Rod Dreher and the Disciple Making Solution
In early September, I had the opportunity to interview and dialogue with author and cultural commentator Rod Dreher in a public forum about his latest book and the concerns that he raises. Dreher’s Live Not By Lies has rightly become a very popular book. It’s being read and appreciated in particular by numerous Evangelical Christians and conservative Roman Catholics. It is a cultural critique from a Christian point of view of the advancement of secular leftist ideologies, such as Critical Theory in particular or what is often called “wokeness” in general. Such ideologies have largely taken over many social media, corporate, and governmental organizations in the US and in Western Civilization as a whole.
In our conversation, Dreher described the beliefs taking over our institutions and how they are actively promoting derogatory attitudes toward men (especially older white men), conservative Christians, and those who advocate traditional sexual morals (to name just a few of their targets). These ideals are encouraging hostility against those who resist what our culture is advocating, especially when it comes to beliefs about maleness and femaleness, homosexuality, and transgenderism.
These secular ideals are also causing problems for us when social media organizations ban or suppress organizations which advocate for Christian positions. Social media isn’t alone in this. We are seeing many corporations join this trend, including hedge funds (with their ESG standards), hospitals, and even the US military. The ideals of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are often embedded with antagonistic ideals toward traditional Christian sexual ethics. The DEI framework often runs contrary to the teachings of the book of Proverbs on achievement by hard work, diligence, and merit, which is at odds with the oppressor-oppressed foundation which undergirds the DEI movement.
How can disciples of Jesus resist cultural ideals that are contrary to Scripture and faithfully follow Jesus?
“How can disciples of Jesus resist cultural ideals that are contrary to Scripture and faithfully follow Jesus?”
Dreher envisions a future where the current “soft totalitarianism” becomes more and more difficult for disciples as it morphs into a “hard totalitarianism.” It will be more and more challenging in many areas to live faithfully to the teachings of Jesus.
The framework for our dialogue went like this: Dreher presented his cultural critique, then I asked him clarifying questions, and then I presented a strategic plan for church leaders and churches to adopt. Dreher is an Eastern Orthodox Christian and he is not intimately familiar with the themes and strategies for Jesus-style disciple making that we advocate through Renew network. My plan was to present what we believe/practice, and then Dreher would offer a critique of our position. We could then learn and strengthen in the areas of our weakness.
Instead of critiquing my seven-point strategic plan for the challenges we are facing in our culture, Dreher approved and commended them. I was truly surprised by his warm approval of our approach.
“I was truly surprised by his warm approval of our approach.”
I want to advance the conversation I had with Dreher to a broader audience. So here, in summary fashion, are the seven recommendations I presented to Rod Dreher for church leaders. My goal is to share them and seek collaboration with as many leaders as possible so that we can prepare disciples to live in a world of soft, antagonistic totalitarianism that seems to be growing firmer every month.
1. Make family discipleship priority number one. Effective family discipleship is the single most important issue for church leaders to focus on.
For the last 20 years, Christian Smith (Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame) has been collecting huge amounts of statistics about Christian children. Those statistics indicate we are losing about 70% of our children from the faith once they leave high school. Losing our own children like this is an incalculable loss and there is reason to think that it is only going to get worse.
“Losing our own children like this is an incalculable loss and there is reason to think that it is only going to get worse.”
Tim Hawks, lead pastor of Hill Country Bible Church in Austin, Texas, is countering these rapid cultural changes by focusing on discipling parents to disciple their children. Parents and families need to be discipled in ways that resist the forces of our culture. I am working with Tim on strategies for family discipleship at both Discipleship.org and Renew.org.
We will be piloting with other churches what Tim and his team are learning. They are forming a community of parents committed to being counter-cultural communities of faithfulness. They are going to focus on four key areas.
A. They will direct their child’s spiritual formation.
It’s our responsibility, as parents, to disciple our children. Counter-culture parents take ownership of their role and are intentional about establishing faith formation routines at home and incorporating simple practices and rhythms into the fabric of family life. They won’t outsource the process of shaping a child’s faith to the “experts” at church or anywhere else.
B. They will steer their child’s education.
Counter-culture parents actively steer rather than outsource their child’s academic development. They understand their role is to be a coach rather than a spectator. They recognize the value of involving other people (possibly including a good school) in the formation process, but delegation does not remove the responsibility for oversight.
C. They will guide their child’s media habits.
Counter-culture parents actively guide the “what” and “when” of a child’s media habits rather than allow the child, influenced by popular culture, to decide. They do this because they know they are accountable for protecting and preparing their children, they understand the vulnerable nature of a child’s developing brain, and they discern the influence of media on a child’s beliefs and character formation.
D. They will nurture their child’s sexual wholeness.
Counter-culture parents model and reinforce God’s design for human sexuality, starting with their own relationships. They intentionally invest in creating a God-honoring marriage to model a vision for their child’s own sexual identity. These parents also proactively counter the lies of a culture that are aggressively undermining God’s design for sexual wholeness. How? By gently, lovingly telling the truth about what it means to be human, made in the image of God as male or female.
- They want their children to understand what the image of God means.
- They want their children to know what it means to be a boy or girl.
- They want their children to desire and seek a strong marriage.
For those who want to know more about the work on family discipleship that we are doing at Renew.org in collaboration with others, watch for future announcements through our newsletter.
“These parents proactively counter the lies of a culture that are aggressively undermining God’s design for sexual wholeness.”
2. Make disciple making your local church’s core mission.
Many church leaders are assuming that they know the mission of the local church without ever carefully investigating it. Many have a vague impression that God’s purpose is simply being the New Testament church or that God wants us to focus generally on worship or fellowship or social justice. But when you carefully explore the teachings of Scripture, you will find that the purpose of the local church boils down to helping people to come to faith in Jesus Christ and then to become more and more like Jesus Christ. In other words, God wants us to make disciples. You may want to read two books that I have had the privilege of co-writing on this topic:
- See Disciple Making: The Core Mission of the Church, by Bobby Harrington and Scott Sager
- See DiscipleShift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples, by Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington
Everywhere we look today, the world is out-discipling the church. Increasing numbers are abandoning church, the teachings of Jesus on important issues, and even their faith in Jesus altogether. Too many churches are trapped in ineffective models that do not disciple people and do not equip them to follow Jesus. We must return to Jesus-style disciple making.
Jesus-Style Disciple Making = Intentional Relational Transformation
When church leaders are laser focused on the core mission of disciple making, they create cultures where two things predominate:
- The people think of themselves primarily as being disciples: following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and committing to the mission of Jesus (Matt. 4:19)
- The people in the church are committed to entering into intentional relationships to help others follow Jesus, be changed by Jesus, and become committed to the mission of Jesus.
“The people think of themselves primarily as being disciples: following Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and committing to the mission of Jesus.”
Disciple making is a highly relational commitment that integrates with everyday life. There is no way that one or two hours on Sunday is going to have enough disciple-making horsepower to counteract the five to seven hours a day that people are spending on social media and being discipled by the world. Add to this the pressure/influence of work environments or educational environments dominated by Western culture’s prioritization of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. There are strong forces discipling people away from the teachings of Jesus. We must get back to serious disciple making.
3. Stop just talking about disciple making and make changes now.
You might think that in this third point I am just repeating the first and second points, but I am not doing that. I am calling out a huge problem that I am witnessing everywhere: Almost all Christians are talking about disciple making, but very few are actually doing it, in either the home or in the church. As the founder and CEO of Discipleship.org, which aggregates leading discipleship thinkers, writers, speakers, and networks from around the nation, I have had a front row seat to the national disciple making conversation in the US for the last ten years.
I can summarize what I have learned with a twist on a famous statement attributed to G.K. Chesterton:
“Disciple Making has not been tried and found wanting. It has been tried, found difficult and left untried.”
I had a front row to a national study on disciple making that came out in early 2020, just before COVID hit the USA. I was a team leader as Discipleship.org collaborated with the Exponential church planting network in this study, and I had a close up look at the details. In summary, the study showed that less than 5% of churches in the United States had disciple-making cultures. You can check out that study by clicking the image below.
Since COVID, more Christians and churches are talking about shifting to disciple making, but we are not seeing many churches actually make the shift.
“We are not seeing many churches actually make the shift.”
I hope you can sense my urgency when I say we must shift back to disciple making in the home and in the church NOW!
4. The primary curriculum in disciple making must be Scripture (not books about Scripture).
Many of us love books. Through these books, we want other leaders to work through the hard parts of Scripture and life and give us their conclusions. And we would like to receive their conclusions packaged with lots of entertaining stories and analogies.
We tend to want to read these books rather than work through Scripture.
We also want our preachers to give us these same conclusions with entertaining stories, analogies, and add in a heavy dose of inspirational optimism.
There is a place for all of that, but it cannot take first place anymore. We no longer live in a country where Judeo-Christian foundations resonate with the majority of people. People are building on other foundations. They are embracing other worldviews that are often hostile to the teachings of Jesus.
“We no longer live in a country where Judeo-Christian foundations resonate with the majority of people.”
We have to know for ourselves what God’s Word teaches about these things. We must see it directly in God’s Word for ourselves. Another person cannot do that for us! We cannot delegate that to other books and preachers.
The most important question for us needs to be this one: What does God say in Scripture?
One of my favorite people in history is Athanasius. In the early 300s, he stood up for certain key truths in Scripture almost all by himself. They said to him, “Athanasius, the world is against you,” to which he replied, “Then I am against the world.”
Here is what he meant: God’s Word teaches one way, and even if everyone is against that, then I am still sticking with God’s Word. He believed, as the saying goes, that “right is right, even if no one is doing it and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it.” Athanasius taught us that we need an authority (God’s Word) by which we can say no to every other authority.
“God’s Word teaches one way, and even if everyone is against that, then I am still sticking with God’s Word.”
The Word of God continues to be that authority for disciples of Jesus today. We must be in the Word of God and we must know the Word of God for ourselves.
Only then can we faithfully resist our culture.
5. We must disciple people in critical thinking about the truths of Scripture.
In the Western world, we are largely living in a post-truth world. Spinning events to fit the narrative matters in our new world more than specific truths. Just watch the news today. The people on either political side typically have their narrative that eclipses, ignores, or explains away the facts and truths that come out contrary to their narrative.
Even though truth is a straightforward concept, truth and reality have become very confusing concepts today. Is reality something we discover or create? Is truth based in what is solid and objective or in what we deeply feel regardless of the objective facts?
This confusion applies to how a lot of people interpret Scripture.
People tend to create a narrative and then they find Scriptures to fit into that narrative. Even as leaders twist Scriptures, too few are thinking critically about things to notice. Sometimes the sloppy thinking is being done by amateurs, but often the distortions of Scripture are promoted by pastors as well as professors with their PhDs.
“Even as leaders twist Scriptures, too few are thinking critically about things to notice.”
But those trained and committed to seeking the truth can find their way through the maze of political and ideological narratives. And the Holy Spirit will help us. We must teach people to go beyond the narratives and think critically through the eyes of Scripture empowered by the Holy Spirit. We need to disciple them to ask, in all things, what is God’s truth?
Too many Christians are too intimidated to speak up when it comes to truth which can feel controversial. We must teach people to think critically about topics such as the following:
- How can we have good judgment while avoiding judgmentalism?
- What is love according to Jesus versus love as defined by the world?
- What is true compassion and true biblical justice?
- What place do compassion and justice have in relation to the promotion of the gospel and salvation in Jesus?
- What counts as dangerous false doctrine?
- What are the essential, important, and personal elements of the faith?
When it comes to important issues like these, as Carl Trueman teaches in his important recent book A Strange New World, too many people are building their beliefs and values on “how they feel” or “sentimental ideas about what they like” or “how we should just love each other.”
Most importantly, what does it really mean to follow Jesus according to Scripture? Too many people have an image of Jesus that equates his values with the values of the culture. People tend to do this whether their values are progressive values on the left or conservative values on the right. Both sides can co-opt Jesus for their side and reinvent him along their political platform.
“Too many people have an image of Jesus that equates his values with the values of the culture.”
Again, critical thinking, inspired by the Holy Spirit and Scripture, is crucial today. Let’s think hard and biblically about Jesus, his gospel, and the nature of the faith he requires. Our tagline at Renew Network is worth reflecting on:
The Jesus you preach, the gospel you uphold, and the faith you coach will determine the disciple you get.
6. Pursue counter-cultural faithfulness first over pursuing numerical growth.
I have been a lead minister/pastor for 35 years as of this fall. I have worked with one church in my home city in Canada (Calgary) and two in Tennessee, including Harpeth Christian Church, which we planted just over 20 years ago. I know the pressure that people inside and outside the church put on church leaders to define and achieve success in terms of attendance and numbers. When I first went into ministry, my non-Christian friends would check in and wonder if I was successful, and they always asked primarily about the numbers. Strange thing: many of my long-term Christian friends also fixate on the numbers.
The disciple-making leader Bill Hull asks, “What is a good church?” He goes on to humorously describe what most people assume: “Well, it is the holy trinity of bodies, bucks, and buildings.”
But is that right?
Well, if the main thing we’re counting is faithful disciples of Jesus, then, yes, that could be a helpful numeric metric. God always is going to want more faithful bodies of people, more money given to his global mission, and more buildings used for faithful service. But numbers only matter if they represent faithfulness.
“Numbers only matter if they represent faithfulness.”
Instead of pressing for faithfulness, we tend to get excited or feel depleted based on the size of the crowd, the dollars given, and the building projects. We need a better score card.
How many faithful disciples are being created by the way we do church in North America today? On the other hand, how much authenticity and truthfulness do we sacrifice by trying to get the numbers up and keep them up? How many topics are preachers not discussing and how many actions are church leaders not commending out of fear that it will drive the numbers down?
The fastest growing Church in North America right now is actually the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (often called the Mormon church)—by a long shot. Is their growth a sign that God is with them, when their theology teaches that there are many gods in the universe and their goal is for men to become a god of their own planet? And what about all the prosperity preachers and teachers who draw great crowds around shallow, misleading teaching?
Our first goal as leaders in God’s church is to raise up faithful disciples of Jesus—and, yes, to raise up as many as we can. But we must not focus on mere numerical growth as the most important metric.
Making numbers our number one priority will cause us to engage in subtle compromises.
“Making numbers our number one priority will cause us to engage in subtle compromises.”
We need to develop metrics of holistic faithfulness. Let’s measure the bodies, bucks, and buildings, but only as part of a composite picture that includes baptisms (salvations), the number of members in discipling relationships, discipling groups multiplied, the marginalized served, financial sacrifices made for the kingdom and the poor, marriages saved, abortions averted because of the support of Christians, men and women rescued from forms of slavery, greed and worldly addictions such as porn broken, faithful children raised, etc.,.
Faithfulness to God’s Word is the most important metric. And faithfulness shows up in many ways that are not counted by just counting bodies, bucks, and buildings.
7. Start fasting, praying, and preparing for major societal change.
I do not believe that our society is on a sustainable trajectory. The foundations are breaking apart and do not look like they can last. This is true of Western culture generally. We are building on carnal foundations of greed and the love of money and lust, along with ungodly philosophies that encourage hatred, resentment, idolatry, sexual immorality, and the like.
Proverbs 1:30-32 describes what happens to those who reject God’s paths:
“Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them.”
We do well to revisit Old Testament stories like Jonah’s call to go to Nineveh in order to see the kind of corporate repentance that is needed. Maybe there will be a national crisis that compels many people to repent and return to God? It can happen again.
“We do well to revisit Old Testament stories like Jonah’s call to go to Nineveh in order to see the kind of corporate repentance that is needed.”
Until revival comes, let’s fast and pray for our families and our churches. Let’s fast and pray like we have never fasted and prayed before. Let’s be people that show the way to a better day in the future. In dark times, let’s provide the light of faithfulness in the ways of Jesus.
Let’s fast and pray for the world, for our country, for our president, for our leaders.
Let’s also us fast and pray for ourselves, to be given courage and wisdom. Revival, if and when it comes, will come to the world from the lives of the faithful. Our churches will be cities on a hill where the light of Jesus shines brightly. Our families will show the way for our neighbors.
Let’s be faithful. Let’s pursue faithful, godly families. Let’s pursue faithful, godly churches. Let’s ask God to help us be strong.
And whether rival comes to our land or not, let’s follow the example of the Christians in the Bible and look for the return of King Jesus. He is coming back.
“Let’s pursue faithful, godly churches. Let’s ask God to help us be strong.”
In the words of the apostle John, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
Until that day, I will be advocating for these seven focus points through Renew Network and looking forward to a new and better day.
I hope you will join us.