“We don’t need more Christians,” or “The Christian Bubble”

bubble“What a lot of us are saying in our private discussions is that we don’t need more Christians.”

A prominent theologian and leader in the evangelical world said that to me recently, and it took me by surprise. He went on to explain a scenario that sounded like several of the other “bubbles” we’ve seen recently.

Remember the dot-com bubble? Or the real estate bubble? In both cases, things got artificially inflated beyond a level of sustainability, and then they burst with a messy splat all over the people holding them. A bubble can go on growing for a while, but ultimately, every bubble is doomed to burst.

This Christian leader was telling me that American Christianity has blown up one of those bubbles, and we’re due for a pretty messy bubble-bursting at some point in the near future.

How we ended up with a bubble

The great Christian movement is a result of discipleship. Jesus called disciples. Then he sent his disciples to “make disciples.” Those disciples made more disciples, and on and on. Discipleship is the lifeblood of the church. [1]

As this Christian leader pointed out to me, the primary location for discipleship throughout history has been the home (see “The Best Children’s Ministry in Town“). And when not in the home, in another setting of intimate, mentoring relationships–à la Jesus with his disciples.

And so, in American Christianity–where providing more activities and drawing large crowds have clearly taken precedence over intimate discipleship–we run into a problem:

Essentially, we have a large number of professing Christians, but very few disciples, few leaders, few who see themselves as pastors, or have any expectation of becoming pastors.

In a culture where “church” is more often associated with attending and “shopping” than serious, intimate discipleship, we largely see ministry as something done by a few (e.g. those on stage or those hired to do it) for the masses to consume.

When the ratio of serious disciples to mere attenders gets this far out of balance, you end up with something unsustainable. There simply aren’t enough equipped Christian disciples and pastors who are able to transfer the faith to the next generation. That bubble can keep growing for a while, but eventually it will burst. If you’ve seen some of the shocking statistics about how few youth and young adults are active in the Church today, you know that we may now be seeing signs of collapse. If you see the even more staggering statistics about how much of the church’s giving today is coming from those ages 55 and over, it will show you just how quickly a collapse could come.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this brilliantly in Discipleship [affiliate link--I highly recommend this new translation]. You should read at least the first chapter on “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He wrote that in 1937 in Germany. Seventy-five years later, we can look at German Christianity and see the steep decline he expected.

Leaders dealing with the bubble

If you’re a leader of a congregation that has been around longer than you, there’s a decent chance you came into leadership of a congregation that has a lot of Christians, but not a lot of disciples. Your congregation might look a lot like that bubble.

If that’s the case, what do you do? If you devote most of your time to personally discipling a few leaders, will the rest jump ship because they’re not receiving what they want (enough interesting programs and variety; a well-crafted, entertaining weekend event…)?

For anyone living in a bubble, there’s a great fear that we must keep the bubble going. It can’t burst on our watch, or we’ll take a lot of the blame.

And how do you keep a bubble going?

The going wisdom would be to keep doing what created the bubble in the first place… and hope to get out before it bursts. There are surely American pastors right now looking at the financial numbers and wondering whether they’ll have reached retirement before the financial bottom falls out.

The courageous thing to do–the risky thing to do–the most promising thing to do for the sake of the Christian movement–is to invest in the substance that will allow long-term growth. Invest in genuine, intimate discipleship. As much as possible.

That’s courageous because it will come with a cost. You’ll almost surely have to shift your focus from some of the fluffy and flashy options that the bubble-people like.

That makes it risky. It’s likely to lead to a short-term loss in numbers, and in money. It starts slower. Intimate, dedicated discipleship takes time. And it makes high demands of people. Demands that are likely to scare a lot of them away. Remember Jesus asking his disciples, “You do not want to leave too, do you?”

But this investment is the most promising. Attractive, flashy, and fluffy can draw big, excited crowds. For decades even. And it’s not just fluffy that works. People can come and get good, deep substance, but if we don’t require anything more from them, the masses generally won’t go further than to listen and enjoy the good, deep substance. None of that transfers. It creates a bubble, then keeps trying to sustain it until the pop. But if you invest in the discipleship of a few, you invest in a few who can (and are expected to) transfer that faith to a few more, who go to a few more, then a few more. You won’t amaze anyone with the mega-church you build in five years’ time. But the movement that comes out of it–the number of genuine Christian pastors and apostles who come down from that lineage–can be staggering.

Was the Christian leader I mentioned at the start saying that we shouldn’t evangelize? Not at all! He’s quite an advocate for evangelism. What he was saying is that we need to be converting people into real, legitimate disciples. And we already have a huge number of un-discipled Christians on our hands. We need to be converting the pagans and the Christians, alike. Just getting people to say they’re Christian doesn’t cut it, and we’re about to start feeling that.

Notes

[1] Hear these statements as penultimate. Ultimately, and without question, the great Christian movement is a result of God’s love in Christ, and the Holy Spirit is the lifeblood of the Church.

Slevin Kalevra says:

What if someone does not feel like being a disciple because every body knows about Jesus and are aware of their sins. Some people don’t like being reminded of past mistakes.

Harold says:

I wonder if some of this has to do with the pervasiveness of what one might call “transactional” Christianity. By that I mean one’s spiritual status is measured by a definite moment of conversion which becomes the sole criterion for determining one’s condition. So, having said “the prayer”, what else is there? Discipleship then sounds like a work, something one does to increase one’s standing in God’s books.

Within a Wesleyan paradigm, this should not present a problem since we have, I believe, a coherent way of integrating the work of grace with human response. We should not be afraid of admitting the necessity of being active participants in out own spiritual growth and sanctification. God still gives the growth but we are not passively grown. I think some Christians have grown gun-shy of talking about spiritual growth for fear of the charge of works righteousness or detracting from the finished work of Christ or something along those lines.

Lauren Wilson says:

Hi Teddy. 7:40-14:50 of this address seemed relevant to your thoughts here….I don’t agree with some of how Christine presents women and the gift of motherhood throughout but she does make some piercing points nonetheless. Speaking of the ‘baton of faith’ she says “The gift that is on you will destroy you if what is in you cannot sustain you.”

jwlung says:

Miles wide, inches deep. No catechesis. No inititiation. Churches filled to the brim with oxymoronic unconverted christians.

How many Pastors, co-called, truncate the baptismal or communion liturgies?