Reading Time: 9 minutes (Steve Lav, CC-ND.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

We’ve been talking lately about the 2011 Christian book You Lost Me, written by David Kinnaman of the Barna Group to address the ongoing and growing exodus of fundagelical youth from Christian churches and groups. David Kinnaman’s central idea is that The Big Problem Here is that modern churches aren’t properly “discipling” their youth and that if this starts happening properly, young people will stop leaving and maybe even return to the groups they’ve already left. Today I’ll teach you what this confusing term means–most of the time anyway–and why this author is totally wrong.

(Steve Lav, CC-ND.)
(Steve Lav, CC-ND.)

The Big Problem Here.

David Kinnaman says he’s listened and talked to thousands of young people (loosely defined as people aged 15-30 who are single non-parents) who’ve left Christianity, and the biggest trend he can identify among them is that they have a poor perception of churches and church culture. He wrote this book to explore “their judgment that the institutional church has failed them” (p.11) and to recommend a different approach.

He criticizes churches and groups thusly (p. 13):

Many of the assumptions on which we have built our work with young people are rooted in modern, mechanistic, and mass production paradigms. Some (though not all) ministries have taken cues from the assembly line, doing everything possible to streamline the manufacture of shiny new Jesus-followers, fresh from the factory floor. But disciples cannot be mass-produced. Disciples are handmade, one relationship at a time.

It’s very telling that he really likes the book Eric Metaxas wrote about Dietrich Bonhoeffer–a book that got roundly criticized by actual historians who know about the WWII Christian hero. One of those historians wrote movingly about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story got “hijacked” by Eric Metaxas in service to his attempt to reclaim his religion from the mean ole liberals who he saw as having stolen it from TRUE CHRISTIAN™ conservatives like himself.

I’m sure that it’s no accident at all that David Kinnaman sees a lot of parallels between the story of how Bonhoeffer fought the European Christians of that day; indeed, Mr. Kinnaman likely saw much to admire in Eric Metaxas’ cri de coeur. Mr. Kinnaman writes lovingly of “the leadership and clarity the German pastor demonstrated in understanding the evils of the spirit of his age (the Nazis) and the tragic capitulation of the church to culture” and warns that “our research at Barna Group leads me to believe that the next generation of Christians has a similar crisis of confidence in institutions. . . I am not saying that our times are ripe for the rise of a new führer–God forbid–but I do want to suggest that our cultural moment demands of us Bonhoeffer-like clarity and leadership.”

See? He’s not sayin’ that if older Christians and Christian leaders don’t shape up that Nazis will take over the world, but he is sayin’ that this is just like that time when Nazis tried to take over the world. So everyone better listen to him.

His main message is that churches have lost sight of that tight-knit communal aspect of believers’ walk with their god; they need to start emphasizing close mentoring relationships again. As he puts it, “The dropout problem is, at its core, a faith-development problem; to use religious language, it’s a disciple-making problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.”

As a result, teens go from the most religiously-involved group in America to the least involved by their late 20s.

And fundagelicals have no idea in the world how to reverse that trend.

Oh, that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of flailing around on that point. It’s simply not very effective flailing. Every Christian leader has some ideas around what they have finally come to recognize as the biggest problem facing their entire religion. David Kinnaman is no different. His particular idea is that if Christians go back to the disciple-making they did in the Good Ole Days, they will end “the dropout problem.”

When his idea is implemented in Christian groups, he believes that young Christians’ various questions, concerns, and criticisms will be adequately answered before they turn into full-fledged doubts. They’ll never be driven away from groups! They’ll be able to fully communicate with their mentors without fear of ostracism or pushback, and churches will flourish again! Church leaders will be totally on top of their believers’ concerns and able to make big sweeping changes without fear of alienating their flock!

Yes. That is what will happen when Christians start mentoring their young people again, just like they totally did in the Good Ole Days before all these new trendy ideas totally ruined everything. Winged puppies, chocolate coins, and rainbows will shower from the skies. Peace will finally come to the Middle East. Straight guys will start liking dancing again.

And pigs will fly outta my butt.

Verbing a Noun Makes It 268% More Awesome.

The idea of discipling has taken flight in Christian imagination lately. Like most Christian terms, there’s no hard-and-fast definition of it, but you can generally take it to mean being super-hardcore fervent about doing Christian stuff and mentoring or at least encouraging others through example to do the same. You’ll also see the term as discipleship when describing the process of being super-duper fervent, with or without the formal mentoring aspect.

Even Rowdy John Piper* admits that the term doesn’t appear in the Bible as such. It does appear as “disciples,” of course, meaning simply “people who become Christians by converting and getting baptized.” That will probably work as a basic Bible definition. In modern Christian fundagelical hands, the definition becomes a verb and turns into doing so much Christian stuff with so much fervor that everyone else is enthralled by that person’s Jesus Aura and converts and learns how to be fervent from that Christian. The people who use the term, therefore, tend to stress the relationship aspects of that mentoring.

This idea of discipling is, like a lot of the goofier ideas that fundagelicals have ever come up with, a surprisingly recent reworking of old ideas. It may be an outgrowth of the Shepherding Movement that began in the 1970s. It’s ironic that the ideas of a movement that got so much flack from fundagelical leaders then have become all but ubiquitous in the religion by now.

The ever-dependable Dictionary of Christianese mentions  in its footnotes to evangelism a 1994 book that lauds the concept (and even says that he thinks that “the world will be won by 100 member churches,” which is a bold strategy, Cotton; let’s see if it pays off for him–oh wait); in 2004, the word pops up in the title of a highly-rated Glenn McDonald book called The Disciple Making Church: From Dry Bones to Spiritual Vitality. The Christian who writes and edits that online dictionary even sources it to the 1960s. Another entry follows similar lines and links it to the “seeker-friendly” church movement–and as a bonus, one of its footnoted sources explicitly separates discipling from church discipline, saying the two approaches to church administration are more or less mutually exclusive (I’d generally agree, though I’ve seen some groups that are clearly trying to intertwine the concepts).

These tricklings led to a flood. It didn’t take long for even the idea’s critics to jump on board the discipling bandwagon. By 2011, the term was clearly gaining popularity. That’s the same year You Lost Me was published, incidentally. But everyone and their dog in Christianity thought by then that Christians have always been at war with Eastasia been totally into the idea of discipleship. They treat the idea and the term alike as if they’ve always been a thing that Christians have always been totally into. (Logos Bible Software is one of many places where interested students can take classes in discipleship’s history all throughout Christianity’s 2000 years.)

Old Swill, New Bottles. (SSDD)

Christians who are flailing for an idea–any idea–latch onto nonsense words like a dying person grabs for a life ring. And the more hardcore and cool that word sounds, the less like the way previous generations “did church,” the more ardently they seize upon that word.

They can’t change or fix their broken system. That task is beyond any of them–any of them except the masters of the system, and the masters of the system are very far from recognizing that they must either substantially change their system or fall into complete irrelevance. When David Kinnaman makes a big altar call early in his book, it’s damned near a mockery of our growth and our pain that he even tries to promise us that we could, if we only rejoined Christianity, bring about change from within that diseased and shambling institution.

So they can’t fix what is broken. But they can invent new terms that describe exactly what they were already telling everyone to do.

And in toxic Christianity, that’s just as good.

Hell, sometimes it’s even better.

The approach David Kinnaman suggests is literally just a repackaging of old concepts. What he doesn’t seem to recognize, either, is that if Christians actually did drop the idea of discipling, it was because they perceived that this idea wasn’t working for them anymore and wanted to try something else. But I hope I’ve demonstrated that they never really dropped the idea. It’s been bubbling up for decades in popular religious imagination.

Like most of the ideas fundagelicals come up with to out-hardcore each other, discipling is simply a furthering of ideas that existed decades beforehand. Even when I was a Baptist and then Pentecostal, both denominations stressed that veteran Christians should mentor and encourage new converts. It was well understood that this partnership helped a lot with retention (since numbers even then–in the 1980s and 1990s–were tanking). And those veteran Christians got yelled at a lot for not doing their part in this essential task. At the time, I sure didn’t think that this ideal one-on-one relationship model between Christians was new. The thrust of it might be, but the concept isn’t.

The concept of discipling is both a reaction to and a criticism of the equally-recent trend of breaking large church groups into small groups, which are like formal cliques within a church. The people who like discipleship see small groups as antithetical to the process of creating fervent disciples. Proper discipling involves very close, one-on-one relationships between a veteran and a newer convert.** Ironically, small groups themselves were very likely instituted to foster exactly those relationships, but now they are seen as a problem.

It’s sort of like the difference between the demon Crowley in Good Omens and his more old-fashioned peers in Hell. Crowley was a newfangled demon who spread sinfulness among humans by annoying vast numbers of them at once using the contrivances of modern life (like answering machines and traffic jams), while the other demons spent decades on just one person each, crafting scenarios that would lead those specific individuals into horrific lives of debauchery and hypocrisy. Crowley saw that approach as hopelessly inefficient, while the other demons looked at the end products of their respective efforts and judged their strategy as superior because it led (ideally) to one person doing really sinful stuff.

David Kinnaman has a very grand vision of an idealized Christian community–a worldwide, united, grace-filled, interconnected, loving group of people who work together to bring about change in the world and prepare future generations for their work as Christians. The younger Christians help the church adapt to new change; the older ones make sure their younger charges understand what it means to really truly totally balls-out for-realsies follow Jesus so all those inevitable social changes don’t up-end young people’s faith.

But it won’t work. 

Utopia: the Land That Cannot Be.

This utopian vision of the perfect Christian universal body depends on three things that are simply not ever gonna be true in Christianity:

  • First, that the Christians higher up on the totem pole are going to be in the least bit open to changing their traditions and culture to adapt to the modern world.
  • Second, that there actually are credible, satisfying answers to the serious criticisms and concerns people have with Christianity.
  • Third, that Christians actually go to church to serve, rather than to get their own needs met, and will be happy to go to significant effort to work hard at anything.

Leaving aside for now the second point (we may circle back to it later after I’ve got more of this irritation out of my system), since it’s completely unsolvable by any Christians, not just toxic ones, those of us who’ve left the religion already know that neither of those other points are going to happen within the flavors of Christianity that most need that advice.

We know that the entire thrust of the religion, in those flavors, is for followers to jockey for as much power as they can seize within their little social circles and groups. They are at heart not only authoritarian-leaning but also authoritarian followers, meaning that they consider leaders to be damned near unimpeachable godlings. Once they finally get some power in their hands, their goal is to keep that power.

The last thing they are going to want to hear is that they then need to share that hard-won power or peel back some of their overreach over others’ lives just because some college kids are upset with something the church body is doing.

There’s a long, long tradition in place already for dealing with exactly that agitation.

The people in power are going to say that those young detractors are rebellious.

That they are sinful.

That they are not using divine discernment.

That they are welcome to leave if they’re really unhappy with something their leadership is doing.

That they must endure until those leaders damned well decide to change things, and if their leaders do not ever change things, then they must accept that whatever’s going on is the will of their god.

When those detractors and agitators finally do leave in disgust, the people remaining in the broken system will blame them for leaving and not sticking around to work harder to try to change the system “from within,” as David Kinnaman suggests numerous times in his book.***

Without changing human nature itself, David Kinnaman will not get a lot of traction with his vision. Jesus sure ain’t going to do it for him! And indeed, his religion’s continued slide into irrelevance has continued apace since this book was written. Some Christians love it, others hate it, but nowhere do I see it having impacted the churn rate in the religion.

But then, nothing that fundagelicals would be willing to try ever could.

We’ll look at some of their reactions to this book next, because they are even more WTF and smug than anything in these pages. See you then!

* John Piper wishes he were as cool as Rowdy Roddy. Or at least he would if he understood what coolness is.

** Yes, just like the Sith Lords.

*** I’m keeping track of all the altar calls and entreaties on a sticky note now. That’s how annoyed I am with them.

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,...

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