Following Jesus is Messy and Organic

December 12, 2022

by Greg Henson, CEO Kairos University; President of Sioux Falls Seminary and David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary


When “discipleship” courses were first introduced in seminaries in the United States, it was common to see them placed under the category of “Christian Education” or “Educational Ministries.” That was evident by the nomenclature used for the course titles, which were often something like “CE 502: Discipleship in the Church” or “EM 501: Evangelism and Discipleship.” At the time, this served as a way to organize the work of a school into categories that could be more easily described. As is the case with everything we do, this practice began to shape our understanding and way of being. Because it was categorized as something under the heading of Christian Education (and education was understood as a linear progression through courses intended to impart the most important ideas of the discipline), discipleship became a course of study. In many cases, both in seminaries and the local church, it became a series of classes or lessons.

This is not inherently bad. There are many important ideas within the Christian faith that must be communicated and studied. Our challenge, however, is that this structure has unintentionally given rise to the idea that discipleship is a linear process. In that paradigm, following Jesus becomes collecting ideas or intellectual assent. This was not necessarily what was intended but it has been the result. This is not what we see in Scripture. Instead, we see the earliest disciples submitting themselves to the authority of the Spirit – to a wild goose chase. While they had a clear direction, it was very messy and organic.

Our suggestion is that following Jesus is still messy and organic, even after 2,000+ years of followership. While there are ideas we must study (even healthy debates to be had regarding those ideas), the day-to-day call to be people of the Way is one of discernment, of practicing the Way of Jesus.

Embracing the fact that following Jesus is a messy and organic endeavor can be a bit disconcerting for those of us who have grown up with the blessing of the Enlightenment, the Scientific Method, and the reductionism of Modernity. Each of those (and many other aspects of our modern culture) have truly been blessings. They brought us medicine and other scientific breakthroughs (like wireless shifting on a mountain bike!). They also gave rise to the idea that everything, from building a road or a rocket ship to training leaders or equipping disciples can and/or should be reduced to a formula. We would suggest that following Jesus is not something that can be summed up in four easy steps.

When Greg was a child, his family had a framed picture of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. It is a wonderful image of Jesus walking with two others as he talks with them. Many of us like to picture the road to Emmaus when thinking about what it looks like to walk with Jesus. We forget, however, how disconcerting that journey must have been for the two men! All of the sudden, they had a companion and then all of the sudden he was gone. Sure, there was something familiar about him and his presence was calming and reassuring. When they realized what had happened, they ran to tell others. The picturesque “walk with Jesus” was bookended by two exciting but perhaps jarring events – one of which sent them back in the same direction from which they had come! If we want to use the road to Emmaus as a way to visualize our journey of discipleship, we need to embrace all of it – the gentle stroll and the direction-altering engagement with Jesus.

Following Jesus is messy, organic, and not easily structured into a series of steps or collections of ideas and intellectual assents (i.e., statements of belief). Yes, there is a place for those. Paul warns us against false teaching and Jesus makes it clear that we need to be attentive and obedient to his teaching. It is also true that when Jesus says “teach them to obey all I have commanded you” and Paul says “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” they have in mind more than merely imparting ideas. In first-century culture, to say “I believe in Jesus” or “Jesus is Lord” was a political statement. That is to say, it had as much to do with daily living as it did with thinking about ideas. In Scripture, we see discipleship, that is, following Jesus, as an ongoing process of discernment led by the Spirit. It was communal, iterative, and required an openness to ongoing learning and growth – all to the glory of God.

So, then, what can we learn from the way they organized themselves for this task? How did they decide who was in? Who was out? Who was empowered to set the pace and the direction? In modern terms, we might ask what kind of “social set theory” best describes the way the earliest disciples organized themselves. All good questions which we often hear when people ask about the theological diversity of the Kairos community.

Let’s dive into that next week by looking at what we can learn from a missiologist who studied some math along the way!

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