“If one of you wanted to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and calculate the cost, to determine whether you have enough money to complete it? Otherwise, when you have laid the foundation but couldn’t finish the tower, all who see it will begin to belittle you. They will say, ‘Here’s the person who began construction and couldn’t complete it!’ Or what king would go to war against another king without first sitting down to consider whether his ten thousand soldiers could go up against the twenty thousand coming against him? And if he didn’t think he could win, he would send a representative to discuss terms of peace while his enemy was still a long way off. In the same way, none of you who are unwilling to give up all of your possessions can be my disciple. “Salt is good. But if salt loses its flavor, how will it become salty again? It has no value, neither for the soil nor for the manure pile. People throw it away. Whoever has ears to hear should pay attention.” Luke 14:28-35, CEB translation
I have spent the past couple of months traveling the state of Arkansas and working with United Methodist Churches who are interested in developing an intentional discipleship system. It might also be called a discipleship pathway. Now, on some level, even suggesting such a thing punches me in the gut. Are we trying to turn discipleship into some mechanical thing? Is this just another corporate approach to trying to make churches successful, only dressed up in biblical language?
That was how I felt about this assignment until I actually started working on it. I read book after book and attended training after training about discipleship. I also had conversation after conversation with people who really have a desire to grow closer to Jesus Christ. I came to realize something. We NEED to be deliberate in exercising our faith. First of all, it is true to Methodist DNA. We are, after all, METHODists, a name picked up from the teasing John and Charles Wesley received for being so methodical about their faith. But even more than our own heritage, I have come to realize that Jesus does not want us to be haphazard about our discipleship either. Over and over Jesus has expectations that we will be disciples and we will realize the focus it takes.
In this passage, he also tells us that there will be costs. But you see how he describes the costs? He describes how deliberate people should be about sitting down and planning for following him. Discipleship means reordering our lives around Christ, but that also means that there is an order to it. First in that order is to assess who we are and what situation we find ourselves in.
That’s right. Figure out who you are and who is around you to decide what kind of disciples you will be.
I am starting to become a bit of a strange prophet in that I have told no less than 3 churches specifically, and several churches generally, to quit worrying about attracting children to their congregations. It is not that I think kids don’t need Jesus. Of course they do! Also, kids who are introduced to Jesus tend to grow up to be adults who have a relationship with Jesus. So of course many churches need to be reaching out to kids.
Here's the thing, though. There are now also a vast number of adults who do not have a church home. Maybe they had one and were hurt by it and left. Maybe they never had a church. Maybe they had a church, but the church had to aim so broadly to reach 5 year olds and 95 year olds that some adults starved to death for real faith that was actually changing their lives. And maybe their churches drained both their financial and spiritual resources dry trying to reach kids that were never going to come, and those adults finally left in frustration.
But maybe God is raising up congregations who can reach those who are over the age of 18. Maybe, though, we are missing the call because we have this preconception of what church is supposed to be. We are trying to build a tower when we don’t have the right materials or the resources to actually get it done.
This past weekend, I was working individually with St. Paul UMC in Jonesboro, one of the 20+ churches seeking to develop a discipleship pathway. The pastor, Billy Vanderbilt, was talking about what they needed to do to reach kids and youth. We had a frank discussion about the significant cultural changes his congregation would have to make. Realizing we were already, just in the conversation, encountering some significant hurdles, I said, “Are you sure that is your mission field?”
Suddenly, Billy started narrating his experience of his neighborhood. “I don’t really see kids in our neighborhood. I mean, around me there are mostly retired folks…. There are also a lot of renters.”
“Oh, you know what renters need? They need classes on financial planning and managing a budget,” I popped back.
Very quickly we moved out of theoreticals and into specifics. The whole group walked down to his office where I could show him how to pull up the demographics around his church through Mission Insite. We narrowed down to a one mile radius around the church. We found out some very interesting things:
· Within one mile of his church, there are just over 8,000 people. Roughly 400 of those are under the age of 18 (less than 5% of the neighborhood). 1500 are college students, but between 3500 and 4000 are between the ages of 35 and 65. That is half the population in his neighborhood.
· The greatest concerns of these people are finances, health, and weight loss.
· St. Paul already has a TOPS (Taking Off Pounds Sensibly) group. They also have people with financial skills and a young doctor who would love to do health screenings.
Suddenly, Billy and his team let go of who they were supposed to be, and started being excited about living into the people that they are. From that came a clear understanding of the disciples they are called to be. The whole room felt the palpable energy of the Holy Spirit at work. All because they started intentionally thinking about their discipleship, and did so in light of who they are and where they are planted.
Jesus wants us to sit down, take a look at who we are and what we have so that we can decide what our price of discipleship should be. He does not want us to be unrealistic about it, like a king with 10,000 soldiers trying to decide to go against a king with 20,000 soldiers. But if we don’t sit down and take a good hard look at who we are and where we are situated, we are going to make unwise decisions about how we live out the call Jesus has placed on our lives to be and make disciples.
Jesus was also worried about us losing our saltiness. Maybe in this time and place, some of us are meant not just to be salty, but to be salty dogs. Salty dogs were sailors who had spent their life at sea but who were also the ones who trained the new sailors. That was all work of adults to keep the ship afloat. Some of our churches are full of church salty dogs. We have plenty of work before us to reach out to the adults who need to learn about church and who need to experience community, and who need to know and grow closer to Jesus. Some of us are planted right now to do exactly that. We just need to recognize who we are and then assess the cost we need to pay. Perhaps the possession we need to relinquish is this idea that church is supposed to be one stereotypical way. Once we have handed over that possession (which is literally possessing our imaginations right now and blocking God’s creative energy), then we need to be intentional in serving as the disciples Jesus is calling us to be. And Jesus just might be calling some of us to be the church of Jesus’ salty dogs.
Thank you to Rev. Billy Vanderbilt for allowing me to share his church’s story.