Where Have All the Disciples Gone?

Five years ago my family and I started a new church in the suburbs of Philadelphia. When we arrived I wanted the first dollar our church spent to make a statement about the kind of church we were going to become. So I took every penny we had in our church's checking account, which wasn't much, and blew it all in one day. I called the police station in our area and asked, "Where is the most drug infested, crime-ridden neighborhood in our entire region?" Without hesitation he named a neighborhood twenty-five minutes away. He said, "We send a car there every night, why?" I said, "I'm a Christian and I want to show people God's love in a tangible way. I thought I would buy groceries for the entire neighborhood." "Why the %!@+% would you want to do that?" he said. "I wouldn't go there without a gun. Knock yourself out." That afternoon I drove to a wholesale grocery outlet and filled every inch of my van with boxes of groceries. When I arrived you can just imagine what I saw. It looked like a scene from a war zone. Broken windows. Graffiti everywhere. Trash throughout the street. Cars on blocks. People passed out on the sidewalk. And here was this young suburban kid looking like Barney Fife with his arms full of pancake mix and peanut butter. To say I was petrified is an understatement. "Okay God," I muttered as I knocked on the first door, "work through me, your chicken." I was taken back by the response. For the next few hours I gave away groceries and prayed for a prostitute, a drug addict, a guard at the local penitentiary sleeping on the floor of his apartment, and a dozen or so others. These people had nothing. Zilch. As I moved slowly through the neighborhood I touched and hugged and prayed for as many people as I could. When I finally got in my empty van, instead of feeling a sense of joy, I recalled my conversation with the police officer and got angry. "Why would that cop be surprised that a Christian would want to do this?" I asked myself, "Why is it that people have grown to expect so little out of Christians?" That word, "Christian," has become as tantalizing to an unbelieving world as drinking a warm soft drink at a summer picnic. The Problem With The Word "Christian" One of the problems with the word "Christian" is despite its wide use in our culture it is not a real popular term in the Bible. In fact, it only occurs three times in the entire New Testament. It never crossed Jesus' lips. Paul never used it. In fact, on every occasion when it does occur the biblical author quotes a non-Christian who used it to describe followers of Jesus. Acts 11:26 tells us, "...The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch." By whom? The unbelievers in Antioch. "Christian" comes from the Greek word "Christianos" which means "belonging to Christ." Not a bad word. But it was a nickname non-believers gave us, and for some reason it stuck. Another difficulty with the word "Christian" is our market-driven culture has taken it hostage. Rather than evoking hostility and persecution, as Jesus said might happen to his followers, "Christian" has become a corporate marketing niche. "Christian" offends no-one. In America we have "Christian" paraphernalia galore. We have Christian bookstores, Christian television stations, and Christian websites. Those who are curious can flip through a Christian bestseller, thumb through one of hundreds of Christian magazines, or sit back and enjoy a blockbuster Christian motion picture. One can quickly find Christian solutions for any and every problem a bewildered American faces. There are Christian exercise videos, Christian weight-loss programs, and now, much to our relief, Christian vitamins. But the biggest problem with the word "Christian" is it doesn't capture what a Christ follower does. I like titles that are behaviorally descriptive. A baseball player plays baseball. A stockbroker buys and sells company stock. A "Christian" tells us to whom we belong but not what we do. It isn't an action word. It doesn't carry an inherent job description or implied set of behavioral expectations. It communicates that we "belong to Christ," a solid idea in and of itself, but one that has lost its edge in our culture. Disciple: A More Potent Word I want us to dust off an old, seemingly out of date and often misunderstood word. In my mind, replacing the word "Christian" with this word is a vital key to understanding what it means to be a Christ follower. What is it? "Disciple." In fact, from now on, I want to challenge you to use the word "disciple" every time you are about to use the word "Christian." Say both of them out loud. "I'm glad I'm a Christian." Now try, "I'm glad I am a disciple." At first it is going to seem a little awkward. Your neighbors might think you've joined some strange chicken sacrificing cult. But that's precisely the point. Jim Jones and Charles Manson stole this word from us. We're stealing it back. "Disciple" occurs not three times, but over two hundred and sixty times throughout the pages of the New Testament. As philosopher Dallas Willard says, "The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples of Jesus." Derived from the original Greek word "mathetes," which means a "learner or student," a disciple is someone that learns from a teacher. But according to Matthew 28:18-20, our mission on earth is not just to create Christ followers that learn his teachings, but ones that obey his teachings. Changed Vocabulary - Changed Behavior So why use the word disciple instead of the word Christian? When we use the word "Christian," we mistakenly give the impression that obeying Jesus' teachings is something that can be put off until later, like dieting or changing the oil in the car. We tend to communicate, "First you become a Christian, and after that you can work at becoming a disciple." Discipleship is treated sort of like honors courses in high school. They're not essential for graduation but a good thing to do if you so choose. According to Jesus, discipleship begins at conversion. Trusting Christ to forgive your sins and getting baptized are simply the first steps of a lifetime of "discipleship." With the word disciple, life change is expected. Transformation is assumed from the beginning of one's spiritual journey. Sadly, our culture has caught on to the fact that when it comes to behavior, there is virtually no difference between the way "Christians" act and the way "non-Christians" act. Upon completing a poll for U.S. News and PBS' Religion & Ethics Weekly, the researchers concluded, "...Evangelicals--their distinctive faith aside--are acting more and more like the rest of us." Should we be surprised? We are simply reaping what one author calls, "the cost of non-discipleship." By far the most important reason we need to re-engage the word "disciple" is for our skeptical friends. When Christians become disciples we become the "salt and light" Jesus exhorted us to become. A few years ago I was driving in center city Philadelphia and got lost, which is a common occurrence for me. Without knowing it, I pulled onto a narrow one way road. Cars started barreling towards me. Horns were blaring. Cars were pulling out of my way. People motioned for me to go back the other way and said things I can't repeat. It reminded me of that bumper sticker, "If you don't like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalk." Say what you want about my navigational ability, there wasn't a person on that street that (A) didn't know I was there and (B) which direction I was headed. That's what happens when Christians become disciples. People notice disciples. Disciples do not blend in very easily. Disciples do not just believe differently, they behave differently. They stick out. They provoke. They cause people to think. They jar people to evaluate their lives, even without uttering a word. Disciples point people to the kingdom of God simply by their behavior alone. The result is people want what we have. Isn't this what Jesus intended?