June 14, 2006

Life Together

capCecilia Luck, a student at Southern Adventist University (SAU) in Collegedale, Tennessee, recently interviewed Doug Tilstra, associate professor of religion at SAU. They discussed his view of discipleship.

LUCK: How did the concept of discipleship originate?
TILSTRA: If we’re talking about Christian discipleship, obviously Jesus is the model. But I think we see it earlier than that in Numbers 8:23-26, in which God set up a system for the older priests to retire at age 50 and then mentor the younger priests. It’s really cool that God set up this mentoring program that is a type of discipleship.
In its purest form, however, I think of discipleship as sharing life with one another. It is the process of maturing that happens when two people form a connection that allows one to share his or her experience with the other. It’s when one’s life is exposed to another’s life. Another scriptural reference concerning discipleship is found in Acts 1:21, where the disciples are talking about the replacement of Judas. The qualifications they’re looking for specifically mention someone who has been with them the whole time, someone who has physically been there and been a part of the experiences and could be a witness. That emphasizes in my mind that discipleship is not just head knowledge; it is experiential. It is experiencing life with others.
Discipleship involves day-to-day living. If you look outside of Christian circles, you see cultures of the East—India and the ashram, for example—having a group of Hindu believers living with a master. They not only are doing everything together, but they are learning from the master.

1517 page14Is discipleship today any different from that of Jesus’ original followers? 

I think there are differences just because of some factors that are beyond our control. For example, Jesus is probably the only one who could disciple in the way He did, because He was the Son of God, and He had something to offer that none of us have to offer. But that should not discourage us from following His example any more than any other area of His life in which we know we are not going to be completely like Him.
But there is also a cultural difference. We have arranged life, particularly with our ideas of formal education, in a way that sometimes makes discipleship difficult. When you think about the way in which people used to learn a trade, an apprenticeship that might last 10 years with a blacksmith, potter, or some other tradesperson was really a type of discipleship. It was certainly in the area of a life skill as opposed to one’s maturing character. Yet, with our emphasis on formal education, it’s almost as if we have to use our opportunities here in the university to go beyond the classroom if discipleship is ever going to happen.
How, then, can professors teach discipleship to students?
By making themselves available outside the classroom. Some professors do that in different ways. There are some who work on projects with students. Others invite students to their homes. Still others have group discussions taking place in their offices, and doing other things together. The more we can be in real life situations together, the more opportunity we have to experience life together.

When we look at what we know of the schools of the prophets, we see Elisha out there chopping wood for a new building with the students. That probably was not an isolated event. They probably did work such as that together quite often.

You seem to be so joyful and full of peace. How can other disciples experience these fruits of the Spirit?
Two things come to my mind. First, there are people who see the not-so-joyful and not-so-peaceful side of me. These are also people I have the permission and privilege to pour out my heart to. I think that is healthy. Right now there are two men I’ve been meeting with for probably four or five years. Our sole purpose is to pray with one another, and to see what is going on in one another’s lives. We have some accountability questions that we ask one another. We also pray about specific things each of us is going through. I look forward to those times because that’s when I can say, “Hey, guys, pray for me. I’m struggling right now.” I have appropriate places where I can express those things I’m struggling with and have people hold me accountable and challenge me.
Second, I need that connection with both God and people. I do not think that one can substitute for the other. The intentional connection with God has made a huge difference in my life.
What encouragement would you give to a struggling disciple?
First, I would say to look around for people whom God can use in your life. Be alert to people or mentors already around you. Not all discipleship is tied in with mentoring, but I see the two somewhat connected. Second, don’t be afraid to ask to be mentored. If you see somebody with skills, qualities, and experiences you admire, that you want for yourself, go talk to them.

In our individualized Western culture, what we really need is to sense the value of the body [of Christ]. If we look at the scriptural picture of the body, we see that the hands, ears, eyes, etc., do not exist apart from the body. We are all connected with one another. Discipleship is about the benefit that we can derive from one another, and I think we have become very calloused and blind to that reality.

Discipleship is about the benefit that God can bring into our lives through other people.