A friend recently asked me if I thought it was wise to put so much emphasis on radical discipleship at the very beginning of our efforts to plant a new Anglican church in Grandview Heights. “Doesn’t that risk setting the bar too high, if your goal is to attract people with little or no previous association with the church?”
I suppose he has a point, but since I know almost nothing about the standard, textbook patterns for planting a church, it didn’t surprise me to learn that I might be doing something “wrong.” My reply was that I thought it best to start as we intended to continue. That is, if we intend to make the idea of radical discipleship a normative principle for church life at St. Patrick’s, shouldn’t that be clear from the outset?
I think I understand his concern, however. It has to do with what some have called “front-loading” the gospel. That is, it might be possible to set the standards for behavior so high that people assume they could never attain them, or they have no particular desire to try, so they never get involved with the church at any level.
I could offer the example of Jesus in response. After all, during His earthly ministry, it was when He was most popular and drawing His largest crowds that He laid down His most demanding criteria for discipleship. While I agree with that, it probably bears noting that most of Jesus’ ministry was devoted to recruiting and training those who would provide leadership for the infant church after He was gone. He wanted to make sure that the new church’s leadership, men who had known Him and followed Him for some time, were fully aware of the level of commitment and devotion their roles would require of them. Ideally, of course, the church membership at large should aspire to the same level of commitment. But for leaders, it is not optional.
The history of the early church reveals that it was composed, from the very beginning, of persons at all levels of knowledge, devotion, and spiritual maturity. Since the image which Jesus used to illustrate the experience of entering the Kingdom of God (in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3) was that of physical birth, it should not surprise us that not everybody who is part of a church has grown to maturity as a believer.
But those realities should not deter us from making the goal clear from the outset. At St. Patrick’s, we invite you to come and be part of our community of faith no matter where you may be in your personal pilgrimage. We will want to make it plain from the beginning, however, that our goal is for everyone, eventually, to recognize the normative character of radical discipleship and to aspire to the integrity and consistency of life which radical discipleship encourages and requires.
Radical Christian discipleship, as I noted in an earlier post, is simply a commitment to follow Jesus at the most fundamental level of life experience. It is the mark of a fully-functioning citizen of the Kingdom of God. It understands that faith is not simply a veneer which we add to a life that is shaped and influenced by the culture more than the values of the Kingdom. Nobody except Jesus has ever been a perfect example of radical discipleship. Nobody except Jesus has ever lived according to Kingdom values with absolute consistency. Our responsibility, and our great privilege, is to aspire to that kind of devotion and consistency through and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
None of us will ever, fully and completely, achieve our goal in this regard. That’s OK. That’s what the church is for. Since the church is composed of people at different places in their lives, at different levels of commitment, under different types of stress and challenge, when somebody is down, somebody else is up. And the one who is up helps to encourage the one who is down.
The church is the agent of the Kingdom of God. It is where we learn what radical discipleship looks like. It is where we encourage one another to aspire to that goal. And it is where we experience love, from God and from each other, to sustain us in the tough times and to bring us joy at all times.
This is the model we will seek to follow as God enables the ministry of St. Patrick’s Church to move from vision to reality.