Author Archive

Untamed, By Alan and Deb Hirsch Explores the Understanding and Practice of Discipleship

Alan and Deb have teamed up to write a vivid and practical book on the art and practice of following Jesus. Both have been foremost authorities on missional community and ministry speaking and teaching all over the world.

In my experience over the years, most books on discipleship center on the theology and not the practice of following Jesus. Untamed, is a fresh and practical perspective on what it looks like to follow Christ. It is not a theological tome, nor a package of rules, lists and formulas. It is a frank discussion of what being a disciple of Christ looks like right here and right now.

Alan and Deb have produced a highly useful and highly quotable work. It is loaded with practical instruction delivered in an encouraging and engaging style. Each chapter ends with “Suggested Practices” and “Discussion starters.” These sections bring  some suggestions about how to “try out” what you learned, and discussions which help you develop your own ideas without performance-oriented guilt (in most common Christian works, I find discussions beginning with the question “Discuss with the group how you fail at this.”).

As I said above, the book deals with following Jesus right here and right now. In a simple, contemporary, practical and straightforward approach, Alan and Deb tackle discipleship in these four contexts: God, Culture, Self, and Mission. Within these four, just about everything you can imagine (and perhaps some things you can’t) is covered quite well.

This book provides one of the best resources for the art of discipleship that I have seen so far. It is excellent for new believers to get a good start. It is also essential for old believers who need a new start.

The most important value of Untamed is that it provides useful ideas which lead to action. The ideas the authors provide, along with the suggestions help the reader “act his or her way into a new way of thinking” making their discipleship a matter not of empty theory, but fulfilling practice.

Getting Smart with God

The Three Virtues

The Bible speaks a great deal about wisdom. Understanding and knowledge. I wonder if the reason may have something to do, not only with living well, but preventing trouble.

The Three Virtues (covered in the wisdom books of the Bible)

  • Wisdom: A skillful knack. The ability to take what you know and what you understand and make things in life work for you.
  • Knowledge: The facts. All the meaningful information.
  • Understanding: The ability to put all the facts (knowledge) into context so that they are useful and relevant.

Consider the polar opposites

  • Ignorance, misconception (also expressed as being gullible or naïve).
  • Foolishness: opposite of wisdom (stupidity)
  • Confusion: opposite of understanding (often expressed as error).

In proverbs, much of the teaching about wisdom understanding and knowledge, is compared with their opposites: Ignorance, foolishness and confusion. It occurs to me that the antithesis of these three virtues are the engines of oppression. The absence of these three virtues is a vacuum which allows a lot of suffering.

In Proverbs 8 wisdom is portrayed as a lady calling out to all humanity (Children of men) in verse 4. The real telling portion of this is down around the end of the chapter. Wisdom is characterized as a fundamental force of the universe and the very reason it is established and why it works. It is the attribute that made all the good that we know possible. But, as I said before, it’s absence bears horrible consequences. The absence of these three virtues is not merely unfortunate or even tolerable. It is toxic and dangerous.

Wisdom concludes her speech with this thought:

and now, oh sons, listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wide, and do not neglect it. Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but he who fails to find me injures himself; all who hate me favor death.

Without wisdom things tend to fall apart. If you live this way your affairs tend to self destruct. This is not a moral statement. This is a simple observation of the way things work in life.

Does this seem unreasonable? It is not a moral statement but a statement about the way things work. Think about it: what does ignorance, foolishness and confusion generally lead to? Living like this does not lead to a rousing good time and laughs for everyone. It leads to misery and self destruction. The lack of wisdom, understanding and knowledge is destructive and dangerous. It’s a risk that nobody needs to take. But wait, it gets worse.

In the corporate community sense, the lack of the three virtues opens the door for exploitation, abuse and perpetual misery. Oppressors love ignorance. It makes it easy for them to hide themselves and their intentions. It even allows them to make supporters out of their victims! Without these three virtues it’s easy to be trapped by any number of scams.

Recent history of ignorant group-think really illustrates this fact. The recent financial collapse was made possible by ignorance and confusion. Investment bankers created bad investments which were designed to fail and then conspired to profit from their failure, they made hundreds of millions, leaving the rest of us with nothing but losses, destroyed banks and expensive bailouts. Why? Because they took advantage of people who did not have wisdom, knowledge and understanding of the markets and investments.

A Christ follower does not need to live like this. Part of your transformation involves your mind. We get to grow smarter in all affairs of life as we grow in Christ. In Romans 12, Paul talks about being “transformed, by the renewing of your mind.” Just as there is not longer any reason to wallow in sin, there is no reason to wallow in ignorance, confusion and foolishness.

Wisdom, knowledge and understanding are not only notable virtues, they are a means of self defense in a spoiled and dysfunctional world. Without them, you are an easy mark in a fallen culture. Fortunately for us, scripture provides a promise and a truckload of easy-to-study wisdom literature.

The Promise:

Jas 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

The Truckload:

  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Portions of the Psalms

There are hundreds of one-verse-wonders covering matters ranging from finance, to relationships, even to office politics. All practical advice stated plainly.

Stay tuned. We’re going to unpack this truckload in the next post.

Discipleship, and the “American Dream.”

Ancient idol to Baal with some 21st century upgrades

All my life I have heard this verbal icon “The American Dream.” I hear it more often now than ever. You can’t go through an account of the recent fraud and corruption which brought the down our economy without hearing someone invoking that well worn phrase “The American Dream.” But what is “The American Dream” to a disciple of Jesus?
There is no “official” definition, but the phrase invokes the idea of home ownership, comfort and security, and an increasing ability to acquire money and possessions.
Dr. Francis Schaeffer describes this as “Impoverished values” of our culture. He calls these values “personal peace and affluence.”

Personal peace means just to be let alone, not to be troubled by the troubles of other people, whether across the world or across the city–to live one’s life with minimal possibilities of being personally disturbed. Personal peace means wanting to have my personal life pattern undisturbed in my lifetime, regardless of what the result will be in the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. Affluence means and overwhelming and ever-increasing prosperity –a life made up of things, things, and more things–a success judged by an ever-higher level of material abundance. (Francis Schaeffer: How Should We Then Live , Ch 11).

What does all this have to do with following Jesus as His disciple? Absolutely nothing. Where does that put “The American Dream” for a disciple? Off the map and out of the question. We don’t need to live for ourselves in such a way. Unfortunately, however, our entire culture is driven by this principle. Nowadays, we call it Consumerism and we are all up to our eyeballs in it.

We must step away from these practices and live differently. This is one of the most radical steps a Christ follower has to make in order to practice discipleship. She or He will have to learn new ways to live and new practices to align God’s ways and get off the consumer treadmill. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get together with fellow Christ followers as often as you can. Support each other in practicing discipleship. Read and discuss scripture together (avoid pre-published pre-recorded studies). Work with knowledgeable people that you know who want to help you get stronger.
  • Get out of debt. Buy only what you need. Repair what can be repaired. Borrow things or rent. Check Craigslist, Ebay and other resources  before you go making big purchases. Never shop when you are bored or depressed or tired.
  • Do an inventory and see how many things you bought that you are not using. Is it wise to buy a $300 chainsaw on credit only to store it after using it on one or two trees?
  • Wisdom, understanding and knowledge…get some…get lots of it. Consumerism thrives on your ignorance. It promotes quick fix solutions that you buy without thinking. Know what you are doing and why. Take the time to make good decisions. You can’t buy success.
  • Cut down on your entertainment. You will live longer and better sitting in front of friends than in front of a screen.
  • Use the Internet to learn and grow. Search and research. Use social networks to promote real friendships and genuine connections. Use Skype more.
  • Practice generosity. Shop for somebody else. Shop for needs. Lend or give to those who need. Do this as a group if you can.
  • Practice community. Consumerism isolates us into individuals buying only for ourselves and tending to our own needs. Community is a far more effective way of dealing with the rough spots in life and it is exactly what Jesus tells us to do.

These are Just a few ideas to get us started. The main thing is this: If we are going to “walk in Christ,” then we have to step away from some of the values of our culture. Living free of consumerism is the best way to deal with it. Practice is better than protest.

Please reply and give us some more ideas on the matter.

Orthodoxy Overrated

For so many years, I thought that the more correct your theology is, the better you are. I used to think that teaching was the most important thing to go for and I always went to churches I thought had the best and most dynamic teaching.

But I learned something. And I got over it. Here is what I learned.

You can fill your time and your head with all the teaching you can find. You can gather mp3s from the best of the best. You can build a tremendous and complex system of beliefs, but it will not help you.

Your theology must lead to action. When all is said and done, your statement of faith is your life.

The writer of the letter of Hebrews, at one, point was chastising his readers at one point. He told them that they should be well aware of what he is trying to say, but they were immature. He said that the were constantly re-learning the basics and not moving on. He called them infants, needing milk and unable to take solid food. then he said something remarkable:

Heb 5:14  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.  ESV

I had it so wrong for so long! Mature Christ followers become mature by constant practice of what they have learned. Their powers of discernment are developed by constant practice. Once they are clear on “good and evil,” they know what to do.

Going to the right church or hearing the best teaching or having the right list of “beliefs.” won’t help us. We study, not to form a system of beliefs, but to know Christ and transform ourselves. And in transforming ourselves we help reconcile the world. This is the process of discipleship.

Discipleship is where “orthodoxy” (correct belief) ignites and fuels “orthopraxy” (correct actions). Without this, orthodoxy becomes toxic, or a religious bludgeon to beat each other over the head with.

The key to this is imitation:

Eph 5:1  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.

I urge you to consider this and please comment.

Bondage to “Disciplines”

In the process of living out Jesus’ life, there are things we need to do. Notice, I said need.

Looking at shoes

I am convinced that Christians have created a shame-based culture when it comes to growth and discipleship. I see it all the time. We are constantly criticizing our performance. Sometimes I have heard questions in discussion groups which do this.  Without fail in Bible studies or discussion groups, the first question out the gate is something like “How do you/we fail at this.?” Everybody ends up looking down at their shoes, of course.

How can we expect to unpack these vital, powerful and beautiful things when the discussion begins with “Tell everyone how much you suck.” No wonder I see silence and shoe gazing. I think this approach is wrong headed, and it focuses far too much on us and not on God.

When Paul says in one of his letters “follow me as I follow Christ,” our first question should be,  “what was Paul’s example and how do we emulate it in our time?” This results in meaningful study and action. Not looking at your shoes.

The scripture was not given to us to shame us. It was given to equip and inform us. There is no reason to fashion God’s word into a paddle to spank ourselves with. Too much of that makes Bible study feel like punishment, don’t you think?

A different take on the disciplines

We have often described things like prayer, meditation, study and other things we do as disciplines. But in a culture of shame it just becomes another thing to fail at. This is not good, because the disciplines are good. Perhaps we can look at this a different way.

Think of the disciplines as your practices. These are things that you get to do. You don’t have to think in terms of shame. You can think in terms of working on your skills. Think of it terms of a craftsman, or athlete doing his or her thing and getting better and better at it. What craftsman, athlete, or artist hates what he or she is doing? Don’t they work at it passionately because it’s good and fulfiling and, dare I say, fun?

Paul uses that very image of an athlete himself in one of his letters to Timothy. So think of yourselves as working on your skills. Think of this as your practice. This is you transforming into the image of Jesus in the context of your life and circumstances. In other words, this is you being a disciple.

If this is what you want, you can’t fail at it. The only thing you can do to fail is quit trying. Shame is the main thing that can cause this.

Keep striving. Make your course corrections and personal adjustments in hope and anticipation, not shame. The only thing that can hold you back is what you choose to cling to. God is working in you and with you. Shame is not on the menu.

Php 2:12  Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
Php 2:13  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Coming Home to Ordinary

After nearly four and a half years of living and serving at a para-church ministry, we returned to “ordinary” life. We signed papers and took possession of home in a new town in a new state. Now, I am seeing “ordinary” in a brand new light.

When this oddball cult of Jesus-imitators first took off two thousand years ago, they had no organizations, para-church ministries, hierarchies, or, for that matter, churches as we know them. And yet, without all the trappings of power and organization, they went from a small local “cult” of Judaism, to about 25 million in 300 years. Everything they did, they did with their neighbors in their neighborhoods. They did it all in the ordinary context of ordinary life. They lived there and served there.

Today, with all the power and clout of massive organizations, billions of dollars of support, global media resources, powerful political lobbying, “Evangelical Christianity” is shrinking. Even in recent history, the “Jesus Movement” of the late 60′s exploded across this nation, then became organized, institutionalized, commercialized, and died before 10 years had passed. Building a “Christian” empire was never the point. This is why it never works.

Our mission, as Christ followers, is to care for each other and those around us. We do what He does. In doing this, we make disciples. You don’t need an organization for that. You just need others working together with you. You also need to be engaged in “ordinary” life.

One thing I noticed while living at this “para-church” community is how visitors tended to see the place as “true ministry,” and their own lives as marginal and “ordinary.” They seemed think of us who lived and served here as “true missionaries,” while thinking of themselves as uninvolved. They often used to express how they would love to live and do as we do.

Even this morning I heard a glowing report about men who raised their hands or came forward or something. These men had decided to go into “full time ministry.” The fact of the matter is that every follower of Jesus is in full time ministry already.

Professional clergy and Christian organizations are not the point. Every disciple plays a full and complete part in the mission. Discipleship is all about this.

Having lived in that para-church community for over four years, I have to say that it was not “true ministry.” It was necessary and, in some cases, vital, but it was not, in any way, the front line. It was more of a necessary evil and a compromise.

Formal ministries, by nature, tend to be isolated from “real” life and everyday people and issues. I suggest that “ordinary” life is the front line. It is where we all need to be engaged. Though we left this “para-church” formal ministry. I think we are finally getting into the real and substantial ministry. This is the kind of powerless movement which outlasts empires, and rescues millions.

I believe that ministry is best conducted in the events and context of everyday life. Even in the para-church ministry we served with, those we served had to “reenter” and exist in everyday life. I am convinced now, more than ever, that if we all served well in the “everyday world,” para-church ministries would not be so necessary.

Unfortunately, the popular idea is that rather than creating thriving communities of serving disciples we have to attach ourselves to a suitable local church to secure a “safe haven” for “Christian” living.

The point is that we are the missionaries; every one of us. So, what do we do?

Here are some suggestions:

Look closely at the practice of discipleship. Become a student of Jesus. Learn how He acts and thinks from the Gospels. Pay careful attention to what He tells us to do and how He does things.

Get together with other believers to work out these things. Study and talk over what you are learning and encourage each other. Spend time together. Take meals together

Look out for each other and take care of each other. Pray together and for others often. As you begin to get good at this, begin to offer help and kindness to those outside your group.

As you move forward with this, you may find God directing your “opportunities.” It is not complicated. It is also not always easy, but the reward is transformation.

You get to grow as a fully invested follower of Jesus, living out his life and work right here and right now.

From Alan and Deb Hirsch’s New Book “Untamed”

This is a pre-release passage from Alan and Deb Hirsch’s new book, Untamed. In it, Alan and Deb explore the meaning and practice of following Jesus. Each chapter ends with a suggested practice from the principle it proposes. They not only give you the idea, but a way to work it out in real life. Untamed is due to be released Monday, Feb 22  by Baker. Check out the book review page for more info and endorsements.

One Love—Shema Spirituality

The Shema is a major theme throughout the book, hence a small explanation of why this is the case. (Alan and Deb)

…how can we ensure we have a true understanding of God? Or even better, how can we know God? We believe Jesus is the answer and points us in the right direction when he says,
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” [and] “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29–31)

The power of Shema spirituality, or what Scot McKnight creatively calls “the Jesus Creed,” sums up the central revelation of God in Scripture and provides us with a worldview in a sentence. In other words, it is not just a simple description of what true worship means (and it is that), but also a description of a disciple’s basic orientation to the world.

• The Shema contains the revelation that God is one.

• The Shema shows us that God wants to be loved and worshiped in every aspect of life and with all of our being. The clear implication is that nothing in life, culture, and the human experience lies outside of this all-encompassing claim. No false dualisms, no sacred- secular splits—all of our lives, including our sexuality, work, play, home, politics, and economics, can, and indeed must, become aspects of our worship to the One True God.

• The Shema is expanded by Jesus to explicitly include the love of people, for it has always been a temptation of “religious” people to see religion as purely devotion toward God. Jesus will not allow this. Discipleship in the way of Jesus must include the love of people.

Furthermore, we suggest that Shema-spirituality helps us do the following:

• Rediscover the true nature of worship (we must love one God, not many—no idols and images, please)

• Learn what it means to love God in and through the whole of life (with intellect, passion, family, culture, money, sexuality, and so on)

• Understand our relationship to the world and our obligation to “the other” (we can never come to a true discipleship in isolation from the love of people)

• Recover an authentically monotheistic worldview, out of which we can rightly interpret our world (operating with a unified worldview around the kingship of God)

The Ten Commandments show us this truth. The first three of the ten have to do with one God and the prohibition of idolatry. The fourth has to do with the sanctification of time, thereby safeguarding the God-relationship. The rest of the commandments move straight into what it means to live together without killing each other—straight into ethics, or lifestyle! No grand philosophies, no eloquent speeches . . . just holy living in the whole of life-under-God.

In contrast, the Western spiritual tradition has tended to limit discipleship to issues relating to our personal morality, thereby neglecting our missional involvement in the world. But discipleship must include both and everything in between. We would argue that if we truly understood Shema spirituality, we wouldn’t even have to talk about mission because it is all contained in the primal confession—loving God and loving others as ourselves! To worship God involves loving God in all and every arena of life. Mission is implicit throughout the creed. And discipleship in the way of Jesus is all about living out the Shema. It is missional to the core! Hence, no mission, no discipleship.

Excerpts taken from, Alan and Debra Hirsch, Untamed, p.28-9 and 63-4

What If We Had a Mission?

You see it in nearly every church at least once a year. A missionary comes around to talk about his work somewhere in the third world. This missionary always invokes the “Great Commission” and talks about the perils and rewards of oversees missionary work.

What I want to ask is this: What is a missionary? Is it some sort of different class of Christian? What, or who did Jesus have in mind when he gave this thing we call “The Great Commission? Lets take a look at what he said:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Mat 28:18-20 ESV

The disciples are sent out to make more disciples. Those new disciples are to be “apprenticed” in the ways of Jesus. What did those disciples do? Well, if you read the accounts in Acts, they expanded all over the Roman empire and beyond. They “went” into “all nations” making disciples and teaching them…then those disciples went…and then their disciples went…and so it goes.

Do you see the progression? The numbers went from the initial handful of disciples to an estimated 25 million in less than 400 years. All of this was done person to person without mass communication. There were no printing presses. Personal ownership of books, let alone bibles was virtually unknown. What’s more interesting is that there were no churches as we know them today: no Sunday church services, no evangelistic crusades, no seminaries, no professional clergy. And during this period of great expansion, this Jesus Movement was outlawed. many thousands of people were jailed and tortured and publicly executed.

In spite of all this, this ancient Jesus movement spread like wildfire. Why?

Now, we send “missionaries” to third world countries, and see them once a year of two. But what are we doing here? I don’t mean in the country in general, I mean in our neighborhoods. If we send missionaries and they do this work, then what are we doing?

What are we doing today that looks anything like what that ancient Jesus movement? What do we see that comes anywhere near that in our culture?

Throughout history, when the Christians had persecution, they lost their institutional practices. They were cut down to the bare essentials of following Jesus. The result was almost always explosive expansion, solid uncompromising faithfulness to Christ and compassion and good will to the world…especially their persecutors. It is happening right now in China, and many other places in the world.  It’s happening and it has always been happening.

Do we need a persecution to get back to these “bare essentials?” What if we could get to this place on our own?

What if we had a mission? If  the task of disciples (followers of Jesus) is to make more disciples and teach them to follow Jesus then you would think we get to do this too. Is Christianity just a matter of  being a member of a local church? What if that local church re calibrated itself to operate more like the persecuted church? What if our mission dictated the priorities and values of our churches (rather than the other way around).

What if we looked at Acts 2 and did as they did? Take a look at that passage sometime. It’s interesting to think of how that would look in our time. What if we devoted ourselves to learning as much as we could about Jesus? What if we prayed and ate together? What if we took care of each other and those around us, acting as Jesus said? What if we took every opportunity, even conspired together to do acts of kindness and restoration in our communities. What if it went something like this:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,  praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47

We can do this. We need to become what we were always meant to be. We are a community, not a semi-private social religious club with a pointy roofed club house. We don’t go to church, we ARE the church. And we get to do all these things. We are not selling theology, we are living like the Son of God. Just like the people in Jerusalem so long ago. Just like those who went before us.

We all serve Christ. We all have this mission. We are all “missionaries.”

From Passive to Practitioner

Being a Christian is not about beliefs. It’s about acting on beliefs. It’s about trusting Christ to the point of acting as He acts and doing as He does. It’s about learning and growing by doing.

In the letter from James, he tells us to be doers of the word, not merely hearers. In Hebrews, that writer says that the mature become so by practice.
In another part of that same letter, the writer details the examples of several people who believed God and then acted on that belief. He would say “by faith, so-and-so did such-and such .”

The point is that following Jesus is, by nature, active. Yet modern Christian culture has reduced it to going to church, ascribing to a list of beliefs, adopting the “proper” political and cultural norms, fighting sin and boredom, and wearing a good disguise when that fight isn’t going so well.

It’s time to walk away from that life and walk with Christ. It’s time to learn and grow by doing.

Do not be afraid.