As we drove to the farmer’s market last week my wife broke the silence with, “Are we wasting our time with all this stuff? I mean, we spend so much time and money researching the most ethical and sustainable way to buy things, slowing down the rhythms of our life to include more people in it, supporting local economies, and eating more naturally. Shouldn’t we be spending that time making disciples?”
And in that moment, I realized that we are in transition, about what salvation means, about what disciple means, and what it means for me to be a Christian in 21st century America.
And so my response was, “I suppose it depends on what you think it takes to ‘make a disciple.'”
A recent article articulates this transition and tension quite well. My own understanding of salvation has moved from being 90% about heaven and 10% what I do with the rest of my life on earth to vice versa. It has moved from being 90% about a one-time prayer asking Jesus into your heart and 10% about a process to it being, well, 100% about a process, even when we have amazing one-time experiences.
But there is still a part of me that isn’t sure if that’s okay. After all, it goes against everything I was taught as a kid. And this internal tension is why my wife and I often have the “Is this a waste of time” conversation.
Because in my old way of thinking about salvation, the most important thing you can do is verbally tell someone about Jesus. What they are “saved into” isn’t important, only what they are “saved from.” And so once they are “saved,” they think their life will be different. But why would it? We haven’t deconstructed their systems, behaviors, and habits. We simply gave them another product to integrate into their old way of being in the world. But again, according to my tradition, that doesn’t matter. As long as they go to heaven when they die, you have done your job.
But in the new way of thinking about salvation, I must first do the hard work of creating an alternative story to the dominant story of my culture. I have to discern what it means to follow Jesus right here right now, in 21st century America and then invite people into that story. I no longer believed people are saved into heaven but are saved into a new way of living, a way that must involved being saved into a community of people attempting to live out a Christ-centered alternative to what it means to be human. Or as I believe the New Testament puts it, to be a disciple of Jesus is to be in the business of creating the Kingdom of God here through subverting old systems of injustice, oppression, violence, abuse, apathy, etc. and then building up new systems of justice, grace, peace, love, and mercy. And then inviting people into heaven on earth.*
The revivalism emphasis on conversion as a one-time event evidenced by reciting the “sinner’s prayer” that leads to preparing for heaven when you die, is simply becoming foreign to me. And as it becomes more foreign, I recognize more and more the tension between the old me and the new me as well as between the new me and my older brothers and sisters in Christ who still emphasize conversion as the punctiliar experience that gets you into heaven and makes you a better person.
And it’s true. If “disciple-making” is “getting people to make a decision for Christ” then the work that my wife and I put into an alternative lifestyle is a waste of time.
But if “disciple-making” is undoing Empire-systems and replacing them with Kingdom-systems, one that rejects the dominant secular script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism and the dominant religious script of moralistic therapeutic deism and replaces it with stories of “we have enough,” “we find our identity in God and his people,” “we are not interested in progress or purpose but connection,” etc., then we are not wasting our time but perhaps putting it to very good use.
To put it simply, my transition seems to stem from this question: Does a disciple of Jesus only invite people into an already-prepared Kingdom they go to when they die or does a disciple of Jesus participate in a community whose grueling task it is to create that Kingdom on earth (that we believe continues at the return of Christ) in order to invite people into it?
At least for now, my family chooses the latter. And we now know we are not alone.
*Does this mean I don’t believe there is a heaven? No, of course not. Just like those who emphasize heaven don’t think we should ignore the rest of our life. It’s a matter of priority and value. However I do think our belief that heaven is where we live eternally, as a disembodied spirit, is completely unbiblical. For instance, see Wright’s Surprised by Hope.