The current crisis of the evangelical church in America is being called a “massive discipleship failure caused by a massive catechesis failure.”1 The ideologies of our age have grown more magnetic and are both infiltrating and fragmenting the church. Even where such destruction is avoided, we no longer have sufficient common ground with our neighbors to enjoy the passive formational benefits of a Judeo-Christian culture.
For some time, I have been thinking about what it would have taken to be a church inoculated against 2020, and I am convinced the church must develop a more robust paradigm for Christian education. I have in mind here, not private K-12 schools or colleges, but Christian education in the context of the church: Christian education as discipleship. Although the format for this type of education can and should be diverse, whether sermon series, Sunday School classes, Bible study curriculum, or more likely all the above, we need a framework to set the agenda for the whole education, as well as help us assess where our individual congregations are currently at and what is still required.
The goal is disciples who are equipped to live out a Christian vision of life in the context of our present world. No matter the topic, be it sexuality, social justice, or faith and work, a complete Christian education has four components, which here we will call Theology, Anthropology, Missiology, and Doxology. We will take each of the four in turn.
A Christian education must begin theologically. This requires more than chapter-and-verse references to a particular topic and more than just expressing the clear commands of scripture. A theological approach is rooted in God’s character, works and plan. Articulating a theology of a topic means that we present not just the what of a Christian ethic but the why. A theological approach to a given topic helps disciples navigate through the lenses of Creation: God’s purpose and design, the Fall: where sin and the curse interfere with and hinder that design, Redemption: how salvation in Jesus Christ remedies what has gone wrong, and Consummation: the hope we have as Christians that sets the trajectory for our life. Altogether, a theological approach provides a worldview which not only presents the Christian life but explains it as well.
On top of having a biblical and theological view of a topic, our disciples also need to understand the view of the culture around us. The anthropological component in Christian education makes the theological component conversant with the world we live in. It is here where the core beliefs of our culture should be identified, as well as their history traced. In any given culture, we should be able to affirm what the culture gets right, reject what it gets wrong, and redeem its unfulfilled desires, showing how Christianity better meets their longings.
When our disciples are not equipped with an anthropology of their time and place, they will not be able to identify where their own lives are being shaped by the culture they live and breathe … thus they will be conformed to this world. Without an anthropology our disciples will also struggle to communicate the gospel in all its abundant-life-fullness to the world they live in. Failure here leads to ideological compromise in our churches, as well as the fear-fueled label-making which throws around culture war terms without being able to define or discuss them (and ironically leaves them vulnerable to other sub-Christian ideologies).
The context for the faithful Christian life is the local church. Disciples are not called to follow Jesus as individuals but as part of his community, fulfilling the “one-anothers” of the New Testament. This means that a Christian education is incomplete without extrapolating the resources and agenda God has given to the church. I will confess, this is an area where many of us are so weak that it makes it difficult to illustrate, but consider the Christian sexual ethic. The church, by design, is a family (Matthew 12:46-50; 1 Tim 5:1-2). Jesus in fact envisions it as the family for those who are rejected by their own (Mark 10:30), or excluded from marriage by their bodies, or their devotion to Jesus (Matthew 19:10-12). It is this loving community that makes a Christian sexual ethic joyful and possible. Without it, we condemn the single and celibate to isolation and are worthy of Jesus’ criticism as those who lay heavy burdens and do not help bear them (Matthew 23:4). Missiology means casting this vision, designing our ministries in ways that include and incorporate single people, and exhorting all Christians to live out their responsibilities to love their Christian brothers and sisters, not just their biological family. When we disciple our congregation in missiology, we form not just disciples but God’s new community, the church, and in doing so accomplish God’s mission.
Christian education is never complete until it is lived out. Disciples are not called to merely know Jesus or his will but to follow him. Therefore, our paradigm is incomplete without doxology: worshipping God by growing in his ways. The doxological aspect of Christian education requires a slight shift in posture. Whereas the above components are primarily instructional, doxology requires dialogue. It also requires wisdom and even creativity as we seek to apply God’s word in our specific lives at this specific moment.
Because sanctification is a lifelong process, this part of Christian education is open and ongoing, asking again and again what is the next step in following Jesus. Even where this requires repentance, creativity and support is often necessary to pick up the pieces and pursue obedience. Doxology is also the pinnacle of the growing specificity across the aspects of a Christian education.
Theology is universal and unchanging. Anthropology focuses on the unique culture of a particular church’s time and place. Missiology narrows the field to this local church. And doxology moves to the individual choices and context of each disciple.
As leaders and pastors, we must expand our understanding of discipleship to include the four categories above. Jesus has appointed us to bear fruit (John 15:16). To make fruitful disciples, we must help them lay deep roots in Theology, help them to understand the soil in which they grow through Anthropology, help them see themselves as branches of God’s tree the church in Missiology, and bear the specific fruit for this season in Doxology. Lord willing, doing so will create disciples who live robust and distinctively Christian lives of joyful obedience and present a witness that is winsome and worthy of Jesus and his gospel.
1 James Ernest quoted in The Atlantic, "The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart."
2 For a great example of this on sexuality see Jonathan Grant’s book Divine Sex. On Social Justice see Timothy Keller’s article, "A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory."