Does Western Christianity have a discipleship problem? Church history says yes. (#2 of 4)


Carl Wilson, in his 1974 book “With Christ in the School of Discipleship” says something, dating all the way back to the post-apostolic Church, is negatively affecting discipleship. “Ironically, the conditions that caused the demise of disciple building and lay ministry in those times [second and third centuries] are recurring in the modern church and pose the same threats.” Wilson was speaking of man-made responses to man-made circumstances and man-made crises. These responses, some meant for good, others just raw power, fortune or fame plays became long-standing values and practices that we often take for granted today as traditions. Traditions that erode discipleship. Traditions that only leaders can address.

Along with other theologians, Wilson warned modern-day Christians about the negative effects that these beloved historical practices-become-traditions had on disciples eighteen hundred years ago, and especially today. If we tick off some of the traditions you might, hearing what they are, be tempted to ask ‘Isn’t that a good thing?” The answer is usually, no. Yet these old ways always seem to stay fashionable, fresh and front-and-center in Christian communities, posing as advantages for driving the gospel forward, but often inducing a bankrupt discipleship.

As an example, one of the traditions we highlighted in The Disciple Dilemma was size—the tradition of bigger (membership) is better. And the opposite but equally treacherous one, smaller is smarter. It isn’t that either one is wrong, nor as a default, right. But the underlying consequences of go-big or stay-small affect discipleship. To see the effects of these size traditions on discipleship, we run the clock back to AD 310 and the Emperor Constantine. Set aside everything else you may think about Constantine and the Romanist church to key in on this point: Constantine made Christianity the primary state religion, and in doing so the population of people claiming to be Christians exploded. The Church, long-steeped in persecution and illegitimacy, found itself flooded with new people, some of them sincerely interested in following the Nazarene carpenter. Others just looking to look good, in political circles. But motivations aside, this tsunami of people flocking to Christianity swamped laity and clergy alike. Discipleship was swept away in membership. And the tradition came to be: “Pack ‘em in now, sort ‘em out later”. Later would never come for most new disciples. The Church was significantly underprepared to make biblical disciples, so they opted for members

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