Why I Hate the Verb “Discipling”

When I was in college, I was “discipled” for four years. Back then, I was part of the parachurch ministry, Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), which meant we needed to use Biblical nouns as verbs. Discipling involved meeting with a staff member, volunteer, or older student leader every month or so and discussing how I might improve my relationship to Jesus.

Both of my disciplers were kind women, but I’ll be honest: it kind of felt like meeting with my boss, and not in a good way. Discipling meant someone telling me, for instance, that I hadn’t met the requirements to become a worship leader, or that to participate in the senior women’s Bible study, I needed to commit to an evangelism project. It meant me sharing all the ways I was struggling, and receiving suggestions about how to improve: attend conferences (check), go to leadership class (check) or memorize scripture (not check).

As well-intentioned as my disciplers were, being “discipled” caused me real harm. Here was the problem: I was so eager to please, so much a rule-follower, that being “accountable” to leaders helped me lose track of my own sense of what actually connected me to God. Instead, I learned how to connect to Cru. I tried to remake myself in Cru’s image. The year after college, I nearly lost my faith as a result.

So last year, when I heard the word “discipling” in two separate situations, you’ll understand why my eyelid twitched. And the biggest problem was that the people that brought up this noun-turned-verb are people I admire, people with decades of experience in the church, people who are passionate about Jesus transforming peoples’ lives.

In both cases, the people who used the word “disciple” were justifiably concerned about how the church comes alongside people to help them move deeper in faith. My church in particular uses small groups for that purpose: studying God’s word each week in community, and learning about the Bible, service, and fellowship in community.

But because it’s run mostly by volunteer leaders, there’s not a lot of uniformity about how well this works for individual person.

My small group is lucky: many of the members have been Christians for decades, and served in leadership positions or experienced crises of faith. Also, we are all nerds. As such, when someone with less experience in faith asks a question about what communion means, or questions about theodicy or hell, we are pretty well-equipped to give a variety of thoughtful answers and create space for her to consider her own theology. But that’s not true in every small group, leaving the leaders I was talking to justifiably worried about those falling through the cracks.

We need a program to disciple people consistently, they said.

My eyelid twitched. I got a sick feeling in my stomach. And yet I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt so uneasy.

So I posted in Facebook, asking pastors and spiritual directors how they would help provide spiritual formation to people new at a church, or young in their faith. To a woman, the responses shied away from “programmatic” discipling—ie, a program that would keep people from falling through the cracks. As pastor and author Bev Murrill put it, “I just don’t feel that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach ever works because we’re not all the same size.”

Oh, I thought. That was the problem in college.

Look, I’m not saying that a strategic, comprehensive approach to engaging people in faith is a bad idea. Churches are institutions, and institutions function through programs. Trying to make sure that those programs are intentional, thoughtful, and high-quality is a must.

But I think that when we’re talking about helping people connect to God, we have to think about it more like supporting a marriage, and less like training people into a job.

With job training, the role is clearly defined. How a person will carry it out will vary, but the end goals, key skills, and knowledge base isn’t going to vary.

With a marriage, only the two people involved can really decide what that marriage is going to look like. They must discern what is normal for them, what is necessary, or healthy. There might be general guidelines (or “tools” as Abby Norman put it) about how to communicate kindly, but the final results they land on will be as unique as they are.

Let me add this: In faith, the two people involved are me and God, not me and a discipler.

Cru has a strong ministry goal—part of which is the desire to create “multiplying leaders”—ie, people who will to convert others to Christianity and then “disciple” them to become leaders themselves. I understand the theology behind that goal; I know smart and loving people involved with Cru. But their approach strikes me as job training, not marriage counseling.

Had I known better as an eighteen-year-old, I would have realized that being trained for a job that I did not feel comfortable with is a poor way to spend four years. I would have realized that trying to convince myself I felt comfortable with Cru-style evangelism, theology, and methodologies in order to “do well” and “succeed” was like getting married to man I didn’t enjoy in order to climb a society ladder. It was a recipe for disaster.

Prescriptive, top-down, or even strategic approaches to discipleship look really good on paper. But in truth, we need less strategy and more mystery, less focus on training people well and more on knowing them fully. When she spoke about avoiding “one size” discipleship solutions, Bev mentioned the idea of anamchara, a Celtic term that means “soul friend.” Using an anamchara approach to growing in Christ involves seeking support from those with a “compassionate presence,” not an agenda.

And is not the work of Christ, who reached out to Thomas the doubter and wept when he saw Mary and Martha grieving? I’m through with cutting myself to fit a standard-issue discipleship costume. What I really need are soul friends here on earth that remind me to keep pursuing Christ, the most compassionate presence of all.

Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash

Heather Caliri

Heather Caliri is a writer and artist from San Diego who is happily content with being an awkward Christian. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri

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