Although you won’t find “Acts of the Disciples” in the Bible, every baptized Christian that was, is now, and ever will be could be included in such a work. Discipleship in Christ can be likened to a three-act play: Dependent Living, Independent Living, and Assisted Living.
The first “act” would cover the period of time when a person is truly dependent on others for almost everything. These initial years, roughly 18 – 22 years (or more!), are formative and essential in the establishment of a firm foundation in lifelong discipleship. The share in the mission of the church is primarily realized and accomplished in the household in these early years by participation in the workings of the domestic church that is the home.
Baby’s First Steps
The first steps of a baby disciple are accomplished under the watchful eyes of parents, family, and community. Godparents are chosen to represent all of the spiritual caregivers in these early years, as well as throughout life. Spiritual growth takes place alongside physical growth and oftentimes will intersect in their integration.
The “soil” of Faith during the early childhood years is fertile and rich. Care must be taken to allow the good seeds of faith to thrive in an environment that minimizes the unwanted “weeds” that will compete for space and nourishment. The share in the mission of the church begins to expand as immediate neighbors, pre-school and possibly daycare come into play. Values established in the home are shared in a way that is commensurate with this stage of discipleship.
Discipleship and the Age of Reason
By the age of seven, approximately, the young disciple begins a new phase of development. At this point, there should be a firm foundation to build on, as well as an established baseline to determine right from wrong in daily life. Larger, transitional situations are still guided and determined exclusively by others. The outworking of discipleship, while still accomplished primarily at home, is expanded to the larger sphere of primary education.
In the time between first and eighth grade, the young disciple grows by leaps and bounds. The opportunities to engage in collaborative ministry become more and more numerous. Still operating well within the parameters of dependency, the young disciple is able to participate more fully in the mission of the Church. As in early childhood, cooperation with God’s grace according to age and ability is key.
The Adolescent Disciple
By the age of fourteen or so, the adolescent disciple experiences too many changes to chronicle individually. In the aggregate, all of the elements involved in this pivotal transitional period eventually reach critical mass. Discipleship in these years is reactive for the most part. After fending off severe pressure from within and without, there is little room for a proactive approach.
Just as the discipline of psychology is barely a century old, adolescence, as understood in modern times, is still in its infancy. The gap between adolescence and young adulthood, once a matter of a few years, now can extend to more than a decade. The phenomenon of identity crisis reaches a peak during these years, as different roles and approaches to life are assumed and then discarded. The adolescent disciple, caught up in this “trial and error” approach has little to no time to reach out to church and community.
The stability of the household and parish provide the necessary anchor to keep the ship of adolescence from straying too far beyond the harbor of faith. Outreaches such as Life Teen and Youth Ministry help to mitigate the many challenges and temptations of this unique period of time. The forces necessary to provide the “push out of the nest” are the same ones that can temporarily dilute and fragment discipleship.
By the time of young adulthood, discipleship begins to operate from a foundation that has settled and withstood the many storm winds of change and growth. With a surer sense of self and purpose, the young adult disciple can collaborate and compromise in a way not possible just a few years earlier. College life and/or entrance into the workplace bring increased freedom and the attendant responsibilities that are inherent in this final stage before adulthood. Stay tuned for “Acts of the Disciples: Independent Living” in the second installment of this series.