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Discipling Minds for This Cultural Moment

Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of Renew.org and Discipleship.org, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.
Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

Part of Christian discipleship is to disciple minds. In order to help us disciple minds for this cultural moment, we will explore three questions about current Western culture.


You know those “You are here” signs in malls and amusement parks and on hiking trails?

At one time or another, many of us have found ourselves confused about our location and frustrated that our intuition didn’t serve us as well as we thought it should. It’s humbling but helpful to be able to walk up to a “You are here” sign and get our bearings.

This cultural moment is often confusing and frustrating, and so I’ve been seeking out the “You are here” signs. I’m writing in a Western context, having grown up in Canada and now living in the United States. It’s not hard to locate these countries on a map—but where are they when it comes to culture and worldview?

Delving into these questions can be a little frustrating, because it means that we can’t just trust our intuition. And times are changing.

Big time.

Yet “Times are changing” isn’t the same as saying, “The sky is falling.” These changing times aren’t our cue to think like alarmists (even if some of the changes are alarming). Rather, they’re our cue to think like missionaries.


“These changing times aren’t our cue to think like alarmists. Rather, they’re our cue to think like missionaries.”


Faithful disciples of Jesus need to begin seeing themselves as missionaries in an increasingly post-Christian land. This means we are going to have to learn to think like missionaries. We’re going to need to be clear-minded on the ways of Jesus and strategic in how we can connect Jesus to the people around us given their mindsets and value systems.

As missionaries, we will need to focus on the discipleship of the mind – in addition to the heart, soul, and strength. This means we need to think well and seek wisdom and not assume we know everything we need to know. Let’s take the time to lean in and learn about our culture so we can be the most effective missionaries here possible. Here are three questions we’ll be exploring about people discipled by our culture:

  1. How do they diagnose what’s wrong?
  2. How do they decide what’s right?
  3. How do they disciple people?

Some of what we read below will be uncomfortable. Some of what we see in our culture will make us feel a bit how Lot felt when living in an ungodly place (“living among them day after day…tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard,” 2 Peter 2:8). Yet, we’re not first and foremost cultural commentators talking about how bad our culture is getting (although below, I’ll introduce you to some cultural commentators from whom we can learn). We’re first and foremost missionaries strategizing on how we can reach people in this culture for Jesus.


“We’re not first and foremost cultural commentators talking about how bad our culture is getting. We’re first and foremost missionaries strategizing on how we can reach people in this culture for Jesus.”


With that end in mind, here are 3 questions we’d like to delve into when it comes to understanding our increasingly post-Christian culture.

1. How do they diagnose what’s wrong?

So, what’s wrong with the world? All sorts of stuff, according to Christianity. Employers failing to pay their workers (James 5:4). Cities reduced to rubble (Ps. 79:1). Rape (Deut. 22:25). Tyranny (1 Sam. 8:11-18). The futility of life (Eccl. 2:17). We could go on and on.

But Christianity also diagnoses a fundamental problem underneath our human misery: human sin. Genesis 3 narrates (and the rest of the Bible affirms) how rejecting God’s ways lead to anguish.

Although much of Western culture has traditionally been informed by Jewish and Christian thinking, the new dominant worldview of Western elites gives a very different diagnosis to our problems.


“The new dominant worldview of Western elites gives a very different diagnosis to our problems.”


The root problem isn’t sin, but unmerited privilege.

As in, when certain groups in society have privileges which they didn’t earn, that’s what makes things go so wrong. Unmerited privilege is what leads to all the forms of oppression we observe in our world. Privileged people do what they do and believe what they believe in ways that solidify their power and “center” their perspective. Therefore, society needs to compensate in favor of the oppressed, who have been victims of this power imbalance.

If this sounds a bit like Marxism to you, you’re right. Karl Marx was primarily concerned with economic imbalances when he wrote about class struggle (between the bourgeoise and the proletariat), but his social analysis has more recently been applied to power structures in general. This is why a lot of people call the West’s new dominant worldview “cultural Marxism,” as it is a way of training people to see and resist all the oppressive systems in our society.

With cultural Marxism as a lens, you learn to see everyone as either a privileged person who oppresses through maintaining the status quo or an oppressed person victimized through their experiences of being pushed to the margins. Someone may be considered “woke” as a reference to that person being awakened to seeing reality as permeated by this interplay of power and victimization. They can end up seeing it everywhere and calling it out regularly.


“You learn to see everyone as either a privileged person who oppresses through maintaining the status quo or an oppressed person victimized through their experiences of being pushed to the margins.”


As just one example, a student group at Middlebury College in Vermont described this oppressor-oppressed lens well. Notice all of the oppressions which they are finding and calling out on their campus (and how they acknowledge that even this list is not exhaustive):

We are a radical, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, anti-ableist, and anti-homophobic (as well as strongly opposed to all forms of oppression) group that rejects the structurally conservative “liberal” paradigm that exists at Middlebury. The reasons behind our formation are many, but the predominate [sic] one is a feeling of alienation within the campus dialogue—the so-called “free market of ideas” on campus is an illusion, one which exists only to support one strong ideology.

Did you catch their disposition toward the free market of ideas? They call it an illusion, “one which exists only to support one strong ideology.” They are essentially saying that the idea of freedom of speech is itself an under-the-radar way for privileged people to solidify their own power.

Thus, even free speech is seen as a form of oppression to root out—in the name of decentering privileged voices and centering marginalized voices.


“Numerous values once common to Western civilization are seen as inherently oppressive.”


In this same way, numerous values once common to Western civilization are seen as inherently oppressive, including the following four which have huge ramifications for religious freedom in the West (Christian or otherwise):

  • The gender binary (viewing people as either male or female) is said to center cisgender people (people whose gender and sexuality match) and marginalize nonbinary people.
  • Traditional marriage (as between one man and one woman) is said to center heterosexuals and oppress homosexuals and polyamorists.
  • Religious freedom is said to be a disguise for what’s really under the surface: the desire to maintain power and discriminate against others who don’t hold those views.
  • Religious claims to truth are said to be motivated first and foremost by power, because they are ways of bringing people in line with the preferences of the privileged.

This is a fairly radical worldview when set against a backdrop of traditional Western, largely Judeo-Christian values.

So, is this oppressor-oppressed lens basically limited to radical student groups? Not at all. Mainstream schools, businesses, governmental organizations, and entertainment titans have adopted this oppressor-oppressed framework, as often seen in their prioritization of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).


“Mainstream schools, businesses, governmental organizations, and entertainment titans have adopted this oppressor-oppressed framework.”


Longtime Canadian professor Jordan Peterson has had a front-row seat to these cultural changes and in a recent article he argues that “the appalling ideology of diversity, inclusion and equity is demolishing education and business(it’s no accident that he arranges the words to form the acronym DIE; he makes a forceful case that this is how these organizations end up dying).

Christianity’s status as one of the framers of Western, Judeo-Christian values puts it in the crosshairs of a “woke” worldview. Thus, the posture taken toward Christianity is one of deep cynicism.

As missionaries to this culture, we must recognize that, in their diagnosis of what’s wrong with the world, they will be treating our faith as one of the maladies to be rooted out.

Here’s one of the most crucial questions we will need to prayerfully wrestle with: How can we stick to our Christian convictions without simultaneously painting ourselves into the cynical narrative being told about us? In other words, how can we break the narrative we’re being written into—that we’re reactionaries who care only about maintaining our own power—while still holding fast to God’s truth?


“How can we stick to our Christian convictions without simultaneously painting ourselves into the cynical narrative being told about us?”


2. How do they decide what’s right?

Christianity teaches us to follow the truth on the basis of what God has revealed. What about our culture? Most aren’t atheists. So, are they looking to God to figure out the right way to live?

Unfortunately, no.

They are focused often on how they feel, not on what God has revealed.

To describe how our culture is now deciding what’s right, we’d like to bring in a helpful guide. Theologian and historian Carl Trueman recently published an incredibly insightful book, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution. It is perfect for busy church leaders and laypeople, as it is the shortened version of his longer (also excellent) The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

In these books, Trueman shows us how what he calls the “modern self” has become the dominant voice when it comes to deciding right and wrong, basing its authority on feelings and personal beliefs. Personal feelings become more important than God, family, or tradition.

Feelings triumph over God’s truth.


“Personal feelings become more important than God, family, or tradition. Feelings triumph over God’s truth.”


How do we decide what’s right? We look within, discover our authentic self, and create our own truth. People are acting rightly when they act outwardly in accordance with their inward feelings.

This helps explain the intensity with which our culture holds many of its convictions. If the authentic self is the dominant arbiter of right and wrong and true and false, it is hard to see how any person, institution, or religion could have the right to challenge an individual’s beliefs and feelings about their own identity. To do so would be to merely confirm what the culture already thinks about why people make truth claims: They’re just trying to maintain their power over other people. This is how truth claims are said to be oppressive.


“Truth claims are said to be oppressive.”


“You do you” becomes the mantra (and the one truth claim it’s acceptable to be told).

No one must be allowed to hold you back in any way.

Let’s take this a step further, still following Trueman’s logic. The modern self sees sexual fulfillment as a core component of a happy and fulfilled life. So, if a person’s inner identity is defined by sexual desire, then they must be allowed to act on that desire; otherwise they are not being authentic.

Can you see how this is quickly becoming a political and not merely personal matter? It’s worth mentioning too that, as seen through the oppressed-oppressor lens, the experiences and identities of oppressed people should hold a lot of weight compared to those of privileged people. Thus, it’s all the more imperative that sexual minorities be empowered to live out their truth—and that anyone who pushes back be called out as a victimizer.


“It’s imperative that sexual minorities be empowered to live out their truth.”


This lengthy but helpful quote by Trueman will aid in explaining the weightiness of Christians trying to speak God’s truth into such fortified positions:

If we are above all what we think, what we feel, what we desire, then anything that interferes or obstructs those thoughts, feelings, or desires, inhibits us as people and prevents us from being the self that we are convinced that we are.….The use of a word deemed hurtful or denigrating becomes in the world of psychological identity an assault upon the person, as real in its own way as a blow from a fist….For example, when the Christian objects to homosexuality, he may well think he is objecting to a set of sexual desires or sexual practices. But the gay man sees those desires as part of who he is in his very essence. The old chestnut of “love the sinner, hate the sin” simply does not work in a world where the sin is the identity of the sinner and the two cannot be separated even at a conceptual level.…Christians who fail to note this shift are going to find themselves very confused by the incomprehension of, and indeed the easy offence taken by, the world around them.[1]

As missionaries to people discipled by this culture, here’s something we’ve got to think through: How can we invite people into relationship with a moral and true God when they see truth claims from above as inherently oppressive? How can we present God as friend not foe, without reducing him into a blob of unconditional affirmation?


“How can we present God as friend not foe, without reducing him into a blob of unconditional affirmation?”


How do they disciple people?

As disciple makers, it’s good for us to be aware of how people of other worldviews are discipling their own, especially their young. There are many ways we could explore this question. We could explore the societal pressure which comes at young people to encourage them to denounce privilege and identify as either an ally or a member of an oppressed group (for example, 21% of Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2003, now identify as LGBTQ+—up from 2.6% of baby boomers). We could discuss how LGBTQ+ ideology is being used to disciple kids younger and younger—and how even Disney has vowed to fight legislation that bans “classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through grade 3.”

Perhaps the best answer we’ve landed on when it comes to how our culture is discipling their young is this: They’re discipling their young very aggressively.


“They’re discipling their young very aggressively.”


They are very clear on what they believe and they are not shy about discipling others to believe the same way.

I’m (Bobby) reminded of the comments of a thirteen-year-old girl who has been attending our church recently. In a sermon, I mentioned that we have to resist cultural pressure from both the right and from the left. In describing the pressure from the left, I had briefly mentioned the pressure from transgender ideology and from those who advocate a LGBTQ+ agenda in general. A young lady came up to me after the sermon and told me that I was homophobic for what I’d said. Her parents explained to me later that she had learned that at school.

Another minister/pastor told me (Bobby) recently of a father he is discipling. The father can no longer have civil conversations with his twelve-year-old son because his son so strongly disagrees with his father on LGBTQ+ issues.

As missionaries to this culture—and as parents and grandparents of the precious people this culture is so aggressively targeting—here’s a question we’ve got to wrestle with: How badly do we want the generations coming after us to know Jesus?


“How badly do we want the generations coming after us to know Jesus?”


As film producer Michael Catt put it, “Whoever wants the next generation the most will get them.” With this culture currently out-discipling our young, we’ve got to wrestle with how badly we want them to know Jesus. Instead of just entertaining them or even just educating them, we must get serious about discipling them.

  • This means relational, intentional, long-haul discipleship.
  • This means approaching them as individuals, each uniquely valued and gifted and made in God’s image.
  • It means engaging minds with God’s word at a deeper level.
  • This means showing them the genuine care and gentle persistence they won’t find in being consigned to groups of privilege (receiving culture’s thumbs down, regardless of what they might do right) or victimization (receiving culture’s thumbs up, regardless of what they might do wrong).

We must meet this challenge in tough-minded, big-hearted ways. God will help us.

Conclusion

Let us end with a quote from Carl Trueman’s book that seems like a fitting way to wrap up this first post.

The church needs to respond to this present age by avoiding the temptations of despair and optimism. To fall into the former would be to fail to take seriously the promise that the church will win in the end because the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. To engage in the latter is simply to prepare the stage for deeper despair later. And both will feed inaction, one out of a sense of impotence, the other out of naivete.[2]

So is there an alternative to despair and optimism? The alternative, says Trueman, is found in these words from his friend, the journalist Rod Dreher: “I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but I am hopeful.”

We have 10 specific recommendations that can give us hope and we’ll share them with you in our next post.


[1] Carl Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2022), 143.

[2] Carl Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton: Crossway, 2022), 170.