What Happened to Discipleship?
The Evangelical Industrial Complex — “Big Eva” - Big Evangelicalism.
If someone were to ask you, “What is discipleship?” how would you respond?
Perhaps they ask, “Can you define discipleship…both the theory and the practice?” Would you have a good idea of what to say in response?
I fear many in the Church today would struggle with these questions, especially with the practical side of discipleship. They might could answer, “discipleship is teaching” or “discipleship is showing others how to follow Jesus.” But a look at the practical life—the actual lived experience— of many churches and Christians would probably reveal that the majority don’t truly understand discipleship.
Their abstract understanding might be somewhat right, but the real-life experience seems to have gone awry.
Christians aren’t spending their lives with each other, having honest conversations, teaching each other “the Way.” (Acts 19:23)
Rather, it seems Christians are far more content to practically define discipleship as: Church attendance, Sunday School, Bible study, or fellowship time … or something of the like.
Many Christians these days seem content to understand discipleship as a “small-group meeting” or an official “bible-study group.”
For example, if you’re dealing with an issue personally, whether it's needing to read the Bible better or struggling to find joy in life, there are Bible-studies available for that. Just find a church or small group near you offering said study…
If you need to know something about the Bible or the Christian life, just hop over to Lifeway, Christian Book, or Amazon to find all the resources you’ll need.
And herein lies the problem…
The Rise of “Big Eva.” - The Evangelical Industrial Complex
Something is missing from all of these places (Lifeway, ChristianBook, etc)…something essential to the discipleship process. Something has been cut out of the discipling process in order to make discipleship more marketable and profitable for “Big Eva.”
What is the Evangelical Industrial Complex?
-An Industrial complex is “a socioeconomic concept wherein businesses become entwined in social or political systems or institutions, creating or bolstering a profit economy from these systems. Such a complex is said to pursue its own financial interests regardless of, and often at the expense of, the best interests of society and individuals.”
And we’ve got to be honest…we’ve made Evangelicalism into an industrial complex by buying the books, attending the conferences, and continuing to do it ad infinitum.
Disclaimer: I’m not condemning any and all of it. Lots of good has come as a result of the Christian book/conference industry. But we cannot look only at the good and not the bad…because we’ve paid a high cost in it all.
Back to the essentials…or lack thereof…
What is this magic ingredient that gets cut out of mass produced discipleship material?
Well, two things actually, but they go hand in hand: Time and Relationship.
Time and relationship.
The Bible is pretty clear: Lives change over time and in the context of purposeful, intentional, genuine relationship.
Just consider Jesus’ disciples…they changed over a matter of years as they had constant and ongoing contact with Jesus.
He gave them time and relationship.
But something has happened in the modern world that has all but stripped these two essential ingredients from the process…Discipleship became an industry.
An industry is defined as, “a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises.”
So, what do I mean? Well, in the 20th century, people (Americans in particular) began to realize that the Christian market was potentially massive. Therefore, marketing to Christians was big-business…lots of potential revenue and profit sources.
An industry was born…an industry that has become an industrial complex. It is self-insulating, and it focuses on making sure it continues to exist.
And now, you don’t so much need the backing of the Church to break into the Christian book industry, you actually need the backing of the industry to get to the market of the Church.
The Christian book industry took off, Christian Television, Christian music, all of it. But, one of the unintended consequences of all of this—a by-product, if you will— was that it stripped much of what belonged to the Church out of the Church.
The respected Bible teachers and writers—the worthy voices— became those who had book deals and conference speaking slots.
Discipleship became “a study” to be purchased and not so much a way of living.
Nowadays, you head to the latest conference on "discipling" instead of to the local coffee shop with a friend for conversation and prayer.
And in the midst of it all, an avenue was created for men and women to now earn their entire living by writing discipleship studies for companies like Lifeway.
Discipleship became a resource to be mass produced — manufactured on a massive scale.
And one of the by-products was that it taught the average Church member that discipleship comes from stores, it has a timetable, and looks a certain way.
By-product: “A secondary and sometimes unexpected or unintended result.”
Another unintentional by-product of the Discipleship industry has been to convince people that discipleship is a buffet. You can pick what you like and avoid what you don’t.
Now, I don’t think Lifeway, ChristianBook, or others meant to redefine discipleship negatively. I think their original intention was to flood Churches with resources for discipleship. But, I also believe the modern state of discipleship is an unintended by-product of the Discipleship industry.
Just think…what were Christians doing for discipleship just 100 years ago? Much less, 2000 years ago? What were the faithful using in the 800’s, and the 1250’s?
What studies, books were they reading? What conferences were they attending?
A Word from Wendell
In an essay entitled, “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems,” Wendell Berry makes a profound point about small-scale farming as opposed to the big business of Agriculture…
“Farming is inherently cyclic, capable of regenerating and reproducing itself indefinitely…but it becomes destructive and self-exhausting when transformed into an industry.”
Discipleship is much the same: “Cyclic, capable of regenerating and reproducing itself indefinitely.” Biblical discipleship is not an industry, but we’ve made it into one. And like Berry notes with farming, when its made into an industry, it becomes destructive and self-exhausting. But what do I mean?
What makes something destructive? Many things can, but misuse of things, in particular, can make them destructive. In this case, discipleship has become destructive because it has been taken out of its biblical context and forced into something else. It has, in effect, become non-discipleship.
The Discipleship industry has unintentionally, yet effectively replaced…
A way of living with a study to be attended.
Relationships with Bible-studies.
In-Person shepherds with Professional speakers.
The Bible with books.
Real relationships with acquaintances.
Slowness with speed.
Natural reproduction with forced multiplication.
The Church body with the Expert.
By flooding the market with materials and books and studies, “Big Eva” unintentionally convinced the modern church member that discipleship is something the Church can't accomplish on its own. And in the wake of it all, many Christians are left with no idea how to actually disciple one another. Instead of involving ourselves in each other's lives, consistently teaching each other “the way” of following Jesus, we settle for books on manhood and womanhood, studies on grief and anger, etc. Christians might know how to recommend a book or study, but they’ve lost the skill to grieve with the hurting, hear the confession of sin from a fellow Christian, confront a fellow Christian in their sin, prepare for communion, pray the Bible, etc…
The Evangelical industrial complex has stripped discipleship of its primary context and made it into something different. Big Eva has misused Discipleship, and thus, made it dangerous in some ways. And the by-product is that instead of building us up into Christians clad in the full armor of God, many are left with an oversized sword, one sandal, or a loose belt. We look like David wearing Saul's armor. It’s become destructive.
But, also, Big Eva’s model of discipleship is self-exhausting. It does not have what it needs within itself to keep the process going indefinitely. Rather, it must always keep the disciple coming back for more; it must always be pumping out something new…
A new study, a new book, a new conference, etc.
Recall the definition of an industrial complex…“creating or bolstering a profit economy from these systems. Such a complex is said to pursue its own financial interests regardless of, and often at the expense of, the best interests of society and individuals.”
How would Big Eva businesses survive if the application of a study was, “Go and do this same thing in the Church…and keep doing it.” Things wouldn’t go very well for that business model. It would find itself depleted fairly quickly.
But that's the point! Biblical discipleship, as Berry talks about farming, is cyclic. It follows a cycle and then it starts over. One Christian disciples another, and eventually the one being discipled becomes the disciple-maker and they both begin again. Nothing new; just faithfulness.
This is not to say that Christians should not ever use a prepackaged study. They certainly have their place, but they are doorways at best. Real discipleship can never be packed into one or two studies. Discipleship, after all, is about learning “the way” of following Jesus.
But when our model of discipleship is just an endless line of formal Bible-studies, that becomes exhausting. It is not sustainable. It's not reproducible. As a matter of fact, those types of groups never do seem to multiply themselves. They seem to be insulated and immune to healthy change and growth. They become dependent on the next resource from Big Eva.
A Discipleship Answer to a Discipleship Problem
Where to from here? The solution can seem impossible to see…if there is, even, a solution. But, the answer is fairly straightforward: The way to wean ourselves off of an endless line of discipleship studies is to just be intentional about being in relationships with people. Opportunities to talk about Jesus are boundless…
Christian parents should be regularly talking with their children about the things of God, reading the Bible, praying, disciplining with purpose, etc.
Christian Friends ought to truly enjoy one another in and through Jesus Christ; they ought to build their friendship around Christ, the things of God, etc.
Church members ought to be seeking out others to share the love of Christ with through simple acts of kindness, generosity, and help.
In his book, Mentor, Chuck Lawless talks of how discipleship happens in conversations about marriage, parenting, how to balance a Checkbook, how to paint a house, grill a steak, buy life-insurance, deal with extended family problems, solve a personal crisis, etc.
The problem is that we’ve been convinced to look outside the Church for these things, but God is not redeeming a people outside the Church. He is not giving the Spirit of wisdom and revelation to the world. He is not indwelling the local bookstore or study group. God is redeeming His Church.
And He has entrusted the work of discipling to the Church.
It is high time for the Church to take up the hard work of discipling, not being so dependent of what some company sells, but on taking the Bible seriously in each other’s lives.