Becoming People of The Way

Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.
-Jesus

We participate in the means of grace, the faithful discipleship of Jesus,
in order, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to become means of grace,
the agents of God’s reconciliation, in and for our world.
Dean Blevins & Mark Maddix

The Way

A common phrase that appears in the Gospels is “on the way.” It’s a clue to the hearers of the story that what’s taking place is a part of the way of following Jesus. Matthew begins immediately with the magi on the way to witness and worship the King of the Jews (Matt. 2:9). Toward the end of Matthew, it would be the women followers of Jesus on the way to be the first witnesses of the resurrected Lord (Matt. 28:11). In Mark, we find the disciples arguing about their position within Jesus’ kingdom on the way (Mark 9:34). We also see Jesus asking the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” as they were on the way (Mark 8:27). Later, Jesus is teaching about the greatest commandment as he was on his way (Mark 10:17). Luke has a whole travel narrative, fragmented as it is, where Jesus is pictured teaching on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:27). John mixes no words by putting on Jesus’ lips the revelation, “I am the Way” (John 14:6) It’s no wonder that one of the first self given names of Jesus’ followers post resurrection was “those of the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

Amongst all the diversity of the writers of the New Testament, they agree on at least two points about what it means to be people of The Way. Chief among these is the universal lordship of Jesus. They all agree that Jesus is the one we are to pattern our whole lives after and the one who all people are to pattern their lives. There is not one dimension to life that the lordship of Jesus does not touch. In one of the most radical articulations of this reality, Paul quotes a hymn of the early church confessing that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11). The second point of agreement among the New Testament writers is that being people of The Way means we are now participants of God’s salvation activity in the world. In other words, we are now agents of restoration for the missio Dei. The apostle Paul uses the Old Testament language of election to emphasize this reality (IThes 1:4, Romans 9-11). Andy Johnson comments, “The language of “election/electing/elect” occurs throughout the OT to refer to God’s choosing Israel for God’s redemptive purposes, i.e., for the missio Dei [1].” Thus, following the Lordship of Jesus and participating in the missio Dei are two common features of being people of The Way in the New Testament.

Being a people of The Way is depicted throughout the New Testament as this rich multidimensional reorientation in life. Matthew depicts it as a reconstitution of the people of Israel in a Moses like figure standing on a mountain proclaiming with authority of Torah that penetrates to our hearts and extends out to all creation. Mark emphasizes the faith and folly of those on the way to the cross. In Luke & Acts, being people of The Way is a continuation of God’s salvation activity and is marked by worship, proclamation, teaching, service, and fellowship. John takes great pain to show The Way as a “faithing” people who follow Jesus through the cross and on into resurrection. Paul confesses that the people of the The Way are elected by God to be imitators of Christ in their life together. Finally the Revelator paints the picture of a diverse group of communities, who stand under the physical oppression and economic pressures of empire, and remain faithful to The Way.

Searching for The Way

The reality concerning the church’s origin as people of The Way is often lost in our contemporary context. Within the evangelical stream of Christianity, a strong emphasis on the internalized personal dimension of faith (e.g. accepting a personal relationship with God in your heart) and the proclaiming dimension of the Gospel has led to a deformed view of the gospel in general and discipleship, specifically. Discipleship in many evangelical churches primarily focuses on the heads of individuals. Wanting to inform them of their heartfelt commitment, the task of discipleship becomes the construction of a Christian worldview. This practice of discipleship is believed to produce people who can think Christianly and therefore act Christianly in their individual lives. In the midst of our contemporary setting, it is hard to imagine being a people of The Way. Rather, it might be better to characterize contemporary discipleship as producing people of The Worldview.

The practice of discipleship as teaching a worldview is typical of much of evangelical youth ministry. Bible quizzing, preaching, teaching, and Bible studies constitute a large portion of youth discipleship aimed at capturing teenage minds. Throw in the typical hot button topics of sex, drinking, drugs, money, a few political issues and you got yourself a nice worldview oriented discipleship plan.

Not only does this one dimensional practice of discipleship not reflect the Biblical picture of The Way but it is not sufficiently formational for youth. Young people are being formed every day. They are practicing religion in their homes, at school, online, at sports practice, and hanging with friends. The question for youth workers and pastors becomes, “What religion are youth practicing?” Are they practicing the religion of American democracy? Is their heart strangely warmed by Bieber fever? Do they worship at the shrine of their Mac? Do they tithe to H&M? Do they sing the anthems of Lady Gaga? Is their ultimate hope the American dream? All of these religions, who are begging for our youth’s allegiance, don’t care about constructing a worldview. They want the desires of our youth and they get at them with rich multisensory experiences and bodily practices. Our one dimensional practice of discipleship is insufficiently formational in comparison worship with Gaga.

Youth leaders know the typical discipleship practices aren’t forming teens into the Christian faith.  Our teens are picking up on how we’ve shaped God into our own image.  The quaint moral diety that we prop up in our trite devotional teaching moments, vague counseling conversations, and our 30 second wish list/prayer times is anything but the Triune God.  Teens get it and the NSYR confirmed it for many youth leaders.

Here is where youth ministers can help the whole church. We are typically given the freedom to experiment with new programs, ideas, and ministry practices in the local church under the banner of “relevance.” I would challenge youth workers to use their freedom not to do something radically new. Rather I purpose that we do something radically old. Let’s search for a rich multidimensional, holistic, life consuming practice of Christian discipleship for youth and the whole church. Let’s play in the guidance of the Spirit with contextualizing a wide range of Christian practices with teens and their families. Let’s explore what it means to be committed to the lordship of Jesus and engaged in the mission of God in our local community. Let’s be passionate about Christian disciplines that capture and shape our hearts, heads, and hands. Hopefully God will be gracious to us and we will once again be known as people of The Way.

[1] Andy Johnson1 and 2 Thessalonians in the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, forthcoming)

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Paul Sheneman
Paul Sheneman is an author, speaker and youth pastor. He serves with the Macedonia Methodist Church in Ohio. He drinks way too much coffee for his own good. His main interest is exploring Christian formation. You can follow most of his ramblings on his blog at www.discipleshipremix.com or on Twitter @PaulSheneman.