A member of our church handed the book to me recently and suggested that I read it. I opened it on my flight home from Colorado last week and continued to read it through the next day until I was finished. The book is "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University." The author, Kevin Roose, is a Brown University student who takes a leave of absence from Brown in order to attend Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
Roose goes to Liberty thinking that he's collecting data for his book, seeking to gain a rich experience in a foreign land. Roose travels to Lynchburg with the idea that he'll be turned off completely by what happens at Liberty, that Jerry Falwell has few good qualities about him, and that the students in his classes will have little in common with him. After a semester at Liberty, however, he leaves a changed person. When he returns to Brown University, he finds himself praying on his knees. His mind often reverts back to the ways of life he encountered at Liberty.
He writes, "A few days after I left Liberty for the last time, I tried to peel the silver Jesus fish emblem off the bumper sticker of my Honda. The metal part came off easily, but a brown fish-shaped residue remained on the bumper, and no amount of scrubbing or scraping could get it off. I appreciated this on two levels. First, it meant that when I gave the car back to my dad - I had borrowed it from him for the semester - he was forced to drive around our ultra-liberal college town with the outline of a Jesus fish on his car, drawing worried stares from our friends and neighbors.
Second, the indelible Jesus fish provided me with the world's easiest metaphor to describe my transition from Liberty back to the secular world. Namely, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't quite scrape it away. Even when I was back at Brown full-time, caught up once again in the flood of papers and seminars and parties on the weekend, something about Liberty kept nagging at me. I kept having flashbacks of my time there..." (page 310).
There is something about the power of community. Roose discovered that the people at Liberty started to rub off on him. Their way of life became seeped into his mind and his spirit. While he wanted to be conducting an experiment only, he found himself caught up in the middle of it all - living a life like the Liberty students.
I've been thinking a lot about the indelible marks left on us. I learned again last week that when I am with someone who orders a salad for lunch, choosing a healthier option, I am more likely to make the same choice. Weight Watchers has tons of data that show you how their members lose more weight when they come to weekly meetings because they need to be held accountable and encourage one another together. Part of the power of Alcoholics Anonymous is that one is never alone - the community of individuals who also struggle with addiction is part of the healing power that is discovered. And, as Christians, we cannot learn and grow as disciples alone.
At the beginning of the summer, I traveled to Atlanta for a conference with colleagues. I noticed how disciplined they were. They were regularly praying and reading scripture. I had my Bible with me; but it did not get opened nearly as much as my colleagues' Bibles. I got up early - but not always to pray. But, after spending four nights with these women, they rubbed off on me - they left an indelible mark on me.
At Mount Vernon Place, we fell upon the power of community groups almost by accident. A former intern and woman who used to worship here became part of a conversation about what could happen if we had a couple of small groups. We bought three individuals a commentary on 1 Corinthians and sent them out to gather with others. We did no training. We hardly had a foundation in place. But, we knew there was power in being together.
A couple of years later, about one-third of our worshipping congregation is involved in a small group that gathers weekly for prayer, Bible study, accountability, sharing, food, and at least one monthly service commitment in the community. Through these groups, individuals are growing as disciples. Indelible Jesus marks are being placed on them. They are being encouraged to pray more, study more, give more, and grow more. They are rubbing off on one another. Many people are joining our church long after they have been a member of one of these groups.
There is power in community.
We exercise more often when someone is waiting to walk with us. We lose more weight when a classroom erupts in joy over the .8 pound we lost last week. We eat more vegetables when the people with us are eating more vegetables. And, we grow into more faithful disciples when the people around us are practicing faithful discipleship.
There is power in community.
I, too, have become an unlikely disciple.