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In my previous post, I argued that consumerism has affected the church in ways that we rarely consider. We don’t try to convince church members that they need to be buying more stuff, but our structure and overall approach does tend to communicate that each person’s role in the church is more about consuming the goods and services (in both senses of that term) that we offer and less about living as the body of Christ. In this model, church is where we go, it’s the organization that plans our activities; but it’s not necessarily who we are.

Notice that you can be very involved, you can have a great heart, and you can be doing genuinely beneficial things within this consumerist model. There is a real difference between consuming lattes and consuming sermons and programs that help you learn more about God. I don’t mean to suggest that the consumerist model that has influenced most of our churches is somehow wicked, but I am suggesting that this consumerist approach shapes our lives in unintended ways.

In this post, I want to explore the concept of discipleship and how the consumerist mentality might be skewing your perception of it.

 

First, Keep the Church in Proper Perspective

I want to present discipleship in the highest possible terms. From the moment that sin entered the world in Genesis 3, God has been at work to reverse the effects of the fall. His plan of redemption focused in on Abraham, then Israel. It played itself out through the kings and the prophets. And then God’s plan of redemption took on flesh in Jesus. For the disciples, it was obvious that through Jesus, God was bringing his plan to redeem the world to completion.

But when Jesus died, raised from the dead, and returned to his Father, he handed the mission to the Church and sent the Holy Spirit to empower us for this purpose. So the Church is more important than we can imagine because God has made it so. As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

The Church carries on the mission, and Jesus gave us the mission in two words: make disciples. So whatever goals or plans we have for our churches, they had better fit within that command to make disciples. We are not allowed to have plans for our churches that do not fit within God’s plan for his Church.

 

Small ChurchThen, Evaluate Your Church’s Programs

And this brings us to church programs. Jesus never commanded us to have men’s ministries or women’s ministries or youth groups or any of the other programs that fill our church bulletins. Does this make our programs bad? Of course not. But it should make us think about what our programs are for. Since Jesus set disciple making as the church’s agenda, our church programs need to be focused on making disciples.

I’ve seen many great examples of programs that create disciples. I’ve seen ministries that help men and women grow in their ability to follow Jesus and provide them with tools and opportunities to reach out and make disciples. Programs are not bad. But if we’re not careful, programs can become focused on hundreds of things that are unrelated to making disciples. I’m not anti-program at all, but I am firmly convinced that programs can become a distraction.

So the crucial thing is that we evaluate our programs to ensure that the busyness in our churches is focused on making disciples.

In the consumerist church, programs are the unspoken goal of the church. If we can get people attending services and participating in programs, then we’ve got a successful church. But if our people are fully engaged in programs, yet they are not growing as disciples or actively making disciples, then our churches are actually not pursuing the mission Jesus left for us.

Ask yourself what your programs are producing. Who is coming out of these programs? Are you producing people who sit in on program after program, who can work through curriculum with the best of them, who know which services and series they need to attend in order to be fed? Or are your programs producing people who are actively meeting needs, who are following Jesus in real-life situations, who can skillfully and lovingly show a friend, neighbor, or coworker what it looks like to follow Jesus? One of these is a legitimate goal for our churches, the other is not. One fits the consumerist model, the other does not.

All of the momentum in the modern church movement pushes us to continue with the consumerist model: keep attending, keep signing up, keep being fed. And we may indeed become better disciples and disciple makers through attending, signing up, and being fed. But this is the not the end goal. If our people are not taking the next step and making disciples, then our programs have replaced discipleship, and that is a turn of affairs that we have to fight with every fiber of our ecclesiastical being.

 

 

In many American churches, consumerism is being used as a vehicle for the gospel. With lessons gleaned from the entertainment industry and the world of marketing, these churches present the gospel using forms of communication familiar to every American. Many people hear the gospel through this type of church. It’s effective. But should they being doing this? And what do we mean when we say it’s effective?

[For any theology/missiology nerds reading this, what I’m seeking to address here is an issue that involves contextualization and syncretism. If you care to explore that connection, view this footnote: [1]]

So let’s consider the consumerist model of doing church. Consumerism is all about creating products that will appeal to consumers. In the church, this can look like anything from performance-oriented bands to entertaining sermons to polished programs. I can sense many of you preparing to throw stones at other churches at this point, so before you do that, consider: all of our churches do this to some extent. I have yet to encounter a church in North America that avoids all elements of the consumerist model. I want to be clear that the enemy is not entertainment, programs, or “being relevant.”

It’s easy to be superficial in our dismissal of consumerism in churches: “Their worship is so showing…they’re so ‘seeker sensitive’…people are only going to that church because the children’s ministry is a huge production…” But the problem is actually far deeper than all that.

It’s not wrong for people to be entertained. It’s not wrong for pastors to carefully craft their sermons so their congregation will be entertained so they will stay engaged so they will take another step on their spiritual journey. Skill, professionalism, excellence—these are not the problem.

The problem with consumerist models of doing church is the way this approach shapes us. And it does shape us—deeply.

Visit the mall regularly and you will be shaped. You won’t notice the shaping, of course. You think you’re going to the mall to complete your errands, or perhaps just to enjoy the atmosphere. But you’re being trained to view life in a certain way. You’re imbibing an embodied vision of “the good life.” You are “listening” to powerful “sermons” about the way your life could be if you’d only shop here, if you’d only adopt this lifestyle, if you’d just give this product a try.

Why are so many people going to quickly purchase the new iPhone 6s when it releases? (Or the Android equivalent.) No one is actually eager to buy it for the two or three things it can do slightly better than the previous version. People are going to quickly adopt the newest iPhone because the advertisers are masters at training our desires. They know how to bypass the head and go for the gut. The malls, the commercials, the coffee shops, the auto dealers, the layout of our cities—all of it pushes us towards a specific version of the good life: have this, live this way, and you’ll be happy.

Now mentally walk into an American suburban church. The service is carefully tailored to appeal to you. Programs are designed to meet your needs. You choose which church activities you want to sign up for. The church staff is the production company and you are the consumer.

“It’s different,” you might say. “I’m not being offered a ‘product,’ I’m being offered Jesus. I’m being drawn into worship.” Yes and yes. And this is why I’m not accusing the consumerist mentality of being evil. People do come to know Jesus through this approach—often!

am arguing, however, that this approach subtly shapes our view of the gospel, its purpose, and our role in the mission of God. For the first Christians, church was anything but consumeristic. They didn’t need to advertise programs to meet one another’s needs. Their lives were intertwined enough that they just knew where the needs were and did what they could to meet them.

When church is set up in such a way that every aspect of our spiritual life is presented like a sales pitch, wrapped in entertainment value, and tailored to catch our fancy, we’re bound to misunderstand the purpose of it all. We’re bound to miss the reality that we don’t go to church or volunteer at church, we are the church. When we embrace the consumerist mentality, we get the impression that all God expects of us is to sit in on services and attend programs.

But there’s more to the Christian life than this. And the tragedy of the consumerist model is that we’ll never allow our people to experience how much more there is until we stop marketing to them. The gospel calls us to self-denial, not savvy shopping. We have to find a way to view the people in our churches as members of a body rather than costumers, attendees, or even volunteers.

So instead of assuming that attracting large groups and gathering loads of signups for our programs is a neutral way of communicating the gospel, what if we all stopped to consider how our approach to “doing church” shapes the people we’re reaching out to? What if we asked if there is a better way to do what we’re doing, a way that will communicate the gospel effectively without unintentionally validating the consumeristic mentality of the shopping mall? The reality is that many of our churches are doing pretty well in this respect, but we could all afford to do better.

 


[1] In my missiology classes, we talk about principles of missions: how to best present the gospel in a certain culture. One important concept we discuss is “contextualization.” How do we take the cultural forms we encounter in a given society and accurately express the gospel in terms that are familiar and compelling to that group of people? For example, when you enter a Middle Eastern society, you’ll want to start by presenting the gospel in the local language. That much is easy. Other questions are more difficult: Should we refer to “God” (a generic English term for the Divine Being) as “Allah” (a generic Arabic term for the Divine Being)? Or does that go beyond contextualization and enter the realm of “syncretism,” which is missions-talk for mixing two religions together? The goal is to find the cultural forms that can best express the gospel and to avoid those that might distort the gospel. It’s not easy to do, but it’s an important concept. Missionaries and missiologists are careful to think through these questions as they bring the gospel to new cultures. Yet few in America have ever considered how the cultural forms they utilize affect the gospel message they are trying to communicate. Specific to this post, how can we contextualize the gospel in North American cultural forms while avoiding syncretistically distorting the gospel? My argument is basically that utilizing the consumeristic methods of the shopping mall have led us past contextualization and into syncretism.

 

Jesus is Lord—over all of life! Unfortunately, many Christians fail to consider the implications of Jesus’ lordship over anything other than their church life. This is particularly true when it comes to a person’s educational and career choices.

David Kinnaman, in his recent book You Lost Me, explains some startling statistics about the way Christians approach education. Only 16% of Christians report learning how the Bible applies to their field or area of interest. This means that 84% of Christians spend their lives in a career, but have never been taught how their Christian faith should play out in that career!

And the problem begins earlier than a person’s career. Kinnaman also found that only 11% of Christians report receiving helpful input from a pastor or church worker about their education.

Eternity Blog Image (Re-Imagine Education)The implications? The church is sending young people out to be educated and devote their lives to a career, but we are leaving them clueless as to how their faith informs their education or career. We may be doing a good job of teaching them about church life, but we are not preparing the next generation to take their faith beyond church walls.

We all hear horror stories about our kids losing their faith in college. While it seems these statistics have been exaggerated, this remains a legitimate concern. But perhaps the more disturbing reality is that Christians are entering their education and career without Christian guidance related to their field. This practically guarantees that they will adopt a worldly standard of success in their careers, and sets them up to waste what could be a fruitful mission field.

The solution to these problems is holistic gospel living. We need to see how the gospel shapes all of life: our education, our careers, our church life—all of it!

This is our mission at Eternity Bible College. Because the church needs help in training the next generation to think and live biblically in all of life, our mission is to partner with churches in shaping people into world-changers.

Boot Camp AdWe do this with a war-time mentality. We believe that college should look more like a boot camp than a country club, so we train people to live and die well. Think of Eternity Bible College as a boot camp for life, for college, for your career, for your ministry, for your God-given mission. The cost is low, the academic and spiritual rigor is high, and the result will transform your mind and heart before you enter the mission field in your college or career.

Give us one year before you enter college and we’ll train you to understand the Bible and all of its implications for your major and career.

Or give us one year after you graduate from college and we’ll train you to understand the Bible and all of its implications for your field.

The Bible is extremely relevant to everything you want to do in life. Your interests, your studies, and your career are essential to the mission that God has given you to accomplish in this world. We simply cannot afford to send out well-intentioned Christians who have no clue how their faith relates to their life’s work. We all spend years preparing ourselves for our professional careers. But how much time have you given to preparing yourself for your primary calling of making disciples through your life and career?

Invest a year into our Certificate in Transformational Leadership program. Enroll in spiritual boot camp. Ensure that the years you invest in your education and career are gospel-saturated and effective for the sake of God’s kingdom. Learn more here.

Josh GraumanAs I mentioned in my previous blog, I am excited to be starting a new program in South LA for training cross-cultural church planters. In this post I want to dive in to what the program is going to look like.

My heart as a pastor is to walk in discipleship with people. Some might take that to mean that study should be informal and non-structured, but discipleship doesn’t mean “non-academic.” Discipleship should include rigorous study of Scripture. We have designed The Apprenticeship to include both structured teaching (a full 3-year, 93-unit M.Div. level program), as well as walking alongside our pastors in inner-city ministry. We will study Hebrew, Greek, and Genesis to Revelation chapter by chapter.

Why go into so much depth in such a “practical” program (roughly 75% of the formal program is Bible and original languages)? In short, it is because we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. Studying the Bible in depth is extremely practical. While some may view Judges, Jonah, or Jude to be books that may change your theology but aren’t very practical, we believe each of these books have massive implications for your daily lives and topics as commonplace as how you relate to your next-door neighbor.

At Eternity Bible College, we spend about half of our class time doing Biblical Theology. This means that we study Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, which allows us to focus on what God focuses on in the Bible. As a professor, I don’t choose the topics that are important to me. God has already set our agenda in Scripture. And by walking through Scripture chapter by chapter, we can see how revelation unfolds in God’s time, and keep context primary in our study.

We are adopting this same model for studying Scripture in The Apprenticeship. Students will develop the tools to derive their theology and practice from Scripture alone, and will be freed from the shackles of pragmatism and legalism.

This fits perfectly into our vision of equipping apprentices to plant churches cross-culturally. Church planters must be able to rigorously study Scripture on their own, and know how to derive theology, philosophy of ministry, and application to a wide variety of circumstances and topics. Every culture is unique, and yet the Bible is the answer to all the problems of every subculture around the world. So that’s why such a large portion of our program focuses on teaching the apprentices how to rightly divide the Word and apply it in various contexts. (Click for more info on the importance of Biblical Theology or Hebrew and Greek.)

Hebrew BibleYet we still believe that our study of Scripture must be applied to daily life or it hasn’t been understood correctly. In fact, it is impossible to understand the Bible as God intended without applying it to real life. The Bible addresses our thoughts, motives, and lifestyles, and so to understand it properly we must be in contexts where these are dealt with. And so that is why I am so passionate about the rest of our program. There will be lots of time for “fireside” discussions, prayer, and doing ministry and life together. Although I am going to be heading up the program, our apprentices will also learn from and walk with other pastors as we minister in the inner city together. Here we have cultures colliding as many hispanics are moving into one of the oldest African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and we have the privilege of planting a church here that brings the unity and hope of the gospel.

Once again there is a lot more information on our website, but that gives you an idea of what I am going to be embarking upon. We would ask that you keep us in prayer and if you know anyone interested in training for cross-cultural church planting, that you direct them our way! Click here for more info.

Josh GraumanI recently announced that I will be leading an internship program through my church, Cornerstone South LA. We call it The Apprenticeship, and it’s designed to train cross-cultural church planters. This is something that has been in my mind for quite a long time, and I’m excited to see it becoming a reality.

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I have always viewed myself first and foremost as a pastor. For the past ten years I have loved being a part of what Eternity Bible College is doing, investing in students, and even being able to help design the curriculum. I love Eternity’s heart and vision. And yet I have always felt a tension when teaching students that I have not been able to disciple outside of the classroom. As much as I can teach students in class, my passion is to invest in people through the local church.

It was this tension that led me to pursue teaching the Old Testament module at our Simi Valley campus. The last few years have been amazing as I’ve been able to teach the same group of students for nine hours every week, guiding them through the entire Old Testament. This has been a great experience for me and I know the process benefits the students. Yet my heart yearns for the kind of discipleship that can only take place outside of the classroom.

The Bible was written to deal with real life. So it is only in the context of life that we can really understand and apply what the Bible is trying to teach us. If we are only thinking about the Bible in a theoretical way, we are missing the point! As Jesus says, all true learning results in becoming like your teacher (Luke 6:40). That is why I always encourage students who are pursuing further education not to go study under “smart” people, but under people they want to emulate.

The Apprenticeship

This tension between academic learning and practical application is at the heart of everything Eternity Bible College does. I have observed that it is only when I am walking with students in the context of real life that I can bring up things that we learned in class that apply to specific situations. It is only when we see weaknesses or blind spots in real life that we can remind each other about what we have learned.

So I want to spend whatever time I have left on this earth investing in life-on-life discipleship. We are all here on this earth to fulfill our God-given mission to make disciples.

As I teach in a classroom setting, I know that my students are walking with their pastors and church families to apply the truths they are learning in the classroom. This is something Eternity requires and takes very seriously. As I evaluate my own heart, I want to take personal responsibility for those whom I am teaching, as Paul commands Timothy to do (2 Tim. 2:2). I want to walk with younger men in the trenches of local church ministry as we flesh out the deep truths of Scripture that we are learning in class. I believe this is something that God has gifted me to do, and I am excited to invest more deeply into a smaller group in the context of inner city ministry.

In a future post I will talk a little bit about what the program will look like, but in the meantime, feel free to look at the program website.