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The Commodification of Discipleship.

A building Crisis comes calling…

Have you ever thought about how odd it is to walk into a grocery store? It is odd to walk into a store where there is fresh food, packaged food, processed food, meats, and more…all available. It really is an incredible reality that someone with no food in their home can go to a grocery store and get everything they need for a full meal…meats, vegetables, starches….all of it. All in one place.

  • It is thought that the first “grocery store” opened in 1916; a Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee. And by 1960, grocery stores were selling more than 70 percent of the world’s food. That’s incredible.

  • For most of human history, men and women have grown their own food, bartered with others, or simply done without. But now, with the rise of the modern grocery store and mega-markets like Wal-Mart and Target, people can go to one place and get everything they need and want, and more. And with innovations like grocery pickup and Amazon, grocery shopping can now be easily done with a phone.

  • For many, this changing of the food landscape has been a welcomed step in human development; but for others, it has been an ominous sign of societal weakening.

Give a man or Teach a Man to Fish?

You’ve heard the old saying… “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”

  • The saying highlights the benefit of knowing how to do something for yourself. There are times when we can and should give things to people. There are times to meet immediate needs. But, for the most part, aiming at teaching life-skills is far more important and beneficial.

  • While the rise of the grocery store did benefit society in the way of convenience, it has brought with it unprecedented changes in other negative ways.

  • Farms are becoming less in number and larger in scale. With the aid of technology, 1 farmer can farm thousands of acres.

  • The number of actual farmers has drastically gone down. Which means the number of people who know how to work the land to produce the food is shrinking, even as society grows more numerous.

  • It has crippled our society. We have become life and death dependent on the grocery store. If the grocery stores go away, where do we get our food?

-We have commodified food, made it into an industry, and we’ve really gotten ourselves into a fragile spot.

Commodification: Transforming something into a product for commercial purposes, an item to be bought and sold in the market.

  • So fragile, that when something like the war in Ukraine happens, it affects gas prices globally, which cripples the trucking industry domestically, which limits the amount of food coming into the stores, which means the grocery store shelves are a little more bare, which means you might not get the item you’ve come to depend on being on the shelf.

The food industry has been transformed from something that everyone did as a way of life into something that is entirely dependent on the movements of the global economy…good or bad. Most people walk into a grocery store now with no thought of farming, farmers, dirt, earth, rain, compost, earthworms, life-cycles, or the like. Our thoughts of food start and stop with what’s on the shelf.

  • Like I said…fragile.

Commodifying Discipleship

I think we need to ask ourselves the question, “Have we done this with discipleship?”

“Have we done this with discipleship?”

Have we taken something that was organic and natural and available to everyone, something that was a way of living unto itself, and made it into a product for commercial purposes to be bought and sold in the market?

  • I think the answer is, sadly and soberingly, yes.

I’ve written about the modern discipleship industry previously, but I think the parallels with the grocery industry are too clear and too glaring to gloss over.

  • The Christian discipleship industry is much like the modern grocery store. You can get everything you need on a shelf, put there by someone else, ready for the taking. All you have to do is stroll the aisles and buy whatever seems best to you.

  • Whereas in the past, a man or a woman needed a lifetime of practical living with others to produce maturity, now, a Christian is taught that a series of Bible-studies and programs are all that is needed to produce maturity.

  • In the past, farming was a way of life. It provided not just the food on the table, it also afforded a family opportunities to support themselves, to know and care for their land, a means to raise their children, endless opportunities to teach their children, and more. Farming was a way of life that was communal and neighborly. One family would often help another. That way of life forged a community with habits, seasons, traditions, and gave everything great meaning. It also taught people how to live on their own, but not to live alone.

“It taught people how to live on their own, but not to live alone.”

Discipleship is meant to operate in this same way. It is meant to be a way of living, not as a commodity to be marketed and sold. Discipleship is not meant to be a singular practice unto itself as much as it is a way of living life holistically. Discipleship means following Jesus with my whole life. That means discipleship is literally going to be involved in everything I do.

  • Listen to how Chuck Lawless describes where discipleship happens… “understanding the opposite gender, relating to parents, budgeting, retirement planning, buying life insurance, understanding God’s will, playing racquetball, grilling a steak, buying a house, writing a resume, finding a church, dealing with a health crisis, overcoming temptation, raising kids, purchasing a car, painting a wall, and on and on…[discipleship] affects every area of our lives.” (Lawless, Mentor, 13).

As I mentioned in a previous post, Christian discipleship is a way of living and not so much a particular study or set of classes at church. Sure, there are certain times when we focus on certain things. A way of living is flexible and must roll with the punches…but it remains a way of living nonetheless.

But today, we’ve gotten away from that. Instead of teaching each other a way of living as discipleship, we want to order or purchase whatever the bookstore has stocked the shelves with; whatever it is that “we” feel that “we” need to focus on.

  • Instead of living in a community based around farming, people now live alone because they can go to the grocery store. They don’t need the land nor each other like they once used to. That way of living is gone.

  • This has largely happened in both the Church community and in our intellectual understanding of discipleship. We aren’t thinking about the whole of our lives as discipleship. We tend to reduce it down to a study or a seminar. That’s what we’ve been taught after all.

  • The person who walks into the big box grocery store probably isn’t thinking, “I hate farmers, land, and labor.” That person is probably just doing what they have been raised to do. But rarely do we stop and ask, “Is this how it is supposed to be? Is this good? Is this really where food comes from?”

  • We ought to be doing the same when we’re shopping for the next discipleship study. We should ask, “Is this really the best path of discipleship? Should I just call another Christian and spend time with them instead?”

A Sobering Sign…

I fear that the modern Church has commodified discipleship, making it more into a grocery store experience rather than about a life well-lived in pursuit of Jesus. I fear that we’ve taught each other to trust in books and studies more than we’ve taught people to treasure Jesus together in the ups and downs of life. I fear that we’ve taught people to trust and esteem the conference speakers and the book writers as they overlook the everyday ministry of the saints within their own churches.

  • One of the major tell-tale signs that gives me this fear is a recent study put out by Lifeway Research. In a study of protestant pastors, Lifeway Research asked pastors to identify what they felt was their greatest area for needed improvement. 63% of pastors polled stated that “Discipleship” was their area of greatest need.

  • Lifeway President Ben Mandrell stated, “These findings come in a season when pastors feel a spotlight on their ability to lead… They’re getting more honest about how inadequate they feel. Many pastors fear at some point their perceived shortcomings are going to be on display for their flocks to see.”

It is entirely startling and sobering to me that American Protestant Pastors would say that the skill of discipleship is where they need to grow the most. Typically, when someone is asked to identify their area of needed growth, they identify an area of greatest weakness. So, American Pastors are essentially saying that their greatest collective weakness is in discipleship.

  • That should stop every single one of us in our tracks.

  • Pastors are saying that their biggest area for growth is their primary job description.

  • How did we get here? Have we so commodified discipleship that even our pastors today have forgotten how to do it?

Mandrell is right. Churches today are putting more and more pressure on Pastors to be managers and CEOs rather than shepherds. Churches expect pastors to lead programs, plan polished services, strategise, vision-cast, etc. rather than spend their days alongside the sheep, leading them step-by-step to Jesus. Should it surprise us, then, that our churches are functioning more and more like grocery stores rather than healthy, lush, agricultural fields?

We’re Not Too Far Gone.

We are a long way from where we started. In some ways, churches have become like that person walking into the grocery store without any thought of farmers and farmland. But, we’re not too far gone.

  • The way of following Jesus persists.

  • There are faithful Christians who utilize discipleship studies in good and healthy ways, incorporating them into their way of living where they can.

  • There are pastoral shepherds who faithfully live the way of Jesus and teach the way of Jesus in public pulpits and from house to house just like they are called to do (Acts 20:20).

  • There is a way back to the place we’ve left. We just need to change direction.

What we need is a hard reset; an honest look in the mirror. We need spiritual reckoning. And by God’s grace, we can do it…

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