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.


The Church on Mission

This video came on my radar a few times this week, and so I decided to watch it.  It is a beautiful and inspiring vision of the Church on mission.

Levels of Doctrinal Importance: 4 Tiers

It is vital to the health of any church that its leaders and congregation are able to discern the relative importance of various doctrines.  In other words, if leaders and congregants don’t know which is more dangerous to the local church, a disagreement about alcohol and tattoos or a disagreement about the doctrine of sin, then they are likely to draw lines where they don’t need to be drawn and fail to draw lines when eternal life and death are on the line.  No two Christians believe the exact same thing about every theological and doctrinal issue.  How then can any church remain unified?

In order to have the proper type of unity in the local church, we must 1) acknowledge that there are different levels of doctrinal importance, and 2) know which doctrines fall into the various levels of importance.  Before exploring the various levels of importance, let me explain what I mean when I say that we are to have ‘the proper type of unity’.

Many churches today strive for an ungodly, unbiblical, dangerous, and sinful type of unity.  Those who emphasize conformity to the ethic of the community and tolerance for doctrinal differences in matters central to the faith have a perverted idea of unity.  This error is common among liberals and conservatives.  On the left, liberals emphasize unity around social action and tolerance for those with different beliefs while denying the uniqueness and exclusivity of Christ.  On the right, conservatives emphasize conformity to conservative morality while failing to rigorously hold the line on the doctrine of sin.  This conservative error almost always leads to a legalism that makes sub-cultural norms a standard of faithfulness and spirituality rather than gospel fidelity.

The opposite error of this improper type of unity is dividing at the wrong time over the wrong issues.  This error occurs not because people focus on doctrine too much but because they place too much emphasis on the wrong doctrines.  To avoid this error, we must understand the relative importance of different doctrines.

But how do we know which doctrines are most important?  Does Scripture teach these distinctions?  I believe that I Corinthians 15.1-11 teaches us that we are to see some doctrines as ‘doctrines of first importance’.

I Corinthians 15.1-11:

In this chapter, Paul seeks to correct the Corinthians in their errant doctrine and increasingly licentious living.  His concern is that the Corinthians, although they originally appeared to believe the Gospel he preached to them when he planted the church, do not have saving faith.  Allow me to make some observations in three stages:

First, Paul sought to remind them of the Gospel as a warning that they must hold fast to it if there is to be any benefit to their initial response.

1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,  2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain.

Paul notes that believing the Gospel has two effects.  Those who believe the Gospel stand in salvation and are in the process of being saved.  I think this is shorthand for justification and sanctification.  Through faith in the Gospel, we are declared righteous before God and stand before him innocent and righteous because of Christ.  Through faith in the Gospel, we are in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ.

But, Paul makes clear that these conditions are only true of those who hold fast to the Gospel.  Those who do not hold fast to the Gospel believe in vain.  In other words, there is a type of believing and response to the preaching of the Gospel that does not bear ongoing fruit and thus withers and dies.  I think this is similar to what Jesus talked about in Mark 4 in the parable of the sower and the soils.

Now note that at this point, it is not entirely clear what Paul means by ‘hold fast to the word I preached to you’.  We have to keep reading to be sure we know what he means.  This is where this text begins to address the topic of this post.

Second, Paul argued that the Gospel and the doctrines essential to it are of first importance in the Christian life.

1 Corinthians 15:3a 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…

Paul explained that he had and was passing on to the Corinthians that which is of primary importance in the Christian faith.  The apostles passed on the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13-14), “sound doctrine” (I Tim. 1:10; Tit. 1:9), and “sound instruction” (I Tim. 6:3).  In I Cor. 15.3-8, Paul passes down a set of teachings that has a formulaic ring to it.  It is clearly a set of historical claims tied to a theological message that was held to and delivered to all the churches.  This is the tradition of the apostles: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church argues that there were two bodies of teaching in the early church: tradition and Scripture.  They argue that Scripture has been handed down to us containing many important teachings.  But, they assert additionally that the Roman Catholic Church consists of a succession of leaders who have passed on oral teachings (traditions) that are not covered in Scripture that are equal in authority to Scripture.  Protestants argue (rightly I believe) that the tradition/oral teaching of the apostles was eventually written down in Scripture such that there is now only one authoritative source of instruction.  My last post addressed this issue in more detail.

The key thing that I want to point out here though is that Paul himself thought that there were matters of first importance and matters that ranked below this.  After passing on the Gospel to them in verses 3-11, Paul argues in the rest of the chapter for the proper doctrine of the resurrection.  He fervently argued for the bodily resurrection of Christ and of believers on the last day because he feared that the Corinthians were denying it and thus in danger of ‘believing in vain’.  I will say more on this below.

Third, Paul delivers the plain and simple Gospel.

1 Corinthians 15:3b-11 that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,  4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,  5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Several important things could be mentioned here, but for our sake, one thing stands out:  The Gospel is the message of what Christ did.  The Gospel is not my response to Jesus.  The Gospel is not the effects of believing in Jesus.  The Gospel is the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Notice the key verbs: Christ died, he was buried, he was raised, and he appeared.  So, what’s the point of all of this in relation to the original issue I raised?

The 4 Tiers of Doctrinal Importance:

This passage clearly shows us that the Gospel message and the doctrines essential to it are matters of first importance.  This is why Paul writes with such urgency on the issue of the resurrection.  This is why he warns them that they may not be saved if they don’t persevere in sound doctrine.  This is why he suggests to them later (15.33) that they should kick out those in the church who are denying the bodily resurrection.  It is a serious matter worth dividing the church over!

So, what are the 4 tiers?

  1. Matters of first importance, of heresy versus orthodoxy: The Gospel stands at the center.  Taking the formula that Paul gave, we can see that the doctrine of the Trinity, the person of Christ, the work of Christ (including the atonement and resurrection), and sin are matters of first importance.  These are matters worth defending.  It is appropriate to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine in these areas.  It is right to remove those who deny these doctrines from fellowship.  It is necessary to leave the fellowship of those who embrace error in these areas.
  2. Matters that determine local church practice and ministry:  After the first tier, we have to begin looking at other passages to sort out the rest, but I think the rest are fairly clear.  The second level of doctrinal importance contains many doctrines that are worth arguing about but should not call us to question the salvation of those that disagree with us.  The doctrines concerning church governance, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Table, Scripture, the role of women in leadership, ministry philosophy, conversion, and evangelism are doctrines which a local church needs to have general agreement on in order to minister effectively.  For example, it is impossible for a local church to get anything done if there is disagreement over the truthfulness of Scripture or if no one can agree who has leadership responsibility and final authority.  So, while differences in these areas should not lead us to question one another’s salvation, we might have to agree to exist as different churches.
  3. Matters that we can disagree on while still working together in a local church:  Once we have seen which matters divide Christians from non-Christians and matters which divide Christians necessarily into different churches and denominations, we find that there are many issues that we can disagree on in the local church.  I doubt I can name them all, so I will name a few.  The doctrines dealing with the end times (rapture, tribulation, and millennium) should never be matters of first importance.  We should not make a specific theology of the end times a requirement for membership in a local church.  Similarly, one’s stance on the continuance of the supernatural or miraculous spiritual gifts like tongues and prophecy should not determine whether or not one is included in fellowship in the local church.
  4. Matters of conscience, where Scripture does not bind all but some may need to live a certain way while others live differently:  The last category deals with matters similar to the ones that Paul deals with in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-11.  When Scripture does not give us a command and we must use wisdom, there must be great charity and we must refuse to lay our convictions upon others in any way.  Issues that fall into this category include the consumption of alcohol, tattoos, what movies one is allowed to watch, what language one should use, and who Christians should vote for.

While this post has certainly not answered every question about which doctrines fall into what area, I hope that it has given us some easy guidelines and examples that will help Christians think about when and over what to divide.  Furthermore, the levels I have laid out here (and I am certainly not the first to highlight these distinctions) certainly expose some obvious problems that are prevalent today, namely turning these tiers upside down by attempting to impose our conscience on others and elevating eschatology to first importance while ignoring the central doctrines of the faith.