I love my church, and there are very few things it does that both anger and hurt me. In specific terms, I hate it when my own church hates — when it goes out of its way to judge and revile and hold God’s children in contempt. We affirm their goodness then tell them we don’t want them. This is awful. But in the broad and general sense, nothing angers me more than cheapening our Christian faith, watering it down to make it more palatable and easy to do. I sat through a beautiful worship service at General Conference on Monday night (April 30) then had the whole thing ruined by an infomercial for our “Vital Congregations” emphasis. Each of our conferences committed “goal cards” that redefined “Christian discipleship” as attending church, being in a small group, or giving money to the church. (Some did commit to mission projects/work, but not too many). So, what we have now communicated to the world is that discipleship is not about sacrifice, or supreme commitment, or risk, or even death (forget all that icky cross stuff…), but about going to church when we feel like it. We have taken the Biblical teachings attributed to Jesus, and made them simple and easy and cheap. And ALL of our bishops stepped up to witness to this new, disciple-lite definition.
Now, I have been engaged in this discussion for quite some time, and I realize I am in the minority. I have been told in no uncertain terms by the agency that I formerly worked for that if we make “discipleship” less intimidating, it will attract more young people. I have heard that expecting people to adopt spiritual disciplines and to align one’s life with the teachings of Jesus is unrealistic and might drive people from the church. I had it explained to me that since we cannot expect people to rise to the level of authentic discipleship, we need to lower the standards and description of discipleship to make it more attainable to average United Methodists. My position that discipleship is a lifestyle and relationship to which we should challenge and nurture church attendees has been refuted by church leaders at all levels. But, I haven’t changed my mind.
I understand that our driving goal and vision is size and numbers. I get that. I also realize that a committed Christian life is not for everyone and that if we make authentic discipleship our goal, we will lose a lot of people and attract fewer. I can understand the low expectations and I even understand why people are downgrading discipleship to be open to all. In 1998, I conducted a survey that showed that 71% of United Methodist’s defined discipleship as “believing that Jesus is God’s Son.” All that has happened is that this has now been adopted as the UM standard. It really helps us live with our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” As long as discipleship is defined in simplistic, non-demanding terms the church doesn’t have to get serious about changing. What we are already doing is good enough.
But what are the long-term implications of cheapening discipleship? In the short run, it may make us more attractive and popular — like a diploma mill granting degrees to anyone who pays the fee. We can achieve our growth goals without raising expectations or developing standards of accountability. All we have to do is change our language, and viola — members become disciples, attendees become disciples, and regular visitors become disciples — the church grows!
Dollar General exists to make cheap products available to everyone. It’s a very profitable business. The question with which we must wrestle is this: Is Dollar General a good model for the church to follow? We have been challenged to be more like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart in the past, why not Dollar General now? Perhaps I am making a mountain out of a molehill, but I honestly believe that discipleship requires a higher level of commitment than just joining a church. My greatest fear is that if we cheapen life in Christ as a disciple, we are in danger of bankrupting the faith.