For American Christianity, the Way to Move Forward is to Dig Deeper

I was hesitant to listen to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” The new podcast by Christianity Today examines how one of the largest and most influential churches in the country fell apart, seemingly overnight. I’m not too keen on celebrity gossip (even “Christian” celebrity gossip), and I especially hate the sort of schadenfreude that often characterizes these types of journalistic investigations. But a friend’s recommendation encouraged me to listen. And it turns there’s a lot there that’s really worth considering, both for church leaders and for congregants. It isn’t only a story about the flaws of one church or its pastor; the podcast also raises some great questions about how we approach “church” as American evangelicals.

Perhaps most significantly, the show explores some of the dangers we face when there’s a large gap between a leader’s charisma and his character. How can churches avoid platforming people who are especially talented, but who lack integrity? What sort of accountability structures do we need to prevent this sort of catastrophe from repeating itself again and again? These questions are especially relevant in 2021, as Mars Hill isn’t the only well-known church or Christian organization to suffer devastation because of the flaws of its leadership.

As important as those questions of leadership integrity are, there might be a more basic set of questions we need to ask. (And perhaps the podcast intends to ask these questions in later episodes, to give them the benefit of the doubt). For starters, is bigger really better when it comes to the effectiveness of a church? Is building a global media platform a better way to fulfill the Great Commission than building local communities of faithful disciples who make faithful disciples?

There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days about the state of the evangelical church in America, and for good reason. Studies consistently indicate that fewer and fewer people are attending church, and younger generations seem to be abandoning the Christianity of their parents and grandparents. I’d cite some of them here, but I don’t really need to; just go do a Google search for something like, “Young people leaving Christianity,” or “Fewer people going to church,” and you’ll find dozens of articles and studies on the topic. It’s a real problem.

I think our temptation in the face of these challenges is to say, “If we can just find a way to fill the pews again, while eliminating the moral issues that have plagued famous megachurch pastors, then we’ll be good to go.” And to be clear, I’m not opposed to full churches. I’m a pastor at a relatively large multi-campus church, and I frankly prefer preaching to a full room than to an empty one. Attending church is often a starting point for a person’s discipleship process; rarely does a person decide to follow Jesus wholeheartedly apart from being connected to a church on a regular basis. But still, we have to always ask this question: To what end do we want people to come to church? In other words, what’s the goal we’re trying to achieve?

The problems we’re facing now aren’t without precedent in the American church. One of my favorite books on the subject of discipleship is called The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman. It was written in 1963, long before Mars Hill or Willow Creek or Saddleback were even glimmers in the eyes of their founders. Right at the beginning of the book, Coleman asks why the massive evangelism efforts of the 20th Century have not resulted in a growing group of faithful disciples, dedicated to following Jesus closely and telling others about Jesus. Why have all of our conferences and giant churches and media influence failed to produce meaningful and lasting impact for the kingdom of Jesus? Coleman’s fundamental argument is the one I want to explore here briefly: Large-group gatherings serve their purpose, but they are insufficient to produce dedicated disciples.  

I’ve been to big conferences, and my life has been impacted by them to some degree. I have friends who are involved in large megachurches and conference ministries, and they really do provide valuable opportunities for people to hear about Jesus and to make important decisions. Sometimes there is a huge benefit to pulling away from one’s daily routine to hear a world-class speaker challenge you to change your life. But those moments aren’t sufficient to produce lasting change. For much of the of the 20th and 21st, evangelicals have assumed that such moments are, in fact, sufficient. We’ve built entire church structures around that assumption that bigger is better, that larger crowds are more effective vehicles for producing lasting change.

But what if the way forward for American Christianity isn’t actually to grow larger, but instead to dig deeper? Returning for a moment to Coleman’s thoughts on evangelism, he makes the point that Jesus’ method of evangelism was slow and steady, focusing most of His efforts on a few critical men rather than on the giant crowds who followed Him around. Jesus taught to the giant crowds, but even Jesus found that the large groups often listened to Him and still felt no compulsion to actually apply what He said. The impersonal nature of large crowds means that it’s easy to simply listen to a sermon – even one as powerful as the Sermon on the Mount – and simply convince yourself that it’s not for you. There’s no accountability or direct encouragement to change. Jesus knew that – He offered sermons to the crowds to give them a chance to draw closer, so that they could dig deeper. But only a few took on the challenge. Most stayed at a distance. As a result, His primary methodology was to train and invest in a few men, so that they could train and invest in a few more after He was gone. And that’s how Christianity spread and grew after He left for heaven – through the slow and steady efforts of His key disciples. Yes, they spoke to large crowds at times, but that wasn’t the center of their greatest impact.

Perhaps it’s time to take Jesus’ methodology seriously. Whether you’re a pastor or a congregant, I think it’s worth considering whether you’ve bought into the idea that attendance at a large group gathering or consumption of large-scale Christian media are sufficient to produce transformation. They are not. In fact, one of the reasons we really like giant conferences and big groups, I think, is because we can go to them and have a great experience without really being known. In theory, we all want to be known and held accountable to walk with Jesus, but in reality, that often means interacting with people in ways that are uncomfortable and painful. It means facing our own sin and shortcomings each day, and asking the Spirit to change us slowly but surely. Large group gatherings often leave us feeling really great; the slow process of discipleship can leave us feeling tired and even discouraged. But if we’re going to right this ship, it’s going to take a renewed dedication from all of us to return to the slow and steady patterns of discipleship modeled by Jesus Himself.

Let me offer three quick takeaway concepts to consider, as we think about the most effective ways to make disciples.  

First, the Holy Spirit works more often like wind than wildfire. There are a few places in the Bible where the Spirit’s work is described like a fire that consumes and transforms us in an instant. Most notably, we see that imagery in Acts 2, when the Spirit descended on the Church on the Day of Pentecost. More often, however, the Spirit is described like the wind; in fact, the Greek and Hebrew terms for “spirit” refer to breath, or wind. Jesus tells us in John 3 that the wind of the Spirit works invisibly, mysteriously, and often in ways we don’t really see. Yes, there are violent and rushing hurricanes and tornadoes, but most of the time the wind simply rustles the leaves in the trees. The effects are somewhat small on any given day, but over time the wind can really change things. It can even slowly erode rocks away, day by day, year by year, until what remains barely resembles what was there to begin with.

We love “big” displays of the Spirit’s power: miracles, dramatic conversions, large-scale evangelistic successes (“1,000 people prayed the prayer today!”). And those things are great, and they really happen sometimes. But they are also rare, even in the Bible. More often than not, the Spirit works in a way that is slow, steady, and much less dramatic. He changes my attitudes of pride, lust, or anger, one day at a time. I pray and I wrestle and I meditate on Scripture and I build relationships with people who help me to change. It takes a lot of time and it just isn’t that exciting on a day by day basis, if we’re honest. But until we acknowledge that spiritual maturity takes time and discipline, we’ll continue to believe that something like a really powerful sermon in a large room is what we really need, and we’ll invest our time and resources accordingly.

Second, disciples aren’t mass-produced or microwaved. This is really just a corollary to the first point. What I’m saying here is that it isn’t enough for church leaders or for congregants to assume that gathering in giant groups or listening to the best podcasts will create life change. We dare not believe that the task of discipleship is happening most effectively when we’re gathered at giant conferences or in huge buildings.

Again, don’t hear me wrong: I’m a preacher, and I believe in preaching as one powerful way in which God works in people’s lives. But honestly, part of what makes a preacher’s sermons effective is his knowledge of his congregation. When I stand up to preach, I’m not thinking about a generic Christian; I’m thinking about specific Christians in the room where I’m preaching. I’m not mainly thinking about podcast listeners; if somebody in Canada benefits from one of my sermons, praise the Lord for that. But the greatest impact happens when we’re face to face and life to life. What’s more, the sermon ought to merely be the first step in a process of discipleship. It’s not the end. Ideally, people will connect with one another to help each other follow Jesus. They’ll tell their neighbors about Jesus and begin to teach people how to know Him and how to share Him with others. These are small-group and one-to-one activities. A good sermon might provide the fuel, but ordinary Christians have to drive the vehicle day in and day out if we’re going to get anywhere.

Third, we can’t offer the world water if our own wells are dry. Last but not least, we as Christians must return to the sort of daily rhythms of spiritual growth that faithful followers of Jesus have practiced for centuries. Prayer, Scripture reading and meditation, worship, confession, intentional community, and so on. Again, these are boring and difficult disciplines at times. Large-group events often provide us with a rush – there’s a cool experience that we can talk about later. To be honest, that’s rarely the case when we’re praying alone in our closet, or painstakingly trying to plow through reading the Bible and understand it. But until we each begin to invest personally in walking with the Spirit – moment by moment, day by day, year by year – we’ll continue to try to know Him through osmosis. We’ll look to gifted preachers and famous church leaders to bring us the throne of grace. As a result, we’ll be susceptible to deception, not only within the church, but within the culture. We’ll buy into concepts that are clearly unbiblical, because we don’t really know what the Bible says. We’ll follow and platform people who don’t really look like Jesus, because we aren’t actually sure what Jesus looks like.

Again, the only way to move forward is to dig deeper. The only way out of the mess is to pursue the slow and steady patterns of discipleship that we seem to have largely forgotten. We quietly and faithfully follow Jesus, and then help others to do the same. Let me close with some words from Robert Coleman himself, that I think are relevant to the task at hand:

“We must decide where we want our ministry to count—in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of our lives in a few chosen people who will carry on our work after we have gone. Really it is a question of which generation we are living for.”

3 thoughts on “For American Christianity, the Way to Move Forward is to Dig Deeper

  1. Debi Morton says:

    Matt, this is so good and follows in line almost exactly with the other podcast I mentioned to you. And Robert Coleman’s book was required reading for those of us in the student leadership of Cru back in 1969-71, as well as being highly recommended for everyone else in the group. It may be time for a re-read for me.

  2. James Wartian says:

    I agree 1000% (okay, maybe not mathmatically correct, but still true!). I think there is one more factor to consider. Large groups are not wrong. Whether that group is 100 or 1000 or 10,000, a large group setting has its place. But it’s primary role is not deep discipleship. So many large and mega churches have turned to small groups. On the surface, they seem to get what you are saying. But then church methodology and cultural practices interfere. We think there are 5 steps to a deeper walk with God. We think if we just attend a small group, it is enough. So I think we both need to go deeper and we need to disconnect from our modern western mindset that thinks we can mass produce disciples in any setting — whether large or small. As you say well, it is a work of the Spirit in subtle ways that cannot be programmed.

    1. Matt Morton says:

      Thanks James! I agree with you completely. I think that in-depth discipleship generally happens more effectively in smaller settings, but of course large groups have their place in the process. There’s a place for big meetings and large churches, but in themselves they aren’t usually sufficient for the type of transformation we are seeking.

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