Saturday, October 21, 2006

Reflections on Discipleship 3: Barriers to Following Christ

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In this post I want to raise two important barriers to Christian discipleship. My wife and I were recently in a neighborhood showing of The Truth Project. It is a DVD series intended to convey the Christian worldview, especially to Christians and spiritual seekers. The conversation that followed fascinated me when it came to reflecting on belief formation in general and Christian discipleship specifically.

As a result of our conversation, and many others I have had with Christians and non-Christians over the years, I see at least two serious barriers to becoming thorough followers of Christ: individualism, and our current attitude toward authority.

The two attitudes are closely related but have a subtle distinction in this context. By individualism I intend to convey the idea that many people in our culture consider themselves the most important guide in the formation of their spiritual beliefs. Most people would not consider themselves the primary source of good information on biology, constitutional law, quantum theory, simple math, or many other things, but they do when it comes to spiritual truths. The belief that spiritual matters are not true in the same way that science is true creates the intellectual space in most people to consider themselves to be their own experts on spiritual matters. If, however, we believed that finding spiritual truth is akin to finding quantum truth, we might not be so haughty.

In addition, our current attitude toward authority keeps us from listening seriously to the teachings of the Church, theologians, or any spiritual authority (e.g. the first reaction of many people to the expression of authority is negative). Very simply, we are in a culture that has a basic, and rather deep-seated, distrust of authority. Again, we do not necessarily have that reaction to the resident authority on molecular biology or astronomy, but such terms as “ethical authority” or “religious authority” strike us as oxymoronic.

Why are these problems for Christian discipleship? First of all, finding spiritual truth is not, in a significant way, unlike finding truth in anthropology or astrophysics. All three fields make propositional statements about the structure of reality, and there are better and worse reasons for believing one theory or another. Holding a false belief about anything this fundamental is a barrier to progress. Secondly, individualists who distrust religious authority are less likely to find the right path when they have wondered down the wrong one. Not only will they need to have the wherewithal to reason through their errors, but they also need to be convinced that there are errors at all in the world of the spiritual.

These are a pair of the challenges that face the church of Jesus Christ today. Our pews are filled with latent and fully aware individualists. Our streets are filled with cultural Christians who have no good reason to take anybody’s word but their own when it comes to their spiritual beliefs.


Rusty said...


These are fantastic posts! Please, keep them coming.

BTW, I also see "individualism" as a barrier to proper understanding of the gifts of the Spirit (particularly, the charismatic gifts). When we limit our view of Christianity to that of being a "personal relationship with Jesus," we end up countering the very reasons Paul gives for the gifts - that of the building up and edification of the body, to the glory of God.

Tim Van Tongeren said...

In an extensive cross-cultural study, the most individualistic country of the countries surveyed was... the United States. It would be interesting to see if the problems you discuss in your post are less common in countries which are more collectivist (Latin American countries like Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, Columbia, Costa Rica, and Peru; and Asian countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and Singapore.)

Phil Steiger said...

Thanks, guys! I really do wonder sometimes how these things look in different cultures. From time to time, missionaries have things to say about the rampant individualism of our culture, but I have not engaged with people who are talking about discipleship in other cultures.

Also, those are some great thoughts about pentecostalism and individualism. It has been a standard characteristic in the history of revivalism that it is all about a personal relationship. If nothing else, it has helped fit our cultural individualism into our theology and ecclesiology.