One of my favorite stops at the Oakland Zoo is to see the gibbons swinging in the tree. The other apes and monkeys at the zoo live in cages and tend to mind their own businesses, but the gibbons are out in the open, living in a tree on an island, and they always make eye contact with the spectators, and giving us a good show of their acrobatic prowess on the tree branches.
And for me, the gibbons and their trees illustrate what discipleship should be. Let me explain.
What’s Wrong With Modern Discipleship
In many churches, “discipleship training” is treated as a program, a curriculum, or a method. Worse, sometimes there’s (an unbiblical) misunderstanding that one must go from being a “believer” to being a “disciple,” where the latter is somehow framed as a higher level Christian.
When I was a young Christian, I was encouraged to join a discipleship training couse, which consists of doing a fill-in-the-blanks workbook and meeting with a mentor every week to go over the workbook and to see how I’m doing. For various reasons, my meeting with the mentor lasted only two meetings. I ended up finishing the workbook by myself, and I felt like all I did was learning a lot of basic head knowledge.
As Trevin Wax suggested in his thought-provoking article “Discipleship Is More Than Conveying Information”, discipleship is not just about giving information to people, but also modeling the Christian life. In this way, we can fulfill the Great Commission’s call to discipleship by “teaching them to obey.”
But I think much is still left to be said. Discipleship does involve some teaching and conveying of knowledge, but what does that “knowledge” look like?
Let’s consider the subject of trees. How do we learn about trees? I remember learning about the Chinese word for “tree” in kindergarten, and later the English word “tree.” And then I got to draw trees and appreciate that trees are beautiful. A few grades later, I studied elementary-level science and we looked at the anatomy of a tree (roots, trunk, branches, leaves, etc.).
That’s all well and good. But that’s not how gibbons know their trees.
Gibbons invest their lives in trees. They live in the tree, and they play and swing around in the tree. They raise their families in the tree, and they enjoy their communities in the tree. The tree provides fruit — the gibbons’ main diet — and when fruit is not available, they eat of the tree’s bark, leaves, flowers, and young shoots. And when the heavens provide rain water, the tree leaves would hold some of it, and the gibbons will drink from it. The gibbons also rely on the tree for shelter and protection.
That’s quite a different manner from how we know trees. The tree means the whole world to these gibbons. It is everything to them.
Disciples: All In
Likewise, a disciple should be as one who follows Christ to the point that Christ is his/her everything. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)
In the case of the disciple, the “tree” is the “cross” of Christ. A disciple is “all in” and completely dependent on the cross for his/her nourishment, dwelling, protection, etc. Because of this utmost dependence on the cross, nothing else is necessary. “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33)
Are we all in? And is this how we make disciples?
– Notes –
Acknowledgment: This post was inspired by C. H. Spurgeon’s illustration about the squirrel and the beech tree.