Whatever Happened to Discipleship?

John ArmstrongMissional Church

The debates regarding the ministry of University Bible Fellowship (UBF) that have arisen through this blog spot since I first wrote about this ministry last year, and then when I wrote about it again over the past few weeks, have led me to do a great deal of thinking about the missional context in which we presently live. In particular, how is the church going to disciple the next generation? What models will God use to reach un-reached millions in previously un-churched cultures, as well as university students and 20-somethings, in the West who know nothing of the church or the gospel at all?

We must face the honest fact that there is a growing body of research which demonstrates that there is a significant disconnect between professing faith in Jesus Christ and actually following Jesus. A recent study by the National Study of Youth & Religion entitled, "Portraits of Protestant Teens" reveals a great deal about our current approach to youth ministry and its shortcomings.

The study revealed that 59 percent of Protestant teens (13-17) report regular church attendance, meaning they attend church at least 1-3 times per month and 41 percent of all teens report 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, 90 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 not irreligious, quite the contrary. However, further research begins to reveal the disconnect that I mentioned in my second paragraph. According to this study, only 55 percent of Protestant teens believe in life after death—a belief held by 50 percent of all teens including non-religious teens. In a further contradiction, 69% of Protestant teens say they have made “a personal commitment to live for God” and yet only 32 percent of these teens read the Bible once a week or more and 19 percent report having had sexual intercourse in the last year compared to 22 percent of those who are un-churched. 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.” Barna Research further underscores the broad scale contradictions between the beliefs of most professing teens with those of orthodox and normative biblical doctrines.

The well-known sociologist Dr. Christian Smith reported in an earlier, and much larger, study gleaned from in-depth interviews which he 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 kind of faith, of course, has very little to do with historic, orthodox Christianity.

I want to further suggest that this is a major reason why groups like UBF are successful in discipling many your people in rigorous and highly-ordered settings. They ask for a serious commitment and many teens and young adults are ready to make such a commitment, a commitment that few traditionally American churches are seeking at the present time. Most churches are just happy to have you show up and support the program now and then.

These research findings are consistent with my own experience as I have traveled and spoken with teens and young adults around the country. Most have little idea at all as to why they believe what they believe or how to integrate these beliefs into a coherent view of reality that guides their lives in every area. UBF helps its many young converts do exactly this in ways that work, though they could stand to change some unnecessary practices and admit their past mistakes more candidly. Though I believe there are some real dangers inherent in UBF’s approach, as should be apparent by now from what I have written, there will also be even more blessings as this ministry seeks for humility and greater openness, which I believe is presently happening. (Perhaps not fast enough for some or in the proper way for others.) I do not believe any church is beyond reformation and renewal, including UBF. I committed myself to this proposition over thirty years ago and I follow it wherever it takes me. This makes people, on the left and the right, very uncomfortable. I am willing to live with these tensions so long as I can advance the kingdom of Christ and seek the renewal of actual churches.

The reasons for the unorthodox views of Christianity among modern teens, and the paradox between professed beliefs and sound biblical doctrine, may be seen in the responses of 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.” A Barna survey among 8-to-12-year-olds discovered that only one-third of them said the church has made "a positive difference" in their life and “most of them would rather be popular than to do what is morally right.” You will not find this kind of thinking among UBF members.

The fact is, according to this same research, most Americans have a period of time during their teen years when they are actively engaged in a church youth group. However, Barna’s tracking of these young people showed that “most of them had disengaged from organized religion during their twenties.” (This is precisely when UBF reaches highly intelligent young adults, during their college and graduate school years.)

Of course these conditions are not exclusive to young people. 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, is that the church exists as a venue to “attract” the lost through dynamic programs, performances and events—the more dynamic the better. This is what one pastor friend of mine has referred to as “theo-tainment.” The problem with this approach is that a disproportionate amount of the church’s time and resources go into these efforts at the expense of real discipleship. And the obvious result is that the proverbial church group, for teens or young adults, “is a mile wide and inch deep.” Yes, the church grows in numbers but rarely in spiritual maturity and real discipleship. Thus the powerful witness of the Church is often rendered 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) This is the duty and work of every Christian through a church community. And this is carried out through our relationships with the lost in which we endeavor to persuade them to enter into the Truth relationally and through our training up of those already committed to the faith. In both cases, this process never ends this side of eternity. This is how the kingdom grows in this present age.

Scripture is full of admonitions on this point. One of the most direct in my mind 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.”

This passage speaks to the fact that the resurrection of Christ and our adoption into the family of God demands a wholly new way of understanding the cosmos and the human situation. EVERYTHING relative to our view of reality must change and this new view must be integrated into every aspect of our lives and thinking. This is the role and necessity of Christian discipleship in producing a new way of thinking that is accompanied by obedience, i.e. presenting the entirety of our being as a living sacrifice to Christ as Lord.

It is astonishing to note that despite the growing body of evidence demonstrating the American church’s failure to adequately and holistically disciple the faithful into maturity; the leadership in so many of our churches continues 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 fulfilling the Great Commission?

These very questions are the issues that got me interested in UBF when I first met a UBF-trained student in my apologetics class at Wheaton Graduate School nearly two years ago. The spirit I saw then is expressed now in another letter from a UBF member that was sent to me privately only a few days ago. I quote from some of this letter:

Thank you for your thoughtful and prayerful articles. There is one thing that I have liked about UBF ever since I became a Christian, at the age of 22. UBF missionaries always respected me as a servant of God. I still remember my first attempts at teaching the Bible. I ran down the street and stopped a stranger and invited him to our house to review the book of Genesis. He came and we taught him. I was young and ignorant of many things but the UBF leaders still supported me and gave me hope. Didn’t Jesus do the same thing when he called his disciples and gave them new names, such as calling Simon to become Peter, the rock? The UBF leaders supported my decisions of faith to serve Jesus. I have always been given the freedom to seek and to find new and innovative ways to serve Jesus and the leaders have been supportive.

The point I want to make here is that I was not only young spiritually, but I came from a non-Christian background. My mother was nominally Catholic, my dad was an atheist. I have seventeen cousins, some of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only one of my cousins is a Bible-believing, born again Christian. I have done genealogy with my dad and there is no indication of Bible-believing, born-again Christians among any of my ancestors. I was not raised in the church. I did not know church discipline and church culture. I only went to a UBF church initially because their Bible-house setting reminded me of "The Little House on the Prairie.” I only knew the UBF missionaries for one month before I met Jesus. But I decided to live as a servant of God immediately. I also decided to become a lay shepherd. I am committed to this church paradigm. This conviction comes from God.

The point I am trying to make is quite simple. Can you imagine the mistakes I made as I was growing as a servant of Christ? I made a lot of them. I failed, repented, accepted God’s forgiveness and tried again and again. There was a lot of "trial and error" over the years. But I thank God for the UBF missionaries’ grace and unconditional support over these last 21 years.

I also appreciate the lay minister model and the tent-making paradigm for church growth. Frankly, I believe this is how the billions in the 10/40 window will be reached. But with this church paradigm there will be thousands upon thousands of un-churched, untrained new converts, like myself, who will be trying to live by faith in serving Jesus Christ. They will undoubtedly make million upon millions upon millions of mistakes, but is this wrong? In the words of many postmodern youth, "Let’s cut them some slack so they can grow." We need to show some grace to new converts and thus the attempts of lay people to serve Jesus. We need to show some grace to ministries who are trying to raise disciples of Jesus from among the unbelieving and the un-churched masses. I think Satan does not want millions of tent-making shepherds spreading throughout the world.

I would like to humbly suggest that UBF needs to engage the wider church for the good of many of the rest of us and for their own good too. Only by learning from the many of us, and by us learning from people in groups like UBF, will the greater good come from this debate. I long to see Christians who are mature enough to love and to learn from one another, and to realize that every new movement has known excess that call for serious correction. If you do not believe this then I would urge you to study the Wesleyan revival movements. Many were saved, many were matured and taught, and many lives were also impacted negatively as well. Mistakes were made and made again. When the Spirit works things are not always orderly. The enemy is always sowing tares in every field where there is wheat sown. We all need to be aware of the “wiles and schemes” of the evil one regardless of our position on UBF or any other church or group.   

Soli Deo Gloria