Two thousand years ago, Jesus approached twelve seemingly unsuspecting Galileans and bid them: “Come, follow me.” For the next three years, they walked alongside him as he discipled them. Toward the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and do the same—to take the Gospel message to the world and make disciples in all the nations.
The Great Commission is an audacious undertaking, all the more so given the fast and sweeping changes taking place in the broader culture. People are lonelier, more distracted and more tethered to their screens, and searching for meaningful lives. As Christians bring the unchanging message of the Gospel to the world, effective approaches to discipleship become more important, especially in a world that is increasingly polarized around spiritual issues.
So what is the current state of discipleship in the U.S.? Is the church effective in its efforts? Are churchgoers involved in discipleship activities, and if so, which models do they prefer? And perhaps most importantly, do investments in discipleship actually affect spiritual growth? To answer these questions, Barna Group, commissioned by The Navigators and NavPress, conducted a comprehensive, multi-phase research study among Christian adults, church leaders, exemplar discipleship ministries and Christian educators. Here’s what the research uncovered.
What We Mean When We Say…
The research examined the language and terminology surrounding discipleship. We asked a random sample of Christians—including practicing and non-practicing Christians—what words or phrases they use to describe “the process of growing spiritually.” The most preferred term was “becoming more Christ-like” (selected by 43% of respondents), followed by “spiritual growth” (31%), and “spiritual journey” (28%).
The term “discipleship” ranked fourth on the list and was only selected by fewer than one in five Christians (18%). “Spiritual maturation” was next (16%). “Sanctification” (9%) and “spiritual formation” (5%) were relatively unused phrases among the general population of Christians.
Interestingly, the more active the person in spiritual activities, the more likely he or she is to use the phrase “becoming Christlike.” In contrast, the “spiritual journey” language is most preferred among non-practicing Christians.
Among those who did not select the term “discipleship,” we asked if the word still has relevance to their Christian experience. Surprisingly, only one-quarter of these respondents said “discipleship” is very relevant. The implication is that while spiritual growth is very important to tens of millions, the language and terminology surrounding discipleship seems to be undergoing a change, with other phrases coming to be used more frequently than the term “discipleship” itself.
Christian adults believe their churches are doing well when it comes to discipleship: 52 percent of those who have attended church in the past six months say their church “definitely does a good job helping people grow spiritually” and another 40 percent say it “probably” does so. Additionally, two-thirds of Christians who have attended church in the past six months and consider spiritual growth important say their church places “a lot” of emphasis on spiritual growth (67%); another 27 percent say their church gives “some” emphasis.
Church leaders, conversely, tend to believe the opposite is true. Only 1 percent say “today’s churches are doing very well at discipling new and young believers.” A sizable majority—six in 10—feels that churches are discipling “not too well” (60%). Looking at their own church, only 8 percent say they are doing “very well” and 56 percent “somewhat well at discipling new and young believers.” Thus, pastors give their own church higher marks than churches overall, but few believe churches—their own or in general—are excelling in discipleship.
Not surprisingly, emphasis on discipleship is correlated with higher faith engagement. Three-quarters of practicing Christians, who have attended church in the past month and consider their faith very important, say their church places “a lot” of emphasis on spiritual growth (73%), while only 40 percent of non-practicing Christians say the same.
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Breaking Down Discipleship
Despite believing their church emphasizes spiritual growth, engagement with the practices associated with discipleship leave much to be desired. For example, only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity—and this includes a wide range of activities such as attending Sunday school or fellowship group, meeting with a spiritual mentor, studying the Bible with a group, or reading and discussing a Christian book with a group.
Practicing Christians are more likely to be involved in a variety of spiritual growth activities than are non-practicing Christians. (You can read a definition of practicing Christians below.) Yet, even among practicing Christians, fewer than half are engaged in these four types of spiritual development. Only 17 percent say they meet with a spiritual mentor as part of their discipleship efforts.
To Grow or Not to Grow?
It is difficult for researchers to analyze accurately the degree to which people are changing spiritually. From the point of view of self-perception, most people perceive they are growing and say they want to develop spiritually. Yet, self-perceptions also show that Christians tend to be quite satisfied in their spirituality, perhaps edging toward complacency. Most Christians express satisfaction with their spiritual lives: Thirty-eight percent of Christian adults say they are “happy with where they are in their spiritual life” and another 36 percent are “almost to where they want to be.”
Some good news is that people firmly assert that they want to grow spiritually. This is not the case in other contexts, and represents a continued bright spot within U.S. spirituality. Indeed, three-quarters of practicing Christians (77%) believe it is “very important to see growth in their spiritual life.” Even among non-practicing Christians—people who rarely or ever attend church and who are mostly inactive spiritually—37 percent say it is very important to grow spiritually.
Yet, the research reveals little correlation between activity and perceived growth, further revealing the disconnect between how people think about their spirituality and what’s actually happening in their lives. For example, most practicing Christians feel they have made “a lot” (40%) or “some” (51%) progress in their personal spiritual growth in the past year. However, among respondents who are currently involved in at least one discipleship activity, their self-reported growth was not much higher than these levels. Even among non-practicing Christians, a majority believes they have made spiritual progress in the last year.
One of the implications of these findings is that church leaders must be diligent in finding tools that help people examine the reality of their spiritual growth, not merely how they perceive it.
Motivations for Discipleship
Even though people may not be fully in touch with their level of growth, what motivates people to grow in a spiritual manner? Practicing and non-practicing Christians report different motivations for seeking spiritual growth. Practicing Christians see discipleship as intimately tied with their faith, saying they are most motivated by “a general desire to know Jesus, or God, more” (46%); “a general desire to be more like Jesus” (41%); and because “the Bible instructs us to be more like Jesus” (34%).
Non-practicing Christians, on the other hand, see discipleship as a part of a broader bid for self-improvement, saying they “think it is important to be improving or growing in all things” (51%); “have been through a lot, and growing spiritually will help me” (41%); and “have a general desire to know Jesus, or God, more” (36%).
The research examines differences between various demographic segments, and many differences emerged based upon generation. For instance, when it came to motivations, Millennial Christians are more likely than average to be motivated to grow spiritually because “I have been through a lot and growing spiritually will help me” and “I am inspired by others and want to be more like them.” Younger believers are also more likely than average to say they grow in peer groups and when reading the Bible with others. Millennial Christians are less likely to say they “my church encourages spiritual growth.”
One of the implications of the research, then, is for churches to rethink what is working in connecting with today’s younger Christians, particularly when it comes to relational and mentoring forms of spiritual development.
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Discipleship as a Solo Activity?
Christian adults are split on their preferences when it comes to models of discipleship: small group, one-on-one or individual (solitary) format.
Among Christians who say spiritual growth is important, more than one-third say they prefer to pursue spiritual growth on their own (37%). Similarly, two in five of all Christian adults consider their spiritual life to be “entirely private” (41%). This is a greater proportion—though only slightly—than Christians who believe their faith, rather than being private, has an impact on relatives (37%), friends (36%) and their community (33%). In other words, one of the problems revealed by this research is that millions of Christians believe that discipleship is a solo affair, with only personal and private implications.
Even when it comes to what Christians are experiencing in the churches they attend, there does not seem to be much emphasis conveyed about the communal, relational nature of spiritual growth. Just one-third of Christian adults report that their church recommends meeting with a spiritual mentor; half of their churches publically endorse studying the Bible with a group; and half recommend studying the Bible independently.
Among Christian adults, one-quarter prefers a small-group setting for discipleship (25%). Another one in five prefers a combination of group and one-on-one discipleship (21%) and 16 percent prefer one-on-one only. Thus, in total, about one-third of those pursuing spiritual growth are including some element of one-on-one, person-to-person discipleship.
However, not all of those who prefer discipleship “pairs” are currently involved in a one-on-one discipleship relationship: less than one-quarter of Christians adults (23%) are currently being discipled by someone (29% of practicing vs. 12% of non-practicing Christians), and 19 percent are discipling someone else (25% of practicing vs. 9% of non-practicing Christians).
One-on-one discipleship relationships are established in various ways: Of those currently being discipled by another person, one-quarter say that person invited them (27%); one in five invited their mentor (20%); and about one-quarter were paired by the church (23%)—but the largest proportion, 28 percent, were matched “some other way.”
The View from the Pulpit
The study shows how pastors and church leaders are thinking about discipleship. When asked to choose the single method of discipleship they believe is most effective, church leaders tend to select small group formats (52%) nearly two-to-one over discipleship pairs (29%). For good or bad, small groups are the disciple-making format preferred by most of today’s church leaders.
Do church leaders engage in discipleship themselves? Somewhat. Fully 94 percent are currently discipling at least one other Christian. However, only six in 10 are being discipled themselves. Discipleship pastors (72%) are somewhat more likely than senior pastors (59%) to have a spiritual mentor.
One of the compelling findings of the study is that developmental relationships are more common in larger churches: Eight out of 10 church leaders of 500+ member churches report being currently discipled by someone else (78%), compared with 64 percent of those with 100 to 499 members and 55 percent of those who lead in churches with fewer than 100 members.
According to pastors, the most critical elements of discipleship are matters of the heart rather than of structure. Aside from prayer and time with God, the top three spiritual disciplines pastors believe are essential to discipleship are “personal commitment to grow in Christlikeness” (94%), “attending a local church” (91%) and “a deep love for God” (90%). Having “a comprehensive discipleship curriculum” is by far the least-important element of effective discipleship according to pastors, 44 percent of whom select it as essential.
When asked how they want to improve in their discipleship programs, a plurality of church leaders says they would “develop a more clearly articulated plan or approach to discipleship” (27%). Additionally, churches need to develop assessment criteria to track the effectiveness of their dis- cipleship efforts. Less than 1 percent of leaders report using a survey or other evaluation instrument to assess the results of their programs. This underscores one of the previous conclusions, that church leaders and congregants need better methods of thinking about and evaluating their discipleship efforts.
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About the Research
The data contained in this research report and in the full “State of Discipleship” monograph originated through a series of research studies conducted by Barna Group. The study was commissioned by NavPress for The Navigators. You can also explore the State of Discipleship case study on our website.
The full project was completed in multiple stages. To begin, 36 educators from Protestant and Catholic seminaries and Bible colleges completed an online survey of open-ended questions during December 2014 and January 2015. These findings were used to revise and conduct an open-ended survey with exemplar churches and ministries.
Leaders of 30 churches and seven parachurch ministries that exemplify excellence in discipleship completed an open-ended, online survey February 3 to March 4, 2015. Respondents were recruited from a list developed by Navigators’ staff as well as nominated by Protestant pastors from Barna’s Pastor Panel.
Following these two qualitative studies, an online and telephone survey was conducted among 615 Protestant senior pastors and 218 discipleship pastors. Churches were contacted from a random list of U.S. Protestant churches, with approximately 543 interviews conducted by phone and 290 online. The interviews were conducted between April 7 and May 30, 2015.
At the same time, a nationwide study of Christian adults ages 18 and older was conducted using an online panel and phone interviews (with a mix of 60% landline and 40% cell phone). Surveys for this portion of the research study were completed between March 26 and April 15, 2015. A total of 2,013 surveys were complet- ed: 1,300 online and 703 via phone. The sample error on this survey is plus or minus 3.1 percent points at the 95-percent confidence level. Data were weighted by age, gender, etc., to be representative of all U.S. Christians ages 18 and older.
Survey calls were made at various times during the day (for churches) and evenings (for adults), so that every individual selected for inclusion was contacted up to five separate days, at different times of the day, to maximize the possibility of contact. This is a quality control procedure to ensure that individuals in the sampling frame have an equivalent probability of inclusion within the survey, thereby increasing the survey reliability. All of the interviews were conducted by experienced, trained interviewers who were supervised at all times; every interviewer was monitored during their performance on the project. The survey was conducted through the use of a CATI (Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing) system. This system ensures that question skip patterns are properly administered by interviewers and that survey data are recorded accurately.
The online portion of the study was conducted among a representative random sample of adults and churches using a web-enabled consumer panel.
Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important to their lives and who have attended a worship service, other than for a special occasion, one or more times during the past month.
Non-practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who do not qualify as “practicing” under the criteria above.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website
© 2015, Barna Group.
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I've heard it said that you don't choose the books you read—great books choose you. In some peculiar way, I believe that is what happened in 1999 as I consumed Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey's How now shall we live? Never before had I planned to read a 600-page, non-fiction book, but once I devoured the introduction (a version of which is re-published in this edition of Comment), I could not put it down. On vacation in Mexico, I found myself reading this thick, green, hardcover book by the pool, on the beach and in my room during every waking moment. My worldview was challenged and my view of Christian influence in culture was invigorated. My wife wondered what had gotten into me—and with good reason. When was the last time you saw a grown man create flash cards for reading that was not required . . .on vacation?!
Up until that time, I had wrestled with several questions surrounding the role of my faith in this world. I had no problem grasping the idea of eternal life and the need for personal salvation, but the answers I was familiar with were deficient when it came to how my faith practically played out during my years in this present world.
Nobody addressed what to me seemed an obvious problem: Christianity gained more conversions in America over the last two hundred years than any other faith. Simultaneously, Christianity steadily lost cultural influence despite its rapid conversion growth.
As I read Colson and Pearcey's book, for the first time in my life I encountered Christians who had dared to set aside the talking points and "go off message." They had recognized the problems and offered biblical, logical solutions. I began to reconnect to Christian purpose. Colson and Pearcey laid out all of what being a Christian was about. They challenged my worldview and invigorated my view of Christian influence. It felt simple, yet complex, true and historic. I was convinced that everyone I knew needed to read this book. I just knew that if more Christians could grasp this bigger picture, it could change the face of Christianity throughout our nation.
Unfortunately, I knew none of my twenty-something friends would want to read a 600-page book. So, I was left with two choices: get new friends, or, do everything within my grasp to take these ideas and convey them in the most practical, life-giving, and encouraging way to everyone I could.
I chose the second option. As Henry Blackaby writes in Experiencing God, the role of every Christian is to "watch to see where God is at work and join him." A shift in Christian praxis within our culture may be one such place where God is at work. I believe God is calling the church in the United States to grasp its calling to influence the greater culture. We can feel it in the rebuke of pretentious Christianity and sense it in the hearts and minds of young Christ-followers desperate to live lives pleasing and honouring their Maker. I can't imagine anything more important or significant in our lifetimes than to be a part of the church's recapturing its role in shaping culture. When we do this, the life-giving message of Jesus Christ will go forward in ways unprecedented throughout the 21st century.
The origins of cultural influence
Modern-day evangelicals are most familiar with God's saving grace—the means by which God's saving power, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, can redeem people from their sin and give them new life in Christ and throughout eternity. What we hear less about, today, is another theological concept called common grace. Wayne Grudem defines common grace as "the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation." This common grace is available through and to all of His creation. David refers to it in Psalm 145: "The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is over all that He has made . . . The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing." Jesus also referred to it when he admonished us: "I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:44-45).
Understanding both saving grace and common grace helps us to understand the cultural mandate. It dates back to the Garden of Eden when on the sixth day of creation a momentous delegation unfolds as God hands Adam the responsibility to pick up where He has left off. He is called to reflect God's image and to have dominion over all things, to "steward" God's good creation and all of its resources in the service of God and man (Genesis 1:26-28). God's declaration to humanity of their divinely appointed duties provided deep purpose and meaning to human life. Humankind were called to partner with God in the work He wanted to do throughout creation.
It was Colson and Pearcey's explanation of the cultural mandate that grabbed my mind and my heart:
God cares not only about redeeming souls but also about restoring his creation. He calls us to be agents not only of his saving grace but also of his common grace. Our job is not only to build up the church but also to build a society to the glory of God. As agents of God's common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.
Christians live to serve the common good of our neighbours, and that service creates unmatched influence on the culture.
Cultural influence lost
For centuries, Christian growth and maturing was understood as a gradual process. The historical idea of a "catechesis" was based on an intentional, deliberate process of growth that introduced a new believer to the life they aspired to live on this earth. Conversion was not achieved in a moment. Both the mentor and the disciple saw it as a process that required serious, disciplined engagement over time. Although eternal salvation might be grasped in a moment, the lifestyle of winsome engagement could take a lifetime to achieve.
The Christian explanation for existence made sense to Kings and paupers alike. As Colson and Pearcey write, it was a "comprehensive life system that answers all of humanity's ageold questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Does life have any meaning and purpose?" It competed and won the day against other stories' explaining human existence. Even intellectuals embraced it, since Christian faith offered answers to the nagging questions of the human condition. Sadly, this way of thinking would be drastically transformed by the Enlightenment and the Second Awakening.
The Enlightenment initiated a philosophical shift that would change everything. The basis for human existence shifted away from God and toward humanity. Human reason, scientific research, and individual achievement had no need for divine intervention. Innovation was in the air. Speed, volume, and progress would become the celebrated measures for success, as Michael Metzger observes. Speed would overtake intentionality, volume would surpass quality, and progress would overrun tradition. This philosophy of human-driven cultural advancement characterized the modern view that would influence Christian thinking.
Here is one possible way of explaining what happened to North American Christianity as it developed alongside the influence of the Enlightenment. Movements like the Great Awakening in England, New England, and the eastern seaboard of North America, and the Second Awakening that spread from New England through to the American frontier in the late 1700s and early 1800s introduced many people to Christ. Methodist preaching and Presbyterian Lord's Supper gatherings staged as camp meetings convened on the frontier, having little effect on the educated intellectuals in the city. The great orators of the day used emotional preaching and proclaimed boldly the most dramatic points of the Christian story; "You are a sinner, and Christ's death and resurrection can give you new life. If you get saved, you will have eternal life in Heaven." They initiated special invitations to capture the most possible conversions from a given audience in a limited amount of time. They didn't have the benefit of living among the people and modeling the life of a Christian over the course of years. Their demanding schedule of traveling by horseback from town to town gave them weeks, and sometimes just days, to convey the depth of the message of Jesus.
It's easy to see that when forced to convey the most dramatic parts of the Christian story in a short period of time, parts of the story are easily overlooked. In the process, Christianity was losing its profound and life-giving answers to central questions no longer representing an entire life-system and worldview. It had become relegated to a personal, spiritual decision about where you would spend the afterlife.
As more evangelical Christians adopted this half-story explanation of the faith, their cultural influence began to fade. The emphasis on heavenly pursuits overshadowed the idea of living a life that offered common grace and promoted cultural influence. And as personal decisions for Christ became the short-term measure of success, the church added shallow converts who were unable to see the cultural implications of their faith. If being a Christfollower is only about getting a free pass to heaven and trying to bring everyone else with them, it will alienate Christians from the broader dialogue about life, justice, and the here and now.
Relying on the half-story explanation of the gospel is like handing someone a John Grisham novel with the first and last fifty pages removed. They'd be left with the middle portion of the book, a half-story depicting some of the most dramatic developments of the story but giving little understanding of the characters, their aims and beliefs, and how they got into their dilemma in the first place. The story might still be intriguing but the reader would be left feeling empty. The impact of the story would be lost. They could call themselves a John Grisham reader, but they would miss most of what makes him a compelling author. And the story doesn't make sense to them because it is an incomplete truth.
When Christians dismiss the cultural mandate as an insignificant part of the Christian life, separatism and piety increases and cultural influence fades, But, if Christians learn and embrace the full story gospel and partner with God in restoring and redeeming his creation, their cultural influence will follow and the Good News will spread.
How now shall we influence?
The idea of culture-shaping is widely debated. As James Davison Hunter observes in his Trinity Forum briefing, To Change the World, most people—and until recently that would have included me—implicitly believe that cultures are changed from the bottom-up—that to "change our culture, we need more and more individuals possessing the right values and therefore making better choices." The problem is that it is only part of the solution. Hunter argues that "[it] is this view of culture that also leads some faith communities to evangelism as their primary means of changing the world. If people's hearts and minds are converted, they will have the right values, they will make the right choices, and the culture will change in turn."
Hunter goes on to argue that "the renewal of our hearts and minds is not only important, it is essential, indeed a precondition for a truly just and humane society. But by itself, it will not accomplish the objectives and ideals we hope for." This could explain why Christianity as practiced by many well meaning, admirable Christians in the past failed to achieve significant traction.
Cultures are shaped when networks of leaders, representing the different social institutions of a culture, work together towards a common goal: "Again and again we see that the impetus, energy and direction for changing the world were found where cultural, economic and often political resources overlapped; where networks of elites, who generated these various resources, come together in common purpose."
Channels of Cultural Influence
What are the social institutions of our culture that Hunter refers to? They are the social institutions that govern any society, including business, government, media, church, arts and entertainment, education, and the social sector. Their combined output of ideas, films, books, theology, websites, restaurants, investments, social work, laws, medical breakthroughs, and technology drive an entire nation. The ideas and values they perpetuate sustain the moral fibre and social conscience of the culture. The people who lead these influential institutions shape the ideas, thoughts and preferences of millions of others. If Hunter is right, a very few can effect dramatic shifts in the convictions and aspirations of a culture.
The church is a unique channel of cultural influence. Few other institutions draw participants from so many areas of society. When Christians embrace the common goals of both redeeming cultures and individual souls, the possibilities for positive cultural influence dramatically increase.
I believe that the church is the hope of the world and is positioned like no other channel of influence to shape culture. Its people are called to be in the world. As John Stott puts it in Basic Christianity, "We find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, the one earthly and the one heavenly. And each citizenship lays upon us duties which we are not at liberty to evade." Although the work of culture creation may take place outside the physical walls of a church building, the local church creates a natural space where social networks of leaders, within all seven channels of culture, can work together towards a common goal. Nowhere else does this potential for synergy exist. Unlike other channels, the church is a living organism where God's spirit constantly moves and seeks to express Himself through a willing Body. Sadly, by focusing on just the "spiritual" and the afterlife, the Christian church has strayed from its potential influence in the here and now, positioning itself instead as just another subculture. Many Christians currently hold unique and influential positions throughout the seven channels of culture, but have never been supported by fellow believers.
Engaging Cultural Leaders
Consider my thirty-four-year-old friend Dan, a leader in the business channel of cultural influence who meets with captains of industry and strategic leaders throughout the free world. He cares deeply about Christian engagement in the place God has called him, but doesn't feel comfortable labelling himself a Christian due to the negative baggage that comes with it. When we first met four years ago, Dan was desperate for a community of believers that could understand him and his life in the wider culture. He had no community or church that could support him as he tried to fulfill his calling. Dan had given up hope and felt like the only Christian in his predicament.
His story is all too common. In the work that I do, I come across cultural leaders who feel disconnected from the local church or, worse yet, misunderstood or "used." The story for some is that the church tends to only be interested in them if the church organization can benefit in some way. Church leaders fail to recognize the current and potential influence these leaders wield within culture, and they unknowingly drive them away.
Still, an undeniable opportunity for the church to regain ground exists. My friend Jon, a top model in the fashion industry, experienced something different in the local church. As he pursued the opportunity to lead a culturally redeeming project to captivate the vanguard of the fashion industry, he found help and support. His pastor spent time with him and probed deeply to find ways the church could actively support these efforts. Whether volunteering to help at local events or assisting in the organizational and administrative details of his project, this church provided the back-up Jon needed to engage where God has placed him.
Jon's Christian community exemplifies a shift in the church. As one piece of a greater movement, we're just beginning to see what might happen. As Tim Keller writes:
If we produce thousands of new church-communities that regularly attract and engage secular people, that seek the common good of the whole city especially the poor, and that produce thousands of Christians who write plays, make movies, express creative journalism, begin effective and productive new businesses, use their money for others, and produce cutting-edge scholarship and literature we will see our vision for the city realized and our whole society changed as a result.
This vision demands that leaders in the church wrestle with the complexity of embodying the Gospel in culture. As the church rediscovers its unique role in culture, and supports the calling of their cultural influencers, it will be a force for good in our communities, cities and the country.
The way forward
The call to the church—to all Christians—is to rediscover the cultural mandate, embracing the opportunity to influence culture. In the church, we must teach about calling and cultural influence and provide vital support to cultural leaders. We must become an integral piece of the local culture, convening and encouraging creation of future culture that serves the common good. We must become connoisseurs of good culture, recognizing and celebrating the good, the true, and the beautiful to the glory of God, and begin to lead the conversations that will shape future culture.
There's the big idea. The vision. The challenge. The opportunity. Here are a few steps you can take to realize this vision personally and throughout your church.
1. Explore and embrace the cultural mandate. Educate yourself on the whole Gospel—the complete counsel of God—and become familiar with how the story (creation, fall, redemption, consummation) shows up in all of life and brings clarity to the Christian's responsibility in a fallen world. Read Genesis 1 and 2 with this perspective in mind and investigate other writings that delve deeply into the topic. Read books by C. S. Lewis, John Stott, Os Guinness, Chuck Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Michael Metzger, or Neil Plantinga for specific insight into the cultural mandate.
2. Teach about calling and cultural influence. Inspire people within your church to discover their callings and pursue them with excellence, while celebrating their successes. Educate those around you about how cultural influence happens. Find the people within your church who hold unique and influential positions throughout the seven channels of culture. Help them cultivate and create culture that serves the common good. Your interest in serving them will go a long way in building their confidence in the church's understanding of their opportunities for influence while reminding them of God's provision.
3. Connect with your local community. Ask yourself, as Rob Bell suggested in a March 2006 podcast, "If your church were removed from the community today, would anyone even notice?" As an integral piece of your local culture, adopt a missional approach to the needs of your community. Add value to the culture, support local artists, businesses, and schools, and serve the community with volunteers for good events that are redemptive in nature. Be an advocate for goodness and beauty throughout your surroundings, so that if you ever left you'd be sorely missed.
4. Look for the good. Become known as connoisseurs of good culture, able to recognize and pick it out in a fallen world. Instead of being offended when confronted with darkness, suggests Michael Metzger, be provoked to get involved. Challenge yourself to find something good in all things and identify the redemptive nature of humanity and its place in creating a better world.
5. Convene conversations about future culture. Initiate conversations about the values of your community. Host them at your church or in a neutral location and drive the cultural conversation instead of simply responding to it. Raise issues of injustice and offer potential solutions. Be the first to praise the good culture being created in your community and inspire imagination around opportunities that support the common good, elevate beauty and align with truth. Most of all, convene the cultural leaders in your local church to encourage and inspire them to renew their channels of influence.
None of us knows how human creativity will alter the world we live in next. However, our Christian responsibility is to be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to us and to renew all things. This alone, brings glory to God.
This article is a revision of a Fermi Short by Gabe Lyons: a chapter-length essay commissioned by the Fermi Project, "created to keep you informed of the ideas shaping our cultural context and the church's opportunity for influence."
GabeLyons and his wife Rebekah founded Fermi Project in 2003, a broad collective of innovators, social entrepreneurs, church and societal leaders working together to make positive contributions to culture.Bio