Discipleship Machines?

I have a friend who makes YouTube videos. Peter goes out to his shop in his garage almost every week and does some wacky thing with wood or epoxy or gummy bears or any combination of the three and creates a video of his project. Usually these projects end up being reduced to a set of steps that a fairly intelligent person could take and reproduce themselves. Just follow the steps, duplicate the process, and you can possess a fancy ring made out of colored pencils, super glue, and resin coating.

Often we think of discipleship as being something like that. Follow the steps, do what we’re supposed to do and we’ll be a saint in no time. Or we might see our spiritual formation to be something like climbing a ladder. One rung at a time we take the next step and move forward. Or, our growth spiritually is like a journey to a far away place. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress illustrates for us what we imagine this development to be like. One step in front of another, from here to glory as we trudge along. “Upward and onward!” might be the battle cry.

As helpful as those images can be to our imaginations and pursuit of spiritual growth, I often wonder if they are failing to tell the entire story? Don’t get me wrong, Christian living is biblically envisioned as a pursuit or a goal, even a race. We are called “sojourners” in this world. But when we think about spiritual growth we often merely allow it to be a linear project. And when something is defined by linear steps it can become very easy to think that by taking those steps we can mass-produce a project. Consider our “Automation Alley” environment. Ford and others were clever in building not just a automobile (which had already been done). They were geniuses for automating the process of building thousands of automobiles. It worked for machines. I’m not confident however that this sort of automation is possible in making disciples.I don’t think the New Testament writers had this in mind either. There doesn’t seem to be a “one size fits all” process or class to discipleship.

Paul, instead, envisioned it this way. He called our spiritual formation saying, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15). Paul describes our maturity as growing up. He describes the end result of our discipleship just a few verses earlier by saying that we “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:13, NIV). To put these two verses together Paul is directing us to the fact that our discipleship process is to grow up to the fullness of Christ. Elsewhere he comments that our transformation is “into the same image” as we behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18). Simply put, discipleship is growing up to look like Christ.

This helps me because it allows me to grow into a person instead of trying to reach a far away goal. The little “wins” that come along today won’t ultimately determine my spiritual success. Nor will the temporary and momentary sins and sufferings that slow my progress and my growth. I will grow to become like Christ. I’m not some project that is either a success or failure. I’m called to a person, to be like a person, and to grow as a person. Not a machine. The plan of discipleship is to be like Christ. If that means taking a class to know his Word better, good. If that means spending time in relationship with others who are wise and helpful, good. If that means walking into the valley of the shadow of death through some difficult providence, this is well and good too. I am growing up into Christ. I am not being molded into a machine.