Episode 6: Discipleship

Description:

TSR talks de-conversion and what role the church and individuals play in Christian discipleship. Come join The Socially Remote!

Summary:

In this episode, we discuss some recent de-conversion stories and use them as a springboard to explore both the corporate and individual responsibilities regarding Christian discipleship. We conclude that, corporately, the church needs to be focusing on faithfully teaching theology and creating spaces for believers to wrestle with questions and pursue community. Individuals need to take spiritual maturity seriously by focusing on learning sound doctrine and pursuing godly community that is not relegated to a couple hours per week.

The Podcast:

Introduction

We received our first email at hello@thesociallyremote.com (spoiler alert: it was spam). We also discovered that we have a global listener base, with listeners in Czechia and in a suburb of Paris. Finally (after much witty banter), we introduce this week’s topic. Using last week’s discussion of Steven’s book, The Relational God, as a springboard, we further explore the idea of discipleship being at the root of discipline.


Sneak Peek

Introduction

The final words in the Gospel of Matthew are:

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20

The Christian life is a radical call to die to yourself and live with a focus towards building the kingdom. If we as the church only see our job as bringing in converts and growing our numbers, then we haven’t really understood or lived out our calling as followers of Christ.

Some Stats

To get this conversation started, Matt compiled some stats from the Barna Group that help illustrate the need for discipleship.

  • Three Identifiers:
    • Practicing Christians: individuals who self-identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives, and who have attended church within the past month.
    • Non-practicing Christians: individuals who self-identify as Christians, but who do not attend church at least once per month.
    • Non-Christians: U.S. adults who do not identify as Christian. 
  • Trends:
    • Church Attendance:
      • In 2000, 45% of all those sampled qualified as “practicing Christians.” That share has consistently declined over the last 19 years. Now, just one in four Americans (25%) is a “practicing Christian.” In essence, the share of practicing Christians has nearly dropped in half since 2000.
      • In the early 1990s, weekly church attendance was roughly 43% of the American population. Today, that number is 29%. That’s roughly a 1/3 decline. To the surprise of some, these declines in church attendance took place among Elders (14 percentage points) and Boomers (13 percentage points), especially after 2012. That’s remarkable considering it’s a common assumption that people become more religiously active as they age. At this point, Steven recommended Michelle Van Loon’s book Becoming Sage.
  • Bible Reading: 
    • In 1993, 34% of Americans said they read the Bible in the last seven days.
    • That number reached a peak in 2010 at 46%.
    • Today, 35% of Americans say they read the Bible in that same weekly period.  

The Christian calling is to lifelong discipleship and obedience to Jesus, so why do some seemingly faithful Christians (not just in America but elsewhere) “fall away” from their previously held beliefs? Is the church somehow to blame for this mass exodus of its members? If so, what can the Church do to to help counter this trend? 


For the Counselors

Matt

This is a complex topic, and it’s been ongoing since the establishment of the very first churches (which is why the author of Hebrews talks about not drifting away – see Hebrews 2:1). He feels like the New Testament needs to be the first place we look when considering the topic of discipleship.

Steven

Steven thinks a lot about this issue from the perspective of being a Sunday school teacher. What he wrestles with in particular is what makes church different from some other form of social club. He wants to know that individuals in the church feel both supported and like they have a place to utilize their gifts.

David

As the pastor for young couples at our church, it’s something he thinks a lot about and hopes it’s something the church can improve in preventing. He’s particularly concerned about the church losing college grads during that season between when they graduate and when they have families and decide to return to the church.


Deep Dive

Deconversion and Discipleship

David read the deconstruction/deconversion posts of three individuals who have walked away from the faith in recent years.

These posts are all from prominent Christian figures, and the questions and objections they raise are not easy questions, but they are questions which the church has been writing about and struggling with for centuries. In some regard, these individuals may have been too big in the evangelical Christian subculture to publicize their questions and doubts. And, in the same vein, we fear they may not have been given space to question and wrestle with their faith (either in the home – if they grew up in church – or in the church if they were being discipled).

One question we have to wrestle with is, “Have we actually created some of this problem?” In other words, have we thrust individuals into the spotlight in the evangelical subculture in order to satisfy an unbiblical consumerism? Even if not, how do we disciple and create space for Christians in the public eye to be discipled? And, more generally, how do we as a church effectively disciple new believers in a way that allows them to wrestle with hard questions?

Discipleship in the 21st Century

Discipleship is both a corporate and individual responsibility. From a corporate perspective, we need to have a plan and a path to take new believers into deeper waters. The church’s role is spelled out in 1 Corinthians 5:17-18:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation

1 Corinthians 5:17-18

The church, then, should be partnering with God as He reconciles all things to Himself, and this partnership is a lifelong process.

So What Leads to De-Conversion?

In a September 2019 article from the Gospel Coalition titled “A Common Denominator in De-Conversions,” Caleb Wait outlines that in many de-conversion stories, the community is accentuated over doctrine. Such a finding may seem surprising at first, particularly when we consider that Christians are often stereotyped as stodgy rule-followers; however, Christ is at the foundation of that doctrine, and it is upon Him and Him alone that we have genuine community. If our faith is based off of anything else, it will fade and eventually pass. Peter spends most of 1 Peter driving this point home, but it is perhaps clearest in this passage:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:6-9

Discipleship As Growing up in the Lord

This metaphor of being a child in Scripture runs right over into what it means to grow up spiritually. In his book, Steven builds off of 1 John 2:12-14 to discuss different levels of spiritual maturity:

I am writing to you, little children,
    because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
I am writing to you, fathers,
    because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
    because you have overcome the evil one.
I write to you, children,
    because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
    because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
    because you are strong,
    and the word of God abides in you,
    and you have overcome the evil one.

1 John 2:12-14

Little children represent spiritual infants. Children represent young Christians who may still need some milk. They need to be discipled to begin growing in the Lord. Young men and women are beginning to stand on their own and fight their own spiritual battles. And Fathers have spiritually reproduced and know the Father.

Hebrews 12:3-11 uses the word paideuo for “discipline.” The word, though, has the connotation of discipleship–being drawn closer to God. However, in Hebrews 5:14, the “mature” believer is said to have been “trained.” The word for “trained” is gymnazio, and it has the connotation of someone with the ability to self-instruct. When discipline (paideuo) becomes self-discipline (gymnazio), maturity is taking place. Spiritual young men and women in the above verses, then, have internalized the discipline by abiding in the Word of God. Chapter 3 of The Relational God teases this out in a little more depth. The first three chapters of the book are posted below courtesy of Tusitala Publishers.

Churches and Discipleship

So many churches are content with just getting converts, and, too often, churches either take those converts and put them in serving roles too soon, or they’re just so glad to have people in their pews that they fail to utilize them or help them grow. When that happens, the church is failing at living out Ephesians 4:12-16:

12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:12-16

Part of the “equipping” mentioned in the above passage is providing space for individuals to build community and ask hard questions, and the church should also be “equipping” by teaching theology:

and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.

2 Timothy 2:2

Individuals and Discipleship

We cannot forget, however, that the church is made up of individuals. That means we should be teaching, pursuing teaching, asking hard questions, listening to hard questions, pursuing community, and being open to new friendships.

We as individuals need to be discipled. Most of us, because of where we work or go to school, live in a “sea of relativity” six days per week (see episode 4), and we have an unrealistic expectation of the church if we believe it should be able to combat 6 days of living “in the world” through a one-hour service every Sunday morning. It just can’t happen (and believing it can means we have a primarily consumeristic attitude toward the church and spiritual growth). To compound that problem, our society is highly individualistic, so we often think we can live the Christian life without help from our community, and that is not biblical either. We need to intentionally seek out Christian community (beyond the few hours we have together on Sunday morning), so that by sharing life with one another, we can help each other grow in the faith.


Parting Shots

Steven

Four shots:

  1. I’m not sure we actually solved anything, but I would encourage people to look into spiritual gifts so that they can try to determine how to serve their community. Pursuing discipleship is both an individual and communal repsonsibility.
  2. There are actually anti-de-conversion testimonies, but those don’t get a lot of play. You can read one from my friend Dustin Manwaring called “Remain.”
  3. I want to mention Michelle Van Loon’s book Becoming Sage again, because it contains a lot of good thinking about how to engage with those in mid-life.
  4. Finally, I want to thank three men who really took time to disciple me and who gave me space to ask tough questions: Trenton Stokes, Sammy “Jumping” Jones, and Don Woodward.

David

This is not a new issue by any stretch of the imagination. It was even happening in John’s time, because he writes:

19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

1 John 2:19

We need to preach all of Scripture, talk about the hard stuff, and go through entire books at a time so we’re forced to encounter and interact with those difficult passages. Then folks will see us wrestling with it and won’t be afraid to ask questions as well. On an individual level, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re struggling or doubting, it would be so much better to talk about it than to bottle it up and then one day walk away. To that end, if you do have questions and you don’t know who you can ask, please don’t hesitate to email us at hello@thesociallyremote.com.

Matt

First, a lot of the questions being raised are common questions. If you’re reading a de-conversion story, don’t be afraid to dig in and look for the response. Christianity has a response to all the questions that are raised against it. Second, we really need to focus on going beyond conversion. The gospel is more than fire insurance and it’s more than an individual spiritual journey. The gospel is good news for the world. Finally, we don’t know anyone’s hearts, and if any of our comments come off as having judged their hearts, that was not our intent. If you’re wrestling with similar questions, you should feel confident to go to mature Christians and raise these issues.


Conclusion

Join us on the next episode to try to chart a path forward on how to disciple well. Additionally, see the free resource below.


Links and Stuff

The Podcast

Thanks for reading about this episode, and don’t forget to listen on:

Check out our website, TheSociallyRemote.com, for all the current happenings. And join us on our next episode, where we’ll discuss discipleship.

About The Socially Remote

Does it ever seem like the longer you adult, the less social you become? The responsibilities of being a spouse, a parent, and an employee often leave us with little time for meaningful interaction outside our home and office. As a result, many of us aren’t even remotely social. We try to fill the void with outlets like Facebook and Twitter, but we soon discover social media isn’t as social as it sounds. And the effort we put into soliciting likes and comments doesn’t produce stronger relationships with other people like we’d hoped.

This podcast is an attempt by a pastor, a lawyer, and a generalist to combat the growing culture of social isolation by making time for meaningful conversations about life, theology, and the church. We want to create space in our lives to engage in regular discussion and debate with those around us, and we hope this podcast will encourage you to do the same.

So join Matt, David, and Steven as we take a deep dive on the issues that matter to us and try to put real conversation back in its rightful place.

We are The Socially Remote.

Learn More and Reach Out

If you want to know more about the hosts, check out their bios and links to outside work, here.

Got a show idea or feedback? Contact us at hello@thesociallyremote.com

For the Lawyers

Legal Disclaimer: The views expressed on this podcast belong solely to the individuals expressing them and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and opinions of their respective employers.

Deep Dive segment introduction from “Dive” by Steven Curtis Chapman on the Speechless album. Used with permission courtesy of the Stable Collective.

About the Author
Steven Halbert is a husband, father, son, and brother. He has held various roles in children and family service organizations and currently works as a product manager for an industrial manufacturer. He enjoys teaching adult Sunday school, which is where the idea for his book - The Relational God - materialized. He has an associate degree in Bible and a master's degree in English; and he blogs about business, relationships, and the church at stevenhalbert.com

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