Discipleship on an Envelope


This is the first in a series of posts on discipleship in the church

My dad taught me to tithe. When I was a kid my dad gave me an allowance of 25 cents a week, back when 25 cents was…okay, my dad was cheap.  But he tithed; still does.  And he taught me that I needed to tithe: to give 10% of my income to the church.  Since my income was 25 cents a week, a tithe was 2½ cents a week.

A little word of advice: if you’re going teach your kid to tithe his allowance, make sure a tithe can be made up in denominations of U.S. coinage.  If we were living in England I could have used a half-pence, but we didn’t. We lived in Maryland.

So he told me to give 2 cents one week and 3 cents the next, and it would average out to 2½ cents a week.

Which put me in a quandary: should I give 2 cents the first week and then make up for the shortage the next? But then I had to live for a whole week with the fact that I was cheating the Lord.  And then the next week it was like, “Sorry, here’s the rest.”

But if I gave 3 cents the first week, the next week it felt like I was asking the Lord for change. “I gave a little too much last week, so I’m just gonna…”

Yeah, so even as a 7-yr.-old I learned that this discipleship thing was a little more complicated than it first appeared.

But as if that wasn’t enough, I had a box of offering envelopes, and on the envelopes was a check-off list of the things that I should be doing in order to be a disciple in good standing. Do you remember those?

  • Present.  I always thought this was kinda dumb, because, you know—duh, how else would I be putting my envelope in the offering plate? But I didn’t complain because as I worked my way down the list, at least this was one I could with a clear conscience check off. I was present and in attendance at Sunday School. Not that I had any choice in the matter. If Mom and Dad didn’t wake me up, I was sleeping in, baby. But I checked it off, because it didn’t ask if I wanted to be there. Just asked if I was. And I was. Wearing a stupid clip-on tie. Check.
  • On Time.  Again, not my choice.  I’d have been happy to be late, but Mom and Dad were sticklers for punctuality.  Check.
  • Bible Brought.  This one was easy. Check.
  • Lesson Studied. Define study. If study includes hastily skimming the lesson in the car on the way to church while crammed into the back seat with my two brothers, who, pagans that they are, aren’t even trying to read their Sunday School quarterly, then, yes, I studied my lesson. Sometimes. Kinda.  Check.
  • Offering. Another duh. What, I’m going to give an empty envelope? Nope, there’s two pennies in there. Or three.  Which week was this? Check.
  • Preaching.  In other words, was I attending Big Church?  Once again, no choice. But who puts on a stupid clip-on tie just to come to Sunday School?  No, if we were going to Sunday School, we were going to Big Service. Sat with my whole family, with a parent between each boy. Kid-dad-kid-mom-kid. It was the only way my parents could hope to hear even a tiny part of the sermon. Anyway, check.

So there was my introduction to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: doing religious things that supported the church. Now, I know enough not to base my evaluation of traditional discipleship programs on the check-off list of an offering envelope, but don’t think that that check-off list is an aberration either.

I have been a participant in many different discipleship programs since childhood.  Starting with Training Union when I was a small child living in Alabama and on through adulthood, I have tried a lot of things, some very intense, some not so.

All have been variations on the same thing.  They have all tried to instill in me certain habits—daily Bible reading and prayer (the two were invariably linked into one activity), consistent witnessing, weekly attendance in worship and Sunday School, and tithing.

I was taught that doing all of these things would “bring me closer to Christ,” which sounds really good but, when you really examine it, what does being “closer to Christ” really mean?  When I listen to some people describe it, it’s all soft and fluffy: it’s when you have warm feelings of affection toward Jesus.  It’s like a big Jesus hug.

But absent a clear definition it seems to mean that a person who is close to Christ is a person who has a daily “quiet time,” which involves reading the Bible and praying; who witnesses to non-believers; who attends worship and Sunday School every week; and who tithes.

And that’s circular thinking leading nowhere: the reason you read the Bible and pray daily, witness to non-believers, attend worship and Sunday School every week, and tithe is so that you can become close to Christ, i.e. so you can become a person who reads the Bible and prays daily, witnesses to non-believers, attends worship and Sunday school every week and tithes.

You do all these things so that you can become a person who does all these things.


Next: Do Discipleship Programs Produce Disciples or Bullies?

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