Not too long ago, I was attending a new Sunday School class at a church our family was visiting. The talking points hovered around the ills we see in the local churches — particularly with the loss of young people in the church. It was a rather polite get-together. We listened as the leader worked his way through the appointed curriculum. We added our feed back at the appropriate times. We left…the same as we entered. It was safe.
Complaining about the state of affairs is easy to do and surely gets a conversation going. Doing something about the condition of the church is another thing entirely. We do a lot of talking, don’t we? But “talk is cheap,” when it comes to truly improving a situation.
Part of the discussion we had in that class revolved around what it would take to actually change the things we are seeing in the church. A lot of congregations have a disproportionate number of older to younger members. Young believers are increasingly rare in many churches. Then there are members whose lifestyles essentially mirror that of everybody else in the community. There isn’t much that makes us stand out as Christians. It was generally agreed that good discipleship practices would reverse these trends, if we would but do it.
What is good discipleship?
I think most people understand discipleship — at least at a foundational level. It is simply training someone to do what you do. The trades and apprenticeships are great examples of this. Good discipleship is that model of instruction that actually produces what you are looking for. If we are not producing what we are hoping to, perhaps our mentoring practices are more lacking than we would like to believe.
Honestly, Christians are discipling others all the time. Discipleship isn’t limited to a talk or a study guide. Our habits, behaviors, and beliefs are constantly influencing those around us. This was also true of Christians in the first three centuries of the Church’s existence. Significant numbers of early believers influenced the world by their loyalty to their Lord, regardless of the consequences that might befall them. This allegiance was revealed in their confession and their behavior. That early Church transformed Rome, a powerful ruling nation given to false gods and harsh treatment of detractors, into what would become known as Christendom.
Today we are seeing the exact opposite trends in the very lands that once embraced Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
What is going on? Are people substantially different in the 21st century than they were in the 4th century? I don’t think so. The Gospel is unchanged as well, being perfectly preserved in the Scriptures. What is different?
I met a man not too long back who had been held captive in a Chinese prison for years. His crime? He shared the Gospel in printed form and produced instructional materials for believers to come to understand the Christian worldview. While in prison, he was subjected to intolerable conditions. He lived covered with lice. He had to share an unventilated room designed to accommodate 25 or so, with 300 other men. They had only three old tooth brushes to share among the crowd. Not surprisingly, he said his teeth suffered during his decades long imprisonment. He was subjected to many great difficulties.
While in prison, this man was able to encourage other prisoners to embrace Jesus Christ. He became known among the guards as the “leader” in the prison. Over time, he even influenced the unduly harsh guards to become more compassionate overseers.
I remember something an Indonesian pastor once said. He said, “Persecution is good for those who love the Lord a lot, but it isn’t good for those who only love the Lord a little.” Persecution is a form of hardship. At this point, I think we might have a window into why our discipleship in the West isn’t giving us the desired results.
Americans are a driven people for the most part. We also tend to be capitalists in nature. We are able to tackle great obstacles, if we see the benefit on the other side of the challenge. Our businesses produce mottos, long and short term strategies for success, and actively measure that success by what we refer to as a Return On Investment or ROI.
We aren’t much different individually either. We plan our retirements and measure our personal sacrifices against their returns. But when we don’t perceive the value of a difficulty, we avoid it. This is as true for corporate ministerial exploits as it is for the personal effort we give to our own spiritual transformation. (Rom 12:1-2)
Think about it. How many Christians do you know who charge into hardship for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom?
Ponder that question. We see people dedicate their lives to serve the Lord, sure, but do they suffer hardship in our world for doing so? Asked another way, does Christianity cost you anything? What is the price you pay for your faith?
Someone is going to react to that question with the “Salvation is a free gift” response and miss the point entirely. Yes, we cannot purchase inclusion in Christ’s Kingdom no matter what effort is given to that end. It is a priceless gift. But what is the price you pay in this world for possessing it? What is its worth to you? The answer to that question is visible to those who surround us.
Is it possible that our discipleship efforts are wanting because there isn’t a suitable ROI to the average American believer? We receive Christ and then…what? Living in contradistinction to a secular worldview is fine as long as we keep it to ourselves. But once we surface in the marketplace of ideas, we stand out, and that stand invites hardship. Do we see the value in taking on that difficulty?
We all want to win the youth to the Church. But what do the youth see us doing? Would they want to do what they see us doing? When youth admire us and appreciate us, they will follow and emulate us. Until we, the mature in Christ, are willing to plunge into the kinds hardships that earn the respect of our youth, you can forget about reversing the trend of a growing generation gap.
As long as Christianity remains safe in America it will remain impotent. Christianity, that is true to its Master, is an intrusive worldview. “With gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) does not mean silence or inactivity. Ours is a vibrant Truth that motivates believers to run into the darkness around us and light a match. This is our heritage and our privilege.
It may be that persecution will one day sift us here in America and reveal a gem that has been hidden. But we needn’t wait for hardship to be foisted upon us, we can embrace the calling to “Seek first the Kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33) now. The entailments of acting in obedience to that exhortation will certainly yield favorable results. We can disciple our progeny well by earnestly making this our pursuit.
Furthermore, there are other good reasons we should fully surrender to the Gospel, but that is another article.