“… Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus. Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:19-20.)
My stepson was well-prepared for his first overnight experience outdoors. Conceptually, anyway.
The camp was everything a 9-year-old boy could dream of: a sprawling, two-story frontier-style fort, a BB-gun range, trails, creeks, towering pine trees, and even an old mine shaft to explore. There were games galore and a swimming pool with splash pad. Afterward, there were s’mores and campfire songs under a full moon. It promised to be a great 24 hours.
Yet, the ride to the camp was full of doubtful inquiry. “Will there be bears?” “Will our campfire burn down all the trees?” “What if we run out of food?” He was even afraid of getting a splinter in the fort and, thanks to a certain Christmastime television classic still fresh on his mind, shooting his eye out!
The fear was understandable, even if we had already read through his scout handbook chapter on camping and been to a meeting dedicated to planning for it. We were also packed for what looked like a month-long excursion! All I could tell him was that I had done this many, many times before in the not-so-distant past (it didn’t seem like that long ago, anyway), and that I would be beside him the entire time.
Surprisingly (to him, at least), no bears devoured our supplies and we made it out of camp alive and well-fed after having had a great time.
This is where I think we can learn a thing or two about discipleship. It has to be more than a concept taught by a book. It has to be more than a series of meetings. Discipleship must be lived out and lived together.
There are, of course, many helpful and proven curricula, book studies, and Bible study guides available for new disciples and their mentors. There are countless retreats, conferences, camps, and camp meetings as well. But, nothing is a substitute for walking alongside a fellow Christian in regular, plain-old daily life.
While in the tent, I jotted down a few elements often missing from discipleship.
If you’re in a position to pair up new believers with people who can disciple them, consider this: Sharing a tent means everything to a young camper, and geographic proximity (ideally the same neighborhood or section of town) can mean everything to a new Christian. It doesn’t take communal living to do this (though I have seen Christian housing arrangements be fertile ground for growth!), just an awareness that with life’s situations come countless and invaluable teaching opportunities. A casual observation can lead to a deeper discussion about the love of Christ. Attending a community festival together can provide many opportunities to show how one can be around sin and temptation and not cave in to it. Even a walk around the neighborhood can expose needs in the community that can be met by the Body of Christ.
And by prayer, I mean persistent and personal prayer. Yes, you can still pray for someone by what is learned from weekly, one-hour chats from across town, but it takes some time and plenty of “prayer without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) to build the trust necessary to explore topics that underlie our hurts and fears, and to lay them down at the altar. It takes more than just a chapel service, to continue my camping analogy! This brings me to the next often-missing element:
What’s a youth camp without a list of chores ready for those who break the rules, like doing the dishes, peeling potatoes, gathering wood, etc.? It’s part of the experience. That’s what I mean by “penance”—not “three Hail Marys and an Our Father,” but practical actions that can remind us all that sin has temporal consequences.
In John Wesley’s “Reply to the Roman Catechism,” he explained that while God is the One who absolves sin, confession and penance can serve as “a spiritual guide for disburdening of the conscience, and as a help to repentance.” Depending on the sin confessed, a mentor may recommend a course of action to “make up” for what was done in a social sense. If the sin is an angry, hateful outburst, perhaps the mentor can suggest a “peace offering” of kindness and service to the person offended. If something was stolen, maybe the mentor can suggest the repentant thief give back three times what was taken. As unpopular as this may be in today’s environment of non-judgmentalism, by turning the “sinner from the error of his way” in a very practical sense, it may even save his life and “hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).
“Be prepared” is the Scout motto and is also found in Scripture (I Peter 3:15). It can be hard for those of us who have been around the block to imagine, but there are often very simple things that an increasing number of new Christians are not being taught: like how to look up a verse using a concordance, or which apps to download. In one case, I met a new Christian of at least two years who had never prayed for anyone or anything. Another had never been taught to sing during worship but just to watch the praise band do their thing. But there are also more advanced things to prepare a disciple for: how to share Gospel with someone in a way that’s not an awkward sales pitch, or to consider local and foreign missions.
Are we willing to spend our days with our disciples as the Apostle Paul did, regardless of whether they’re eager to join the Christian camp or still have cold feet? Doing so might make all the difference between teaching the mere concept of Christian living and actually living as Christians.
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