Guest post by Scott Cress:
The current campaign season has been brutal thus far. The American people have been treated to vitriolic personal attacks, countless conspiracy theories, and two major party candidates with questionable track records. Every word has been parsed by media, and every issue has been intensified by endless social media pontificating. The only people in the country who have anything to smile about right now are political science grad students, waking to a world of endless dissertation topics.
In the coming days, church leaders have some hard work to do as well. Challenges facing us include healing the wounds in sharply divided churches and finding new ways of engaging the public square. The last few days have, however, brought to my mind one issue above all others: the current state of American evangelical discipleship.
We have watched once admired leaders engage in hypocritical power-grabbing, willing to tarnish their legacy just so evangelicals have some foothold in the White House. Maybe more frightening than this, many sincere brothers and sisters have demonstrated an anemic moral reasoning which allows them to ignore language and actions clearly condemned by Scripture. “SCOTUS is all that matters right now,” they say. “And have you seen the other person?” they add with a touch of moral indignation. These latest remarks are one more stream feeding a growing river of American evangelical resistance to criticism (think of the recent conversations involving race) and fear of appearing “liberal” on almost any issue.
Of course, I write these words as a minister of the gospel who is himself flawed. Even as I read social media comments and mourn our present condition, I am reminded of my own persistent oversights and shortcomings. I mourn over the continual ways in which my behaviors, attitudes, and thoughts are out of step with the way of Jesus. I think of the state of my own discipleship, and I question my fitness to lead the church in these challenging days.
To be certain, discipleship has been occurring in our churches. Yet the current models have been found wanting. In particular the typical pathway of American evangelical discipleship has included the following elements:
- A basic knowledge that we are somehow forgiven by God through Jesus
- Short Scripture readings chosen for “comfort” and “encouragement”
- A near obsessive focus on marriage and parenting
- Constant reminders that God is with us in our struggles
- A working knowledge of the “Christian position” on a few social issues
- A variety of teachings on “hearing” God’s voice
The end results have been people who know God’s forgiveness but are shaky on God’s commands. A people who love God’s encouragement but don’t quite know what to do with God’s warnings. A people who want to succeed in life (with money or marriage) but still somehow follow a guy who was crucified. A people who have tried to live the Christian life in largely individualistic terms on a diet of disconnected verses. Hence, the focus on “hearing” God’s voice – not on hearing God’s Word in Scripture proclaimed to God’s people.
Many of us have been aware of the problem of malnourished disciples for too long. Answers have been proposed. Some have suggested that we ditch the judgment and focus on inclusivity. Others have found the answer in a life of miracles and immediate divine revelation. Another group has turned to renewed Christian intellectualism to supply our needs. In many instances, the answers to the problem have proven as troublesome as the problem itself.
In these difficult days, what are church leaders concerned with the ongoing growth of God’s people to do? There are simply no curriculums or social scientific studies which will solve our problem. In fact, the answers seem to this observer to be remarkably unremarkable. As November comes and goes, I am re-committing myself to three tasks.
- Immerse God’s people in the reading of Scripture. – God’s people need God’s Word. It needs to be read individually, memorized, and, most critically, read and heard together in our congregations. We need more than disconnected thoughts. We need lengthy pericopes, whole chapters, Old and New Testament working together. God’s people need to wake with David. Commute to work in the company of the Exodus community. And worship God together in the words of the Psalter. Memorization is key. We need God’s Word to make its way down into our long-term memory so that it can be deployed in the course of day-to-day living. We need to memorize more than single verses but, instead, whole chapters and strings of verses addressing the same theme. We need to feast not only on a few biblical words but on whole patterns of biblical thought. And if we find that we are crunched for time, we need to be prepared to ditch the single-verse devotionals and the many books on Christian living. We can no longer afford to raise up people who know how to set boundaries but don’t know how God’s covenants develop throughout the Bible or the differences between Matthew and Mark. These resources are not bad; they are simply inadequate for our present need.
- Teach God’s people biblical theology. – Even as God’s Word is read, heard, and memorized, church leaders must recommit themselves to teaching the overarching narrative of Scripture. We must develop the relationships between different portions of the Bible. In our thematic studies, we must collect relevant material from a story which begins with creation, experiences the horrific consequences of the fall, tastes the glory of redemption, and culminates with the restoration of all things. Our people don’t need bits and pieces of Scripture to provide comfort in crisis. Our people need deep and sturdy understandings of biblical ideas, strong enough to sort through the bewildering landscape of modern life. Many of our heroes in the faith have led their people through verse-by-verse expository study. This approach has borne fruit, but I doubt that it currently addresses the needs of people without a significant biblical-theological framework. Every teaching time is an opportunity to reinforce the grand sweep of the narrative and to point to the redemptive work of Jesus. To be sure, not every sermon will be the same. We simply cannot miss the opportunity to teach the all-encompassing nature of the Scriptural portrait of reality.
- Provoke the moral imagination of God’s people. – God’s people don’t need their church leaders to feed them the answers to today’s difficult questions. The results of this approach are all around us. Approaching ethics top-down has led to imbalance in our witness to the world. For example, we are often capable of crying out against the abortion industry but incapable of addressing real and persistent racism in our communities. We compromise on some issues and justify the compromise on the basis of another issue. This has also given birth to a subtle yet insidious legalism which leaves us suspecting the salvation of anyone who speaks out of step with us on our prized ethical (and often political) issues. How can we forge a better way? We start by following the path of the first task above. God’s people – and the leaders of that people – need to be exposed to the wide range of imperative content in the Bible. The Bible has much to say about the distortion of God’s will in all areas of life – including the economic, the political, the personal, and the sexual. We need all of this material. Moreover, application in our sermons and teaching times should be designed to suggest the multitude of ways in which the Bible gets under our skin and opens up new pathways for our present walk. Don’t tell people what to do. Show them the possibilities of a life lived under God’s rule. Church history has a crucial role to play at this point. Studying the history of the Holy Spirit at work in the church shows us how the Bible has formed and shaped our mothers and fathers in the faith. What did the Bible mean for the early modern city of Geneva? How did the African slave community appropriate the story of the Exodus? How have Christians from other eras persevered in strange political environments? I would advise congregations to consider using Sunday school time or small group meetings to engage in these types of historical study. It might even help to hire a historian-in-residence, equipped to bring case studies before the eyes and minds of God’s saints.
Much more could be said and needs to be said concerning the future of American evangelical discipleship. These brief thoughts have not touched on the necessary subjects of prayer, sacraments, or evangelism. But one last thing must be mentioned. These goals are attainable. We do not need large congregations, big budgets, or advanced degrees to begin digging into the world of corporate Scripture reading and imaginative moral thinking. We do, of course, need willing hearts and ready hands; yet the possibilities lie no further than the Bible on our shelves and the people in our homes. Real ministry and real discipleship do not begin with professional musicians and bounce houses. Those things are great, but they are not the stuff of discipleship. So here’s to the future of American evangelical discipleship – far beyond the dark and troubling days of early November.
Scott Cress is Associate Pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church (EPC) in West Lafayette, IN. In addition to his pastoral work, he serves as a business chaplain and part-time lecturer with Purdue Polytechnic Institute. He is married to Shana, with whom he is raising up two little disciples of Jesus.