Discipleship, in practice, relies upon winning hearts, before shaping understanding.
Discipleship is, first of all, a matter of allegiance and alliance. Loyalty and faithfulness to a core set of values. Values that may be: incarnated in a patriarchal figure (Jesus; Rev. Moon; Keynes etc.), written in a set of documents (Talmud; Mao’s Red Book; Deming’s Profound Knowledge) or represented by an institution (Vatican; Conservative Party; Google). Some form of discipleship is at the core of all people movements — be they social, political, religious or industrial.
Popular (of the people) movements have phenomenal potential to impact and transform societies and nations. Witness the Arab Spring. Or the Revolutions of Russia, France and America. Or Nazism. None of these would have succeeded without becoming popular movements. Or without the making of disciples in the earliest stages of revolution.
The undermining of ideology
At some stage, institutions get on board with the popular movement. They do so in order to survive when a new order emerges. Institutions almost invariably become self-serving after a period of time, whatever noble mission guided their emergence. For this reason, institutions never lead renewal. They can’t. They have too much to lose and have to hold on to the status quo, until doing so threatens their survival and then they morph into something that it is hoped can gain a foothold in the new order. Accordingly, questions about discipleship in the wake of the postmodern undermining of the philosophical totalitarianism of the Enlightenment paradigm and the post-evangelical undermining of the Christendom paradigm are pressing.
From my vantage point, I perceive that Evangelicalism’s present fervour depends, by and large, upon two presumed crises: post-mortem punishment and an apocalyptic, visible return of Christ. The motivation comes from the need to continually hold out the word of life to people who will die and risk eternal destruction. Or who will face a similar crisis at the Second Coming. But the reality is that neither are “selling well”: that message does not presently have the potential to socially impact an increasingly sophisticated, consumer-orientated population (sophisticated not only in Enlightenment thinking, but in personal choices and values about what is really WORTHY in this life…). And beyond the westernised nations, such as in Africa, people need a faith that can make a difference in this life, first of all, even if it does also provide hope beyond the grave.
The role of contextual crises in engendering change
The crises that people face are what has always called out new people movements. If we were to trace the path of the now worldwide Pentecostal movement, we would see how it has blossomed continuously amongst people who perceive(d) themselves to be in a crisis situation — not necessarily of their own making. Today, this movement is making more fresh inroads towards cultural and social transformation than almost any other popular movement — and it is doing it globally, wherever there are people perceptive of a crisis and open to change (Miller and Yamamori, 2007)
Within the West, the “emergent church” movement offered the hope of something new, but hasn’t really delivered because it does not have a compelling vision of what needs to come next. It’s moved the furniture around and provided a valid alternative to many, but it does not seem to have the innate philosophical strength to offer a freshly-articulated hope of how God wants to incarnate his Presence within his people, at this point in history.
The crisis that we are facing today are primarily the crises of global capitalism. That is the imperial, totalitarian philosophy that holds sway over the masses and the nations and the world leaders today. Witness the debt crisis at the heart of the US right now and the EU and the broader economic problems of Africa and the lines can be drawn directly to the philosophy and praxis of unfettered global capitalism and its soft underbelly of misdirected international aid (Collier 2008).
Christian faith in the face of imperial ideology and social crises
The Christian church emerged during the period of one of the most brutally successful empires ever, the Romans. Todays’ challenge is really no less significant. In fact, it is more so, because the world’s population is so much greater. If God had compassion on the 120-thousand people and animals of Nineveh (who did not belong to his covenant community), then he surely has compassion on the nations today, who “do not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11). The role of the Christian community is to become a community of disciples covenanted to the Lord who can be the priestly intercessors, on behalf of the nations as they endure the waves of successive social crises that are coming because of the chaotic, out-of-control nature of the economic forces of global capitalism.
This is not a political argument. There is no political argument in existence that threatens global capitalism, per se. It is a call to radical Christian discipleship that requires the (re)formation of a renewed covenant community whose allegiance is not to the capitalist ‘Caesars’ and who are no longer marching to their tunes. Does this mean we have to give up our iPads and flat-screen tv’s and western style housing? It means being ready to sacrifice whatever is an idol in our lives, stopping us from being available to serve God wholeheartedly, in the midst of the crises of the peoples of the world.
What are the crises that confront us?
They are the crises of famine in Africa. Not just the one on the TV screens this month. But the famine of injustice. The famine of godly leadership. They are the crises of debt and the corruption of business and political leadership in America and Europe. Living off the fat of other people’s land and labour. Of living beyond our means to pay. Of refusing to sacrifice any aspect of our entitlements and selfish-largess. And they are the crises of drugs and insolvency and family breakdown.
Amidst all these crises and more, the Christian community is called to be God’s priestly people to those who are suffering. Compassion means to accompany people in their suffering, their “passion.” The crises are all around us.
- Miller, Donald E., and Tetsunao Yamamori. Global Pentecostalism : the New Face of Christian Social Engagement. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
- Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion : Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.