…[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
-Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)
If you’re a college student looking for a summer internship, and you don’t mind the wind in your hair and the sun on your neck — and sitting on a motorcycle for hours each day — I may know just the thing for you.
Harley-Davidson is looking for eight college students to spend the summer riding Harleys around the country (and possibly overseas), attending motorcycle events and documenting their travels with photos, videos, and stories on various social media. The program is open to students looking to pursue careers in social media, communications, public relations or marketing. Harley-Davidson will teach the students to ride, give them bikes, and send them out for the summer. And, here’s the thing: you get to keep the motorcycle when you’re done.
Harley is doing this because they recognize that young adults aren’t gravitating toward motorcycles in the same numbers as previous generations. They believe that the only way to ensure their health as a company going forward is if they grow the next generation of riders themselves. By teaching students, equipping them, and sending them out, they hope to create a whole new market for their products. Their 10-year strategy is to train 2 million new U.S. riders.
They want to train new riders. They don’t mean by that, primarily, that they want to build large buildings where people interested in motorcycles can come to hear lectures about building, riding, and repairing them. They aren’t interested in creating spaces for people who might be interested in motorcycles to come and eat together or watch movies together. They aren’t going to be content with gathering those with a casual interest in motorcycles for singalong versions of Born to be Wild or Roll Me Away or Wanted Dead or Alive. They want to get people on bikes, get them to adopt biking as a lifestyle, an identity. And they believe that lifestyle will be contagious and create even more new riders. And, incidentally, grow their market.
The book of Acts tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians” at a town called Antioch, in Syria. The sentence is kind of a throwaway reference that, by the time Acts was written, those who had once been known as disciples of Jesus were now also called Christians.
In some ways, that is a better name. Disciples isn’t as descriptive: disciples of whom? Christian removes all doubt. The way we mostly use the term “Christian” in our day, though — well, I’m not sure disciple isn’t better.
What Harley-Davidson is trying to do, by way of illustration, is to create disciples. They’re training people to ride, equipping them, then sending them out to adopt biking as a lifestyle and an identity
Those 12 guys who followed Jesus around: before they were called apostles, they were disciples. Before they were “sent out,” they were learners. Students. Apprentices. They didn’t sit in a classroom. They didn’t do assigned reading. They did listen to him teach, but then they taught too. He sent them out in his name to heal and serve. He trained them, equipped, them, and sent them out. So when they took the message of Jesus to the world, it was natural to call those who came to believe in him disciples.
I don’t want to lose the word Christian, but I would like to recover the word disciple.
Most churches today are likely struggling at some level with declining membership. We explain it in lots of ways: increased immigration of non-Christians, failure of the church’s witness, the secularization of our culture. Could it be, though, that people don’t need another vicarious experience? Could it be that they aren’t looking to be told what following Jesus is like? Could it be that they’re not looking for another cause, another ism? Maybe they’re looking for an identity. A lifestyle to adopt. Something, or someone, to give their life for.
That’s what Jesus offers: “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We’ve sometimes acted in the church as though that’s something to be hushed up until people are ready to hear it. But maybe we should own it. Maybe discipleship is something people are looking for. Maybe some people, at least, are looking for someone who’s so good, so liberating, so freeing that following him is the easiest decision they’ll ever make.
And we offer them an hour on Sundays: a few songs, a sermon, the chance to throw a few bucks in a plate.
Could we, church, take a page from Harley-Davidson’s strategy? Could we start to spend more of our money, time, effort, and other resources to train, equip, and send out disciples?
We’ll have to begin by being disciples ourselves. If you’re a church leader, ask yourself if you’re more enamored with corporate leadership models and “vision-casting” than you are of following Jesus. Do you spend more time in meetings or in prayer? Telling people what to do, or showing them how to do it? More time standing before the church teaching, or standing beside other disciples trying to do what Jesus says?
Let’s get rid of the notion that making disciples is about conversion. Conversion is the beginning. We baptize, sure — but then we teach. We tell people that they should come to Jesus, yes — but then we have to show them what they do once they get there. Baptism is the beginning of being a disciple. Not the end.
Let’s finally, once and for all, let go of the idea that making disciples is just about the transfer of information. Teaching people to obey what Jesus commands isn’t just about telling them what he says, explaining what he meant, and ending with “go and do likewise,” any more than teaching someone how to ride a motorcycle is about those things. At some point, you have to get them on a bike and show them. Let them give it a try, and maybe even fail a time or two. Be there to cushion the landing and help them learn from those mistakes. Show them a better way to do it. Keep them excited and focused on the lifestyle they’re learning. Don’t leave them alone with frustration, fear, grief, or guilt.
Living as disciples is something a community of faith does together. It’s relational. We teach each other by serving together. The greatest lessons I’ve learned about ministry were not learned in a church building, or a classroom: they were learned by seeing others live out what Jesus teaches in the world, among the people that he sends us to. When we serve together, share expertise and encouragement with each other, combine the gifts the Spirit gives us, pray together, even mess up together, we learn better what being a disciple is all about.
May we never forget, finally, that disciples are eventually sent. If we’re faithful in creating disciples, then goodbye will be a word we’ll say and hear often. We aren't creating disciples of ourselves, or of our church or our leaders. We’re creating disciples of Jesus, and sometimes he will send them out of our range of influence and association. But that's as it should be, so they can create more disciples.
Let’s never be content with the polite form of church life that doesn’t really require all that much of us. Let’s live as disciples, willing to give up everything. Let’s train, equip, and send disciples. Let’s go where discipleship takes us and tell the stories that come about because of it.
Get your motor running. Head out on the highway.