Down To Earth Discipleship    .    Getting real with issues facing young Christians today
Preface and Introduction
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Preface

This book is proffered as a handbook for both young adult Christians and Christian mentors of younger people, especially in their twenties and late teens. The concept of mentoring may be quite loose, or it may involve some kind of committed relationship of taking some responsibility, especially in prayer, for the younger person - as Ian's relationship with co-author Will Jones did.

In many churches the idea of mentoring is popular but there is no agenda for it, and those embarking upon it can tend to flounder. Our book provides such an agenda, having its origin in mentoring and pastoring young Christians in Australia and UK. It deals with matters of spiritual formation at the practical level, and we envisage it being read by mentor and mentee, one section at a time.

Alternatively, a mentor approach might be to address four personal areas, any or all of which might be foci for mentors to talk about with young unmarried adults as they dip into the book ad hoc:
Socialise: Very basic and important: spend time with peer group people who share your values, form relationships, and enjoy them as you grow in social skills and understanding.
Succour: Read, learn from bible study and other inputs, discuss matters of interest, form a Christian mind, develop one or two close friendships (soul intimacy) for long term.
Self-manage: Embed behaviour in line with stewardship, keep fit, manage your sexuality, avoid porn, develop accountability partnership(s).
Succeed: Develop vocationally and professionally, with relevant networks.

As a mentoring handbook it sets out to cover the aspects of Christian discipleship most relevant to unmarried young people today. These can then provide the substance or agenda for mentor discussions, as agreed mutually. It is not intended that the chapters be tackled in sequence, but it is probably most helpful if the sections within each chapter are considered sequentially. The scope of the book, and the weight given to each part, reflects what we have found to be of interest.

Our perspective and motivation

As we head further into the 21st century, Christian discipleship is increasingly countercultural. Its lifestyle properly contrasts with the surrounding norm. We can feel like resident aliens. How so? We suggest, for young unmarrieds, principally the following:
- Behavioural standards will often be different, greed and consumerism will be more than outweighed by expressing and living out concern for and involvement with others at the personal and vocational levels.
- Marriage will be held in high esteem and taken very seriously, with sexual intercourse understood to belong in this context, and sexual expression meanwhile being limited.
- This will mean that lust is seriously countered, pornography is avoided, and masturbation is neither disparaged for those unmarried, nor stigmatised.
- Friendship relationships will have a quality of care and (often) soul intimacy which is increasingly rare in a sexualised culture.
- Vocational choices will be made according to an understanding that the Earth is God's by creation and providence. Opportunities will be sought to align with God's purposes in serving Earth's many inhabitants and working towards His ultimate renewal of creation.
- Life will be lived confident in a worldview that understands Christianity as a world-shaping force for good in a fallen world destined for renewal.
- Science is celebrated as a means of understanding God's creation, but not as a metanarrative.

One reason for writing is that church teaching on these matters is sometimes very thin and out of touch with reality, though of course churches differ hugely. We have sought to rectify the deficit even in some "good" churches that we have encountered directly, and indirectly through individuals.

So many church rules and expectations seem to be built around insipid and wimpish stereotypes, especially of young Christian males. It's as though the social energy benchmark in the church has been set at a very low level. We saw this as a challenge to write for the more emotionally energetic and hormonally charged /libidinous or red-blooded end of the young adult spectrum. We were both aware of friends in this category who to a significant extent felt misfits in their churches and fellowships, and (as acknowledged) we drew upon some to help in the initial stages of the project. We continue to be inspired by their early adult struggles to fit in without giving up in despair or settling for a low-energy and insipid model of discipleship, or alternatively marrying very early to escape the straitjacket on the romantic and sexual front.

Another reason for writing is that Christian values and perspectives today are ever more in contrast with a smorgasbord of spirituality, not to mention the hedonist and materialist values of most of those around. Christians are sometimes portrayed as emotionally, socially and culturally impoverished. Therefore more than ever we need to encourage young Christians to live life to the full within biblical principles and guidelines, and also be able to say in positive terms why they live as they do, and not in terms of mere sets of rules. Being changed deep inside means changes in life including suffering, surprises, and sacrifice - all sustained by God's grace. The Christian story needs to be a strong enough influence in young lives so that they are not shaped simply by the surrounding culture.

And finally, some young Christians' notion of godliness can lead them to be quite wacky in applying common sense, especially to relationships. About half of the book is concerned with sexual relationships, where in our view there is a huge deficiency in straightforward and practical material available to young Christians. While the theology involved is clear enough, the social aspects of its application are often fraught, and assume that appropriate behaviour is really not too much of a challenge.

The book aims to be biblical in the sense of acknowledging that authority and referring frequently to it. But it is written so as to expound the good sense in behaviour that is in tune with the way we are made, in God's image, and as sexual beings. The argument is mainly from that base, not a succession of texts. It does not attempt to canvass all that the Bible might say on the issues covered (though there are plenty of relevant references). It aims to be readable but concise, while retailing some relevant practical experience. The more overtly biblical exposition may be found elsewhere and this book is meant to complement it in a culturally relevant way.

We also write in the context of two significant addictions common among young Christians and which are little talked about, for different reasons. Pornography is not talked about because of the secrecy and shame, consumerism is not talked about because it is ubiquitous and embarrassing to identify as addiction rather than lifestyle. The former is mainly a male problem, but we say a bit about both.

Ian remains happily married after 36 years, despite having been stupid in his late 20s bachelorhood. Will has more recently embarked upon marriage, having sensibly got there very much in line with God's design. The experience of both informs the book. Ian adds that speaking as one who has enjoyed several mentoring and lesser pastoral relationships, nothing beats the pleasure of seeing guys find an appropriate, godly life partner in marriage while going forward vocationally!

The book owes a lot to Ian's pastoral dialogue over the last 15 years and reflections on that. The evolving result over several years has been enhanced by some of those who have contributed most to reflection on the issues and the articulation of ideas - notably Will, but also Helen, Jono and others. He learned much from interaction with them. The book is something which Ian greatly wishes he had had access to when in his early 20s - his muddling along without the wisdom since gained certainly limited him then.

Initially it was written for those in their late teens to early 30s, but a significant amount of positive feedback on the web version made it clear that mid to late teens were using it. Consequently we have sought to widen its scope a little to include that age group.

More broadly, the Bible is not simply a guide to personal salvation. It is the story of the creator and the cosmos, and climaxes with Jesus' resurrection and the implications of that for his reign - now begun but with consummation awaited. This should motivate us both to engage with the creation of which we are stewards and also to live out kingdom values and hope. It should help us work towards and in tune with God's purposes in serving people as he rescues and ultimately renews his creation.

Style and emphasis

The style of the book is direct, and contrasts with that of most American books covering the sexual relationships aspect. After a previous US president put on to the newspaper front pages things that most Christians would have found unmentionable in public, and pornography has become so easily accessible that the public limits of acceptable discourse have shifted for other reasons, we have seen no point in obliqueness and undue delicacy. We have endeavoured to read or at least skim the main works relevant to young singles on offer in Australia and UK and list what seemed to be the better ones at the end - mostly from the USA! Three of these in particular are excellent, and recommended. But all tend to be anecdotal and verbose, so we anticipate that this book will suit some readers due to both its broader scope and its differenet style.

We need to say very clearly that for this generation there is a stark divide on the issue of sexual relationships. We discuss this in Chapter 2.

The book is not written in terms of spiritual conflict. However, it is certainly framed by an understanding of that as emphasized by St Paul in Ephesians 6 and as frequently referred to in Jesus' parables and other teaching. We are very conscious that Satan's activity in young people is focused in the areas we canvass, especially sexual matters and consumerism. It is evident both in putting the heat on and more generally distorting our perception so that we tend to become preoccupied with minor issues and complacent about or rationalizing more major ones. The reader should have this framework in mind here as elsewhere! Temptation is not merely a passive tendency to behave in a self-centered way, it is also an active encouragement - often subtle - to compromise our discipleship.

To put it another way: there are a lot of spiritual battles that we can fight, and individuals sometimes become preoccupied with those issues that are trivial, while comfortably compromising in other major areas where a fight could be very liberating. The whole area of fashion, consumerism, and materialism with its undercurrents of subtle greed, envy and covetousness is perhaps the main example of the latter in our western culture.

It has been wonderful to involve a few of those in the front line of youth and student ministry as co-authors, rather than just off-stage critiquing. These are all faithful, conscientious and very capable young adults who grapple personally and pastorally with the main issues covered in the book, and whose ministry experiences have contributed much to it. We admire each of them very much - they are an inspiration to us. Incidentally in relation to chapter 3, most have become happily married over the few years that the book has been evolving!

Several others including Ian's wife Libby, Jill Atkinson, Andrew Ballinger, Sue Bazzana, Daniel Bearup, Randle Bond, Ben Briggs, Ben Buchanan, Chris Culhane, John Ellerton, Scott Fleming, Tim Forrester, Jon Horne, Liam Jones, Wei-Han Kuan, Jordan Kube, Andrew Lloyd-Harris, Aidan Morrison, Pete Nicholls, Sam Oldland, Iain Payne, Mavis Payne, Darren Russ, Tom Rout, Nick Spath, Nicolai Stawinoga, Robert Willcox, David Williams, Cheryl Wise and Jago Wynne have contributed helpful comments and some drafting, which we acknowledge with gratitude. Chris Mulherin did a major edit of chapter 12 in November 2013. But perhaps the main input has been from those individuals who have contributed indirectly by stimulating our thinking on all the issues covered and making us reflect more incisively on them, causing ideas to be articulated and refined, without which we would have little to say!

A number of others have read the manuscript as it has evolved over two years, and the consistently positive feedback has encouraged us towards publication in some form. We have to say that some commented that the romantic continuum we sketch in chapter 3 seemed a bit idealistic! That may be conceded, though conceptually it is in fact normal and not uncommon, generally speaking, even if some quite big steps are taken when they seem sensible. It is a useful way to think about embarking upon relationships. What is regrettably abnormal is the many churches where the process has become fraught and fearful, even devoid of trust. What we have in chapter 3 is really no more than commonsense applied within a Christian framework and constraints.

Dave Burt kindly organized the web publishing and set up the Forum for comment and feedback, but which we have taken off the site pro tem due to spamming. He has also contributed strongly to editorial input.

The content seeks to scratch where many itch. The section on relationships is longer than the others since this is an area of obvious and pertinent interest to those in their 20s, not least the co-author and most of the commentators listed above. It could be said that Ian focused on the theory while Will did the practical work towards his engagement and marriage! The emphasis also reflects our concern that many churches and fellowships do not present a good model for developing relationships. Some teaching, even in "good" churches, is very inadequate. Christians don't always celebrate sex as fully as the Bible suggests that our creator would like - a reaction to non-Christians who tend to devalue or deify it.

In respect to the early chapters, the subject matter of which motivated our writing initially, we want to say that we see a significant difference between a Christian approach to sexuality / sexual relationships before and after marriage. That has always seemed obvious to us, but some American materials make little distinction. This book addresses the 'before' situation, and happily all of the main contributors to it are now married!

Any young person needs fairly strong reasons and convictions not to be sleeping with their boy/girlfriend. We seek to provide those more helpfully than many Christian books we have seen, which tend to conflate sexual union in such a steady relationship with casual sex - which is clearly censured in the Bible. We have therefore tried to be fulsome and frank. There is a lot about personal responsibility for wise and self-controlled enjoyment of sexuality and engagement with life, in the context of God's grace. We differ from some other writers on the question of masturbation in the premarital context. The book addresses people where they are, for the present and the future and in the clear certainty that what may be in any person's past can be left behind as we proceed with a clean slate in God's grace.

Perhaps one thing greatly lacking from the lives of many modern people of student age is a tradition of wisdom which is widely recognised as being worth at least trying to apply to one's own life. Instead, as Will sees it, "there tends to be more of a make-it-up-as-you-go-along kind of attitude, as though we in our 20s are the first ones to be this age, and no one who has gone before us has any advice worth listening to. As Christians we at least should know better, and often we do, though in our postmodern culture the world's voice is ever seductive in our ears." The more godly wisdom that is available to us the better, which is why Will has joined with Ian in helping him to reflect on his pastoral ministry among people of student age, and assist in committing some relevant insights to writing. For his part, Will has valued the opportunity to contribute strongly from his own experience at Warwick University, and to play a major part in overall shaping of the book.

The developing mind of the Christian is the starting point of both behaviour and worship. A chapter on this is another major part of the book. We see it as a significant faith issue that God is understood to be both the creator of the universe and the author of scripture. It follows that there can therefore be no disagreement between them unless it is based on misunderstanding or misrepresentation. We need to understand and use the complementary tools of science and hermeneutics accordingly. Science reveals the glory of God just as much as the psalms declare it!

Beyond encouraging people to live fife to the full, the book could be said to have two reference points: faithfulness to God through discipleship of Christ, and (especially the relationships part) faithfulness to a future life partner.

IHL & WBJ

Also from two who have had major input:

Plenty of Christian literature is available for teenagers and those beginning student life, however there is very little that deliberately offers advice for those of us a little further on, in our 20s. This is clearly a gap in the market: since graduating a year ago I have found myself embarking on a career, facing financial independence, making faith decisions outside the cosseted world of the Christian Union or parental home, and exploring relationships of potentially lifelong significance. Clearly there is a need for good biblical teaching here, and this book seeks to provide that in a way that is refreshingly direct - often in stark contrast to the polite reserve encountered in British church circles!

I was coerced into the project as a consequence of my failure to keep my opinions to myself and have sought to provide a balanced female perspective on the issues the book addresses. Much has been made in the media in recent years of the differences between men and women, and as Christians we must seek to embrace this and learn from each other, while holding the differences in balance. Hopefully the advice here will help us do this.

HB

Life is the ultimate smorgasbord of choices, questions and doubts. Couple this with trying to work out what God wants for your life and in late teens you have a very interesting, to say the least, stage in this time that we are given on Earth. Add in temptations put in our path and the different directions that we are pulled every day, and the pot is really bubbling. Right from the beginning of my involvement in this book early in 2006, I was struck by the way that it really seeks to iron out some of the most confusing issues confronting teenagers, adolescents and indeed mature singles in this day and age. My involvement, as the youngest member of the team has been as much a learning experience as an input into the group as I confront and grapple with many issues we have taken on. But none the less I hope that I have been able to bring a side to the book which comes from someone still very much in my teenage years and with teenage peer group.

JEG

Introduction

What is Discipleship?

Discipleship is following the One who said "I am the way, the truth, and the life" and who gave credibility to that outrageous claim by rising from the dead. Furthermore we understand his death as enabling our reconciliation with God. So we can enter a personal relationship with him as saviour and Lord, and follow him so that under the influence of his Holy Spirit our lives conform increasingly to the ethical characteristics of God's people, of the Kingdom of God. It also involves our conscription to the purposes of God, not simply in bringing people into relationship, but renewing the whole of creation. So discipleship involves bringing his rule to every situation and following through the implications of his resurrection so that in some measure God's creation is renewed.

Originally this book started off with the chapter on fellowship. Followed by relationships. But the more we fed our pastoral and fellowship experience into it the more it seemed that we needed a few introductory comments on identity, and how a Christian disciple establishes that. Also, how it will likely differ from many of those around us where identity may be based on fashion and consumerism, or hedonism. It is connected with our experience of spiritual formation, that never-ending and sometimes fraught process where the Holy Spirit teaches and changes us, with less than assured cooperation from us!

While our understanding of what is involved in discipleship is largely based on Jesus' teachings in the New Testament, this fills out what was inaugurated with Abraham two millennia before. God's covenant with Abraham required him to "walk before me and be blameless", following the way of the Lord (instead of many other options) and pursuing righteousness and justice. This call extended to all humanity.1

The fellowship that Christians have with one another is based on sharing this rather radical departure from being conformed to prevailing social values and consequent behaviour. Active disciples are progressively (but inadequately) changed towards God's character as manifest in Jesus. It is important that our identity is understood as being derived from the future, from the character of the new creation, not from the struggles of the past and present.1a Being a disciple needs to be very much more than simply being a believer.

That progressive change has also to do with personal discipline, arising from self-control, whereby we demonstrate to ourselves that we are in charge of our behaviour. Discipline is a cognate of discipleship and integral to it, and it means that we get on with life in a purposeful and not passive way, we take responsibility rather than avoiding it, and we focus our energy on serving God and our neighbours. In being disciplined and drawing upon the Holy Spirit's transforming power we are safe, protected, and able to fulfil our created potential.

Disciples need not so much 'work-life balance', as balance among: time in prayer and bible study, social interaction at all levels, focus on vocational work, some recreation, tuning into their culture and world affairs, etc. This means time management and self-control, the latter including especially lust but also covetousness, envy, etc.

It is clear from the New Testament that love is an essential characteristic of real disciples. However, both in the Bible and in common usage, "love" means many different things. The principal meaning in a Christian context is a deep-seated attitude, worked out in behaviour and action, that earnestly seeks the well-being of another person. Love as sexual attraction may or may not be connected, but very often it is self-seeking, at least to some extent. Then there is the warm, comfortable affection for another person which depends on reciprocity in relationship. Learning to discern, analyse and control our own complex motivations in this area is an outcome of maturity.

So while identity is found and based individually in relationship with Christ, individualism is anathema to discipleship. Our identity is established in relationship with others, especially other disciples, because we are all baptised into one body. Chapter 1 expounds some implications of this.

Another feature of increasing maturity in discipleship is steadiness. Not being seduced by success and not being overwhelmed by disasters. Neither being lulled into complacency when things go well, nor worn down by frustration when they don't.

In modern western society we are all very well protected from hazards of every conceivable kind, and the comfortable security which arises from this has both positive and negative aspects. Positively is can be seen as a manifestation of God's care for each of us, negatively is tends to lull us into taking too much for granted. Perhaps the platitudinous "take care!" when friends part should be "take risks!," in the sense of don't be seduced by comfort.

In that connection we should not confuse the parameters of faith and self-confidence. Strong faith will lead us to trust God and take initiative, sometimes also take risks, where we sense his leading. This may be despite strong self-doubt and a sense of real weakness, leading to more fervent prayer coupled with due caution. Self-confidence has nothing to do with faith, and is more likely to be inimical to it in leading us to attempt things in our own strength alone. Self-doubt should not be confused with lack of faith, and if it drives us to a greater sense of dependence on God, then it is positive.

If discipleship involves putting God as the central purpose and motivation of our lives, the alternative - and the blight on Christian discipleship too - is putting self there. In that case there are other motivations in play, collectively called idolatry in the Bible. If we reflect on what we are most mindful of, what motivation determines our priorities in life, what we most enjoy or fear the loss of, these are likely to be our idols and actually compete with our discipleship. The insatiable preoccupation with economic gain and material things, crudely "greed", is the most pervasive idolatry today. It is a deeper malaise than simply consumerism, and has competed in people's hearts for loving and trusting God since Abraham's time. It lays bare the basis of our sense of security.

Discipleship is more than just surface-level intellectual or social "faith". This is all too common - a "faith" without the deliberate submission, the changed values and behaviour, and the inner resources of love which characterise a changed life. A merely formal Christian "knows enough about Christianity for it to spoil the world for him, but not enough for it to be of any positive value" (Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones, slightly paraphrased).

Discipleship must be reliably guided. This means more than hanging out with a bunch of Christians, and must start with the most direct access to the mind of God and the words of Jesus that we have: the Bible. There is ultimately no substitute for directly and prayerfully studying the Bible continually. As well as objectively being the God-given and authoritative expression of what we need to know and understand as disciples, it is subjectively how - by the agency of the Holy Spirit - we tune into what he may be saying to us day by day. While we may, and usually will, learn much from people and books, the Bible is primary and essential, so any disciple must make study of it a high priority daily.

St Paul can be given the last introductory word: "Be very careful then how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity ..... Therefore don't be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will [for you] is." 1b

The following chapters aim to expound and explore some practical aspects of Christian discipleship against this advice. Our hope and prayer is that this book will increase readers' delight in practical discipleship of the living God through following Jesus

Discussion questions:
How does Christian discipleship differ from membership of a club? Or sporting team?
Discipleship involves discipline. How disciplined would you say you are in general? In what ways do you struggle?
What would you say is the main difference that being a disciple of Jesus has made to your life?
How can you more fully follow St Paul's admonition in relation to being wise? in making the most of opportunities?
How do you understand the term 'inspired' (literally 'God-breathed') in 2 Timothy 3:16 (read vv 14-17)? The authority given to the apostles means that this applies also to the New Testament we now have.
What daily bible study plan or guide do you use?
How do you relate your discipleship vocationally to God fulfilling his purposes for the world and renewing his creation?

 

1 The Jews then applied the Law not simply for ethical formation, but to narrow this discipleship ethnically. Jesus redefined it, and showed that there is no place for ethnic boundaries in the Kingdom.

1a 1 John 3:2-3 NIV.

1b Ephesians 5:15-17 NIV.