Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the new BMH Books release, Beyond the Edge of the Water: Reclaiming Biblical Discipleship for a Rising Generation.
by Steven M. Kozak
I really like Jesus, but I have no intention of following him.
I was shocked, but that’s what several of my high school students told me. They sincerely believed that to be a Christian only meant they had to like or appreciate Jesus and some of the things He said. To them, Jesus was nothing more than a model citizen. Loving like Jesus meant accepting people for who they were and affirming them in whatever lifestyle they chose. To do otherwise was a heinous act of hatred. This is the kind of thinking behind an ideology called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Essentially, it’s the belief that there may be a higher power looking down from above, but it is not directly involved in human affairs. The key concerns are happiness and being a good person. And being a good person means setting aside disagreement and any sort of objective truth. Truth now presupposes exclusivity. And exclusivity is hateful and hurtful. This is precisely why it’s easier to ignore Jesus as the only way, the truth, and the life—the only means by which we can get to the Father (John 14:6)—and confine Him to a space that fits our culture’s demands.
A New Standard For Truth
In more than a decade of teaching, leading, and discipling students, I learned this kind of thinking is not at all an isolated or a rare occurrence. In fact, it’s normal. Maybe disturbingly normal. So typical, it has become embedded into the culture of the rising generation. Perhaps even indoctrinated. Sure, a lot of people—students, adults, and everyone in between—like Jesus. He’s got that chill vibe, a Gandhi sort of swagger. Jesus sure seems like the great example of love and acceptance. But follow Him? Be a Christian? That notion, the notion of discipleship—the kind of discipleship we get straight from the pages of Scripture—has been lost in the busyness and noise of our relativistic western culture.
The root cause is our culture’s recent dive into what is now called post-truth. By now, it’s likely you have heard the term. After all, it made front page news in 2016 as Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. The term denotes the “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”1 The term fundamentally places feeling over facts and experience and perception of reality rather than reality itself. So if Descartes described truth as “I think, therefore I am,” a post-truth advocate would argue, “I believe, therefore I am right, because that’s how I feel.”2 In other words, the validity of truth is always subject to feelings.
Even Jesus is subject to this same new standard. How you view Him, which instructions you decide to obey, and how you interpret His actions are entirely based on one person’s experience and feelings. Unless you were born after the mid-1980s— the beginnings of the Millennial generation—the shunning of objective truth and rational thinking might seem entirely ridiculous. But for everyone younger, it is accepted as truth. From college to elementary school, students are being taught that all ideologies are equal, given equal time and attention, and all ought to be embraced simultaneously. Since experience guides truth, everyone’s truth has equal validity. I know what you’re thinking: This can’t be true because it can’t work. And you’re right. In terms of worldviews, two opposing ideologies cannot both be true at the same time. You can’t believe Jesus to be the only way to the Father but also believe in reincarnation. They don’t fit, yet here we are. And by the looks of our current cultural climate, it’s here to stay.
The Challenges Ahead
What my students were expressing is indicative of what re- searchers have now determined: the western world is officially post-Christian—actively rejecting Christianity and the message of the gospel. My students—and many others like them—have no tolerance for a Jesus who demands exclusive obedience, objective morality, denial of self, and absolute truth. While many people would still consider themselves spiritual in some sense, and perhaps even possess faith in a higher power of sorts, there is a mass exodus from the idea of organized Christianity. According to the latest research from both the Barna Group and Pew, nearly half of Americans note their religious identity as “none.” That number jumps to more than 50 percent in Europe. This means that people are far less likely to accept any one religious system as true and another as false. This is forcing churches to face some new challenges.
Nowhere is this challenge more important in Christendom than in our youth groups and families. Parents and youth leaders work tirelessly to ensure that our students are discipled and given every opportunity to own their faith so that they might walk in faith boldly as they enter adulthood. But here is the problem: culture is winning. It is the world that has captivated the attention of students. It is actors and musicians like Alec Baldwin, Brad Pitt, Taylor Swift, Drake, and Post Malone who are the priests and prophets of the modern age, taking full advantage of their platform to push their own version of the “good news.” And it’s the new digital reality working around the clock to define our students’ identity. Today’s youth are faced with challenges we never saw coming or could have predicted, and our efforts to meet these challenges are falling far short. Our ability to make disciples is fading fast. At every corner, it seems culture is setting a new standard and creating deeper division between the world and the church. The church steeple rising over our communities that once served as a beacon of hope for the world is now seen as a disease that needs to be eradicated.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps I’m just being an alarmist. To be honest, sometimes I think I might be. But whether it’s entertainment becoming more sexualized, the growing in- fluence of the LGBTQ community, drag queens reading stories to children at the public libraries, or the suppression of Judeo- Christian values in the broader culture—that is, the deeper we walk into a post-Christian reality, the greater the need for Christians to be engaged and impacting culture. So what’s the answer? What are churches and families supposed to do?
There may have been a time when churches and families could simply ignore culture—stick to teaching students the Bible and sound morals. Surely even the most wayward children would make their way back, right? After all, twenty or thirty years ago, the Bible still stood as our nation’s moral compass, there was still a universal understanding of sin, and much of the social justice around the world had its roots in the gospel. But times have changed, and I believe there is a cultural tidal wave with the church standing in its path. We tried to keep the water out, but when we weren’t looking, it began to seep through the cracks. In our efforts to fill buildings in hopes people will hear the gospel, and in our efforts to connect with a fast-changing culture—with every other organization outpacing the church in its ability to connect—we are showing signs of compromise. Let me give you three quick examples.
Example 1: The Church is ignoring the Bible.
In his book, Hope of Nations, John S. Dickerson commented that “Any ministry or family that abandons the authority of Scripture is one generation away from abandoning Christianity entirely.”3 It is no surprise when we hear atheists, agnostics, or other opposing worldviews discount the Bible’s authority over our lives. However, twenty years ago, that opinion was still considered the minority. This is no longer the case.
In our post-truth, post-Christian culture, the western world has gone so far as to demand the removal, influence, and relevancy of Scripture. To do otherwise is to actively promote a hate-filled agenda—creating a perceived need for the church to compromise. In our pursuit to appease culture, to be relevant, liked, retweeted, and shared, the church is dangerously flirting with putting her needs over God’s desires. Our sermons have gone from exegetical to motivational, treating the Bible as a series of suggestions rather than authoritative truth.
Now I know this is not true of every church in every place, but in our highly distracted age, it is far too easy to reduce discipleship and spiritual formation to nothing more than weekly church attendance and perhaps the occasional small group meeting; forgetting that we hold the very breath of God in our hands. I have seen firsthand Bible teachers marginalize Scripture in an attempt to connect students to God; picking and choosing what to teach so we don’t offend. However, our understanding of morality, our foundation of truth, and the purpose and mission of humanity are laid out in Scripture. It is divine. It is inspired. And it is infallible. To attempt the Chris- tian life without it is like playing football without a football.
Example 2: Our service has become more social than it is gospel.
There is no shortage of philanthropy, non-profits, organizations that donate earnings, even individuals who live incredibly generous lives. Their stories inspire us to be like them. Giving is contagious. There may not be a shortage of giving, but there is a shortage of the gospel. I know several Jesus-loving Christians who have created non-profit organizations looking to provide medical care, clean water, food, and even build entire communities—all of which are important, necessary, and noble tasks. Yet in many of these, the gospel is mysteriously absent, expecting that if we love enough, love will automatically translate into a gospel message. It is almost as if we are disguising Jesus into a more palatable version the world can stomach.
But our world’s poverty will never find its solution in our attempts to remedy external needs. The answer is not external, it is internal. Jesus and the gospel are not peripheral benefits of our service to others or some kind of unintended advantage. The solution is the gospel. The answer is Jesus. The mission of every follower of Christ is not only to serve as a reflection of the risen Christ bringing redemption and rescue to ends of the earth, but also to proclaim the gospel and the reason for the hope that lies within.
Generally speaking, our students appreciate the ability to give back. They feel the need and are more than willing to lend a hand. But the good they are eager to do falls far short of good without the gospel.
Example 3: Sin is a constant moving target.
We desperately want to believe in the goodness of humanity. In fact, our children are taught as early as elementary school that people are inherently good, and we want nothing more than to hold on to that sense of delusional hope. The result is an increasing need to excuse many of the world’s sins. If people are generally good and we are not to judge another’s understanding of truth, then we have no basis for calling certain behaviors sin.
The line between what is moral and immoral is a continually moving target. The times when we sought after biblical, family values are becoming a distant memory. We have replaced the doctrine of total depravity with a new doctrine of acceptance and affirmation of nearly any kind of behavior. After all, who are we to judge? The result: no need for Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, or resurrection, or even Jesus at all. If sin is marginalized, then what do we need saving from?
I believe it is time to reconsider our methods for raising up and discipling a new generation. It is time to truly meet our students’ needs with the power of the gospel. It is time we reclaim biblical discipleship. It’s time we stop compromising, trying to please others in hopes they will show up to church. It’s time we show our students what it truly means to follow Jesus, what it means to sacrifice, what it means to commit, what it means to live a new resurrected life in Christ, what it means to live on mission, and what it means to love. God has invited us into a new experience of who He is and the life He has created for us. It is time we get beyond church attendance, devotionals, and small group meetings as our standard means of making disciples and enter into the journey He calls us to embrace. The journey is wrought with commitment and sacrifice and overflowing with a new kind of love, a new kind of community, and a new kind of self.