American churches eagerly accommodate Christians who have professed belief but have no intention of becoming disciples. In fact, churches have worked so hard to build an environment that will attract and retain nominal Christians (and non-believers) that nearly all have abandoned discipleship entirely, replacing intensive and personal mentoring with optional fellowship groups.
The starting line (salvation) has become the finish line. “Follow Me” and “take up your cross” are simply too time-consuming and costly in our consumer culture. We prefer experiences and events over transformation. We count professions, not disciples. We require only that non-believers repeat the Sinner’s Prayer – everything else is optional.
Yet Jesus demands much more. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, but sanctification is a process – one Paul described as “beating my body to make it my slave” and “working out your salvation”. It does not culminate with repetition of a few words in the heat of the moment, as evidenced by the single-digit percentage of those still walking with the Lord a few years after professing their faith at Billy Graham crusades.
In Jesus’ time, disciples of a rabbi were called Talmudine. It was considered a great honor to be asked by a rabbi to “come follow me”. It meant they were deemed worthy, with potential to become exactly like their rabbi one day. To attain that goal, disciples imitated who they followed in every respect – literally every step of the way. In fact, a common blessing in Jesus’ day was, “May the dust of your rabbi be upon you.”
But we live in a salvation culture rather than a repentance or discipleship culture. Churches offer what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace”, where the goal is avoidance of a penalty, not obedience to the Master. The gift of eternal life brings along with it no moral or evangelistic obligations or other disruptions that should necessarily accompany following Jesus. We entrust those responsibilities to pastors and staff, who fail to fully disclose that the Bible defines you and me as the embodiment of “church”. We may cuss less and do more nice things but the end goal of salvation doesn’t necessitate being transformed into Christ’s image. In fact, two recent studies have found that Americans don’t believe their Christian neighbors live or act any differently than their non-Christian neighbors.
To entice consumers, churches and Christian music go one step further, stressing all that Jesus will do for us. Pastors tell us what Jesus’ resurrection will save us from, but not what it requires of us. As a result, the more pastors pursue members, the less members pursue the lost in the community. Too many professing Christians go on living largely as they did before, even though that would seem unconscionable for a true believer given the magnitude of that gift and the consequences awaiting those who don’t believe.
Words Frequently Heard…
What God does for me…
Get Me Out of Trouble
Give Me a Better Life
Save Me from Hell
- “My Redeemer”
- “My Deliverer”
- “My Savior”
- “Cancel My Debt”
Words Rarely Heard…
Americans are fickle, accustomed to convenience and blessed with options, quick to “vote with their feet” or demand “their money back” if not completely satisfied. Pastors are reluctant to challenge and eager to cater, knowing there are plenty of churches down the road that still define church as a place, asking only that they give and invite their friends. Christian radio stations and artists realize that we can change the station with the push of a button. We want to enjoy and be inspired by music, not be guilted into adding any more responsibilities to our overloaded schedules. Therefore, pastors tip-toe gingerly around the following words and musicians avoid them entirely:
What I should do for God and His Kingdom…
Making Disciples is Not Optional
- “Discipleship” (only loosely used to refer to small group meetings, which don’t make disciples)
- “Obedience” (the essence of discipleship)
- “Accountability” (for the Great Commission)
Taking up a Cross Requires Radical Change
Following Jesus is Going to be Hard
In some cases you do hear challenging words inside of a church or on the radio, but they’ve taken on entirely different meanings or their emphasis has shifted to benefit us rather than glorify Him. As the narcissism of a salvation culture overtook the selflessness of a repentance culture, the focus of linchpin terms of the Christian faith skewed in our favor…
- “Grace” – The mercy shown to me by God versus the mercy I show to others
- “Holy” – Our standing in God’s eyes versus His standing in ours
- “Outreach” – Marketing our church versus our individual obligation to serve others
- “Ministry” – Serving at our church versus Jesus’ command for us to share the Gospel
It’s Your Turn…
What other “it’s all about me” words do you regularly hear on Christian radio or at church?
You continue to ask bothersome questions and offer a reimagination rooted in scripture… a challenge we all need to ponder and pursue.
Thanks, Phil. Appreciate how you’re working to combat these trends in today’s Church as well. Stay tuned for next week – springboarding off of this post to address 10 Bible verses often read in church (because they talk about what God does for “me”) and those right before or after them that are rarely read in church (because they qualify what God does FOR “me” with what God requires OF “me”).
What’s odd is that He has provided us the desire and the power to please Him Phil 2:13. He has provided the fruit of the Spirit, His Word, Wisdom, understanding, promise, knowledge …ect. One problem is that we are told to transform ourselves by behavior modification and sheer determination when only He can and does transform. When we become sinfocused rather than Christ focused we begin to feel constant shame. If we focus on His love for us rather than our love for Him then our love for Him will change. Then we say what can I get to do to get to participate in what You want to do Lord!!!
One thing I have seen in decades of church leadership is that for most church members their faith is actually rather boring. They get excited about programs and personalities, but their personal walk with Jesus is mundane. Mundane doesn’t draw people to Jesus. Jesus was always doing the unexpected, so following Him should be an adventure. When we are walking by faith instead of sight (a small percentage of churches in the US are actually doing this) God is able to bring attention and glory to Himself. As Pastoral Director for New LifeScape Ministry, this is the biggest challenge I am facing. Will God’s people actually step out on faith (trust in Him to provide and empower)?
Amen, Rick! Making our faith about us misses the excitement of living a life fully for Jesus. Incremental change doesn’t bring the overwhelming joy of transformation into Christ’s image and of seeing the world around us impacted mightily as people recognize Christ in and through us.
One of my favorite teachings from childhood were the words: When you point a finger at someone else, you are pointing four fingers at yourself. That reminder has always been helpful to me when I observe the world. When I hear the scriptures, “all sin and fall short….” and “seek first the kingdom of God….” it is grand reminder to me to “do unto others as i would that others do unto me.” Yes, Lord, I thank You for forgiveness, cleansing and nw beginnings, and pray that I might ever feel Your presence in this walk through life. May I ever stay within Your Will, Your Word, Your Way.” Amen and Hallelujah. JustSayin’–JustBen
Seek first the Kingdom of God involves obedience to God! Obedience, along with commitment are some other words many do not want to hear. And, add holiness to that! Grace and freedom are quickly received, freedom in Christ, just believe! Those words will be eaten up!! True discipleship is so needed! Come to the cross, but, please keep learning & growing. The cross is the beginning!
“If you love Me, obey Me!”
Thank You, Jesus!!
If I never again hear the words “passionate” or “desperate” in another praise song, it will be too soon.
In order to shape a gospeling culture within a local congregation, church leaders must resist the pull of Christendom-bound ecclesiology that has been unevenly invested in the preparation of professional, ordained ministers to help them sustain established congregations. Such a paradigm has failed the ministers and the church in the face of disestablishment and secularization. Church leaders must stay the course of missional ecclesiology with an ecclesial identity that draws from the disciple-making practices of Jesus and the mimetic example of the apostle Paul. Thanks for the post!
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