Discipling Imagination

“We have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination.” James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

I recently attended a large conference that focused on the theme of Discipleship. Having worked on the topic in academic circles (through studying asceticism) and now as denominational staff for three years I tried to go with an open mind. At times it was fun watching Church Growth leaders trying to wrestle with the idea- and often getting much right, but equally as often importing their previous understanding into new vocabulary.

Much of the what was said was still pretty heady, literally. The discipling relationship was often cast is terms of teaching and sharing ideas in the midst of regular life. As Smith says, discipling was often the process by which the intellect learns Christian ideas. In one workshop the presenters went out of their way to say that their model was “about the process.” Yet, many of the questions were asking the content question: “What resources can I use to communicate the content?” In the end, the general sense I got was that discipleship was the new educational model- transferring Christian content by means of relationships.

To me, there is a huge gap in this conception of discipleship, which Smith gets right. Discipleship isn’t process and content delivery in the midst of relationships- rather it is about getting below the intellect, to the heart.

Becoming more like Christ is, as Smith says, about affect- the instinctual observing of the world through the eyes of Christ and being primed by that very affect to act like Jesus.

Thus it isn’t a process, but a practice. We rehearse and rehearse the story within our bodies. That is why I find the act of washing feet to tbe the central image for discipleship. Having to stoop, touch someone, and even embrace when the foot is dry gets below our intellectual understanding of service. We learn something within our core about what it means for Christ to empty himself. We learn that service isn’t a place of pride, but a way of care. All of those responses aren’t ideas we learn, but gut reactions. We get it- not with our mind- but our hearts and bodies.

So for all my church growth friends, I hope this turn toward discipleship does not follow the same “flaw” of intellectualizing the Christian way of life. I hope that we can make the turn to recover the ways we follow Jesus with our whole person- heart, mind, and body.


Filed under Discipleship

2 responses to “Discipling Imagination

  1. Nathan

    I have found the idea of discipleship as practice useful. Though spiritual formation seems in a different space than learning a trade or a language the process of formation through continued practice strikes me as helpful. On question that continues to surface is what are the implications of this in a congregational contexts where participation is minimal? Minimal in the case of overall number of people who show up and also the possibility that any formation that cuts across assumptions and thus be uncomfortable may lead to disengagement?

    • Joshua Brockway

      I think that’s an important question…. one we need to keep in mind.

      As we have worked on describing discipleship here at work, I’ve noticed a couple of things. First is the attempt to recognize and value varying degrees of engagement- hearing, listening, confessing, covenanting, and discipling. I think there is a general hope/expectation among Brethren (maybe from a desire for egalitarian inclusion, or from the remaining impulses from more sectarian visions of the church) that all persons within the community will have the same involvement/engagement.

      Second, I think we have tried to say that this practicing aspect of discipleship involves companions. So that last stage I named is about identifying persons to come along side other disciples as companions for the journey. They then offer mentoring, support, encouragement, and maybe even challenge as part of their discipling.

      So I wonder if these two aspects fo a definition of discipleship offer a way to mitigate the kind of disengagement you are talking about.

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