“To be honest, I’m starting to believe that God may not even be real.”
These words, uttered by the student sitting across the table, haunted me as we finished up our lunches. They did not, unfortunately, come as a surprise. As Drs. Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark point out in Sticky Faith, as many as 40 to 50% of “church kids” will abandon their faith before the end of college. I thanked my friend for his honesty and transparency, and reassured him that both the Lord and I continued to welcome and desire his fellowship – doubts and all.
I asked the student to explain how his crisis of faith developed, and was floored to hear the underlying catalyst of his doubts.
“People have led me to pray to receive Christ two or three times. I keep hearing that after I pray the prayer, my life will be totally different. But so far, nothing has changed.”
As he boxed up his leftovers, the student continued, “Since I’ve done my part, and since nothing has changed, I guess the powerful, life-changing God I keep hearing about isn’t really there…”
The Tendency to Mass-Produce Conversions
Mass-production refers to the process of creating large numbers of similar products efficiently. A standardized assembly process allows for a large volume of output to be produced using relatively small amounts of time and resources. From the cars we drive to the clothes we wear (and everything in-between), we’ve all reaped the benefits of mass-production. But as my friend’s story illustrates, the effects can be disastrous when we take a mass-production approach to evangelism and discipleship.
Undoubtedly sincere and well-intentioned, the people who led my friend in “The Sinner’s Prayer” followed a standardized evangelistic process with the aim of producing a large number of disciples in a short amount of time. Unintentionally, the first steps in the discipleship process (confession of sinfulness and initial surrender to Christ’s reign) had been communicated to my friend as the entirety of what it meant to follow Jesus, and thus the complete pathway to receive the full benefits of discipleship.
This is an over-simplified, “mass-production” view of discipleship. And like so many mass-produced goods, it was quickly wearing thin and in danger of being discarded.
Without downplaying the importance of initial repentance and surrender, Jesus offers a more complete definition of discipleship in John 12:25-26: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also…”
To follow Jesus is to enjoy complete and eternal union with Christ, or, to paraphrase John’s Gospel, to “be where Jesus is” (for all of eternity). We don’t take up our crosses and lay down our lives in order to earn an audience with Jesus. Rather, we do them as the result of already having that audience, abiding in perfect intimacy with the one who first did those things for us.
Discipleship means we are blessed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). Yet, according to John 12:25-26, it is precisely in sharing the death of our King that we are welcomed into the fullness of his eternal life.
Those who are guaranteed to partake in the resurrection of Christ will not be spared from carrying his cross. The student with whom I was speaking had a much different understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus.
Two Ways to Guard against Mass-Produced Conversions
Used properly, guided prayers can be helpful tools for allowing new believers to process and verbalize the work which the Holy Spirit has initiated in their hearts. But based on the experience which I described above, I would identify two precautions of which all disciple-makers should be mindful.
First, let’s beware of using tools like “The Sinner’s Prayer” as a means for bringing about conversions which aren’t really taking place. The salvation of sinners is not a function of the efficiency of our evangelism, but of “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Let’s be the evangelistic conduits through whom the Holy Spirit enlivens hearts, while also being careful not to emotionally or verbally manipulate people into making a disingenuous response to the gospel message.
Second, we should be mindful that helpful tools such as “The Sinner’s Prayer” are only the beginning of what it means to live as a disciple. Justification may be secured in a moment, but growth in godliness is a journey which lasts a lifetime. How I wish that someone would have explained to my friend that, until Jesus returns to make all things new, our inner union with Christ will be perpetually juxtaposed with the messy, sin-stained realities which accompany life in a fallen world.
Reducing discipleship to anything less than eternal union with Christ, or promising the benefits of discipleship apart from its costs, cheapens God’s grace and does a disservice to those to whom we minister. We may falsely guarantee salvation to the unregenerate. Alternatively, we may set new believers up to have their own crises of faith when they first partake of the sufferings of Christ.
A Word to Those Who Minister to Children and Youth
These precautions carry special weight for those who shepherd the hearts of children and youth. The Barna Group identifies that “two out of three born again Christians (64%) made [their] commitment to Christ before their 18th birthday.” Imagine the cumulative impact upon the American church if, within a generation, 64% (or more) of new believers embodied a proper understanding of conversion and discipleship! As the church seeks to decrease the number of students who leave the faith after high school, we’ll likely be better served by re-tooling our approaches to “catching” these students, as opposed to constantly developing new ways to “keep” them.
In Disciple-Making, Taking Your Time isn’t Wasting Your Time
People aren’t raw materials on stand-by for production. They are bearers of God’s image, groaning for reconciliation. Each has unique experiences, gifts, temptations, struggles, and wounds; the unchanging truth of the gospel message is best presented as these realities are considered, person to person. Unlike the mass-produced factory goods of our current era, no “conversion story” will look the same as another. God is not so unimaginative.
A mass-production approach to discipleship may yield large numbers of evangelistic “responses” in a relatively short amount of time. But as most of us have experienced, handmade goods crafted from quality materials are much more likely to withstand the tests of time. And while we often view mass-produced goods as virtually disposable, we tend to treasure the quality goods of old, preserving them to pass on to future generations. May the same be said of the fruits of our disciple-making.