You Keep Using That Word
Discipleship. I have been thinking about an essay on discipleship and how it affects our churches. Rob Prince has also been thinking about this as well and published an essay here. Go check it out, but the summation is that failure to engage in making disciples of Jesus is the primary reason that the Church of the Nazarene (COTN) is declining in the United States. The reason that discipleship is important is that strong disciples are not affected by culture, politics, or other ideas. As Rob states: “Christ-like disciples weather a shifting culture, political biases, leadership issues, pandemics and everything else.” I agree, so I wish to go into a discussion about discipleship and why we see a “failure to disciple.”
I want to first state that I agree with Rob that we, both literal and figurative, are failing at making disciples. But I also believe it is because we are struggling to be the authoritative voice on discipleship to the people we encounter in our churches. Here is where things get very complicated. I do not believe this to be a failure of our programs, personalities, personal effort, or even our denominational resources. Rather, this is a systemic failure of Christian culture driven by the outside forces which are involved in the true discipleship of many Christians in the “pews”, as well as some clergy.
A recent Gallup survey illuminates one outside pressure which is the overall perception of the ethical standards of clergy. This is a general poll but it helps us understand the place that clergy stand within cultural perception. From Gallup (with a link to church attendance numbers): “Members of the clergy were first measured by Gallup in 1977 and were frequently among the top-rated professions until 2002, amid a sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. While the clergy’s high/very high ethics ratings recovered to some degree in subsequent years, they fell to 50% in 2009 and have been declining since 2012 as Americans' religious identification and church attendance have also fallen. The latest reading of 34% for members of the clergy is the lowest by two points.” (Gallup)
Another outside pressure which I believe to be exacerbated by the perception of clergy is the things which have more time to disciple people. I was listening to a recent Holy Post podcast in which discipleship came up. It was pointed out that the primary means of discipleship is media consumption. I agree and we can see this in language used both online and in person. Clergy feel overwhelmed by the amount of discipling that goes on outside of their relational sphere. People get discipled by their news sources, especially if those sources are extreme - regardless of the pole. Additionally, online Christian influencers often shape discipleship. When someone can binge hours of TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube clips or long form videos of polished presenters versus the few hours in a week or month most clergy get, those influencers live up to their positional title; they have tremendous influence. It is that influence which I believe holds some sway in clergy perception. When someone hears constant ideologies from news and online influencers that conflicts with the teaching and discipleship of their local church, guess who is seen as the outlier?
Those outside forces are so strong that many clergy get sucked in as well. In some cases it may be to try and use the language of the influencers to attempt a stemming of the loss. For others, those influencers begin to disciple the clergy such that they begin to reject their own doctrinal or theological frameworks. For Wesleyan-Holiness folk, this becomes a very hard tide to go against. There are very few well known Wesleyan-Holiness people who have influence like the more New-Reformed crowd. This partly because Wesleyan-Holines theology is less prone to the extremes that shape excellent soundbites and outrage videos. Our relational approach to Christianity is more fulfilling in the depth, but less flashy than outrage. That is very alluring and drives some online interactions and we begin to accept the language of the influencers such that we lose our own distinctive discipleship language. You can view a recent essay of mine to see how that influences statements made by clergy which conflicts with our theology and doctrine, but sounds good when chaos surrounds us.
Discipleship does not instill things like certitude, in fact, it often calls us to examine our deeply held assumptions. Discipleship calls us to lay down ideology and personal liberty at times, but that is not what culture wants. As the recent edits to the COTN Manual’s opening paragraphs of our Covenant of Christian Conduct states: “God invites us to join in His work of restoration through commitment to wholeness. Thus, our shared conviction is that the Christian life will mean continually ‘putting on’ some things and ‘laying down’ others. Such practices are often sacrificial, and shape us for a life of witness in the world in which we live. These move believers toward ever-increasing Christlikeness, are intentional, and develop over time as people discern and respond to God’s call to participate in Christ.” When we are invited into the work of God as cooperative disciples, we often are confronted to lay down those outside forces which lure us away from the beauty of restorative and relational discipleship.
What are some practical ways clergy can engage and promote discipleship that resists the pulls of outside forces? This is important regardless of your discipleship attendance numbers or percentages. I propose the following:
Form relationships with human beings first and foremost. It is difficult to disciple those whom we do not know unless we get the reach of influencers.
Teach our actual doctrines and be willing to have the hard conversations about why we may differ with other Christians, but that does not make us entirely right or those who disagree as entirely wrong. Our local church engages in classes teaching our Articles of Faith on a regular basis.
Acknowledge the breadth of Christian expression and how your tradition fits within it. Avoid sectarian name calling and othering language.
Invite people to participate in the work of Christ in the world through feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and working for a more equitable society.
Avoid using partisan language of politics when discussing the things of God.
Find ways to explain how Christians will often find themselves feeling opposed to all sides in a political and social debates because of our journey with Jesus.
Pray for wisdom, peace, and for the Holy Spirit to work in those with whom you may reach in discipleship.
If you are clergy, I know you are weary. The last several years have taken a toll on pastors who are trying to be faithful to their call in a hostile culture; even from Christian culture. The news seems very bad and discouraging. But if we remain faithful, we have more opportunity to be a voice of discipleship in an increasing milieu of sectarian angst. Listen to the people you disciple and welcome any questions they may have. Do not fear doubt and misunderstanding but faithfully model the heart of God in your calling. If you are not clergy, pray for your pastors and ministers. Take time to listen and understand their hearts. Ask questions when you don’t understand and be willing to listen when they tell you what the church believes. For all, don’t assume that because someone has a platform that gets thousands or millions of views that they have any true authoritative voice for all of Christianity.
I pray that we can live into our distinctive expressions of Christ’s church and invite people into deep and lasting discipleship. May we be open to the work of the Spirit in the church and not give in to the despair of lost hope. Jesus meant it when he said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church. We need to start acting as if we truly believe that and tell our story without looking to the powers of this world for help. Understand what you mean when you use the word disciple.