What the Marines Can Teach the Church

Could an organization that exists to destroy things and kill people have something to teach the church of Jesus? Making the Corps, by respected Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks, provides a perceptive view of what goes into making Marines and what is at the essential center of the Corps. While reading the book, I noticed surprising applications to the church of Jesus on energetic discipling, identity thinking and cultivating appetites.

Marine_corps_flagWhat sets the Marine Corps apart from every other military service in the world is not their military hardware or firepower. The Marines’ most valuable possession is their culture, how they think and behave. Despite failures and flaws, the U.S. Marine Corps has successfully maintained a culture of integrity within a disintegrating American culture. The church in America should profit from that example.

The Marine Corps attracts an above average share of young adults who want to become part of something bigger than themselves. The Corps gives them a clear sense of purpose, self sacrificing rather than self serving. That is radically countercultural, remarkably so because the Marines do especially well at transmitting their culture to the bottom half of American youth. They take young adults, many with weak educations and bad family backgrounds, and nurture them to positions of honor. How they do it is where the lessons are for the church.

Energetic Disciple-making

Entering their new lives at boot camp, recruits are deprived of every comfort of their old lives: cell phones, hair, junk food, soft beds. Ricks observes that “only one thing is lavished on the recruits: the energetic attention of at least one, and usually two drill instructors at every waking moment.” It’s attention that recruits often wish they didn’t receive. But they know they must have it to become Marines.

That is an apt description of Jesus’ intention for our disciple-making. Is every one of us personally and vigorously discipling others? Are multiple Christ-followers doing the same for each of us? Or are we content to merely see that people are “plugged into church” or into a church program? The Bible’s many commands  to “admonish one another” (Romans 15:14), “exhort one another day after day” (Hebrews 3:13), and “confess your sins one to another” (James 5:16), can hardly be followed without energetic disciple-making.

Identity Thinking

Boot camp, where Marines are made, is itself a battleground. The drill instructors are consciously fighting for the minds of young adults from a culture that often mocks honor, courage, and commitment. They must, Ricks writes, “change the way [recruits] think about life,” especially how they think about themselves. Near the end of boot camp, after basic warrior training, recruits “really don’t know a lot about how to fight a war. But they know a lot about how to be Marines.” After graduating, they are constantly reminded to act according to their new identity.

It works. Rand Corporation military analyst Carl Builder observed that while each of the other U.S. military branches are highly stratified, with intense rivalry between levels, the Marines are by far the least stratified. “To be a Marine is enough.”

Do we as Christ followers have that level of confidence? I’m not confident that we do. We tend to think about our identity based on our behavior, not the other way around. We are  either “fundamentalists,” identified by what we don’t do, or cool, liberated Christians, identified by what we get to do. We are often ambivalent about how to respond to cultural pressure. What is lacking is a Biblically anchored consciousness of who we are in Christ.

Scripture instructs us to be putting off the ways of the old self and putting on the new. We do that by “being renewed in the spirit of [our] mind” (Ephesians 4:23). We must change our thinking about ourselves, beginning with the truth that when we were joined to Christ, something really changed (II Corinthians 5:17, 21). God is not merely pretending that we are righteous. So when we sin, we are acting out of character. When we obey, we are acting like who we really are.

Cultivating Appetites

The Marines know that it is not enough for recruits to learn the Corps’ core values unless they have a taste for them. So the drill instructors do what was common in America before pop culture invaded. In his book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers described the process as conveying “an understanding of the world and cultivating the dispositions necessary to receive and sustain that understanding.” So the Marines, for example, not only teach commitment, but also instill in recruits the dispositions of self-discipline and self sacrifice that sustain commitment.

Scripture tells us to “long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (I Peter 2:2). Notice the instruction: “long for” (strongly desire).  How Scripture is taught can either decrease or increase a hunger for God’s words.

Typically, providing content is the goal of Bible teachers, who present mostly their own findings and conclusions about the text. Unfortunately, learners then end up being observers of what the teacher learned. They lose the joy of discovery. Instead, the goal should be cultivating a delight in Scripture. One helpful tool is asking provocative questions that invite learners’ curiosity about the text and excite their desire to find more treasure for themselves. As active participants in the learning process, believers are much more likely to personally embrace what they learn.

Throughout its history the Marine Corps has endured repeated attempts to end its existence, including an attempt by Harry Truman to shut it down after World War II. Of all the U.S. military branches, it receives proportionally the smallest share of money. As a result, Marines tend to be highly resourceful and self-reliant.

Like the Marines, the church of Jesus has lived a threatened existence. Unlike the Marines, the church has Jesus’ guarantee that He will continue to build it, even against “the gates of Hell.” Energetic disciple-making, identity thinking and cultivating appetites are ways we can participate with Him in that. May we be always faithful.

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