Why Evangelicals Are Having a Hard Time Forming Disciples

I recently read James K.A. Smith’s book Imagining the Kingdom and was struck by a section of his chapter on restor(y)ing the world. The chapter argues that Christian worship forms us for mission, and therefore we ought to be formed (sanctified) by the story of Scripture as a counter narrative to the way the world forms us. One of the key pieces of this argument is in his discussion on how specific practices enact the Christian story and shape our imagination and intuition.  In the section that really stood out to me, Smith tackles the age old form/content distinction that Christians have wrestled with since at least the Reformation. He writes:

Here we need to raise a critical, and perhaps uncomfortable, point: form matters—not because of any traditionalism or conservative preservation of the status quo, but precisely because…there is a logic to a practice that is unarticulated but nonetheless has a coherent “sense” about it. Form matters because it is the form of worship that tells the Story (or better, enacts the Story).

Wide swaths of contemporary Christianity have bought into a specious form/content distinction: we have assumed that Christianity is primarily a “message” and is thus defined by a “content” that is distillable from historical forms. Along with this distinction comes the assumption that forms are basically just neutral containers for the message, selected on the basis of taste, preference, or cultural relevance. With that distinction in place (perhaps unwittingly), we then treat the historical, received forms of Christian worship as a kind of disposable husk that can be shucked (and chucked!) as long as we keep the kernel of the gospel “message.” When this distinction and attitude are wedded to our late modern penchant for novelty, we begin to approach Christian worship as an event for disseminating the message and thus look for forms that will be fresh, attractive, relevant, accessible, and so on. In fact, since on this account it is the content/“message” that matters, and since forms are neutral “containers” for the message, we might actually adopt forms that are more familiar and less strange for contemporary “audiences.” For example, we might distill the “message” of the gospel and then place it in a “mall” container, or a “coffee shop” container, or a “rock concert” container, or a “rave” container, or what have you. In doing so we believe that we have in a sense sanctified these forms—taken them up in service of the gospel, all with “missional” intent.

[This distinction and approach] fails to appreciate that we are liturgical animals shaped by practices that work on our cognitive unconscious. And so they also fail to appreciate that these forms are not neutral; the forms of the mall or coffee shop are not just benign containers that can carry any content. These forms are already “aimed and loaded”: they carry their own teleological orientation and come loaded with a complex of rituals and practices that carry a vision of the good life. So while we might think that reconfiguring worship to feel like the mall is a way of making Jesus relevant and accessible, in fact we are unwittingly teaching worshipers and seekers to treat Jesus like any other commodity they encounter in the mall, because the very form of the mall’s (“secular”) liturgy unconsciously trains us to relate to the world as consumers.[1]

I think this argument speaks for itself when it comes to Christian worship. But I think the argument holds true for church fellowship structure and church governance/leadership as well.

If form and content go together in the ways Smith has outlined above, then the way we structure church fellowship says something about the message we are able to proclaim as well. If we divide up families into segmented age groups, if we separate Christians in the church by life stages, and if we create various ministries based on interest groups, then the message the church proclaims cannot be consistent with the gospel. The gospel is the message of the kingdom. In Christ, God reconciles a people for himself. That message transcends class, sex, ethnicity, and status, and it creates a community that runs counter to the normal dividing lines of the world. But this is not the case when we organize the church around consumer interests.

Furthermore, if form and content go together, then the way we lead and govern the church says something about the message we are able to proclaim as well. If a church adopts a corporation structure with a CEO and a board of directors, it doesn’t matter what titles they are given (senior pastor, deacons, elders, etc.). In contrast to this structure and without exception, the New Testament paints a picture of churches modeled after the synagogues where a plurality of elders (heads of households) together lead the church through their teaching. Corporate leadership is imbedded with the values of efficiency, production, image, skill, boasting, control, and power. In contrast, the portrait of leadership given by Paul in both letters to the Corinthians is colored by humility, simplicity, weakness, suffering, and patience. The corporate church growth plan includes adding services (franchises) in multiple locations, utilizing the church brand, and continuing to promote the personality (product) that garnered the growth. In contrast, there is a consistent move toward church planting, raising up new leaders, and contextualizing the ministry to the location where that body meets.

Because so many Evangelical churches have separated form and content, we have unwittingly adopted a secular story. Rather than being shaped by the story of Scripture with its climax in the message of the cross of Jesus Christ, we have adopted the materialistic consumer narrative of our time. This was not our intent. Many were trying to be faithful. But you just cannot take Jesus and his church and throw out the forms he has given us to be faithful. Rather than adopting the narrative of discipleship that calls us to follow Jesus on the road to suffering before glory, we have added Jesus onto our search for glory. It is time that we recover proper ecclesiology so that the rediscovery of the gospel that is taking place in the gospel-centered movement can bear full fruit. Otherwise we will be preaching one thing and embodying another. And that will only make confused and unformed disciples.

[1] James K.A. Smith. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 168-169.