We live in a curriculum driven world. Just as we can download as many individual apps to our phones and tablets that gigs of memory will allow, we can sign up for as many different programs and studies in our seminaries and church congregations that time and resources allocate. In many ways, a student’s regular review of the seminary catalogue to determine course offerings for the upcoming semester’s schedule is not wholly unlike the constant search of ministers and pastors as they scour publisher’s catalogues and websites for the next great study to offer their congregants. We are on the hunt for the just the right curriculum, perfectly timed in relevance, captivating, informative, affordable — and bonus points if it’s “transformative” in any way.
In this vast market of printed and electronic text, many of us, whether we geek out over the finer points of theology and church history or understand seminary as just one of several requirements for ordination, can easily mistake and reduce discipleship to the “educational ministry of the church.” Yet, discipleship is more than the slate of Sunday school offerings, Bible studies, and leadership resources that arrive in shrink-wrapped kits with participant guides and posters to advertise the next educational opportunity for the church. Discipleship encompasses the whole of our lives — 24/7 — our work and Sabbath moments that make up the patterns and rhythms of who we are as children of God and who we are becoming through the power of the Holy Spirit as we grow in Christlikeness.
Our discipleship is what we do as followers of Jesus. Yes, we learn as disciples of Jesus. We take time to learn through Bible and other rigorous study, but discipleship also includes our life of prayer, participation in worship, compassionate outreach, advocating for justice, and intentionally nurturing relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and God. In short, our discipleship is doing all the things Jesus did during his earthly life and ministry. Regardless of the specific season through which any of us journey, whether it be the midst of formal theological study, in the throes of worship planning, pastoral care, and vision-casting in congregational leadership, or even anticipating retirement regardless of occupation — from the secular or sacred world — our lives are the living curriculum of what constitutes our discipleship.
There is nothing inherently wrong with curriculum. Curriculum fills a real need both in seminary and congregational life. Curriculum can help inspire transformation in the lives of learners and have profound lasting impact (true transformation) after the final grade is assigned or the culminating commissioning service is completed. But to understand discipleship as curriculum or a checklist of ministry activities that can be marked “done” is to reduce discipleship from its intended vibrancy and robustness within the Christian life. It can become easy enough to lose sight of the forest when looking at the trees. It is imperative to remember that our discipleship cannot be a tree, a copse of trees standing on a hillside, or even the forest itself. Discipleship is the whole ecological package: the trees, the creatures, the terrain, and the atmosphere — all that brings life and provides nurture to the ecosystem. Discipleship is both what we can see and what we cannot see.
An apocryphal story of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson offers insight on how easy it can be to lose our perspective on all that a life of faithful Christian discipleship entails:
Taking a well-earned break from the detective business, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson decide to go on a camping trip. After dinner and a bottle of wine (they were good Church of England folk after all), they lay down for the night, and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied, “I see millions of stars.”
“What does that tell you?”
Watson pondered for a minute. “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?”
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke: “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”
Do not allow the big picture of discipleship to be stolen away from you!