A Snowy Day and A Cup of Coffee
I pulled into Dunkin’ Donuts one morning to grab a much-needed coffee on the way to an early morning meeting. It had snowed pretty heavily the night before, so things were pretty messy driving around. Pulling into the DD parking lot was tough enough because of the mounds of snow in the entrance and the people trying to navigate their way in and out of the small parking lot, but something else had happened.
Snow had now covered and replaced the once clear vibrant yellow parking lines. The lines were virtually non-existent, as far as all the drivers were concerned, and the parking lot turned into an absolute mess. People were parked sideways; some were taking up two spots; people were double-parking behind other cars making getting in and out of the parking lot nearly impossible. It was a mess, and it was chaos . . . And I hadn’t had my coffee yet.
First, I learned that day that we love our straight lines. What I mean is that as humans we, at some level, desire structure, and organization to order the seeming chaos. A quick look at the parking lot that snowy day would have had anyone wishing they could just see the parking lines to put some things in order. Organizations, businesses, our lives, and parking lots benefit from a structure that systematizes and organizes our world. I would go as far to say that some of our lives, mine included, may benefit from more structure in some areas.
Second and most important, I learned that day that life is not made of straight lines. As much as I may want it to be, life is not a series of straight lines where everyone stays in their lines, and I stay in mine, and we all go on living happily into our beautifully structured and clean IKEA-like lives. Quite the opposite, life is more like the parking lot and roads covered in snow and full of people who have not had their coffee, so you better get out of their way.
If we agree that life is messier and more fluid than a perfectly lined parking lot, then why do we make disciples who need parking lot lines to learn and make more disciples? Why do we believe that the way to make disciples is to make better parking lots? How will the next generation of disciples teach others what it means to be someone who follows Jesus in the messy snowy days of life if we spend our time stuck in the parking lot drawing lines? Let me explain.
A disciple, as it is defined, is a learner of a way of thought and life. So then discipleship is the process by which a person becomes and grows in the way of that particular thought and way of life. I have gone to, been involved with, and worked for churches across the map. I have seen countless models and methods to make disciples. I want to go on record and say that all of them are good to some degree and serve a purpose much like lines on a parking lot. Now, put those parking lot lines in the middle of the interstate you are going to create a mess; not because they aren’t useful but because they don’t belong there.
When we look at the modern day church, the question is, are we discipling people in a way that is helping them and others navigate the messy roads of life or are we teaching them to stay in the parking lots?
Not Your Average Teacher
I had a driver’s ed teacher who was no joke. A tall and lanky guy, Mr. F was all business with his reflective aviator glasses, light blue corduroy pants, and drove what we believed was an original Humvee that very well could have still had the attached machine gun mounted on the roof from a tour of the battlefield. He was not your average driver's ed teacher.
One particularly snowy day, Mr. F decided to take us for a little spin . . . literally. As the first driver of the day, he told me to head to the back of a large parking lot that was near us in town. We backed up against the curb, and he said, “Take your foot off the pedal and keep the car going straight.”Confused I did so and at that moment, Mr. F reached his long, lanky leg over the center console and slammed the pedal to the floor. We immediately went into a sideways spin, which I corrected (thank you very much), and we started careening across the parking lot at a very alarming rate. I can still remember his calm but stern voice, “Don’t touch the break. Don’t touch it.”
Finally, after a few moments barreling down the parking lot like an Olympic bobsled team, he took his foot off the pedal, brought his lanky leg back to his side, slammed on the passenger break and yelled, “Cut the wheel to the right!”. I’m sure you know what happened next; we started into a spin which would have made any adrenaline rush seeker jealous. I remember looking at Mr. F in the middle of this, almost in slow-motion, he was relaxed. He was so peaceful in fact he might as well have been drinking a cup of coffee with one hand and looking at the sports section of the newspaper with the other. Meanwhile, the entire drivers ed class was silently praying that that car just wouldn’t flip over as we crashed into the rapidly approaching wall.
More Like a Feeling
I am proud to tell you I stopped the spinning car that day, saved our lives, and maybe even impressed Mr. F. I learned a lot of things that day, but one of the most poignant lessons that I learned was something that could not be taught but had to be felt. Life is best learned while living and living is best done while learning.
You know what was unhelpful that day? Parking lot lines. I promise I wasn’t thinking about how I could, in an organized manner, find a safe resting spot for the car—I was just thinking about living until dinner. You know what else would not have been helpful? If one of the three people in the back of that car in the middle of the spin said, “Hey Greg. This is pretty stressful, and I don’t know much about how to stop the car, but I do have a really nice parking lot that I know of that you could come to, and we could talk about it.”
On the flip-side, do you know what was helpful? A confident, calm, and strong mentor in the front seat. Up until this point I had heard about sliding in the snow, learned about it in the classroom setting, but I had not experienced it yet. Mr. F knew the feeling well and knew something else even more important; I needed to feel it too.
If we think of our discipleship methods in the church, many stop at the information stage. We gather Sunday to learn more about God, and then we gather for a small group to hear more about God, what He has done, and how we are doing in light of it, which is all magnificent. Something is missing in the process—a Mr.F.
Jesus spent time discussing the Kingdom of God, the nature of God, the plans of God and people were amazed or disturbed. The difference between Jesus and the church today is Jesus took it to a level we often don’t take it. Ever wonder why Jesus called the disciples to, “Come follow me”? Why not just teach them at the temple, answer any questions they may have had, and send them on their way with a few worksheets to fill out and a chapter to read until next week? He and Mr. F knew the secret of any good teacher/mentor; they knew people learn best through experience.
Where to Now?
Today, even over fifteen years later, when I am driving in the snow and start slipping, I remember the way I learned to handle the car that day. The days in the classrooms are talking about it, the videos seeing it, and the discussions about what I might do were helpful but nowhere near as helpful as the galvanizing and staying power of experiencing it.
Our structures were helpful but not what I needed at that moment. In the same way, discipleship in the church must be reformed to help people not only know how to talk about making disciples but making them. This reform must be purposefulness and trust that God is the Great Discipler who will use every moment and every spin to teach us a great lesson; God is best experienced not only when we are experiencing him and but when we are helping others experience him too.
The Clarion Call
God put in front of us the essentials to discipleship all along, but we forgot it in all our planning. We lost the simplicity, power, and beauty that we saw Jesus and others like Paul personify. “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). But when these words come to you, you will never quite see discipleship the same way.
Discipleship was never supposed to be a model but a way of life. It was to be done, “as you go” (Deut 6:5-7). Maybe you realized this truth is watching a father teach his child or someone lending a hand to someone in need. Or maybe watching someone sitting next to a friend comforting them after a loss. Why did we ever think we could systematize that? Maybe we thought discipleship would be easier that way. But discipleship was meant to be caught as much as it was meant to be taught. We have put our faith in systems and models that promise results but only produce a need for more improved and efficient systems.
Read through the Gospels. Do you get the feeling from Jesus that anything held him back from making disciples? He discipled on mountain sides, a tax collector’s home, the marketplace, and the temple (much to the chagrin of some of the religious people). He didn’t need a system or a model; he just lived it, people took notice and asked questions. He had some disciples that were close to him who he taught in a more intimate way and some that were not as close, but that he discipled in a different way. Both were done on the highways and byways of life. Discipleship must be done while living because that’s where the head, heart, and feet meet.
So, are we walking in the ways of Jesus or are we just studying his footprints?
Greg has served in various pastoral roles in churches in NY and FL over the course of 10 years. Greg now lives in FL with his wife and two children where he is helping churches and church planters equip the church to make disciples in everyday ways in everyday places. You can read more from Greg at www.gregsmiths.com
Originally appeared at www.gregsmiths.com. Used with permission.