Disciple (from the Greek word “Mathetes”): One who engages in learning through instruction from another. A Pupil. An Apprentice.
“Go therefore and make disciples…”
It happened at the end of every school year. I would pack up my desk or locker and head home to start my typical summer vacation. For all the years I can remember, my parents, siblings, and I toured the country all summer, beginning with the day after school let out. As part of a parachurch ministry, my parents would do concerts, teach, and lead family conferences. We ministered along with them in Christian churches, camps, and conference centers all over the east coast. We traveled in an Oldsmobile station wagon straight out of the “Family Vacation” movies. My dad was like Clark Griswold, and we were THAT family, crammed into every crevice of that car, rolling down the highway. In later years, we graduated to an RV for traveling, but even that seemed small after a few weeks on the road. We would be in a new place almost every weekend, making new friends in different towns and cities, and spending hours traveling to the next adventure and accompanying funny story.
My favorite memories of this time in my life happened when I rode shotgun next to my dad. I would sit map-in-hand, and Dad and I would debrief on where we had been and where we were going next. For hours we would talk about everything from church policy and culture, to people we met, church history, theology, and the beauty and brokenness of the world. My dad told the stories of how the Jesus’ Gospel entered our family history and changed the trajectory of our lives. There were times of worship, where he and I were overwhelmed by the magnitude of what God had done. There were times of prayer as we looked forward to our next stop and the needs of people and ministry opportunities that lay ahead. My dad taught me about God in real time application, and he taught me how to work through my questions and doubts about who God is and what that meant for me and my future and my life.
Looking back on it all I realize that it was, for me, a time of discipleship. It was a time of learning about who God was, what it meant to follow him as a pilgrim, and what it meant to share him with the world as a missionary. Each conversation would feed off the last, diving a little deeper, and I would learn a little more, wrestling with or rejoicing in the truth I discovered at each step.
At Terra Nova, we refer to discipleship in terms of a “Discipleship Spiral” with three main components. First, God allows us to experience Him (God Revealed), then we respond to that experience as pilgrims (Internal Response), and finally we reflect the truth we learn as missionaries to the world around us (External Reflection). We refer to discipleship as a spiral because as we continually walk in this path, it feels less and less like a linear process and more like a cyclical journey that goes deeper and deeper toward God.
My father and I would visit each moment of this spiral on those nights traveling the highways. It never seemed forced, programmatic, or artificial. Rather it was natural outflow of living life together in close community and seeing what God was doing along the way. It was a thousand little moments that added up to one bigger and growing reality. It is a journey I am still on.
I am a father of 3 boys myself, and this question has always been on my radar: How can I recreate the moments of discipleship I experienced with my father with my own sons? How can I carve out space for the experiences of God revealed, of spiritual response to what we have learned, and of pro-active reflection to the world around us? I voiced these concerns to an older man when my oldest son was five years old. I told him how I longed for the day when my three boys and I could sit around a fire pit and have the kind of discipleship I shared with my dad. The old man’s counsel was this: “If you want that one day, start now. These things don’t happen overnight.” It was then that I recognized that discipleship is not a place you visit and graduate from, but a continual journey. If my goal was to create opportunities for discipleship, I had to start mapping an intentional pathway to get there.
So I began planning our Fischer boys annual camping trip.
That summer, I picked my son up from kindergarten graduation in a van full of camping gear with a canoe on top. From there, we went to the Adirondacks to spend a few days swimming, fishing, kayaking, hiking, talking, and having epic, pretend bear hunts. At night, we would fill our bellies with fire roasted hot dogs and s’mores. It was exhausting, and it didn’t always seem like there were a lot of spiritual things happening, but it was part of the journey of discipleship.
Since then, my other two boys have joined us. This is the 6th year we will head north to the mountains when school lets out. No, we haven’t spent hours diving into the theological depths, and sometimes our quiet moments of conversation get interrupted with fights over the last marshmallow or midnight swims. But over the years, those moments formed the first loops of the spiral. They are moments of quiet, sitting under a tarp because of the rain, praying that God would bring out the sun and laughing because of the silliness of it all. They are early morning cuddles, when the youngest crawls into my hammock for warmth and asks questions about why God made mosquitos. There are boat trips on still waters that reflect the stars when you can’t tell where the sky ends and the water begins. Taking in the vastness of the universe leads to conversation about how big God is (God Revealed) and how small we feel (Internal Response).
We have moments of prayer and moments of worship as little boys’ shouts of joy echo through the mountains. Each conversation feeds off the last, diving a little deeper. It is not always easy and fun. It is a lot of work, and some days are difficult. Many days I fail more than I succeed in parenting and discipling my kids. But even those moments of failure are part of the discipleship process as we learn to give and receive grace in our weaknesses. I have had opportunities to humble myself, seek their forgiveness, and learn to better love them as my neighbor. All of this is a part of my own discipleship journey.
I am aware that discipleship must be more than something that is done once a year on special occasions. True discipleship is happening all the time in a thousand little moments. But I DO believe that there is something unique about creating those intentional moments. It might be decades in the making, but it will be something that my kids will remember the rest of their lives.
As you sit down to plan your own journeys and vacations this summer, how you will get there and accomplish what you want to do, I encourage you to evaluate your immediate and long-term strategies of discipleship for you and your family. How in your summer plans are you creating opportunities for your family to experience God’s revelation about Himself? How do you lead your family as a community of pilgrims before the Lord, internalizing, responding, and being changed by the things that God has revealed? How are you being a missionary and reflecting God to those around you? Not all of this will happen at once. It may take years for this to develop. That’s okay, because making disciples doesn’t happen overnight. Some days you will fail more than you succeed, but discipleship is a journey. It is a trajectory you are on. I hope that you’ll have a great summer, Terra Nova, and I pray that you will be able to see your own family’s discipleship journey spiral deeper and deeper into Jesus!