The Dangerous Hidden Power Dynamics of Discipleship

“You can’t simply teach about discipleship. Good leaders must create a discipleship culture.

This is one of the most foundational lessons I learned about discipleship. I believed that discipleship must be more than teaching new information. I believed that genuine discipleship also required proximity and presence whereby the ways of Jesus could be imitated and imbibed. That was all well and good.

The problem was the next bit: I deployed this vision primarily by showing up in a (foreign) place in order to create a discipleship culture. That may sound innocent enough, but I’m learning that something was amiss. There was a dangerous assumption hidden underneath this seemingly innocuous phrase.

The dangerous assumption in discipleship

Within my framework, the initial and primary mechanism deployed for creating a discipleship culture was disseminating new language into the community. This move was motivated by the axiom that “language creates culture.”

This new vocabulary was then accompanied by structures that I and other leaders would implement. Those structures are designed to be “incubation zones” for the new culture to grow.

The strategy I deployed concealed a dangerous assumption I implicitly brought into the discipleship process, and it’s the assumption that the existing community culture was inherently deficient in birthing its own creative speech-acts for cultivating transformative space.

My aim was providing the language and structures in order to move people through a discipling process whereby they could be enculturated into a new kind of life, a life I assumed I already understood and could deliver to them.

I discovered that those for whom my “discipleship language” was most foreign (those most dissimilar me) were least likely to embrace the new culture. Put another way around, their culture was further away from the supposed “ideal discipleship culture” and thus might require a more thorough discipleship process.

Because I wasn’t a tyrant (of course not!), that meant those most dissimilar to me, as well as those not predisposed to taking the pastor’s vision at face value, largely resisted, ignored, or were left confused by the creation of this new discipleship culture.

My assumption produced a strategy that was transactional at best, and manipulative, patronizing, and coercive at worst.

And that happened because I failed to reckon with how power works in discipleship.

The hidden power dynamics of discipleship

When we’re talking about models for discipleship, we must first understand that what we’re describing is a power relationship. Grappling with how power works in discipleship is not to introduce something new that complicates an otherwise happy and good enterprise. Rather, it is to put on new lenses that illuminate for us when and how our practices have been out of alignment with the way of the crucified Christ.

Built within the language world of the term discipline, discipleship at its base is about “the power to script bodies into different performances,” as William Cavanaugh puts it in his book Torture and Eucharist. Discipleship implies a process whereby people are disciplined into another way of being.

It is not necessarily a negative thing that discipleship involves power. The problem is when discipleship relations have not been reconfigured through the self-giving Christ, into whose image and life we seek to be formed.

The dangerous thing is that most discipleship models do not seek to understand power. The result is that the kind of power exerted through the “disciplining of bodies” can quickly become problematic, especially because we’re unaware of how power is at work, and especially for people like me who have always been at the center of the socially defined “normally” disciplined body.

Without reckoning with how power is performed in our discipleship models, we risk extending and imposing our own character on to others, underneath and in the guise of Christ’s character. And when we deploy “culture” language into this process, our strategies begin to bear close resemblance to those deployed by colonizing powers.

It’s like forcing Saul’s armor on to David. The tools characteristic of our own embodied experience, as well as the virtues that make a “good” disciple, get thrust forward as the standard into which others must conform. This all happens under the best intentions, of course.

Not only are we subtly substituting our own character for Christ’s character, we also negate the surprising moments of spiritual transformation that open up for both “leader” and “follower,” who always stand in equal place before Christ as disciple. 

Putting communion back in discipleship

So what do we do about this? I want to suggest that a key factor is learning how to dwell with one another in communion.

I am learning that discipleship must always live within communion. By communion, I mean a relational encounter that opens the possibility for sharing, mutuality, and discernment. Communion is not just “icing on the cake” or an after-effect of the discipleship process. Communion is the orienting center and goal that shapes the discipleship process itself.

Communion is not an abstract “good thing,” but a way of naming a Christ-centered vision for spiritual transformation that unwinds and moves us beyond the broken power dynamics lodged in our discipleship methods.

When my discipleship efforts do not have communion as the orienting center and goal, I’m primed for exercising a power dynamic that makes discipleship transactional at best and coercive or manipulative at worst.

Without communion, my efforts get absorbed into the consumeristic complexes nurtured in church over the past few decades, and in some cases I end up extending my idiosyncrasies, further marginalizing minority voices in a context and squelching sensitivity to new possibilities opened by the Holy Spirit.

Putting communion back into discipleship begins by shifting the relational dynamic of transmission. The model shifts from “giving-imposing” to “sharing-discerning.”

Even when I am recognized as a leader in a place, there must first be a process of sharing. I am not primarily bringing a better culture so that I can change the existing culture. I am coming to encounter others, to share in their life, and to be a curious participant in the uncovering of the Spirit’s new creation work.

My new assumption is that the existing culture actually does have its own creative speech-acts sufficient for cultivating transformative spaces. I can still facilitate that process as a leader, but at the very least I must expect to discover with the community language and practices that are new to me, which could also shape my identity in ways I did not foresee before we shared that space of discovery.

Only then, from that space of shared inquiry and discovery, does the community begin to articulate together the language, practices, and structures in which we all experience the formation of our new humanity in Christ. From the space of shared inquiry and discovery, we discern together how God is leading us forward.

For me, putting communion back into discipleship, moving into sharing and discernment, cannot happen without first reckoning with power, with how I have been shaped to exercise power and how power has been exercised among the people I am with.

It is an act of repentance. It is a necessary first move that seeks alignment with the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus and seeks to be shaped to exercise the kind of power characteristic of his kingdom, rather than the kingdom of the world.

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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  1. Al Giles on May 6, 2019 at 9:09 am

    O. M. Goodness! This explains do many of my leadership mistakes and failures so far!

  2. Jim on May 6, 2019 at 10:20 am

    “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” – Phil 2:3-4
    Discipleship is an issue of the heart more than it is academic or strategic.

  3. Lauri Diamond on May 6, 2019 at 10:40 am

    Beautifully discerned Seth. Thank you for sharing. This really explains a lot of the frustrations in leadership with ‘good intentions’.

  4. David Stravers on May 6, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    It would be more than helpful if you would describe the specific stories and experiences that illustrate your points in this article. Without the specifics, it’s all rather vague.

  5. bridget on May 7, 2019 at 10:22 am

    Yes! This articulates so well the struggle I have -thank you. As I approach our annual church council day of prayer, learning and discernment, (as thd senior leader), this is what I needed to hear. It reminds me of Vincent Donovan writing in ‘Christianity rediscovered’: (paraphrased)…do not try to call them back to where they were, do not try to call them where you are, beautiful as that place may seem. But have the courage to go with them to a place neither you nor they have ever been before.’

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