Achieving poorly-defined goals in an imaginary world

Discipling is supposed to save evangelicals from their decline. But pastors don't actually know how to do it.

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Discipling is supposed to save evangelicalism from decline. It’s supposed to create lifelong Christians who go on to recruit and train other lifelong Christians. And yet, a recent Lifeway survey reveals that many evangelical leaders don’t know what discipling actually looks like in practice, much less how to disciple. Here, we have another active case of yes yes, but what does it look like? And I am here for it because it reveals so much of what’s wrong with Christianity as a whole.

A new Lifeway survey highlights discipling

Before we begin this section, a gentle warning: don’t ever take any evangelical-run or -designed survey at face value. Evangelical research is designed to sell stuff to evangelicals, not uncover factual information. However, it can still tell us what’s on evangelical leaders’ minds. These surveys reveal their greatest fears, hates, hopes, and strategies. In this way, they’re like the list of questions in The Russia House. It’s the questions themselves that matter, not so much the answers to them. As for the answers, they can show us how evangelicals would handle the questions in their imaginary world, not how they really will (or even if they ever really will).

With these truths in mind, let’s tackle Lifeway’s newest survey, “The Greatest Needs of Pastors: Skill Development.” You can find the PDF of their writeup here. They’ve written a takeaway post about it as well.

For this survey, Lifeway asked 1000 Protestant pastors what skills they think they most need to develop to keep their churches alive and growing. Well, first they asked 200 pastors that. They got 44 key skill needs from them. Then, they surveyed the 1000 with questions regarding those skills in particular.

Lifeway asked, “What skills do pastors say are important for them to continue investing in so they can improve in their role?” And 63% of respondents named “disciple making.” “Technology” placed second at 50%.

In addition, “disciple making” came in first on the list of skills pastors felt they themselves most needed to invest in, with 28% selecting that one. (Technology came in second again, this time at 19%.) Leadership reached 4th place, at 10%, and preaching came in dead last at 5%. In the writeup PDF (relink), we see that pastors with less training and education prioritized disciple-making more often, as did Southern pastors and more fundamentalist evangelicals.

(Yes, it’s quite peculiar that Lifeway focused on Protestant pastors, not specifically evangelical ones–or more specifically, SBC ones. But they seem to aim their products at Protestants in general.)

Christianese 101: Discipling

In Christianese, discipling is the process of teaching newbie Christians how to Jesus correctly. See, a disciple doesn’t just follow Jesus. They’re much more hardcore than that! A disciple sits at the feet of a chosen leader, absorbing and learning and growing in the practice of Christianity. As the theory goes, disciples never deconvert or leave their faith. Their leaders teach them too well for that!

Here are some in-the-wild descriptions of discipling.

Intentional; deliberate; encouraging; focused on making followers of Jesus; ultimately rooted in the WORD of GOD; loving; relational [Capitol Hill Baptist, 2016]

So get them converted. Baptize them. And then spend a lifetime teaching them to obey all that Jesus said. [Desiring God, 2016]

Putting Jesus first in all things. Following Jesus’ teachings. Fruitfulness. Love for other disciples. Evangelism – Making disciples of others. [Got Questions, probably 2004]

Trusting in him alone for salvation. Worshiping him. Loving him with whole heart. Imitating his life. Obeying his teaching. Abiding in Christ; walking in the Holy Spirit; meditating on the word of God; engaging in communion (prayer); partnering with the body of Christ (local church). Resulting in the transformation of mind, heart, mission. [Biola University, 2016]

Are you noticing some problems with these descriptions? Yes. If you actually go to these pages and read what they say about discipling, you’ll notice a complete lack of concrete, tangible descriptions of the mechanics and processes of discipling. There’s an even bigger lack of solid descriptions of what it looks like in practice.

Biola ends their description page with a prayer that almost sounds mocking:

May the Lord help you as you seek to be a faithful disciple and as you call others to do the same.

Biola University

Evangelicals can’t even perceive the big problem with discipling, much less fix it.

Yes yes, but what does it look like?

A long time ago, I lucked into a lengthy discussion on LinkedIn between some evangelical pastors. (I also wrote about it here.) It concerned submission, another big trendy buzzword at the time. One pastor was having trouble with this concept. He didn’t know how to spot submission in his followers, nor teach it, nor know when it was missing.

What ensued was pure hilarity. The other pastors were very clearly rattled by his questions. Many offered platitudes about the importance of submission. Others warned of the grave dangers of rebellion (the opposite of submission). Many raged about a perceived growing lack of submission in the ranks.

And that poor OP just endured through it all, gently pushing back.

Yes yes, he told them. Submission is important. We all know it’s important. I’m not saying it isn’t important. Rather, I’m saying I don’t know what it actually looks like or how to know when it’s there or not there. So how am I supposed to teach my flock how to do it?

And the rest of them just had no idea how to cope. None of them actually knew what the concrete, tangible signs of submission looked like. To them, it was just this intangible, subjective quality that they either felt was present or absent.

That discussion is long, long gone from the internet. (ARCHIVE EVERYTHING.) But I’ve never forgotten it.

And now, it looks like discipling sits beside submission: yes yes, but what does it look like?

They can’t teach what they don’t actually know how to do

It seems quite clear that evangelicals have hung their hopes on this discipling buzzword. But it entirely lacks any objective components. It’s purely subjective. Only an individual evangelical leader can tell if it’s there or not. One evangelical’s submitted disciple might look like another’s lackadaisical cultural Christian. And another’s dangerously-unhinged fanatic.

That’s why all of these discipling guides have this curiously gauzy quality. Their writers throw around buzzwords constantly, as well as nonstop Bible verses.

But the nitty-gritty, the daily tasks involved in discipling, are curiously absent. Indeed, they must be.

Compare and contrast: a guide for doing something in Reality-Land

If you pick up a couch-to-5k training guide, you will see the difference immediately between a real guide and what evangelicals churn out about discipling. Here’s one that’s pretty representative of the specific tasks involved:

Source: Marathon Handbook. I only clipped the first 4 weeks.

Not only does the creator of the image above offer very specific exercises to perform on specific days, but in the page accompanying this table we also see very specific, tangible, concrete suggestions about how to get into shape for a 5k run: clothes to buy, seeking partners for accountability, posting a copy of the training program somewhere you’ll see it daily, creating rewards for reaching goals, etc., plus suggestions about warming up before exercising and cooling down afterward.

Yes, every person’s body can be remarkably different in terms of abilities. But you won’t see many variations in these programs. And they work. I’ve known several people who’ve used these sorts of guides, and many 5k runs are full of folks who’ve used similar ones.

Discipling guides can’t do any of this.

Accomplishing poorly-defined goals in an imaginary world

Discipling has been a buzzword since at least 2016 and noised about since at least the early 2000s. (Heck, in the late 1980s, I even overheard some youth ministers talking about the drastic need for it, though I don’t think the word itself was in use yet.) Lifeway itself sells many hundreds of products directly related to discipling.

So yes. Those evangelicals still warming church pews are well aware of how important discipling is and how much their leaders want to see it happening.

But with all these hundreds of web pages and books and videos about discipling, pastors still largely have no real idea how to do it.

And that just might be because discipling is based on beliefs that simply aren’t true.

When something’s not real, there’s no real way to quantify or qualify it. There’s no way to define it, because it lacks form and shape in reality.

Similarly, non-Christians often have good luck with demanding Christians define the objective characteristics of their god before engaging with them on religious topics. He’s not real, so there aren’t any to describe.

Lifeway’s trying to score some sales of discipling books, I’m guessing

As I mentioned a minute ago, evangelical surveys exist to sell stuff to worried evangelicals. Lifeway, as the official propaganda and publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), has always represented the best illustration of that truth. And in this survey, we can easily see that yes, Lifeway’s trying to score some sales.

I can see why. Under Thom Rainer’s rule, Lifeway suffered enormously. They lost their cushy, sprawling campus in downtown Nashville, downsizing to an office building. They had to close all of their brick-and-mortar stores, and now exist entirely online. And even with these measures, I’m betting Lifeway is having trouble staying out of the red.

Rainer’s successor, Ben Mandrell, has his work cut out for him!

This new survey from Lifeway seems custom-made to sell more discipling materials to worried pastors. The word “invest” leaped out at me as I read about it, as it probably did for you. Investment can mean emotional investment, of course, or time, or simply effort.

But it also means financial investment. And here, I’m betting Lifeway sure hopes pastors focus on that meaning. If they do, then discipling won’t improve at all. However, Lifeway will get a little more money to help them survive a bit longer. In this age of evangelical decline, that might be the best any of them can hope to do.

NEXT UP: The SBC’s leaders are very excited about this year’s Cooperative Program giving. But it doesn’t mean what they really wish it did. Next time, I’ll show you what it really means. See you then!

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...