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External Factors Keeping Churches from Discipling

External Factors Keeping Churches from Discipling

In addition to the internal impediments to discipleship we discussed last week, there are cultural norms making it difficult for churches in America to build disciples.  Even if pastors were fully committed to implementing personalized, intensive discipleship programs, they would encounter three significant attitudinal roadblocks pervading the psyche of most Americans today:

1.  Do What’s Best for Me…

Baby Boomers were dubbed the “Me Generation” in the 1980s and 1990s as conspicuous consumption, career ambition and narcissism precipitated an explosion of self-help books and me-first TV shows like Seinfeld.  Today, Millennials are commonly referred to as “Generation Me” for their obsession with their own personal identity.  Advertisers, Hollywood, media and the music industry drive home the idea that each of us should individually:

  • Define my own identity
  • Define my own morality
  • Define my own gender
  • Define what I do with my own body
  • Define my own take on religion (or god)
  • Seek my own happiness and fulfillment as the top priority

No one is permitted to question any of these self-conceived definitions of who I (or anyone else) is.  Everyone is permitted to live in a (self) bubble free from the imposition of values, ideals or standards by others outside of that bubble.  In fact, much of the controversy surrounding politics today involves the perceived (and often real) attempts to draw gender, racial or moral lines based on ideological or religious beliefs and force them on those who have already defined those for themselves.  Those questioning or attempting any infringement on anyone else’s self-image is viewed by Generation Me as a bigot and vilified in the media.  In the name of respect, compassion and understanding, you are required to respect my “I” to a fault.  In contrast, those taking a stand for their personal identity (however they want to define it) against any assailants are passionately supported by onlookers and praised by the media.

The rise of selfies, self expression on social media, becoming an alternative self via video games and virtual reality, makeover shows creating instant self transformations, etc. are all clear indications of America’s self-infatuation.  Self-actualization, realizing your true self, or reinventing that self brings a sense of happiness and liberation – but it’s fleeting.

It’s also, for all practical and Biblical purposes, the opposite of how we were meant to live.  In Romans 8, Paul refers to self-obsession as living in the flesh: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”  That’s our true identity and intended purpose – to empty ourselves and be filled with the Holy Spirit to accomplish His plan, not ours.

In a culture inundated with Self-itis, pastors find it very difficult to implement intensive discipleship programs.  Discipleship runs directly counter to self-absorption in every respect.  Discipleship teaches:

Because identity in Christ versus identity in myself is so hard for the Me Generation and Generation Me to swallow, church leaders resort to “lighter” versions of discipleship like Small Groups that provide a palatable format for those still consumed with self.  Small Group members are free to tell their personal stories, receive sympathy and prayer, and hear supportive messages to help them deal with the challenges they face.  However, Small Groups aren’t building many disciples and few churchgoers today are willing to endure the costs of discipleship outlined in Luke 9 and Luke 14Few love Jesus unconditionally, pray unceasingly, share their faith unapologetically, or serve those in need unreservedly.  In other words, unlike disciples, they don’t look a whole lot like Jesus.

2.  Do What’s Best for My Family…

Scott is a dutiful husband and a devoted father.  Although Scott’s not the kind to wear his faith on his sleeve, he tries to live an exemplary life hoping others will notice, opening the door to invite them to church.  By setting a good example, caring for his family and serving at the church, Scott feels he’s doing everything he’s supposed to as a Christian.  His church doesn’t ask or expect more of him and frankly, Scott has little time for much else anyway. 

However, what if God expects more – much more? 

It’s hard to argue with Scott or others like him.  How can there be anything wrong with working hard all week to provide for his family, then spending every Saturday at soccer games and cheerleading practice with his kids, and volunteering at his church every Sunday?  Churches reinforce Scott’s perspective by continually emphasizing taking care of our families and serving at the church.  Entire sermon series are devoted to marriage, child-rearing and relationships – often tying back into opportunities like leading a Small Group or working as a greeter or usher. 

But what about the Great Commission?  What about evangelism, the poor and the lost in the community?  That’s who Jesus, His disciples and the early church spent nearly all of their time pursuing.  What if your children follow suit and only take care of their own families?  Then what if your children’s children do the same when they grow up?  Who will ever look out for the hungry, hurting and hopeless?  And what about life transformation?  That’s what Jesus’ disciples experienced.  Where are our broken hearts for those who die without knowing the Lord?  How can we restrict our time and attention to our family and church while those in our workplaces and neighborhoods have contracted a fatal illness for which we have the cure?

Yes, churches have bred generations of Passive, Pensive and Private Christians.  Scott’s story resembles far too many churchgoers in America today, but how many pastors are willing to tell members to be less devoted to their families and more committed to making a dramatic impact in their world for Christ (i.e. Powerful Christians)?

3.  Do What’s Best for My Church…

Ironically, the success some pastors have had in the recent past in building personal brands, marketing their church and trying to increase loyalty among churchgoers, has backfired.  Invite-Involve-Invest, the prevailing church growth model over the past couple decades, not only hasn’t grown the Church in size, impact, influence or perception – it’s also trained members to abdicate their personal ministry responsibilities (handing them over to their church) and substitute performing religious obligations (for their church).

Jesus intends for His followers to BE the church, not passive (or active) participants in church.  1 Peter 2:4-5 says “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood,…”  Jesus is the Cornerstone and we are His “living stones”, His hands and feet that He uses to build His Church.  However, modern day church growth models have adjusted to fit the Me Generation and Generation Me, asking much less than Jesus does of His followers.

Rather than challenging churchgoers with all that discipleship entails (outlined earlier), pastors have lowered expectations, knowing few are willing to fully die to self, be crucified with Christ, and define their identity in Christ alone.  Instead, by implicitly defining church as an institution rather than as the congregation, church leaders kill two birds with one stone, both meeting self-absorbed Americans where they are and focusing them on supporting the organization itself.  In other words, rather than building disciples, which asks people to identify themselves as the church personified and therefore risks driving away those who want to retain their own identity, pastors appeal to them with services, programs and requests to build up the organization, which requires teams of faithful workers.

In some ways, churches have begun to imitate the Me Generation and Generation Me.  Each church differentiates and many rebrand, working hard at creating its own unique identity.  However, churches should adopt the core principles of discipleship they should espouse, dying to self and identifying themselves solely within the context of the larger body of Christ.  Instead, churches are increasingly establishing their independent identities and breaking away from denominations, affiliations and partnerships.  Many hand out “I love my church” bumper stickers, advertise in ways that would only entice Christians from other churches, and advocate their unique views of how worship and life should be conducted.  Yet both believers and churches were meant to be collectively depending on Christ alone, not asserting their independence.

It’s Your Turn…

Do you see a correlation between the increase in the level of self-interest among Americans and America’s churches and the rise of the “Nones” and “Dones” during the Me Generation and Generation Me?


6 Responses

  1. Very well done. I have this in culture now for most of my relationship with Jesus. I have also falling into these traps. Praise Jesus that he can deliver.

  2. There is a great deal of information here. I am not disagreeing, however, I want to point out that there are SEASONS in individuals lives. One example is the season of raising a family. To the degree a person is capable of enlarging their circle of responsibility to include serving in the community, meeting additional needs -they should by all means do it, but never to the neglect of their own children, spouse etc. A person would certainly be wise to include their family in serving, teaching them little by little how to live a life of service.

    I think it is not wise to avoid dumping a bunch of guilt on the man (or woman) who is has a full time job, is loving and serving their family (attending their sporting events) while it is that season of raising their family. IT IS HARD to raise God-fearing, Christ-centered children in the times we live. A man or woman would be wise to disciple their own children…day by day.

    The Lord gives us plenty of opportunities in the course of a day to evangelize, love and serve others while we go about our jobs or daily responsibilities. We need to stop compartmentalizing our lives -thinking, “now I’m at work, afterwards or this weekend I will go and feed the poor.” The Lord will use all Christians all the time if they will live each day being led of His Spirit. He wants individuals (vessels) who are willing to allow Him to work through them. I think doing it any other way- is man trying to MAKE something happen….man-made ways……to try to accomplish God-size goals.

    I was “discipled,” by a woman who had 4 young children. She discipled me by having me come and babysit her children while she and her husband went to evening meetings at the church. She stood talking to me with a toddler in a high chair and a baby on her hip. She gave me instructions then walked out the door. She gathered young teens in her living room to read the Bible on Wednesdays when they got off the school bus. She prayed for my salvation, and later for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. She didn’t have time to do it any other way, other than to bring me alongside while she followed Christ.

  3. Jim, you address a very important need in our churches with this blog and your previous one. I share your concerns about the challenges of churches, and of church leadership, to get their members to engage more in discipleship. Your frank and honest relating of the problems impeding more discipleship gives us all something to think about, and consider whether we are letting any or all of these problems impact us.

    As someone who has become very engaged in discipleship personally, I think the biggest need is prayer. Prayer to really change us, and make us more willing to follow Jesus with all we are. Transformation happens over time, and we need to know Jesus more to change.

    I became convicted about my need to be discipled, and to disciple others. I pray many others become convicted as I was. The Holy Spirit needs to change hearts first, and that begins with my heart. The Holy Spirit also needs to show church leadership what needs to do done differently to change a low discipleship culture. If more people are asking for discipleship, the church, with God’s leading, will hopefully respond with ways to do it effectively.

    1. Jim – sorry I missed your comment earlier. Yes, prayer, care and share are the hallmarks of a disciple and the essence of discipleship – it must always begin with prayer!

  4. Brother, I would like you tu develop a little in “share their faith unapologetically”. What does that means? How does it looks? Or at least point me tu some online resources where a can learn that.

    Been apologetic in my faith sharing is something than uneasy me, because I feel I’m doing Holy Spirit work: convince. Nonetheless, one always meet difficult people to share faith with, since they have a whole argument to destroy any attempt to present the Gospel.

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