Keith S. Whitfield: Culture and Discipleship

Culture and Discipleship is a conversation, a roundup of nine compelling voices—authors, church leaders, culture observers and disciple-makers. Together, they present a hopeful, pointed challenge to pastors who are looking to redemptively engage the culture for the purpose of effective discipleship.

Spirituality for the Sent: Casting a New Vision for the Missional Church (IVP Academic, 2017)

1. What do you see as the biggest challenge to effective discipleship in the American church?

As I see it, there two challenges to effective discipleship. First, people equate discipleship with biblical knowledge and information. Discipleship is following Jesus under his lordship. It is about living Christ-devoted lives. You don’t learn how to live this way merely by obtaining more information. It requires being trained in a community by others and engaging in ministry with and to others.

There are two realities that make this situation particularly challenging. We live in an individualistic culture, and at the same time we have more access to information than ever before. I tell people all the time: You can’t be discipled by a podcast. You can gain information and insights, but you can’t emulate someone’s way of life just by hearing their voice through a device.

Second, our therapeutic culture has shaped our discipleship aspirations. As we’ve rightly sought to set people free from the bondage to legalism and socioreligious pressures, discipleship is sometimes viewed as merely helping people understand their identity in Christ. I would say, “Yes, and amen,” to that—but that’s the starting point. I am afraid for too many, it has become the ending point. We are not finished discipling until people are on mission, loving and serving others, making disciples themselves. Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” That freedom, he says, looks like “faith working through love.”

2. How does the expression of the church’s mission look different today than it did a few years ago?

The changes we are seeing in how the church “expresses” its mission are fascinating. Over the last two decades, there has been a need to refocus on ecclesiology. Three questions have been front and center: What is the church? How does the church function? And, what is the church’s mission? We’ve seen the church simplify its programming and focus more attention on “making disciples.” What is driving these changes is the recognition that the culture in America has changed and must be engaged differently.

In response to this, churches have acknowledged they must adopt a missionary posture in their own community. Embracing the theological insight that God is a missionary God has shaped the understanding of this posture. The church is sent like Jesus was sent by his Father. We are called to follow Jesus in how he loved his culture. At the same time, we realize that contextualization is more than attracting people to the church. It is the process of thinking about how to communicate and embody the gospel in a local community. And, by the power of the Spirit, the church is empowered to be a witness to the gospel of the kingdom and to be the foretaste and first fruits of the coming kingdom. The church is called to reproduce itself.

3. How can the church redemptively engage the culture while remaining faithful to its discipleship mission?

Every generation, the church is called to engage its culture with the gospel. This calling is not to a ministry style or philosophy. Engaging the culture is not explained by ministry methods or techniques. The church is called to reach people with the gospel. And, that calling must be embraced by all the members of the body of Christ.

This means we have to admit the limitations of one-size-fits-all techniques for culture engagement. The church has to embrace the challenging work of contextualization—learning how to proclaim the gospel as the hope for the world, explaining how the gospel provides a holistic way of living in the world, and showing how the gospel confronts false religions and ideologies in our communities.

Today, the church in North America faces the urgency of this task in new ways. The church must be equipped to be mobilized missionally. One of the main claims in our book, Spirituality of the Sent, is that the spirituality of the church and its members is central to the missional task. There’s a danger to making this claim. Spirituality is often thought of as a private expression of one religious life. So, if you direct people to look inward, they forget that they are called to engage the world around them. That approach fits into the American ethos all too well.

As Lesslie Newbigin has reminded us, we live in a culture that allows the public acceptance of facts and gives permission to privately hold one’s values. This book calls the church to live with a “public” spirituality that shares and expresses the gospel through its whole life. This calling aligns with the nature of the gospel and the biblical teaching on how God’s people are to live in their community. It is also strategic. What we need today more than anything is a credible, noncoercive witness to the transforming power of the gospel.

4. Which cultural issues will have the biggest influence on the church in the next five years?

The answer to this question depends on how you read “biggest influence on the church.” Some changes will provide unprecedented opportunities for the church. One example is in the issue of immigration. No doubt the opportunities that come with immigration will present challenges. Our people will have to be trained to engage newcomers from different cultures who now live across the street. From my perspective, we want challenges like these—the ones that come with opportunities. The challenge we will face with this issue is leading people to love “the newcomer” when their presence means their way of life (e.g., their sense of security, prosperity, sense of place, privilege, etc.) may change.

Some other culture challenges are not so easily seen as opportunities. The church in America has enjoyed the fruits of a “free and prosperous society” for a longtime. There are increasing social and political pressures for Christians to get on the “right side of history” on some issues. If we don’t, as we have begun seeing already in a few instances, it will very likely cost us. We may still live in a “free and prosperous” country, but we may not be able to reap from the spoils like we once did. That situation will force the church to live the gospel in a new context and hold to the gospel for new reasons.

5. What encourages you about the recent re-emergence of church planting in the church?

The most encouraging sign that I see is the growing use of the phrase “disciple-making.” There are occupational dangers with slogans, trendy phrases and lumping ministries together under one label. But, I think that international missions, domestic church planting, church revitalization, cultural engagement, personal evangelism, discipleship and leadership development can all be seen as the task of “disciple-making” and accomplishing the goal of “disciple-making.” The use of this phrase reminds us the church is not about creating a movement. If God brings revival to our culture and it gets called a “movement,” so be it. The church’s focus should be on making disciples and people becoming followers of Jesus.

Read more from our discussion on Culture and Discipleship »

Keith S. Whitfield is vice president of academic administration at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and the co-editor (with Nathan A. Finn) of Spirituality for the Sent: Casting a New Vision for the Missional Church (IVP Academic, 2017).

James P. Long
James P. Long

James P. Long is the editor of Outreach magazine and is the author of a number of books, including Why Is God Silent When We Need Him the Most?