This morning I read Michael Patton’s post at Parchment and Pen in which he “sounds the alarm” about the dearth of good teaching in evangelical churches. He quotes someone who describes American as “3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep.” It’s a criticism I’ve heard at the church I attend, one which the leadership has recently been trying to address by offering more adult classes on the Bible and theology.
Comments on Patton’s post generally agree about the problem, but add some cautions about the solution. As one person points out, in-depth Bible knowledge can certainly co-exist with shallow discipleship, because ultimately discipleship is about how we live and not just what we know. The current situation developed, in part, to avoid that extreme, but instead of producing solid disciples it often produced professing Christians with depth to neither their faith nor their knowledge.
I started asking myself just how one could measure genuine discipleship. Time spent in Bible study? Or at least frequency of Bible reading? Extent of involvement in ministry, either within the church or in the larger community? I found many discussions of the subject that emphasized that it’s not about numbers, either numbers of people involved in church programs or the amount of time they spend in those programs. And while a disciple will read and study the Bible, someone who reads and studies the Bible is not always a disciple.
I’m the kind of person who particularly likes goals that can be measured (one reason I liked school was because I always knew how well I measured up – of course it helped that I always measured up very well). But the true “measures” of discipleship defy quantifying. Jesus said people would know we are disciples by our love for each other. How do you measure love? He also said we show our love for God by obeying Him. How do you measure obedience? (Easy if you have a list of do’s and don’ts, but those lists inevitably leave off some of our most serious faults before God.)
One article I read described a survey given to a large number of Christians, in which they gave a self-assessment of themselves in areas such as Bible reading, prayer, telling someone else how to become a Christian, changing one’s behavior in response to realizing that it was wrong, and a number of other behaviors. Then they were given the same survey a year later. Most of them felt they had grown spiritually during the past year, but by the measures used, barely three percent had really shown any significant progress.
It could be, of course, that the measures were not the right ones. But knowing myself, as well as other Christians at church, it’s quite easy to believe that the survey was accurate in showing that little spiritual growth has in fact taken place. I really can’t say I’m in a much different place, spiritually, than I was a year ago. And that’s a discouraging thought.
I wish I could come up with a formula, a method, a checklist – something that I could follow step-by-step to get from point A to point B. I’ve read a variety of books or articles that claim to have the answer to what so many Christians have been missing. Take your pick: it’s small groups; it’s understanding our position in Christ; it’s the right kind of Bible study; it’s learning to listen to God; it’s the right kind of discipleship program; it’s getting rid of a particular sin in our lives.
I would guess anyone who’s been a Christian for some time realizes there’s no single answer. All of those (listed in the previous paragraph) are important, and for each one, it was the answer in turning around some people’s lives. But God has to work in each of us in different ways, and trying to adopt someone else’s breakthrough program often brings as much disappointment as spiritual progress.
Sometimes I wonder if my problem is being too introspective – maybe it’s better to just keep doing the things I’m doing right than worry about what I should be doing better. But that too easily becomes a justification for complacency. Still, I could probably better spend my time by sitting down with my Bible and with God than by thinking aloud on my blog.
And with that, I’ll sign out and go take my own advice.