Saturday, June 14, 2008

Countercultural Discipleship

The following excerpts come from a December 2004 essay by Ken Myers, producer and host of Mars Hill Audio Journal, which exists to assist Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of modern culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement. The essay raises troubling and challenging questions about the meaning of discipleship in a post-Christian culture, and the gaps between the faith we profess with our lips and how we actually live our lives.


If someone was a stranger to Christian belief and asked you to explain what is meant by the “Great Commission,” what would your short answer be? If I were a gambling man, I would bet that the answer of most American Christians would focus on the necessity of evangelism: Christians have a mandate from their Lord to make converts.

Of course, Jesus said no such thing. He said to make disciples, to baptize them, and to teach them to obey everything he ever taught. Obviously the first step to making disciples is to encourage conversion, but the Church has not honored the Great Commission if it has failed to nurture obedient and baptized disciples.

Disciples are those who have accepted certain disciplines. Disciples of Jesus are those who are following him instead of following something else. Far too much contemporary American evangelism encourages people to follow Jesus as a religious explanation for following something else they are already following (self-fulfillment, the American Dream, commitment to family values or social justice, spirituality, etc.). That is not at all what New Testament discipleship looks like.

It’s not even true to the meaning of conversion. My dictionary lists several synonyms for the verb “convert.” Metamorphose. Transform. Transfigure. Transmogrify. Transmute. Alchemical words all, with decisive and substantive changes in view. This list reminds me of an observation in Peter Leithart’s recent book, paradoxically entitled Against Christianity: “To be a Christian means to be refashioned in all of one’s desires, aims, attitudes, actions, from the shallowest to the deepest.”

Leithart’s book is a brief against the assumption that “Christianity” is just a set of doctrinal positions that one is encouraged to take, essentially apart from any particular way of life. “Christianity” is thus an abstraction that may or may not make any difference in the lives of those who assent to it. The New Testament (and the Old), Leithart argues, is not interested in advancing a bare belief system, but in calling into being a new people, the Church. In being called to discipleship, to faith, one is called to more than (but not less than) an inner commitment to certain propositions. …

As long as the Great Commission is understood only as a matter of somehow getting our contemporaries to assent to our message, Christians will be tempted to recast the message in likable, plausible terms. But the more post-Christian our culture becomes (and it is quite far down that path already), the less plausible the message of the Gospel (and the transformation it requires) is likely to be. Stanley Hauerwas has complained that “Christians in modernity thought their task was to make the Gospel intelligible to the world rather than to help the world understand why it could not be intelligible without the Gospel.” This echoes the wonderfully wise counsel of Lesslie Newbigin in Foolishness to the Greeks, a book about how a truly missionary encounter of the Gospel with every culture (including our own) always requires confrontation, a repudiation of those assumptions that are regarded as the wisdom of the age, but which are finally folly. …

That radical work of God in conversion and discipleship is nothing less than the making of a new creation, and to the extent that our cultural lives are extensions of our engagement with creation, the patterns of our cultural conventions require transformation as well. Jesus did not die, rise, and ascend to change something in our hearts and leave it at that, but thereby to change everything.

One way that Christians have escaped the ramified demands of discipleship, especially in the shape of our cultural lives, is to assume that the sphere of Creation and the sphere of Redemption are intrinsically separate. So our salvation is understood as a “spiritual” matter, an inner transformation, while our social and cultural lives can continue to be lived in accordance with the allegedly neutral, value-free, mechanical principles established by economists, sociologists, and other scientific experts. We thereby assume that we can escape worldliness by ignoring the hard questions about economics, art, politics, and technology by concentrating on inward concerns. …

But embracing a faith that is “world-less” is, of course, a recipe for worldliness. It means that we accept the world’s explanation about Creation even as we cling to our message about Redemption, however gnosticized it has become. Many Christians, in fact, seem eager to embrace the world’s understanding of life in the material world if it will serve the cause of evangelism.

In Europe, modern secularism has meant that almost no one goes to Church. Americans have been much more clever about negotiating with modernity. We have maintained market share by allowing our secular assumptions and practices to order the Church’s life. Our understanding of history and tradition, of youth and maturity, of leadership and authority, of beauty and desire, of language and truth, of family and fidelity, of the self and moral order is increasingly conformed to the spirit of the age.

In consequence, the settings for our gathered worship have been transformed from sanctuaries, portals of mysteries and arresting awe, into loud, throbbing Skinner boxes of engineered stimulus and response. The divorce rate among theologically conservative Christians is as high as the rate in the population at large. Christian women suffer from eating disorders to the same extent as do non-Christian women. From my own informal research, it would seem that the prevailing attitudes among Christians toward art and beauty, toward work and the modern ideal of efficiency, toward the ordering of time and the valuing of place, are statistically no different from those of non-believers. …

I realize that these are overstated generalizations, and I will rejoice with you if you insist that none of this is the case in the church you make your home. But I believe that the general pattern of American churches at this time is characterized more by accommodation of the disorders of contemporary culture than by a commitment to be truly counter-cultural communities in all areas of life. …

If you’ve heard me lecture in the past five years, you’ve probably heard me quote James 1:27 as a charter for Christian cultural engagement: “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Paul’s injunction in Romans 12:2 is making the same point: “Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” That will has something to do with cultural life, not just our interior life.

Read it all.

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