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Theo-tainment versus Discipleship

July 23, 2010
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There is an overwhelming body of research demonstrating a significant disconnect between professing faith in Jesus Christ and actually following Jesus.

In 2005, a survey by the National Study of Youth and Religion ( entitled “Portraits of Protestant Teens” revealed a great deal about the church’s approach to youth ministry and its shortcomings.

The study revealed that 59 percent of Protestant teens (ages 13 to 17) report regular church attendance, meaning they attend church at least one to three times per month while 41 percent of all teens reported regular church attendance. The study participants identified affiliation with nine Protestant denominations—with Southern Baptist being the largest group represented—in which 65 percent of teens reported regular attendance.

Forty-seven percent of Protestant teens reported active involvement in their church’s youth group, compared to 38 percent of all teens. The majority of Protestant teens also reported that they attend Sunday School “a few times a month, participate in youth retreats, rallies, and conferences.”

In all, ninety percent of Protestant teens say they believe in God, compared to 85 percent of all teens; only 12 percent of all teens say they are “unsure about the existence of God.”

Clearly this generation is anything but irreligious; quite the contrary. However, further examination of the research begins to reveal the disconnect I mentioned earlier. According to the study, only 55 percent of Protestant teens believe in life after death—a belief held by 50 percent of all teens, including the nonreligious. In a further contradiction, 69 percent of Protestant teens say they have made “a personal commitment to live for God” and yet only 32 percent read the Bible once a week or more, while 19 percent report having had premarital intercourse in the last year compared to 22 percent of those who are unchurched. Additionally, 63 percent of Protestant teens report cheating in school compared to only 58 percent of all teens and 41 percent say that morals are relative—that “there are no definite rights or wrongs for everybody.”

Sociologist Dr. Christian Smith reported in an earlier, much larger study gleaned from in-depth interviews published in his book, Soul Searching, that “we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might call ‘Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism.’” This of course has very little to do with historic, orthodox Christianity.

These findings are consistent with my own experience as well, as I travel and speak with teens and young adults around the country. Most have little idea why they believe what they believe or how to integrate these beliefs into a coherent view of reality. What they have is a set of generalized beliefs about God, the Bible, morality, and Jesus, but know little or nothing of an incarnational relationship with the risen Christ.

The reasons for this unorthodox view of Christianity and the paradox between professed beliefs and biblical doctrine may be revealed by the teens themselves. More than one-third of Protestant teens say that church “does not make them think about important things” and 51 percent say that church “is not a good place to talk about serious issues.”

The fact is, according to the research, most Americans are or have been actively engaged in a church youth group during their teen years. However, Barna’s tracking of young people showed that “most of them had disengaged from organized religion by their twenties.”

Of course, these conditions are not exclusive to young people. Also according to Barna Research, “Among those adults who attend Protestant churches, only twenty-three percent named their faith in God as their top priority in life.”

The modern idea of church, or ecclesiology, it seems, is that the church exists as a venue to attract the lost through dynamic programs, performances, and events—the more dynamic the better. A pastor friend of mine referred to this as “theo-tainment.” The problem with this approach exclusively is that a disproportionate amount of the church’s time and resources go into these programs at the expense of making disciples and training the body. The result is a church that is the proverbial “mile wide and inch deep.” Yes, the church grows in numbers but rarely in spiritual maturity, and the witness of the church is often diluted and lackluster.

Furthermore, this approach seems to ignore Christ’s final command, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20, NIV). This is the duty and work of every Christian, and should be carried out through our relationships with the lost as we endeavor to guide them into the truth, as well as training up those already in the faith.

Neither is discipleship a “program” or simply catechism in which the church as an institution instructs followers in the doctrines of our religion. Discipleship is an intensely relational activity involving one person led by the Holy Spirit walking alongside another, bringing the truth to bear on their particular context and circumstances. Discipleship is ongoing, demanding, and at times frustrating, as we work together toward the restoration of sinners who bear witness to the life-changing power of Jesus. 

Scripture is full of admonitions on this point. One of the most direct is Romans 12:1–2 which challenges us “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (ESV). This passage speaks to the fact that the resurrection of Christ and our adoption into the family of God demands a whole new way of understanding the cosmos and our situation in the cosmos. Everything relative to our view of reality must change; this new view is to be integrated into every aspect of our new lives and thinking. This is the role and necessity of Christian discipleship in producing this new way of thinking followed by obedience, i.e., presenting the entirety of our being as a living sacrifice.

It is astonishing to note that—despite the ample body of evidence demonstrating the American church’s abject failure to adequately and holistically disciple the faithful into maturity—the leadership in so many of our churches continue to do the same thing, employing the same paradigm that emphasizes programmatic evangelism rather than making disciples. Where are the courageous men and women who will raise their voices in the church to lead our congregations back to truly fulfilling the Great Commission?

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Judy  

July 26, 2010 9:11 AM

You asked where are the people "who will raise their voices in the church to lead our congregations back to truly fulfilling the Great Commission?"
They are largely silenced by the leadership who continues to use the same tactics and programs.

Response from : KSR  

July 26, 2010 1:12 PM

We see believers turning away from deeper body life that isn't "theo-tainment", instead, seeking out places they can hide rather than be nurtured into maturity. I'm not talking about legalistic local expressions, either, but lively, family-centered, worshipping bodies with relationship teachings--"Christ among us the hope of glory." "Theo-tainment" is easier than living stones being fitted together by the Word of God, I guess. There seems to be a reluctance to enter the fullness of church life--like the 2 1/2 tribes that settled for land before the inheritance. This is the other side of the coin from your article's thesis, but still another symptom of weakness in the church. Any thoughts about this, Michael? We appreciate your concern for the Body of Christ and your honest articles.

Response from : L. Brown  

July 27, 2010 10:49 AM

This is an excellent, provocative article. But I disagree with the author's statements about the effective means of disciple making. There is no biblical evidence that Jesus employed the model of an intense, one-on-one walk. Jesus worked thru the group! Furthermore, there is outstanding research which demonstrates that disciples are more effectively made in a small group setting (led by an effective leader) and, as a person progresses in spiritual growth, in two or three deep spiritual friendships. Finally, the article would have been much stronger had the author had the time and space to briefly touch on a biblical description of what a disciple looks like! Thanks for this article....

Response from : Donald E Grondwalski  

July 29, 2010 10:31 AM

I agree with this article. I would like to add that I have also noticed that the foundation of believers (the Church) is weaking due to the need of not teaching sound doctrine but more of what people what to hear and see vs. what they need to hear. If the leaders of the body are not able to state what and why they believe in the faith then how can they teach and mentor the future believes to become disciples. Sound Doctrine must be taught and become part of the believers life, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the Church, not worldly entertainment, but a call to be obediance to God.

Response from : JE Alvarado  

July 30, 2010 6:06 PM

True to words, "mile wide and inch deep" Christianity is very evident in today's world. With the growing popularity of Christianity, more in religious aspect and not relational facet, makes it more difficult for many especially new Christians to really know what and how it is to have a real relationship with Jesus Christ through faith that works. In fact, in a youth group of 10 once asked "who's Christian here?", 7 0r 8 might raise excited hand up. But once further solicited with "how they say so?", mostly will say "Because they attend the church."

In simple terms, many are Christians in "TAG" but "REAL" ones are becoming rare.

However though, this is not an issue of who's in and out of REAL and RELATIONAL Christianity. This is rather an issue of calling unto God to help us correct whatever is wrong that may soon become a TRADITION that could already be altered harldly due to practice and thought that this is the right thing thing to pursue. And ofcourse, those who understand then have to do ways to really fulfill the Great Commission.

Response from : Diane Jensen  

July 31, 2010 2:09 AM

My husnand and I have been reading your columns for years, and have commented before, as well as given financially. Your writing is always inspiring and thought-provoking. However, I am very disappointed that this column is based on research that completely ignores Catholic Christians. We are devout Catholics, and we feel as though you do not feel it necessary that your writing and conclusions take into account the significant Catholic populace. We do not choose to read articles, columns or books by Christians based on whether the writer is Catholic or not. We read what we find to be spiritually relevant and intellectually honest, be it written by a Catholic or a Protestant. The fact that you would base such a thoughtful and insightful response on such a limited frame of reference, that research being done only on Protestants, leaves me quite puzzled. We are loyal readers of yours' and would have been very interested in learning about the Catholic youth as well as the Protestant youth. Please do not ignore your Catholic readers, or leave us out of the discussion. I hope that you will respond in a personal way, and not a generic response. Please give my note some serious thought. You do not wish to alienate your Catholic readers, do you? Thank you.
Diane Jensen

Response from : Jeff  

August 2, 2010 8:42 AM

Michael - Thank you for your insightful articles. They always make me stop and think. I agree that there are many churches that are offering no substance in their teaching, but they are also competing with 500 cable channels, iPhones, text messaging, X-Boxes, etc. There is such a glut of communication for our young people these days that the simple message of Jesus gets lost or forgotten. I am lucky to be part of a church that has found a good mix between sound teaching and some tactics that attract young people. Second, as with all forms of education, much of our learning foundation is set in the home. If mom and dad aren't living out fruitful Christian lives, the kids will be starving on the small amount of teaching that comes from the church. I am going to recommit myself to teaching and living out Christian principles in the home.


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