvation” (p. 144). I could not agree more with McKnight’s observations and his refreshing look at the King Jesus Gospel.

There are some complimentary overlaps between McKnight’s book and the previous book in this series, N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope. A good bit of the evangelical theology that Wright seeks to correct in his book makes us up much of the backbone within the salvation gospel that McKnight rightfully critiques. They both offer up a new vision for 21st century evangelicalism.

Read them, digest them, search the Scriptures, and see if they do not ring true with you as they do with me.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Read the next post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Three

*See the intro post for information on the free book giveaway at the end of this series. It’s not too late to get in on the drawing!


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