What Happened to Making Disciples?
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 Permission granted for non-commercial use.
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