Is discipleship more difficult today? Five modern barriers to service

A dear and beloved friend of mine recently lamented, “How do we serve in this climate?” He wasn’t talking about Carolina’s humid subtropical weather pattern (which is generally nice). He was referring to the ministry environment for the younger generation in the early 2000s.

Some conflicting responses arose within me.

feeling pain

My first response was, basically, I feel your pain.

The ministry I work with, Campus Outreach, focuses on lifelong evangelism and discipleship. In my two decades of working at the Campus Ministry, I have never had a difficult moment like this one. I think a combination of cultural factors (COVID, technology, modern philosophies, to name a few) have brought us to this place. While each individual and subculture is distinct, I have an educated hunch that most ministers in the Western world face many (if not all) of the following challenges on some level.

1. Fear of the unknown social

Over the past two years, I haven’t seen much direct fear of coronavirus among young people. However, I witnessed their sheer horror in the face of new social situations. The trend was worrisome in the years immediately before COVID (although I think it may have been closer to FOMO in 2010), but it’s off the charts now.

The fear of being seen and known, communicating with others and building close relationships with them, while not a new remote fear, has been given a new license in imposed solitude in the past two years. So, the call to any community membership platform for a relationship—a withdrawal, a conference, even an ultimate Frisbee—is met with more hesitation than I’ve experienced before.

2. Isolation in public

In the words of Toni Renke, “The smartphone causes a social inversion: the desire to be alone in public and never alone in privacy” (12 ways your phone changes you, 124). There were places where this reversal was already paying off, even twenty years ago: the gym and the airplane, for example. But social acceptance of a screen in hand (and looking at it) means that reaching one’s eyes means interruption. The monitor (and headphones!) is a hardened social arm, a way of saying, “Don’t talk to me!” Without having to be rude.

Therefore, the wide world becomes an extension of the living room, in which the risks are minimized and the communication channels are tightly controlled. Few have really experienced what Bilbo talked about with Frodo Fellowship of the Ring: “It is a dangerous business, Frodo, to walk out of your door. You step on the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might drift to.” It’s a great quote, but it may have been brought up for debate. If we could find a way to bring our chairs with us, the transformation would be complete. The living room has always felt too personal to be invaded.

3. Loss of high morals

Historically, my evangelistic interactions, whether with strangers or friends, elicited a ‘should’ factor from the gospel recipient. Their resistance to Jesus was often met with a counterbalancing sense that Christianity was nonetheless truly road. The moral road. But the present spirit of the age associates Christianity with ignorance, fanaticism and oppression. So now, we are not simply trying to convince people that the Muslim life of Jesus is better than what the world of sex, money and power has to offer; We try to convince them that Christians are not inherently racist, sexist, or offensive.

4. Loss of the ‘villain’ category

In recent years, you may have noticed the plethora of films, especially in the Disney canon, that tell the dramatic story of the classic villain (mischievousAnd the CruellaAnd the joker, For example, but not limited). In each story, a villain is portrayed as misunderstood and deeply wounded. To be fair, the sin of generations in a broken world is complex. But the contrast between the portrayal of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty And in the more recent film, the titular character is striking.

Therapeutic language, with all its advantages and disadvantages, has conquered our society in a comprehensive way (I highly recommend Carl Trueman’s The rise and triumph of the modern self for a comprehensive treatment of this trend). Twenty years ago, some priests and theologians were vehemently opposed to the self-esteem gospel. Today, many acknowledge and resist abuses that were previously overlooked, but I fear, in the process, that old self-esteem has entered through the back door.

A priest I once respected introduced the alliteration “villain, victim, Victor” to capture the categories in which all Christ’s followers find themselves at the same time. We are sinners against God and others (the wicked), receiving the sins of others (the victims), and conquerors of sin through the full work of Christ on the cross and the daily work of the Holy Spirit within (the victors).

“The only entrance into the kingdom of Christ is through the confession of personal evil.”

In my personal experience villain It has been largely erased. category victim Presumably, confirm win over, even in the context of failure, is a foregone conclusion (“We’re all winners!”). But the only entrance to Christ’s kingdom is through the recognition of personal villainy. Where there are widely accepted philosophical defenses to prevent us from obscuring this doorway, service is significantly more challenging.

5. An endless buffet of distractions

Discipleship in life takes hours, days, months, and even years of commitment. It requires constant focus on the Bible. It takes intentional mental connections – qualities that can be obtained more easily without a constant barrage of triggers, whether for entertainment (Netflix, YouTube, TikTok), human connection (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook), or information (podcasts, TED talks, articles – yes I see the irony). These distractions have greatly diminished the sense of need for a true community, for the discipline of silence and solitude, and for a true Paul of Timothy.

Spoiled for inflated expectations

So, my first response was, I feel your pain. But my second response was this: We’ve been spoiled.

The American gospel ministry of the past half century, especially on campus, has been almost unparalleled in its fecundity. I sat in a room of more than seven hundred employees at Campus Outreach in 2013, and the meeting host asked all who believe in the college through the ministry to stand up. About three-quarters of the roommates left their seats.

These employees mostly attended university in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when ministries were booming. As a student, I was part of a ministry with roughly 10 percent of all “secular” college enrollees. Millennials’ harvest was ripe on American college campuses. Meanwhile, dedicated missionaries around the world have been fighting to translate the Bible, learn cultures, and hopefully see a transformation or a few years of service. Still.

“We need to restore the wonders of a new one’s heart.”

With a background in such apparent fecundity, I found, at least to myself, that I needed to restore the correct theology of the cross, in which we are poured out, sometimes painfully, to bring up disciples (Galatians 4:19). We need to restore the wonders of a new heart (Ezekiel 26:36). We need to remember the counterintuitive satisfaction that comes from seemingly fruitless service (1 Corinthians 15:58), and even the peculiar joy of suffering shame in the name of Christ (Acts 5:41). Which leads to my third and final response.

Wasn’t it always difficult?

From feeling the pain, to needing to reset assumptions, I also asked, wasn’t it always this way or another?

In other words, could pressing the panic button during any given cultural moment be a bit retro? Our commitment to biblical Christianity requires us to believe that the Bible is sufficient to prepare us for the challenges of modern life and service (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It can only follow that it is immortal, which means that both the human condition in the twenty-first century and the cultural challenges of our time have not strayed far from those of biblical times. I find it most helpful to remember timeless spiritual truths when moments of service seem bleak.

Everyone still has a well-established tendency to replace the truth of God with a lie in order to worship and serve the creature (or self) rather than the Creator (Romans 1:24-25). The crucified Christ still smells of death for those who do not have the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). And the ministers themselves still sometimes suffer, struggle to continue to speak the fragrant gospel of Christ, and are always in need of renewed faith, hope, and love.

At that time, people had a God-shaped void in their hearts. They were created for an intimate relationship with God and with their fellow man, even when they suppressed the right to iniquity. They yearned to know and be known and at the same time were terrified of that intimacy.

So, quote from Ellis in There is no country for old men, “What I got is nothing new.” In a foundational sense, in the most important ways, the resistance was exactly the same in AD 50 as it was in 2022. It’s really daunting.

But if the resistance is basically the same, then so is the spirit that inhabits us with divine power. The word of the cross has never ceased to be the folly of those who die, but to those of us who are saved, it has never ceased to be the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). He never stopped using foolish things to shame the wise, and earthenware to hold treasure (1 Corinthians 1:27; 2 Corinthians 4:7). And if this is true, then there is will Be an assembly that no one can number, out of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation that surrounds the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Therefore, regardless of the spiritual climate, we present it to the world with hope.

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