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

The book

This book is proffered as a handbook for both young adult Christians and also Christian mentors of younger people, especially in their twenties and late teens, pre-marriage. It has its origin in mentoring and pastoring young Christians in Australia and UK. It deals with matters of spiritual formation at the practical level.

The book 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 to that age and stage over some years.

The social context

The dominant public narrative tells us that we should live as though God is not there. That we should create a lifestyle and then construct a worldview around it. But Christians have good reason to know that God is real and that he watches over us, cares for us, and will one day weigh our lives and our decisions. But even with this head knowledge we can easily slip into the mindset of our culture and start living our lives accordingly. We can cease to put him first, cease to involve him in our deliberation and decisions, and cease to align our lives with his wisdom and his ways.

It is challenging today to be a Christian today. The vestiges of Christian culture seem visibly to shrink by the year. Remaining faithful to God and his word when the whole of culture is pulling in the opposite direction can take its toll. Some will thrive on the thrill of standing up and standing out for Christ; others (or perhaps the same people at different times) will feel the force in secular objections to Christian belief, and need answers. Most will experience the temptations of worldly ways of living and the pressure to conform for the sake of getting on and fitting in. Authentic witness will be hard-won.

The great idols of our culture are sex and personal autonomy, often combined. Criticism of how these are popularly seen and promoted is construed as antisocial, even as hateful. Christianity is cast as an oppressive meme by a version of liberalism which seeks neutrality in social and political affairs and is sceptical of all forms of religion and morality, whether public or private.

Questions of abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and even freedom of belief, speech and association are subject to debate and political decision with diminishing regard for orthodox biblical Christianity. Christian arguments are largely rejected in the public sphere, while appeals to religious freedom and freedom of expression and association to protect Christian organisations and individuals from coercion in respect of their beliefs are rejected as covers for prejudice - little more than special pleading for bigotry.

When the Western world abandoned Christianity as its public philosophy over the course of the 20th century, it was replaced by a corrosive ideology of relativism - relative to the individual and to the individual's subjective sense of identity and happiness. This relativism was defined against what was held to be the dominant inherited culture - the Christian religion, now cast as the enemy, so both excluded from the modern relativistic scheme and actively attacked by it.

The social implications

Increasingly Christians are reminded that we inhabit this deeply unfriendly cultural reality. Our response must be to commit ourselves to be faithful to God's call, his word and his ways, in our lives, both private and public, and to bear the cost, whatever it is, even while we benefit from its blessings.

Ultimately, this means remembering that God is there, and living as though he is, not regardless of him. He made the world and everything in it, and he created humankind and set down the patterns for our lives to follow if they are to go well and do right by him and one another. Practical wisdom is informed by biblical truth, and we hope this book points helpfully to its application. We offer it to the reader for support and guidance in what is a challenging time of life, in a challenging cultural age.

Certainly 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. In particular, for young unmarried Christians, principally the following:
- Behavioural standards will often be different, greed and consumerism needs to be more than outweighed by expressing and living out concern for and involvement with others at the personal and vocational levels.
- Friendship relationships will have a quality of care and (often) soul intimacy which is increasingly rare in a sexualised and freewheeling culture.
- 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 restrained.
- This will mean that lust is seriously countered, pornography is avoided, and masturbation is neither disparaged for those unmarried, nor stigmatised.
- 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 powerful force for good in a fallen world, and God's power and intervention will be sought in prayer.
- Science is celebrated as a means of understanding God's creation, but not as a metanarrative or the ultimate route to knowledge.

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.

The Christian subculture

As well as looking outward from the Christian community, we want to look inward.

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 we drew upon some of those 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.

We have noted above that Christian values and perspectives today contrast with the hedonist and materialist values of most of those around. Christians are sometimes portrayed as emotionally, socially and culturally impoverished, or as intolerant and judgmental. 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 graciously and in positive terms why they live as they do, and not simply rely on a mere set 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, or oppressed by it.

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

And finally, some young Christians' notion of godliness can lead them to be quite wacky in applying common sense, especially to romantic relationships. About half of the book is concerned with 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 Bible

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 understand the Bible as being not simply a guide to personal salvation but as the story of the creator and the cosmos. It climaxes with Jesus' resurrection and the implications of that for his reign - now begun but with consummation awaited. So we need to both 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. Two US presidents have 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, so 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 we list what seemed to be the better ones at the end - mostly from the USA! Some of these 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 different style.

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 chapter 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 in these areas 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.

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 earlier on and most of the commentators listed. 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.

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, in the present and for 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.

Culture with wisdom

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, 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 in history 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 truth and wisdom are seen as relative. The more godly wisdom that is available to us the better.

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 those modes of revelation unless it is based on misunderstanding or misrepresentation. We need to understand and use the complementary tools of science and hermeneutics accordingly. Both of us affirm that in our own experience and perception 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.

The authors

Ian remains happily married after 40 years, despite indiscretions in his late 20s bachelorhood. Will has more recently embarked upon marriage, having sensibly got there much more 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 other 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 dialogues over the last 20 years and reflections on them. It is something which Ian greatly wishes he had had access to when in his early 20s.

Acknowledgments

It has been wonderful to involve a few of those in the front line of youth and student ministry as contributors, 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 mention particularly Helen Hewitt (nee Barratt) and Jono Green. Incidentally, all 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, Sam Williams, Cheryl Wise and Jago Wynne have contributed, which we acknowledge with gratitude. Chris Mulherin did a major edit of chapter 12, and 12.4 draws upon Peter Corney's writing. 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!

Dave Burt organized the web publishing has also contributed editorial input.

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, outworking his love for people, and following through the implications of his resurrection so that in some measure God's creation is renewed.

Christian identity

This discipleship establishes our identity. It will be contrary to many of those around us where identity may be based on fashion and consumerism, or hedonism - especially where sexual pleasure is seen as fundamental to it. Identity 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 Being a disciple needs to be very much more than simply being a believer.

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 related to the future, from the character of the new creation, not from the struggles of the past and present (1 John 3:2-3).

Christian maturing

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 sexual lust, 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. The next chapter 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.

Complacency and confidence

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 providential 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.

Much of the Christian church is characterised by what has been called moralistic therapeutic deism, with some idea of creator God as cultural assumption, his benign presence assumed, people in church being good, nice and fair, and aspiring to feel happy and fulfilled before they eventually float off to heaven. This is in contrast to real discipleship, and any sense of taking up a cross.

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, what we most 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.

Thought to action

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 is not about keeping rules, though they may be helpful, it is about our attitude, disposition, character and virtue (Nigel Wright).

It can sometimes feel that Christian discipleship does little more than unhelpfully restrict us in our range of options. It limits our choice of intimate life-partner to a Christian of complementary gender, and bans us from half-hearted romantic relationships and casual sexual activities. It places obligations of love on every aspect of our lives, and obliges us to seek and pursue God's will over every step of our way. It makes us accountable for everything we do, all of the time.

Role of the Bible

Discipleship must be reliably guided. This means more than hanging out with a congenial 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."(Ephesians 5:15-17)

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.