Year ago, I was leading a community in South Carolina. We were all learning how to be and make disciples as we lived on mission in community. With no one to model this for us, we had no choice but to learn almost everything through failure.
Living this way of life was very challenging for us. We didn’t understand just how much we needed training, coaching, and formation. When faced with challenges, especially the type that narrowed in on moving beyond conversation to practice, my approach was bent toward using knowledge (gospel and identity) to convince people to do doing what they should be doing.
I’d ask questions, discern idols and unbelief, and then use the gospel as a tool to motivate (convince) people into the correct behaviors. Looking back, I noticed that the process—for the most part—wasn’t the problem. It was my posture. Without discernment i.e. “asking myself what is God doing in their life now?”, I believed I knew what they should be doing before the conversation began. I had the verses to prove it. They just needed to be reminded and persuaded of what it is again we’re supposed to be doing.
And when it didn’t work, I was convinced that they were the problem. Can you relate? I’ve come to see that our posture shapes everything when it comes to making disciples. By posture, I mean the way we relate to people who are following Jesus with us.
I’ve come to see that there is a fundamental posture distinction between discipling people versus convincing them to uphold or be faithful to a set of correct beliefs and behaviors. No matter how biblical they are.
Contrasting Discipling vs Convincing
To contrast discipling against convincing, I am using each as a metaphor to name a particular posture we may inhabit as we seek to help others follow Jesus in concrete situations and challenges.
Here’s how I’m describing each posture:
Discipling—this posture looks like a person (or community) meeting with another in order to help them discern what God is doing and saying in the midst of a particular challenge i.e. “how do I trust and follow Jesus faithfully in this area of my life”. In conjunction, they are also providing timely, contextual, and necessary wisdom needed to support and empower the individual to take responsibility of responding to what Jesus is saying, doing, and calling them into it.
Convincing—this is a posture that is focused on persuading someone through intellectual means in order to ensure they believe or behave in a particular way.
Notice the distinction between each posture. Discipling is focused on helping someone to hear what Jesus is saying and invites them to take responsibility for their response. We do not internalize their response as the sign of our faithfulness. Discipling is both engaged and non-coercive; supportive and non-forceful.
The aim of convincing is to ensure a particular outcome through persuasive means. Paul calls it “insisting on one's own way”. Which he says love does not do. The convincer is first convinced that they know the problem and the solution. They then seek to use their intellectual power to ensure a particular outcome. Faithfulness for them is in being able to control the outcomes of the process and meet goals.
The Posture of Jesus
This year, I’ve been immersing myself in the gospels. Something that stands out to me is that Jesus rarely (ever?) spends time trying to convince people to follow and trust him. He definitely demonstrates why the people of Israel should trust him. But, time and time again, he proclaims the availability of the Kingdom of God and then invites people to follow him in ways that confront their actual desires and expose the hollowness of their aspirational desires.
We see this with the three would be followers of Jesus in Matthew 8:18-22 and with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22.
In each situation, Jesus responds to the would be followers with a challenge that targets their actual desires. Zooming in on the rich young ruler. He asks Jesus what must he do to inherit eternal life. This question is not coming from a legalist looking to earn his way into heaven. As a faithful Jew, he understands that the life he lives in the present has eternal ramifications.
Notice how Jesus responds. He calls him first into a life of love via the second half of the ten commandments. The young man says that he is doing this. Jesus then says, “If you want to be perfect (complete), go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
The conversation went beyond, “What should I do?” into “What do you really want?” The rich young ruler wanted his wealth more than he wanted to participate in the kingdom of God. He was unwilling to give it up at the moment and left sorrowful. Notice that Jesus doesn’t beg him to come back. Nor does he say, “Away from me.” Rather, it was the rich young ruler who walked away.
Jesus was able to do this because he knew the Father was always present and at work. He didn’t forsake the way of love by coercing this man. We don’t know what happened to the rich young ruler but we do know he’s not banished from the kingdom of God because of this one-off moment. Jesus is always willing to welcome those who are willing.
What if, discipling others was less about convincing others what to believe and do through overpowering them intellectually and more about us coming alongside them, discerning what they actually desire (moving beyond aspirational desires), proclaiming the availability of the Kingdom in the midst of their challenge or situation, and then inviting them to take ownership of what God is saying and doing in their midst? What if we trusted that the Spirit of God is present and at work in the whole ordeal? How freeing would that be for everyone?