In an interview on immigration with Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition, I concluded by talking about discipleship. It was a bit tricky because I was a little unsure about mentioning the idea of “discipling” in that context.
Inskeep specifically asked me whether evangelicals were hitching their wagon to the wrong horses. I explained, cautiously using the term “discipleship” on NPR’s flagship program:
Well, it’s a fair question. The challenge is a lot of people are being discipled—or spiritually shaped—by their cable news choices. I think ultimately evangelicals need to be known for what they are for rather than what they’re against; and, showing and sharing the love of Jesus seems like a better thing to hitch ourselves to over the long term as evangelical Christians.
I may have been unsure at first, but I am glad that I could use the word “disciple” in that context. Discipleship highlights a fundamental issue for followers of Jesus right now: there are certain things that are in us and need to be discipled out of us and other things that need to be discipled in us and aren’t there currently.
Three Things to Disciple Out
Some things need to be discipled out of believers. The first is fear. In John 20:19, we read how the disciples were hiding behind closed doors because of fear. Two thousand years later, a lot of people are hiding behind closed doors because of fear. We not only fear the coronavirus; we are also fearful of the future.
Today, people hiding behind closed doors because of fear have something that humanity didn’t always have: the Internet. We’re hiding behind closed doors, fearful for ourselves and others, and spreading that fear to other people online. Fear needs to be discipled out of all of us.
Throughout Scripture, messengers of the Lord brought calm. In Luke 2, the angel said to the shepherds, “Fear not.” An angel said the same to the women after Christ’s resurrection (Matthew 28). Unfortunately, the messengers on cable news tend to incite fear.
To understand the fruit of the current division that Christians are a part of, you have to look at its root. The taproot is a fear of being pushed out of society. It’s a fear of being persecuted––I think it is an unwarranted fear––but certainly a fear that is at work around us.
Fear is not the only thing. We must also disciple out a love for controversy, which is a recurring theme today. In 2 Timothy 2:14, Paul says, “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.”
Similarly, in Titus 3:9, Paul warns, “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” We have to disciple a love for controversy out of ourselves and other people.
One way we do that is to name it for what it is. You can say, “Some of us are afraid, and we need to trust Jesus. Some of us love controversy, and we need to love the gospel and people more.”
We also need to disciple out of ourselves and others a sense of falsehood. For example, conspiracy theories abound today. Conspiracy theories aren’t the only example, but they are far too common.
I remember trying to talk to people about “pizza gate.” I told them not to believe this; it is only a conspiracy theory. When the theory was proven false, believers seemed foolish, like when the guy showed up with a gun to a pizza parlor ostensibly to rescue children kept in the basement. But there were no trapped children, and there was no basement. The falsehood of this theory is clear, but the challenge is that, for a lot of people, they can’t be convinced until the theory is disproven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
If you’re dealing with people who are spreading conspiracy theories about 5G and Bill Gates being a part of the vaccine conspiracy, you have to take the opportunity to help disciple people out of their obsession with these things. You want to say to people that putting conspiracies on Facebook hurts both reputation and witness. As a leader, you have to be willing to say something is wrong and then disciple people out of it. As you are doing this, it is helpful to also be cultivating other specific things in our hearts and minds.
Three Things to Disciple In
First, disciple people in the way of Jesus—not the Jesus made in our own image, but the Jesus who spoke the truth and defended the weak, who spoke truth to the Pharisees and religious rulers of his day.
An example of this is the love of the stranger—something that needs to be discipled in believers. Do you want to help remove the bias some people have against people of different races? Help them to have a love for the other, a love for the stranger. If you want people to care about refugees and to care about immigrants, help them have a love for the other, a love for the stranger.
The parable of the good Samaritan is powerful, not just because the good Samaritan was good and helped the person who was robbed, though that certainly demonstrated love for the other. Even more powerful is the fact that the good Samaritan was of the “wrong” people group to start with. Not only did the good Samaritan do good to the other, but the good Samaritan was considered the enemy and still did the good.
Discipling that mindset into people while discipling out unhealthy patterns makes a huge difference. As we disciple a love of controversy out of people we want to disciple in a winsomeness toward others.
We want to disciple into people what it means to have a soft answer. Proverbs 15:1 tells us, “A soft answer turns away wrath.” This idea continues through the next few verses. Soft answers don’t come naturally today; we have to disciple that into people.
Lastly, we want to disciple truth into people. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
If there were ever a people who should be driven by truth and have a greater sense of discernment about how to deal with truth, it should be followers of Jesus. A pathway that you might take at your church is to help people to be discipled to love the stranger, to evoke a winsomeness in relating to people, and to live apart from fear and falsehood. This can be experienced in our lives and our churches if we help people stop seeing cable news channels as a source of discipleship and turn to God’s Word instead.
The Reformed Church in America is collaborating with Wheaton College’s School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership to offer an RCA cohort in the Master’s in Ministry Leadership program at a discounted rate.
Ed Stetzer is the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, where he serves as dean of mission, ministry, and leadership. Stetzer is also a contributing editor for Christianity Today, author, researcher, and pastor.