Since the life of Christ, believers and churches have pursued the ministry of discipleship in obedience to the great commission text of Matthew 28:19-20 and out of the desire to bring back the King, Matthew 24:14. Two dynamics have thwarted the ministry of discipleship. The first was the clergy and laity division. The idea that only those who have been academically and organizationally trained could adequately make disciples exponentially diminished the church’s labor force, and it moved the practice of discipleship from everyday life to the classroom. The second negative dynamic is the impact of commodification on discipleship. This post expands upon this latter dynamic.
In his book Consuming Religion, Vincent J. Miller argues “that consumer culture is not merely a particular set of ideologies, but a particular way of relating to beliefs, a set of habits of interpretation and use, that renders the content of beliefs and values less important” pg. 1. If his argument is at all accurate, the ramifications of commodification for religious faith and practice are huge, let alone how they impact the ministry of discipleship.
Jesus accomplished His disciple making ministry in the course of relating to people in the midst of everyday life. He taught scriptural truths using signs and symbols that were familiar to his listeners, in ways that were meant to be applied immediately, and in common life circumstances. As discipleship became more of an academic exercise it became easier to embrace discipleship truths without practicing them. This is consistent with Millers’s statement that “when beliefs are readily embraced in abstraction from their traditional references and contexts, it is less likely that they will impact the concrete practice of life” pg. 32. To attract people, the church began to “exchange” their traditional practices for more “culturally relevant” practices. It was easy for the church to do this because they had been conditioned to the practice by the ever more manipulative marketing media. It could even be argued that the church has commodified God by branding Him in certain ways consistent with their denominational or historical practices and beliefs. So much for following Jesus into the neighborhood for discourse with people in everyday settings telling and showing a new way to live.
How can the church return to a lifestyle of discipleship? I agree with Miller that “academic theology not only teaches and corrects but also learns from everyday theology of lived religion” pg. 174. Discipleship must not remain only in the classroom nor must it be commodified. It is not a 13 week course, 101 versus of Scripture, and 57 fill in the blanks! And, it is not the marketing of doctrines packaged to attract the consumer mindset to a god who wants to bestow riches in exchange for obedience. The church can re-engage the Jesus style of discipleship by pointing people towards God as they walk the pathway of their crisis. Truth must be immediately applied to the crisis. Tradition must be related to the moment. Practices must be motivated by infinite meaningfulness.
Commodification facilitates the need for professionals. Often, church members are happy to allow the professional minister to be the agent of ministry (pg. 224). To counter this it is crucial for believers to see themselves as part of a global endeavor requiring every person to engage by exercising and developing their own expertise in the course of relating to people for the cause of discipleship. God’s fulfilling presence will satisfy the person’s root desire for Him to the extent that she/he will be further motivated.
Finally, living in the Kingdom must be foundational. Arguably, Jesus’ main message could be titled, “The Kingdom of God is at Hand.” What does consumerism look like in the Kingdom? Does it even have a place in the Kingdom? Are we called to make disciples for this world or for the Kingdom? In what ways did Jesus express a consumer mentality? How does God view a consumer mentality? These questions could serve to sharpen our discipleship language.