01 November 2012

Discipleship: consequences of lost focus

by Dan Phillips

Building on our understanding of the Christian's fundamental self-image as a disciple, and some of the positive implications we've worked out together, I'd like to sketch out one or two of the effects of losing focus.

Every preacher will identify with this image. You're doing your best to open up some doctrine of Scripture and, in illustrating it, you ask your congregation to turn to a particular text. As you give time for this to happen (a little time if it's in John, a lot of time if it's in Habakkuk), you notice many sets of eyes that never leave yours. It calls to mind what one of my seminary profs would say: "You're looking at me as if the verse is written on my moustache." Regardless, and whatever the internal dialogue or reasons, these folks are not turning to the passage.

Or you are explaining something, and you (say) define a word, or give the word that goes in a blank. Or you suggest jotting down a reference. You repeat it, slowly and clearly, once... twice... a third time. And you see, if you're watching, many motionless hands. In fact, they may not even have taken the outline you offered, nor have brought one of their own.

So first, let me give a clear disclaimer. There may be a hundred legitimate reasons for this, truly there may. Every pastor also knows this. They range from eidetic memory, to physical writing problems of many kinds, to English as a second language, to lack of sleep, to preference for other styles of learning. For instance, to take only the latter, perhaps a worshiper prefers to experience the service as a flow, and then goes back later at home to the online mp3, with pen and paper and Bible in hand. Or the person may be a brand-new Christian and have enough of a struggle finding the Gospels, or he may know that he is not a Christian. It's never wise to assume.

HSAT, this post isn't about any of those situations. This post, as a glance back at the title would serve to remind, is about Christians who never take any of these measures simply because they do not see themselves as disciples.

A disciple never feels he knows his Bible well enough. A disciple knows that he is on a learning-curve that literally has no upper extremity. A disciple never forgets that God has expectations, that privilege obliges, that he is morally obligated to be heading to the point where he himself both practices and can explain the deeper truths of God (Heb. 5:11-14). Further, he is vividly aware that it was failure to advance in just such a way that gave birth to one of the most terrifying passages of Scripture (Heb. 6:1ff.).

"I will never need to know that" is the thought of a non-disciple. It means, "This doesn't interest me right now, so I won't make any effort to strengthen my grasp of what the Word says about it." It signals a willful ignorance of the implications of passages such as Prov. 2:1, that wisdom requires that we treasure up what we are taught right now, even though the application may not be right now. The disciple is like the hardworking, forward-looking ant (Prov. 6:8), not like the aimless sluggard (Prov. 20:4).

Let that last image haunt and motivate. Winter is coming. Need approaches. Tests loom. If we are entering the Kingdom of God at all, the path necessarily lies through many tribulations (Acts 14:22). A godly life is a persecuted life.

And you know the most dolorous aspect of tests, trials, tribulations, persecution? They rarely send advance warning. It isn't often we'll get notices such as...
  • "Your lost loved one will give you a golden, perfect opening for the Gospel, if you are studied up on what God has said on Topic X; you now have three weeks to hit the books and prepare."
  • "Your child is about to be savagely tempted to walk away from Christ, and you will have one shot at giving a word from God's Word, if you know what it says, so that it comes from Him and not from you. You now have two months to study up."
  • "You are about to be more severely tempted to sin and shame Christ than you ever have been, and you will see it plain and clear — if you have refined your senses to discern good from evil by hard and rigorous practice. You now have one month to ready yourself."
  • "A brother/sister at church will be in a severe crisis, and will give you an opening to be of critical help that (s)he will not give the elders at this point... if you have the maturity to recognize it, and the Biblical knowledge to step in to meet it. Six weeks from this second."
Doesn't work that way, normally. We just don't get those warnings. 

But we do know those sorts of things are headed our way.

Or we would know it.

If we've been learning, as disciples should.

Dan Phillips's signature


Tom Chantry said...

You've nailed what is wrong with a disciple who insists that preaching reaches him "whee he is today." The brilliance of God's Word is that it reaches the Christian where he will be next month, but only if he is dilligent.

Paul said...

I've enjoyed these posts on discipleship. Edifying.

Also, difficult to take notes when you have your iphone in one hand and your coffee in the other. (c:

DJP said...


DJP said...

Oh, BTW, though observation I've figured it out: our 1-star hater is a Roman Catholic. Or has a Roman Catholic's feelings about the Gospel (i.e. hatred).

Stephen said...

Devastating, Dan. A great reminder not just for the times we sit in a church service listening to the preacher, but in all our moments where we have opportunity to be grown and matured by the Spirit through the Word, and we simply squander them away.

DJP said...

Right there with you, bro.

cb said...

Thanks for the reminder. I am very convicted as I read this. Does anyone here know of a good program/method for memorizing scripture? I feel the need to memorize more scripture.

trogdor said...

Preaching to 'felt needs' is begging for trouble. For one current events illustration, if you lived in Jersey and waited until today to start thinking about stocking up on some food/water and maybe a generator, you're a bit late. Preparing for a disaster is usually best done before you're in the midst of it. Hence the 'pre'.

trogdor said...

Just wondering: how much do you think the seminary model has contributed to the problem? I sometimes detect the idea that certain knowledge is only for seminarians/pastors, and the average pewsitter doesn't need to, or shouldn't, concern himself with such matters.

kateg said...

Thinking of those people in school who ask "will this be on the test?" They only want to learn the minimum in order to pass the test. Since there is no test- Jesus has already passed with flying colors for us, then they see no value in learning. I didn't find out just enough about my husband to get married to him. I longed to know more - because it wasn't about getting married, it was about getting married to him. When you love the subject, you hunger to know all about it. When I don't hunger to know, doesn't it tell me something about my love, or lack thereof?

DJP said...

Kate: exactly. You take me back to my days teaching in seminary, particularly the OT Theology class. When I'd say something I thought important, and saw a room full of stationary pens, I'd muse half-aloud (but loud enough to hear) "You know, that would make a good test-question," and then I'd scribble on my notes.

THEN the pens started moving.

Well-put, thanks.

tobekiwi said...

Just excellent! As (at least) one long time preacher has said "You can mine the riches of Scripture and never plumb their full depth." (don't remember who) In regards to the lost loved one, just yesterday, my dear mom-in law, after lunch said "Oh! I know what I wanted to ask you!" Music to my ears and soul, as well as a providential opportunity to share truth from God's word. I've been praying for her in particular, and we had a good discussion, and without the studying, well, let's just say it would have been an opportunity lost.

threegirldad said...

One problem I've found with taking notes during a sermon is that I too often miss what is being said "now" because I'm so focused on writing notes about what was said a moment ago. Better for me listen again later and take notes then.

cb wrote:
Does anyone here know of a good program/method for memorizing scripture?

Different methods seem to work for different people. If you aren't already familiar with Memverse, definitely give it a try.

I'm sure there a plenty of other methods and "systems" out there that deserve mention.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

Very edifying, Dan. I find that I've gotten in a better habit of taking notes as I've been encouraging (and helping) the boys learn to.

Even if I never referred to them again, (not that I'm suggesting that), the very act of writing them down helps get them into my mind. And as I write, I see better how it fits together.

And I can jot down things I don't quite understand to study or ask about later.

Julie G

Tom Chantry said...

Musings on Trog's Comment from Two Days Back

In the early years of the church, pastors were expected to be theologians, and theologians were all pastors. Even as the great theologians were gathered into seminaries, they still preached. But something has changed.

I increasingly think that the great problem of the segregation of theologians and pastors is the development of an overly-technical shorthand language in the seminaries and theological journals which contributes to the idea that there are vast swaths of Christian knowledge which only theologians need bother themselves with.

We need pastor-theologians, and by that I don't mean pastors who talk like theologians, but the exact opposite. We need pastor-theologians who talk about the deep things with the simplicity of days gone by so that the church becomes an assembly of theologians.

To descend to specifics, I could make an offhand reference to the "Christo-centric Isiatic eschatology," but all to what purpose. Half of my congregation might think me a genius; the other half - having more insight - would conclude that I'm a pompous fool. None would advance in discipleship. But if instead I say something along the lines of "Do you see how the whole vision of the future which God gave Isaiah is centered on the coming Christ?" - now my congregation can grow. And the great theologian-pastors of yesteryear sounded more like the latter than the former.

The greatest preachers I have heard weren't afraid of the high-hanging fruit, but neither did they insist that we scale the tree. They had a way of bending the branches down so that we could get our hands on the best fruit and be satisfied with its richness.

Julia Joy said...

Sadly, I think that even if God were to provide people with such specific, time-sensitive warnings, most would not heed them. There seems to be so little passion in Christian circles about the Word and so much about, well, passion.

My pastor has frequently implored our congregation to dig into the Word, to read it, to memorize it and meditate on it and seek to understand it, and yet, I recently found out a friend of mine didn't even know where to find her Bible, never mind having read it lately. (Sorry, run-on sentence.) I am disappointed by the lack of true fellowship and how few women want to talk about/understand the Word with me in any depth at all. It is so discouraging.

I hear people complaining about how "complicated" or "over their heads" the sermons in our church are and I just don't get it. I appreciate that our pastor gets into the meat and potatoes and assumes that we have some basic Biblical knowledge. I am refreshed by the expository preaching and challenged by the expectation that we actually grow in our faith. Why can't everyone else see how great that is? Why would you even bother waking up early on Sunday to come to a social gathering, listen to some amateurish music and a pep-rally Jesus loves you and wants to give you nice stuff sermon every week? Don't you want to actually learn something?

Julia Joy said...
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Julia Joy said...
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esther Jones said...

I second Julia's puzzlement. I often put Spurgeon quotes as Facebook statuses. My mother-in-law, whom all the family perceives as a giant of a Christian woman, recently told me that she doesn't understand most of my statuses, but that she's sure they must be good...

Another reason someone listening to your sermon might not dive for their Bible and notes right away is this: they might be a visitor from a church where the pastor preaches too quickly for parishioners to be able to look up references.

My pastor is a fabulous expository preacher, but he gives no time for looking up references. So, it's true...I don't even take my bible to church with me anymore--there's no point. I'm already familiar with the central passage, as I pick the hymns and try to do so with an eye to what scripture is being preached.

Granted, all his sermons go up online, so there is potential for me to listen to the sermon again and take notes and read the cross references.

On Bible study nights I DO take notes...on my computer. I get my Logos up, with several bible windows open so that I can quickly type in the passage for copy/paste to my notes, and I have One Note up where I can dash off notes much faster than handwriting them. Still and all, I hardly ever am able to get all the points down.