Discipleship: Shallow Lake or Deep Waters? A Nordic Look at Church

One of the most worn books on my bookshelf is Costly Grace by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1937). Next to it stands an English variant on the same theme, David Watson’s Discipleship (1981). Both books have been foundational for my life and faith. As a young theologian I was particularly impacted by Bonhoeffer’s challenge to obedience, a simple obedience that realizes there is no other way to faith than obedience to the call of Jesus.

The Impossible Call to Obedience
To follow this call means to leave behind a life of safety and certainty and to enter a life of uncertainty, but a life with Christ. A life without discipleship will always be a life without Jesus—an idea, a myth, a folk religion, without Christ as the center.

Such a life with Jesus starts with Jesus calling us to take definite steps out of the situation where we find ourselves, in bondage, mending our nets, and sitting at the custom house like the first disciples were challenged to do. These steps will bring us out of a situation where faith is not possible and into a situation where faith becomes possible.

As long as Peter is mending his nets, he may do a good and honest job within his old religious world, but if he wants to believe in the living God, he must get up and walk the dusty roads with Jesus. So the way to faith goes through obedience to the call of Christ: “Follow me!” Only the obedient may believe, and only the believer shall obey, says Bonhoeffer.

This obedience—this discipleship—brings us into a life of grace, costly grace. The primary enemy of the church is “cheap grace,” a grace on sale, forgiveness and comfort at a discount, grace without any price. It is forgiveness of sins as a general truth because God loves the sinner and never gets angry with the sinner. It is justification of sin instead of the sinner.

Since everything is by grace, nothing really needs to be changed. Cheap grace is forgiveness without repentance, baptism without discipleship, communion without confession of sin. It is grace without discipleship, grace without cross, and without the living Christ.

Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, the costly pearl for which I am willing to sell everything. It is the call of Christ that makes me leave the nets and follow him. Costly because it calls to discipleship, grace because it calls to discipleship with Jesus; costly because it will cost my life; grace because it by the same token gives me my life. Costly because it cost God his only Son, and what has been costly for God cannot be cheap for us. Grace because the price has been paid and I can go free.

Without costly grace and obedient discipleship, the Church is like the lake, says English bishop David Watson, a mile wide but only a few inches deep. It will only take a small change in the spiritual temperature for that lake to shrink, and to do so very rapidly.

Western Europe is an illustration of such a lake. The continued decline of the established churches in Europe may be viewed as a consequence of our preaching of cheap grace. Everything is on sale. We baptize without really demanding discipleship; we invite everybody indiscriminately to Holy Communion; we offer absolution without asking for personal confession. We preach love, but seldom the love that hangs on the cross and died for our sins.

This preaching of cheap grace is lethal because it may close the way to Christ, instead of opening it up. It allows me to continue in a life of disobedience; it condones my sinful life with its leniency; it makes me stay with the fishing nets and at the custom house while Christ has moved on.

This Western phenomenon is also showing its face in the global South. Nominality is a growing problem within all major religions. Many do not consider a spiritual reality, particularly in the megacities of the world. This is becoming more and more relevant among churches with great vitality and growth, churches which lack Bible teaching, discipleship programs, or where the links with folk religion are still quite strong. The African variant of the shallow lake picture is that of a church which is spreading widely, but is thin like a pancake.

The large Lutheran churches in the Nordic countries are so-called “folk churches” (i.e., churches that since the early Middle Ages have encompassed the entire population). The countries were therefore considered Christian countries. Together with the rest of Europe they constituted “Christendom.” This has now ended. Our folk churches are slowly crumbling because society has become pluralistic and the church finds itself in a market of many worldviews and values.

How should the church relate to this situation? It may choose a folk-church/folk-religion perspective where one will emphasize membership and rituals (particularly baptism), where one maintains that the Christian faith still has great importance among most people. When so few (less than two percent in Scandinavia) attend church, we are to blame because we have made people feel alienated from their own church. What is important is baptism—not a loud confession of faith. The weak faith may be just as valid as the strong one. The strategy should therefore be to affirm one’s Christian identity. He or she belongs to the church; one can therefore not talk about “mission” in relation to the folk church or claim that it finds itself in a mission situation.

The alternative is to choose a missional perspective: we realize that only a minority within the folk church are true believers (i.e., people with a conscious Christian faith and who actively take part in the Christian fellowship). Genuine faith must have some visual expressions in the form of conversion and discipleship. The focus should therefore not be on affirming, but on challenging.

The passive members of the folk church must be called back to a living faith. The church must be a missional church taking seriously that we live in a mission situation. We must develop committed missional communities in order to act as a catalyst for personal discipleship.

I would largely agree with the missional perspective, but at the same time plead that we tread carefully. The church will never become a pure society of the saved. It will continue to encompass both sinners and saints. Also in our own lives, the battle between new and old, sin and holiness, faith and unbelief, will continue. All of us are in need of daily repentance. So let us beware of an exaggerated complacency, but also of a dangerous judgementalism, Andrew Watson, Anglican priest and evangelist, once said.

Within the folk church there are people who do not shout from the rooftops, but who pray and carry with them Christian faith and traditions. They too need to be challenged to repentance, discipleship, and service. The missional perspective must first and foremost apply to those within the church and then secondly to those outside the church (whether they are dechurched or unchurched).

Redefining Folk Church
Would I like to see a folk church in the future? As long as there is ample room for a gospel about costly grace and for a call to radical discipleship I am prepared to live with the tension between the folk church and the faith community, between the ecclesia and the ecclesiola (the big and the small church).

But when the structures and the powers choose an ecclesiology that prevents the genes of the biblical church from finding expression, it will be time to leave. Folk church to me is primarily a matter of bringing the gospel to the whole people and of carrying the Christian faith into everyday life and culture, in witness (martyria) and service (diakonia).

This calls for a church that both supports people (gives to, takes care, welcomes, carries) and challenges people to discipleship and obedience. For people to progress along the path of Christ discipleship, they/we need high support and high challenge, said Watson.

P.S. Can I ask that you would study the Cape Town Commitment in this perspective of costly grace and obedient discipleship? Because this is the superior perspective of the document: the need for radical obedient discipleship, leading to maturity, to growth in depth, as well as growth in numbers. This will find expression in humility, integrity, and simple lifestyle. As disciples, we shall walk in the light lest sin and devil catch us in the dark. As disciples, we shall be different from the broken and divided world we are sent to serve. Because we follow a master who is different.

Dr. Knud Jørgensen is dean of Tao Fong Shan in Hong Kong and associate professor at the Norwegian School of Theology.