Theo-tainment versus Discipleship

S. Michael Craven

S. Michael Craven

There is an overwhelming body of research demonstrating a significant disconnect between professing faith in Jesus Christ and actually following Jesus.

In 2005, a survey by the National Study of Youth and Religion entitled “Portraits of Protestant Teens” revealed a great deal about the church’s approach to youth ministry and its shortcomings.

The study revealed that 59 percent of Protestant teens (ages 13 to 17) report regular church attendance, meaning they attend church at least one to three times per month while 41 percent of all teens reported regular church attendance. The study participants identified affiliation with nine Protestant denominations—with Southern Baptist being the largest group represented—in which 65 percent of teens reported regular attendance.

Forty-seven percent of Protestant teens reported active involvement in their church’s youth group, compared to 38 percent of all teens. The majority of Protestant teens also reported that they attend Sunday School “a few times a month, participate in youth retreats, rallies, and conferences.”

In all, ninety percent of Protestant teens say they believe in God, compared to 85 percent of all teens; only 12 percent of all teens say they are “unsure about the existence of God.”

Clearly this generation is anything but irreligious; quite the contrary. However, further examination of the research begins to reveal the disconnect I mentioned earlier. According to the study, only 55 percent of Protestant teens believe in life after death—a belief held by 50 percent of all teens, including the nonreligious. In a further contradiction, 69 percent of Protestant teens say they have made “a personal commitment to live for God” and yet only 32 percent read the Bible once a week or more, while 19 percent report having had premarital intercourse in the last year compared to 22 percent of those who are unchurched. Additionally, 63 percent of Protestant teens report cheating in school compared to only 58 percent of all teens and 41 percent say that morals are relative—that “there are no definite rights or wrongs for everybody.”

Sociologist Dr. Christian Smith reported in an earlier, much larger study gleaned from in-depth interviews published in his book, Soul Searching, that “we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might call ‘Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism.’” This of course has very little to do with historic, orthodox Christianity.

These findings are consistent with my own experience as well, as I travel and speak with teens and young adults around the country. Most have little idea why they believe what they believe or how to integrate these beliefs into a coherent view of reality. What they have is a set of generalized beliefs about God, the Bible, morality, and Jesus, but know little or nothing of an incarnational relationship with the risen Christ.

The reasons for this unorthodox view of Christianity and the paradox between professed beliefs and biblical doctrine may be revealed by the teens themselves. More than one-third of Protestant teens say that church “does not make them think about important things” and 51 percent say that church “is not a good place to talk about serious issues.”

The fact is, according to the research, most Americans are or have been actively engaged in a church youth group during their teen years. However, Barna’s tracking of young people showed that “most of them had disengaged from organized religion by their twenties.”

Of course, these conditions are not exclusive to young people. Also according to Barna Research, “Among those adults who attend Protestant churches, only twenty-three percent named their faith in God as their top priority in life.”

The modern idea of church, or ecclesiology, it seems, is that the church exists as a venue to attract the lost through dynamic programs, performances, and events—the more dynamic the better. A pastor friend of mine referred to this as “theo-tainment.” The problem with this approach exclusively is that a disproportionate amount of the church’s time and resources go into these programs at the expense of making disciples and training the body. The result is a church that is the proverbial “mile wide and inch deep.” Yes, the church grows in numbers but rarely in spiritual maturity, and the witness of the church is often diluted and lackluster.

Furthermore, this approach seems to ignore Christ’s final command, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20, NIV). This is the duty and work of every Christian, and should be carried out through our relationships with the lost as we endeavor to guide them into the truth, as well as training up those already in the faith.

Neither is discipleship a “program” or simply catechism in which the church as an institution instructs followers in the doctrines of our religion. Discipleship is an intensely relational activity involving one person led by the Holy Spirit walking alongside another, bringing the truth to bear on their particular context and circumstances. Discipleship is ongoing, demanding, and at times frustrating, as we work together toward the restoration of sinners who bear witness to the life-changing power of Jesus.

Scripture is full of admonitions on this point. One of the most direct is Romans 12:1–2 which challenges us “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (ESV). This passage speaks to the fact that the resurrection of Christ and our adoption into the family of God demands a whole new way of understanding the cosmos and our situation in the cosmos. Everything relative to our view of reality must change; this new view is to be integrated into every aspect of our new lives and thinking. This is the role and necessity of Christian discipleship in producing this new way of thinking followed by obedience, i.e., presenting the entirety of our being as a living sacrifice.

It is astonishing to note that—despite the ample body of evidence demonstrating the American church’s abject failure to adequately and holistically disciple the faithful into maturity—the leadership in so many of our churches continue to do the same thing, employing the same paradigm that emphasizes programmatic evangelism rather than making disciples. Where are the courageous men and women who will raise their voices in the church to lead our congregations back to truly fulfilling the Great Commission?

S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture. Michael is the author of Uncompromised Faith (Navpress).The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit the Center for Christ & Culture.

7 Responses to “Theo-tainment versus Discipleship”

  1. Great, great, great article. Beautifully written. It is very difficult to write such an article without being critical or condemning or threatening to some of us. Well done. I cannot give you enough credit for the message and the way that it is delivered.

    I hope and pray that the nature of the Church has not shifted from serving God to serving itself. I pray that we will all enjoy and understand the perfect love of God.

  2. This “Neilsen” approach to religion, caring more about the number of folks coming through the doors and adding to the collection plates, is pretty much exactly why my family stopped going to church when I was a child…

    The small neighborhood church we attended kept growing and growing and growing until we were eventually just another family in the crowd… Sunday school classes were discontinued and the kids were all lumped together in the pews of the old chapel (the adults were now attending services in the new, bigger mega-chapel) and given candy if they would just sit there and be quiet. There was no more individual attention or instruction, but the collection plates were still there and the kids were expected to hand over their allowances.

    Long story short, we didn't abandon the church, the church abandoned us… it was more interested in our money than our souls.

  3. Some are more concerned with the numbers and the money, but most aren't. I'd suggest you consider giving Christianity an other try, and looking around for a good one. You might have to visit several till you find one that fits well, but they're out there. Maybe even a smaller one where you won't get lost in the crowd.

  4. I walked away from church too at one time for similar reasons. All I can tell you is, when God called me back, none of those things mattered any more. Nothing had really changed but me. God had changed me. It is very difficult to explain. I think it has to do with us focusing on and feeling God's perfect love. I guess, when I was going for the right reason, nothing else was a distraction anymore. I pray this makes some sense and I did not inadvertantly say the wrong thing. God bless you.

  5. For once, Pre, I agree with you. Sometimes it takes unbelievers to point out to Christians the obvious disconnect in purported “faith” and the lifestyle. I, too, am vexed by the bigger-is-better-is-more-spiritual mindset that seems to be gripping most churches nowadays.

    The “welcoming” and “seeker-sensitive” approach is nowhere found in Scripture. Rather, the authenticity of conversion, of thorough repentance and the fruit of the new birth, were once required of new converts, who were fearful of flippantly joining themselves to the body of believers because of a holy standard that could prove very dangerous, to their desires, lifestyles, and lives. (Acts 5:1-13)

    “Sunday School” is a relatively modern invention that also has no Scriptural basis. Yet, now it seems to be the center of church life in many congregations and is more of a social group hug than centered around anything spiritual.

  6. Mr. Craven makes an important point. Raised Roman Catholic, I fell to worldliness and atheism by my late teens, then Jesus found me in my mid-forties. I now attend services at a Southern Baptist church and teach an adult SS class.

    Having not been “brought up Baptist” I think I have a view of church that is a little more objective than some. I have been concerned for a long time that many Christians are all about doing church, e.g., programs, meals, canned SS lessons, popular music (even when theologically questionable), and especially prayers that have become rote by years of repitition.

    During Holy Week I taught a lesson about the Seven Feast Days ordained by God in Leviticus 23. (See my post on the subject here) There are wonderful Christian brothers and sisters in this group who have been attending SBC churches for decades, but when I asked what happened on Pentecost following Jesus' ressurrection I was deeply disappointed that only one or two could actually answer the question (the full power of the Holy Spirit was given the apostles empowering them to go into the streets and begin preaching the Gospel, in actual tongues no less).

    Whose fault is it that our youth and even many of our mature members are still babes in their Christian faith and not yet ready for the “meat” in God's Word? Is it a wonder that so many can be so easily distracted from their professed faith by worldly concerns and philosophies? Nor is the problem new. See Revelation 3:14-22, regarding the Church at Laodicea.