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The Challenge of Discipleship In Our Modern World (What Has Changed?)

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If you are in church leadership there is one question that is often on your mind. How do people actually grow in their faith? How do we make disciples?

If you are like me I’m sure you know the pat answers. We’ve heard them all before. I’ve probably even suggested them at some point! Attend church, read the bible and pray more… right? These are all great answers but in reality our growth as followers of Jesus is rarely as simple and uncomplicated as the Sunday School answer.

Lately I’ve been trying to think deeper and reflecting on my own growth. There have been seasons where it feels like I’ve been growing fast and it’s exciting and dynamic, however there have also been seasons where I’ve stopped and questioned whether I’m actually any different than I was a year ago. Maybe you’ve felt the same?

The complexities of measuring our own growth aside, I’m sure you’ll agree this pattern exists and is common.

So I find myself on a quest to learn how people grow, or to make it more personal. How I can grow? I want to understand how we can best disciple people in our 21st century western context. There are unique challenges that affect the times in which we live in, even if we believe the core of being a follower of Jesus is the same as it was 2000 years ago.

All these questions matter because discipleship is at the heart of the mission of the church. We are called to make disciples, so what does that look like in our day?

Dallas Willard famously referred to discipleship as “The Great Omission”*. So perhaps we all have something to learn?

In this post I’m exploring some ways in which our culture has challenged our discipleship.

In future posts I will be sharing some of what I’ve been learning in response to these challenges. But for now on with the challenges – which all just happen to start with C!

  1. Content is Everywhere
  2. Choice Bombards Us
  3. Consumer Thinking
book

1. Content Is Everywhere

We live in an incredible time. The revolution that technology has brought in the past 50 years is reshaping our world. As is oft-repeated the Internet has produced a shift in the way we do life that is comparable to the invention of the printing press.

The Journey So Far

We now take for granted that we can easily get and read books. It seems strange to think that only the best educated and wealthiest had access to all the collective information and knowledge before the printing press. Everyone else was reliant on what they were told.

Similarly the internet has now put every conceivable piece of information, literally at our finger tips. If we wanted to know something we used to have to get hold of a book and read it, or ask someone we knew who was knowledgable in that area. A process that took time. Now we can find out the ideal temperature our water should be to brew the perfect coffee with just a few finger presses or a voice command (It’s 96˚C to save you looking).

These changes have had a far reaching impact and church and faith are not unaffected.

One area that has been dramatically affected is preaching and teaching. Before the printing press and the later printing of the bible in people’s own language, church attenders were dependent on the “expert” minister. They would read the words from God and share them with people on a Sunday, providing their own commentary. If you wanted to learn the bible you had to go to church each Sunday.

Then came the bible for all and gradually people could read for themselves. They could come to their own conclusions and read the verses in context for themselves. They could even get hold of lots of other great teachers work by getting hold of their writings. Suddenly there were many “experts” available from which to get content. However, it still took real effort and books remained something of a luxury for many.

The journey continues. The arrival of the internet and suddenly we find ourselves with the bible on our phones, in 100s of different languages and translations. We have access to every piece of knowledge we could think to search for. On top of that we can choose which teacher or church leader we want to listen to. We don’t have to listen to the local Reverend anymore, we can listen to the best greek scholar, or the famous bible expositor or any major Christian leader on just about any topic in seconds.

People can fact check your use of the Greek as you speak. Before you’ve finished your historical story people have checked whether Wikipedia agrees with your understanding of history.

Content is Everywhere.

The Specific Challenges For Discipleship

This creates unique challenges for discipleship (which wonderfully also start with Cs!).

Competition:

Firstly, if your plan for discipleship hinges on providing content to your flock, you now find yourselves competing with all the other content out there in the world. Every local church pastor finds themselves, perhaps unconsciously, compared to the best orators of our day. That is a recipe for leadership pressure right there! Aside from the new competition to deliver talks well – you can find great content and information freely available on nearly every topic.

Not only are you competing with the best but simply knowing that content is readily available reduces peoples desire to attend something that is purely content driven. After all they can just google it.

Curation:

Secondly, it has never been harder to protect people from unhelpful content. With the sea of content out there, you will find some that is helpful and some unhelpful. Conspiracy theories galore, angry videos that undermine just about any theological position and gross misrepresentation of Jesus and his Church. There are all sorts of agendas which can be harmful. We can’t police these environments and so we need to think differently about how we prepare people to sift through ideas for themselves. We become curators as much as creators. We also need to expect an increased diversity of perspectives within our churches which we need to handle with grace and inclusion.

coffee

2. Choice Bombards Us

Choice in our culture is both a blessing and a curse.

We have never had so many options of… well… just about anything!!

Decision fatigue is a real thing. It is tiring making all these choices. We have just about got used to the 10 different varieties of coffee available at even the smallest cafes these days (Flat White for me). This wasn’t always the way! I lost hours the other day just trying to find a bathroom mirror online. The choice was exhausting!

Barack Obama dressed in the same sort of suit every day, just to reduce the number of decisions he had to make. This meant that he had more capacity and energy for the many many other choices he had to make in a day. Other high capacity leaders do something similar (Think Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs etc.)

Broadly speaking however, I think the choice we now have is a good thing. Many of us, certainly from our privileged Western perspective, have the ability to choose lots of life giving things (like good coffee).

However, all this choice, also makes it easier to make poor choices.

I’m not suggesting that we return to a world without choice, even the perfect Garden of Eden had good and bad choices at the centre.

Life is simply more complex these days. In a world of so much choice, it takes a keen sense of priorities to navigate each day.

When we are helping people grow in their faith, we need to figure out ways to help people make healthy choices. It even begins with the choice to grow and develop in their faith, as opposed to learn Japanese or take up unicycle riding or simply play a regular game of tennis.

Not that any of these choices are bad, it’s just that in a world where we are inundated with choice we perhaps sometimes choose the lesser good.

Over the years I’ve heard many mature believers who choose to play sports, watch TV or take up another outdoor hobby at the precise time in the week where they could be sharing in community with other believers.

I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons for these choices and I’m not the least interested in the guilt trip. I just want to point out that in our culture – the amount of choice we are bombarded with provides a challenge to discipleship in our modern world.

shopping trolley

3. Consumer Thinking

In some ways this is related to the previous challenge.

Everywhere we go we are treated like a consumer. There is a race on for our attention and our time and our money. Advertising and marketing is fired at us all day long, in our social media feeds, in our web browsing, on our commutes to work.

All of this is in the air that we breathe. It trains us to have a Consumer Mindset. We are waiting to be sold to. We are looking for good service. We know we hold the power (do we?) with our purse strings.

We are given so much choice exactly because as consumers we want to get exactly what we are looking for. Part of the reason my online shopping trip for a bathroom mirror took so long was that I had a clear idea in my mind about what I was looking for.

Christians and churches are not immune to this cultural reality.

Not only do we have choices over the kind of coffee we drink, we now have the choice over what church we attend. This global pandemic, forcing every church in the world online has only increased this. It has never been easier to “attend” a church across the globe each Sunday.

Unfortunately this trains people to think about their personal experience as the highest goal. If we’re not happy we’ll just go to the church down the road that sings the songs I like, in the way I like them sung.

Again I’m not saying that diversity is a bad thing. I’d argue the opposite. It’s great to have lots of different expressions of church – it represents the vast tapestry of the global Church.

The issue isn’t peoples tastes and preferences, it’s simply that our culture trains us to put our tastes and preferences above most other criteria.

Our Response?

The starting place in responding to these challenges is simply to take a cold hard look at the culture we are all part of. If we can be aware of these challenges we can think about discipleship in ways that engage people. We can seek to overcome these hurdles and re-design discipleship processes that work. I’m on a journey to learn, try things and re-learn. If you are interested in this topic too then follow along.

If you are interested in a scientific approach to our growth definitely check out my article on the book ‘The God Shaped Brain’ here.

Or I recently finished this fascinating book ‘The Other Half of Church’ on Brain Science and Spiritual formation – read my review here.

What other challenges are you facing as leader or follower of Jesus as you seek to be a disciple? Let me know in the comments or get in touch.

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2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Discipleship In Our Modern World (What Has Changed?)”

  1. Hi son
    I think your comments on a consumer mentality and pursuit of individual goals are increasingly relevant today.
    Embracing them can lead us to lose sight of the fact that we are called to a life of radical discipleship and also one of growing
    interdependence in His Body.
    We can finish up living a Christian ‘lifestyle’ that is more about only individual choice with very little genuine interaction with those who we are meant to journey with.
    Keep on writing…

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