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What Happened to Discipleship?

August 1, 2011
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There is a growing body of research demonstrating that there is a significant disconnect between professing faith in Jesus Christ and actually following Jesus.

A 2005 study by the National Study of Youth & Religion entitled, Portraits of Protestant Teens revealed a great deal about the contemporary approach to youth ministry and its shortcomings.

The study revealed that 59 percent of Protestant teens (13-17) report regular church attendance, meaning they attend church at least 1-3 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, 90 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 not irreligious, quite the contrary. However, further research begins to reveal this disconnect that 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 non-religious. 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 and 19 percent report having had sexual intercourse in the last year compared to 22 percent of those who are un-churched. 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.” Barna Research further underscores glaring contradictions between the beliefs of most professing teens and accepted biblical doctrines.

Sociologist, Dr. Christian Smith reported in an even earlier, much larger, study gleaned from in-depth interviews, which he 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 that guides their lives in every area. 

The reasons for this unorthodox view of Christianity and the paradox between professed beliefs and biblical doctrine may be given 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.” A Barna survey among 8-to-12-year-olds discovered that only one-third of them said the church has made "a positive difference" in their life and “most of them would rather be popular than to do what is morally right.” 

The fact is, according to research, most Americans have a period of time during their teen years when they are actively engaged in a church youth group. 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. What one pastor friend of mine referred to as “theo-tainment.” The problem with emphasizing this approach exclusively is that a disproportionate amount of the church’s time and resources go into these efforts at the expense of discipleship and training the already saved. The result is the proverbial church that “is a mile wide and inch deep.” Yes, the local church may grow in numbers but rarely in spiritual maturity and the witness of the Church is often rendered 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) This is the duty and work of every Christian that is carried out through our relationships with the lost in which we endeavor to persuade them into the Truth and training up those already in the faith. In both cases, this process never ends this side of eternity. 

Scripture is full of admonitions on this point. One of the most direct in my mind 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.” 

This passage speaks to the fact that the resurrection of Christ and our adoption into the family of God demands a wholly new way of understanding the cosmos and the human situation in the cosmos. EVERYTHING relative to our view of reality must change and this new view must be integrated into every aspect of our lives and thinking. This is the role and necessity of Christian discipleship in producing this new way of thinking accompanied by obedience, i.e., presenting the entirety of our being as a living sacrifice.

Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, multiple studies—revealing a crisis among youth in the church—seemed to appear almost every year and now in 2011, the research still shows no improvement. It is astonishing to note that despite the continued evidence demonstrating the American church’s 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?

© 2011 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Steve and Gaitha Athans  

August 1, 2011 9:06 AM

Thank you again for hitting the nail on the head. Many are interested in finding Salvation and receiving "fire insurance" appears to be the end to the means. This has not changed in the last 25 years here in the US. Which as you aptly point out in you articles people are more interested in the "nameplate" rather than the lifestyle. I am reminded of an Early song from the acapella group GLAD from the mid-80's called A Beautiful Love Song.

A Beautiful Love Song

Something is happening and everyone knows, it's not meant to be.
People are coming like never before just to listen to me
Now I'm not the one who can judge them
a man only knows what he sees
They applaud what I say then they do whatever they please.

You're just a beautiful love song in the night
Nobody wants you to tell them wrong from right
They just come to hear me play
It doesn't matter what I say
You're just a beautiful love song in the night

Filled with emotion and tears in their eyes, they recite every word
Love one another as much as yourself, but has anyone heard?
Giving their lives for their money, and leaving their friendships behind
everyone plays the charade, but they don't seem to mind

You're just a beautiful love song in the night
Nobody wants you to tell them wrong from right
They just come to hear me play
It doesn't matter what I say
You're just a beautiful love song in the night

I tell them their hearts are rebellious,
They're running away like a child
All of them hear what they want, and they leave with a smile.

You're just a beautiful love song in the night
Nobody wants you to tell them wrong from right
They just come to hear me play
It doesn't matter what I say
You're just a beautiful love song in the night

Something is happening and everyone knows...

Words and music by Bob Kauflin, c. 1982

Response from : Greg Williams  

August 1, 2011 4:03 PM

Awesome article and passing it on as I've been sharing this type of thought with church members, pastors, friends, anyone who is willing to listen over the past 10+ years with mostly head nods and yawns!

BTW - have you heard of or read Ken Ham's book, Already Gone, addressing the same issue as the studies you're quoting but simply showing, in an excellent study, that most of the youth are already 'checked out' by late middle school/early high school and are just going through the motions in later high school and college, if at all!

Thanks again and I look forward to hearing more on the first Truth@Work roundtable as we're prayerfully talking and thinking through some similar things in our area!

Praying for you and have a great day in the Lord! God bless in Christ!


Response from : Jae Charles  

August 2, 2011 6:59 AM

As I read this article, I find tears in my eyes and my heart is heavy over the truth of this article and, I believe, is the grieving of the Holy Spirit over this sad, sad reality.
Where do we begin? The problem is greater than we suspect and is not linear with a definitive starting and stopping point but rather circular in nature in that although it involves young people, it is propegated with the undisciplined, undicipled older generation who have not sought Discipleship and have not been weaned off of milk theirself.
Romans 12:1 has been a long time favorite verse, the words "reasonable service" used in the King James translation reminds me that obedience is better than sacrifice - and how many are to the point of sacrifice let alone obedience? But there is more! I believe this obedience is not out of duty, but out of humility, love and discipline!
Allow me to explain... I too was caught up in the, what I like to refer as the "religious corporate duty", much similar to a civic duty, to attend church, be diligent to learn and serve and to grow on knowledge. I was attending church up to 5 times a week, but deep down my spirit was searching for peace. The knowledge I was acquiring was head knowledge, which is good but it is not heart knowledge - Wisdom, knowledge that A.W. Tozer referred to as either Bible taught vs.Holy Spirit taught, which is what I needed.
Thank God that He sought me and chased me, not unlike C.S. Lewis's referral of being snared in a net.
God knew I needed a new heart - a conversion, a transplant - like Paul in that the Love of God allowed me to see with the eyes of my heart and truly know my own wretchedness and my absolute dependence on Christ! Humility comes when you realize who we really are: filthy rags; and not who we think we are.

I am nothing without Him but His Awesome love is everything and forgave a wretch: me! This love reaches to my inner being that makes me feel like a child being comforted by his father. This allows me to be filled with joy and to go forth doing all things through Christ Who strengthens me! His love is beyond comprehension, it makes me giddy and He gives me a desire for others to realize this!
But this realization has to be fought for with Desire and discipline as the enemy seeks to destroy this new found joy
We must be trained to fight the good fight using Romans 12:2, tearing down strongholds and using the word of God. This is Discipleship.
Can you imagine going to marine basic training and the drill instructors are weak and not rooted and grounded in military basics? No one would become a marine. This applies to us as well, too few are disciples, trained, disciplined; instead we encounter those who say they are "Christian" and yet Christ never used the word but used Disciple. (Discipline). The word, "Christian" is more of an adjective than a noun. A Christian book, a Christian movie, a Christian home. But when I refer to myself, let me not say I am a Christian (adjective), but let me say I am a Disciple. Rooted and grounded in the word, in love, in humility, in obedience and in discipline. Working out my own salvation in fear and trembling.I submit myself as a servant to the Holy Spirit to do God's will, for no man can draw another, but it is God Who calls.
When the young people start seeing the love of God that is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, then will Discipleship take place and we can know that we are fulfilling Christ's great commission by first checking our hearts every minute of the day culminating in our nightly prayers referencing Romans 12:1-2.
I know that there is zeal that is often found in the body to bring the Gospel to the secular world, but I believe much harm can be brought by not pursing God with one's heart: harm that we now see evident in the studies that Michael has referenced. This harm comes from knowledge without wisdom, care without compassion, principles without understanding, intent without desire.
It is my heart's prayer that the body would order God's commands in the proper order, no one has any business trying to fulfill the great commission when they have not submitted their bodies in Holiness as their reasonable service. A.W. Tozer said, listen to no man who has first not listened to God.
Perhaps we should not be asking where are the courageous men and women who will raise their voices in the church to lead the congregations to fulfill the great commission, but rather: WHO are the men and women that will raise their voices to lead the congregations to fulfill the great commission.
Alas tears continue to fill my eyes ;my heart is still heavy as my prayer to our Father God in Heaven is to help us to become the WHO. Amen.

Response from : KJQ  

August 2, 2011 8:51 AM

Another excellent article, Michael. You've heard me say it before and I'm still 'beating the same drum': It's the father's responsibility to teach his wife and children the Word of God. Yes, sitting under sound preaching is important too (especially for him), but it is his role to lead his family in spiritual matters. The shema doesn't leave any room for doubt on this. I won't go into details on the form, as we can all turn practices into meaningless traditions as well (just look at the taking the shema literally and binding phylacteries on the arms and foreheads - thus entire missing God's meaning). Family worship and spending both quantity and quality time with our families gives us many 'teaching moments'. The gist is that God is to be a part of every moment of our lives, not a few hours on Sundays. Sound church leadership is needed too. Our pastor preaches uses expository preaching of the bible one book at a time (2-3 years each) in our morning service, and the Westminster Standards in the afternoon service (check our our church web site). His sermons run 45-60 minutes each. This is just one aspect of discipleship. Our elders also each have monthly visits with each family as we all struggle in various aspects of our sanctification. Men - stop looking for some 'program' and start leading your families; and make sure you attend a church that will feed your spirit and not your flesh.

Response from : Kirk Sexton  

August 10, 2011 3:35 PM

Unfortunately, much of the curriculums I see (even from respected providers) reinforce this idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. We need to be sure that what we teach and preach embodies the four spiritual laws:

Response from : Roger  

August 10, 2011 6:05 PM

EXCELLENT!!!!! I agree! Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is to: 1) Deny yourself, 2) Take up your cross, and 3) Follow Me. The two basic choices are God or sin; and most people, professing or not, choose sin. The Church is repeating the history of Israel; but there is always a remnant that truly want to live for God and not for sin. Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. We will look forward to seeing the face of Jesus Christ, after we have lived for Him!

Response from : Tim Childs  

August 20, 2011 3:50 PM

This is a really good article! What I think we are getting at, is the difference between religion and Christianity; the two are not necessarily the same things!Many people around the world, living in nominally Christian countries, communities or families, or an admixture of any those, perhaps are more in tune with a religious spirit or compulsion rather than being simply Christians. Never having grown up in any kind of religious family or community, but coming from England, I think that in some cases, the same could be said of England that is said of America, namely that people can be religious, but not necessarily Christians! There is a fine line, but it can be found! Check out my link to my blog, and then see the 'Important Difference' link on it for a discussion on the difference between religion and Christianity. Cheers!


Response from : Tim Childs  

August 27, 2011 10:12 AM

Hi Mike, one the reasons I view your blog more than others is that you can leave a comment without having a 'facebook' account! I suggest that all official bloggers on also allow people to leave comments on their blogs as can be done on your blog! Cheers!


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