This is Post #2 of the Sacred Roads: Tools for the Tour Guides blog series. Sacred Roads is a new curriculum published by Threads that helps participants explore and experiment with Biblical and historical expressions of discipleship. The Sacred Roads small group curriculum and leader kits are available at threadsmedia.com.
I’m concerned that we have not met the discipleship challenge because, like the Pharisees often failed to understand, we do not see the larger story that God is writing throughout history. For most of my life, my understanding of church history went something like this: God created and started working in human history in the Old Testament. He sent Jesus to die in the New Testament. The church was birthed in the book of Acts. The Reformation was really cool and there were some neat revivals here and there but nothing much else happened until…now.
Bruce Shelley, author of History of the Church in Plain Language begins his book, “Many Christians today suffer from historical amnesia.” That was my diagnosis. Historical amnesia. It was also the reason I failed to understand discipleship. I had neglected 2,000 years of experiments and discoveries. In ignorance, I did not realize the wealth of spiritual growth opportunities that the church had used throughout its history.
When I began to explore my own heritage as a follower of Christ, I discovered new/old models and expressions of discipleship that could catalyze my own spiritual growth. Exploring the history of church in the Catacombs gave me a new understanding and appreciation for Christian community. Realizing that God was still at work between Constantine and the Reformation, I rescued some proverbial babies that most Protestants threw out with the bathwater. I even conceded that the Social Gospel, no matter how theologically messed up it might have become, had some things to teach me about the heart of Jesus.
Disclaimer. This Sacred Roads study is by no means intended to be a comprehensive overview of church history. In fact, it doesn’t even scratch the surface. I would point you to Church History in Plain Language and Water From a Deep Well for that. But I do see some trends in discipleship throughout the history of the church:
In the first three centuries, the primary model of discipleship was relational. There were no building campaigns. No programs. No Sunday School curriculum. Just people. As Jesus developed relationships with Matthew and his friends, people grew closer to God as they grew closer to one another.
In the fourth century, the church moved from living rooms to cathedrals, and the relational mode of discipleship gave way to a more experiential mode of discipleship. Like Jesus rocked Peter’s worldview in the boat, experiential discipleship was directed at all 5 senses, and people were taught about Christ and grew in their relationship to him through a full immersion into a medieval multimedia experience.
The Age of Enlightenment, Protestant Reformation, and Industrial Revolution sparked a new form of discipleship that was rooted in an academic or educational model. In the intellectual approach to discipleship, people were taught about Christ and grew in their relationship to him through a systematic, academic study of Scripture and the writings of godly teachers. It echoed the theological showdowns and throw-downs that occurred when the religious establishment dared to enter the ring with Jesus.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the emphasis on establishing a personal relationship with Christ propelled a shift to a personal approach to discipleship. Within this new framework, the church provided people with study materials and taught them how to develop a personal relationship with God, and people grew in their knowledge and relationship with God through personal discipline and time alone with God. It was an imitation of Jesus as he withdrew to the wilderness for prayer.
Another pathway for discipleship emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries that focused outward instead of inward. Within the framework of the incarnational model, people grew in their knowledge and relationship with Christ by seeking to become his hands and feet through service and outreach to others, just as He reached out to love the unlovable and touch the untouchable.
As you serve as a tour guides to others on the road of spiritual growth, you can learn from the 2,000 years of spiritual tours that have gone before you. Church history is not just a stale accounting of dates and dead people. It's not a museum or shrine of cold monuments to the past. Exploring our history may be the key to unlocking our destiny and moving us away from spiritual workbooks and back to spiritual workouts.