A Case for Public Discipleship

What we talk about and the words we use when we approach discipleship are important. If the direction of our discipleship is unclear or incomplete, that shortcoming will affect our pursuit of the image of Christ. For example, if you were asked what do spirituality and discipleship look like what are your initial thoughts? Does it include people’s work place? Does it include business, art, or music? Just completing a quick search for “what is discipleship” pulls up this definition:

A Disciple is one who grows in Christ and in so doing models and teaches Christians the precepts of the Bible, prayer, doctrine, relationship, Christian living, service, and worship, to name the main ones.

This plays out in a discipleship relationship where we often, subtly, are just transferring information. For some this can be an emphasis in theology, for others it’s Scripture memorization, and in other groups it’s a deeper “level of the Spirit.” In the best case scenarios, we see how this knowledge applies to our hearts practically and what steps can be done to continue this walk.

While we should celebrate any areas where a believer is discipled I would contend that large portions of our lives remain untouched with this kind of knowledge transfer approach to discipleship. I am not saying the traditional approaches are bad or inherently wrong. Having a sharpened focus on spiritual disciplines and obtaining knowledge are a vital part of discipleship and should be integrated into any approach. Rather this approach alone is incomplete. It doesn’t integrated with our daily lives, work, or human flourishing through loving our neighbors in politics, art, education, culture, and other public spheres.

Why Is This?

As we approach discipleship, we assume that the focus should be primarily, if not entirely, on spiritual disciplines. Songs are written, blogs shared, books authored, and sermons preached that teach exclusively that this world is not our home and that one day we will escape from it to float in heaven and sing songs. This kind of teaching implicitly prioritizes “spiritual” practices like Scripture reading and prayer; meanwhile because this world is not our home, it implicitly teaches Christians to neglect “worldly” practices like taking care of the world, creating excellent art, or focusing on social justice.

Dr. Anthony Bradley writes that this deficient view is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of where our gospel begins. He argues that when we begin with man’s depravity in Genesis 3 rather than man’s creation and cultural mandate in Genesis 1 our starting point is faulty:

A Gen 1 and 2 starting point views the gospel as a means for human beings to have a realized experience of what their humanity was meant to be and to do, whereas a Gen. 3 orientation sees the gospel as a means of saving us from our humanity in preparation for the eschaton (heaven).

In order to see the need for our public lives to be discipled along with our private ones we must understand that our good news begins in creation, not the fall. This creation based approach prevents us from seeing creation as an evil to be avoided rather than a good to be stewarded.

When God created us he created us good. Sin marred this inherent goodness that Christ’s victory through the cross and resurrection has started to restore in us and the world. In a sense when we are being disciple, it is not to become more otherworldly in our discipleship process but rather more human, how God intended us to originally be from creation.

Public Discipleship

Misunderstanding the fundamental goodness of creation fosters a lack of engagement in our world.When Scripture speaks negatively of the world, it is not speaking to the material form we see around us but rather the sinful systems, desires, and worldviews that oppose God.

God created the world as inherently good in the same way that man was originally created as good. In the same way that God works a particular type of grace to save people there is also a type, called common grace, in which he works throughout his creation. This common grace restricts the affects of the fall on mankind as well as empowering us to better cultivate creation and serve the world.

In Exodus 31 tells us that Bezalel was “filled with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts to make artistic designs.” Also, Isaiah 28:23-29 teaches us how God gives the farmer his abilities to cultivate the ground correctly in order to produce crops. God reveals his truth in a way that advances human culture beyond just personal piety. In every advancing stage of society, God is the one working through people and society to further display his glory in the world.

This is not just limited to farming but extends to all advances in human culture such as the utilization of electricity, the invention of personal computers, or even the mapping out of DNA by the Human Genome Project. These all imprint God’s restoring work in creation that we should fully embrace rather than ignore in our discipleship efforts. Abraham Kuyper, Dutch Reformed Theologian, in his Lectures on Calvinism says:

Henceforth the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position in life.

This “every position of life” emphasis in discipleship could be termed—“Public Discipleship.” Practically this would encourage believers to steward creation in whatever area of influence they find themselves in and to do it well. This could be milking cows to produce the best milk possible or creating jobs by being a successful entrepreneur. This public discipleship is not less than spiritual discipline and knowledge but more as we work them out in our everyday lives.

However, if we see discipleship intersect with our jobs or the public square, we are prone to give lip service to Jesus when given a platform. Musicians are given quotas on how often they must say the name of Jesus, artists with how many crosses are painted in a picture, and businessman charged with how cleverly they can fit a Scripture into a business plan. Let’s honestly answer: Does this advance the kingdom?

Most jobs don’t provide daily opportunities to evangelize and pray with co-workers, clients, or customers. For those in these other jobs they might start to wonder how the grand scope of Scripture informs how they work if their discipleship is only knowledge transfer. Scripture tells us that that our faithfulness to work helps bring God’s plan for all of mankind to fruition.

In his recent work, The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, Vincent Bacote promotes an idea called “Public Holiness.” This approach teaches how our sanctification overflows from our lives into the public arena and our interaction with those around us. This means that not only do we individually become more like Christ but we also extend that into making society more reflective of God’s intentions as well. He writes,

Though we may often think of holiness in in terms of our personal piety (and indeed we should), the pursuit and expression of holiness is hardly antithetical to Christian engagement in public concerns such as politics.[1]

This approach prevents the promotion of biblical values in issues of personal morality to the neglect of what God says on public morality. This approach engages our areas of influence holistically no matter where we have been placed by God. This approach means applying the ethics of the entirety of Scripture to the entirety of life.

How Does This Happen in Discipleship?

You may be saying to yourself, “Well that sounds good and we should affirm God’s plan in our vocation but what now?” There are numerous ways to highlight how our discipleship is related to all of life. In whatever discipleship approach your denomination or church may practice whether community-centered, one-on-one relationship, or another form the public discipleship emphasis can be adapted into the approach.

  • Affirm Vocation – Communicate this clearly and consistently. Just that emphasis alone would be a great place to start. Timothy Keller’s Every Good Endeavor might be a good tool to jump start the conversation in small groups or traditional information transfer discipleship programs.
  • Find Their Role – Encourage people to find how their work specifically relates to God’s work in this world. For example, if someone is building fences we could show how this demonstrates God’s common grace in restraining sin and protecting people and their property.
  • Connect – Connect with others who value excellence in their craft. Often people in non-explicitly Christian vocations feel alone in their pursuit of doing things well. Help them connect with others in their field which can create persistence in serving in their role well.
  • Challenge – Challenge people to be creative to help them serve better. That can be a more efficient way to work, starting a business to help create jobs, or providing quality care for their peers or employees. This challenge is to start viewing work as a way to extend God’s kingdom rather than just getting a paycheck.

What we talk about and the words we use in discipleship matter. It affects our emphases in how we seek to glorify God and become increasingly Christ-like. When all of Scripture informs all of life we have a public discipleship that extends inwardly to our personal piety as well as outwardly to loving/serving those around us. As we pursue various ways to disciple people in our given contexts, let’s affirm this area and make much of God and his reign wherever we can.

This worldview has reshaped my way of working at my current job. Daily I would have such a struggle to see how my work was accomplishing anything meaningful. I would have days of working on multiple accounts and clocking in that I felt would be better served preaching, teaching, serving at the church, or other more direct forms of what I understood ministry to be. Once I began to understand the way my work connected to God’s work in the world, it reinvigorated my appreciation for the purpose of work.

The majority of people we focus on in our discipleship relationships will be in the same boat. They may be working at a job they find purposeless or mundane. We should aim to affirm their vocational calling and encourage everyone to make much of God in their 9-5.

[1] This chapter and idea is where the aforementioned public discipleship term is based off of.

Kevin Garcia is married to a beautiful woman, Miriam Garcia, and is a senior at SAGU. He will be continuing his studies in seminary afterwards particularly to study in the areas of philosophy, theology, social issues, and apologetics. He is passionate about seeing God work in urban contexts and examining the worldviews that influence people. He serves in a variety of areas at his church including teaching and preaching at LifePoint Church in the OakCliff neighborhood of Dallas, TX. Follow him on Twitter at: @kevingarcia__