Making disciples is a new game these days

Jesus told his followers to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), and for two millennia they did just that, and now about a third of the world follows Jesus, nominally at least. But it’s getting much harder to make disciples in western societies these days, and it is becoming more common for apparently strong disciples to turn away from following Jesus.

I think this is a crucial matter, and I want to devote a number of posts to it. Today, I just want to scope the problem.

The world has changed ….

Statistics show that most people are converted to christianity as children, in their teens or in their early twenties. But the world these converts are growing up into is very different than the one their parents knew. For example:

  • They are way better connected to each other and the world, via mobile phones, Facebook and Google than their parents ever were. Much of their connections may be trivial, but they know how to get all sorts of information in an instant, and they can view not just printed material but vivid graphics of music and films, porn and death, speakers and fanatics on all sorts of topics.
  • They have mostly been brought up by our western culture, the media and their education to believe in science and technology and to be accepting of practices their parents may never have contemplated. Hence they may well accept without much question evolution as fact, and reproductive technology, same-sex relationships, pre-marital sex and abortion as normal and good.
  • They are equally likely to have absorbed a relativistic view of religious pluralism and tolerance, and feel uncomfortable with christian exclusivism. They may well also have seen documentary TV programs that question the historicity of much that christians believe.
  • Disbelief and atheism have moved from being fringe beliefs to being strident and evangelistic, using tactics that are often as strong on emotional impacts as on facts. Young christians are far more likely to encounter arguments against their belief than previously.
  • Our western societies have become part of a large global economic village, and individuals, even national governments, may have little control over many of the pressures that affect their economic state – they may be victims of retrenchment, they may struggle to afford a house, they may need to work long or odd hours. This puts pressure on the next generation to succeed at school, to undertake multiple courses of tertiary study and to have a well-paid, successful and secure career.

You may not like all these changes, but it is important that we understand them, and prepare disciples for them.

…. but have christians adapted?

Many of our evangelistic, teaching and discipleship approaches seem to ignore these changes or treat them inadequately.

  • Some statements about the world, science and life made by preachers can seem laughable and irrelevant to teens brought up in this brave new world. They can easily lose respect.
  • The Bible isn’t a simple book, and some parts of it, especially parts of the Old Testament, with commands and laws that seem to reflect long gone culture and values (at best) or immoral standards (at worst) are being questioned and criticised by sceptics. Apparent errors are being gleefully pointed out. A response by christians that says to simply believe will no longer cut it with many young converts.
  • In particular, students brought up to trust science, but told to believe Genesis is historical, will feel a real disconnect that they may never recover from.
  • Christian exclusivism and ethical beliefs about sex and sexuality are often expressed in insensitive and even hateful ways. This is another response that many teens will react against.
  • Much preaching and teaching is theoretical and seems unrelated to real life, and disciples often receive little training and mentoring from people living life out in the world. In particular, churches and youth groups generally provide little to assist people to strengthen their reasons to believe.

These are just a few examples. But the result, for whatever reason, is that many young converts don’t last. I have spent a lot of time over the past 6 years discussing faith and unbelief with atheists, and many of them say they were brought up as believers, and these and other factors led to their deconversion.

The take home message

If we want to be successful in making disciples that last, we will need to do better at presenting our message and in preparing disciples to be able to stand against attacks on their faith. That will involve prayer, apprenticing, training and much more focussed teaching. And that will require churches and christian leaders to sharpen up their own understanding and be willing to make changes.

I have been pondering these matters for some time, and I hope to offer some definite and helpful suggestions.

Read the whole series

This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.

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  1. It’s crystal clear that excessive accommodation is harmful to a church (rational choice model), but I think you’re right that a general association with obnoxiousness is more harmful to the churches right now. These articles are related to it all (one is nothing short of horrid):

  2. Those are interesting references thanks, and the last one is indeed problematic. I was brought up with corporal punishment of a moderate kind, and I never felt too hard done by. But since I became a parent I felt that the worst effects of moderate corporal punishment are on the parents and I changed my views. And of course sometimes it has terrible effects on the children. I think there may be some occasions when a mild form is justified, but I am mostly a pacifist on these and other matters now.
    I don’t see this as a matter of accommodation but of communication. We too often think that what we say is most important, when it is (a) what other people hear, and (b) what we do. That’s the subject of another post!

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