Discipleship, not mass production

In a recent Breakpoint commentary, Eric Metaxas reflected on David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me, about young people leaving the church. I can’t speak for the book, since I haven’t read it, but this part of Metaxas’ commentary stood out:

Many dropouts still believe the tenets of Christianity. What they need from the Church is a renewed effort at disciple-making, an effort that meets them where they are; lets them express their questions, ideas, and doubts; and encourages them to grow in Christ.

And what do we do about those younger teens who haven’t yet reached that point where so many drop out? Kinnaman says that we adults need to form one-on-one relationships with them, instead of trying to mass-produce young believers. He writes, “I think we are constantly building, tearing down, and rebuilding our youth and young adult development regimens based on the fallacy that more is better…We need new ways of measuring success.”

So, he suggests, one metric of success might be to connect young people to older people — mentoring relationships. Kinnaman says, “These relationships would not be solely focused on spiritual growth, but should integrate the pursuit of faith with the whole life.”

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5 comments

  1. Good review, Scott, thanks for sharing it! I like these quotes, too:

    “Even providing lots of entertainment, as some youth ministries do, is not going to do it. It’s spending time with these kids, showing them that they matter to you, and living out your beliefs in front of them. That’s going to spark their interest and their desire for God.”

    I agree — it’s helping them see manifestly better options in their own lives, which would include entertainment but extends far beyond.

    I’m a big proponent of student motivated learning in general, and that seems particularly essential to our faith because we each must choose it, build it up, and justify it as the most beneficial and rewarding way for us to live.

    “We lose these young people for many reasons, according to Kinnaman’s research. Some have felt that their questions about faith were ignored, or that they were given pat answers. Others had their interest in the arts or sciences discouraged by church members who believed that these couldn’t possibly be Christian vocations. Still others “feel isolated from their parents and other older adults in the realm of faith and spirituality.” ”

    I appreciate that breakdown:

    (1) Questions about faith are ignored or given pat answers. I’d combine this with his third one, “isolation”, all of which relegate church to rote ignorance and impracticality.

    I didn’t have a mentor per se, but one of the best things my parents did was to encourage my reasoning through and questioning, even fundamentals, and discussing my deep and shallow concerns without making me feel bad for it — quite the opposite, in fact. Nor did they shy away from topics by merely giving pat answers (though those were certainly included and first out the gate). Significantly, they admitted when my questions were good and hard and when they didn’t have a satisfactory answer. They let me exist, loved, in that state of doubt and disagreement, even as they provided their best guidance.

    Like the inherent mentoring by parents, such an individualistic rational approach is much, much harder than mass production. We need great mentors! We need to become great mentors. How do we do that? How do we define that?

    I also think that such decentralization has an inherent potential for fragmentation, which is a larger risk than many churches are willing to take. There’s always fuzzy edges in every church where people don’t quite agree, but if it becomes okay to openly question doctrine, doctrine will shift.

    But despite that shift, it is also possible that such openness will, ironically, forge greater or finer grained cohesion. Maybe some fragmentation is okay. Maybe that is the emotional block that needs to be overcome. In any case, it seems to me that, besides simply not having a sound basis to mentor, it is intolerance to such states of variation within a church that bleeds into a rigid, mass-production approach to youth and newcomers.

    (2) Discouraging interest in the arts or sciences. More broadly, discouraging things which are manifestly 99% good not only serves to diminish trust, it also serves to diminish Christian values in those fields.

    We have a tendency for binary thinking. We want people to be all good or all bad. We want right to be far from wrong, with nothing in between. But distancing ourselves from considering or engaging the gray areas makes us unprepared to face hard decisions, or give advice to those who are.

    I think it’s important to build up our discernment and filters so that we can engage the world beneficially without becoming of the world — to rationally embrace the good and oppose internalizing the bad. Again, if we don’t, then we leave those areas to people with waning Christian values, as in our popular media culture.

    For example, being a (Christian) comic means that you must risk stepping beyond Christians’ views of propriety. Are the vociferous, ostentatious Christians willing to tolerate that? Will they laugh at the 90% of good jokes, or will they focus on the 10% of off-color or bad jokes, and write-off the whole attempt as wrong?

    Perhaps it is changing, but it bothers me that self-identified Christian TV and movies are so rigid, blatant, and simplistic. The richness and complexity of life are lost. And, of course, we still need to mentally filter Christian movies just as we do all others.

    Phew, that was a long ‘un! I hope it is worth reading. I enjoyed the confluence of Christian pragmatism and liberty in this topic. 🙂

  2. I’m glad that you enjoyed it, Kevin. Thanks for your comments.

    On (1), I liked how you described your relationship with your parents and their responses to your questions. It would seem that the mentor has to allow for that process to occur (https://temporachristiana.wordpress.com/2010/02/14/loving-others-by-respecting-their-independence-from-us/), even while having a goal that their pupil be committed to living out their faith in Christ as governed by the Scriptures. There should be freedom and boundaries.

    Perhaps a discerning test to be applied a mentor is this: are the pupil’s questions sincere attempts to understand God and the Christian faith better, or are they rebellious? It’s a bit like the distinction Doug Wilson makes between doubts and questions: http://www.dougwils.com/Previous-Publications/the-difference-between-doubts-and-questions.html.

    I agree with you on (2). Sounds like you, like I, have been exposed to a lot of bad or mediocre Christian music/movies/art, sometimes praised by other Christians because it has a good message or because it’s so perfect and clean. I think that Christians are getting better at this (or recovering it, since they often have been good at it), but as my friend Rick recently said, if we tell children that music is good just because it’s “Christian” we aren’t giving them a sense of aesthetics. Christian rock music has sometimes been a pale imitation of non-Christian rock, for example, instead of being creative.

    Intolerance of variation is an interesting suggestion about the root of mass-production ministry. I have to think about that more.

    I tend to think of it more as coming from two things:

    1. The mass-education paradigm that we see all around us that is based on the assumption that if people are exposed to something and marched through a series of presentations on it, they’ll learn it. Thus, sensitivity training, sex ed in schools to promote safe sex, etc.

    2. The fear that if we don’t provide the biggest, crrrraziest youth group with loud music, they’re not going to come! We have to get kids in the door so that we can march them through things as in #1! Of course, this ignores the role that the medium can play in shaping the message (drawing from a few things I’ve read here), and these things can pass on the idea that Christianity is as loud, emotion-driven, and disposable as the entertainment at the weekly youth meetings.

  3. Discriminating based upon sincerity sounds reasonable to me — like arguing in good faith. Is that what you meant by sincere questioning vs. (insincere?) rebellion?

    But I can’t quite latch onto Wilson’s Doubts vs. Questions. I’ve asked the questions he considers to be “doubts”. I ask the questions that honestly trouble me and I don’t know where a question will lead when I ask it. That’s why people freak out about it.

    Scott wrote: “as my friend Rick recently said, if we tell children that music is good just because it’s “Christian” we aren’t giving them a sense of aesthetics.

    Yeah, and conversely that we should not appreciate aesthetics if they are not blatantly Christian.

    Regarding your 2 points on mass-production ministry:

    1. Good examples. They might “learn” it, but whether they believe it or truly understand it is another question. It’s ironic how mass-production education praises critical thinking skills, yet they are often at odds with one another.

    2. Fascinating insight that the medium affects our sense of disposability, and perhaps the corollary that people might value the medium rather than the message.

  4. Sorry for my delay in getting back to you.

    I think that Wilson means that doubts are unanswerable because a person doesn’t pursue an answer. A doubt stays in question form. One who pursues a question toward an answer (even if it takes a long time) is doing the right thing. In a sense, doubts paralyze; questions lead a person on a journey. To me, that sounds like your response to doubts.

    “They might “learn” it, but whether they believe it or truly understand it is another question. It’s ironic how mass-production education praises critical thinking skills, yet they are often at odds with one another.” – That was just very well said.

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