Why Christian Discipleship Is Critical to Christian Survival

DiscipleshipJust before leaving the disciples, Jesus gathered them together and commissioned them with an important task. He told them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus understood the importance of discipleship (the process of making disciples). In fact, it was so important, He made sure it was His last directive to those who followed Him. What precisely is discipleship and why is it so important? Is it simply a matter of making converts? No, it’s much more. The process of making disciples is often misunderstood and neglected in the Church today, and as a result, we are in danger of losing our identity as Christians. Christian discipleship is critical to Christian survival.

Even secular dictionaries recognize discipleship as something more than simply creating “members” or “converts”. Dictionary.com describes a disciple as “a person who is a pupil or an adherent of the doctrines of another.” Webster’s online dictionary defines a disciple as “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another.” At least one aspect of discipleship involves learning the doctrines of a particular system or teacher. This intellectual aspect of being a disciple is affirmed in the Bible. The Greek word used for “disciple” in the New Testament is “mathētḗs” and its root, “math-“, means the “mental effort needed to think something through“. Disciples are “learners”, “scholars” and followers of Christ who “learn the doctrines of Scripture and the lifestyle they require”. There is an important connection between doctrine and behavior. It’s not enough to simply follow Jesus’ moral teaching related to behavior, true disciples must understand the doctrines of Christianity. What does our worldview teach, theologically or philosophically? How are we to make a defense (1 Peter 3:15), hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with this teaching (Titus 1:9), recognize a heresy when we see one (Titus 3:10), and guard the treasure which has been entrusted to us (2 Timothy 1:14)? Becoming a disciple means becoming a learner.

Sadly, many in the Church have neglected this important aspect of discipleship, and their hesitancy to celebrate the life of the mind continues to put the Church in great peril. History demonstrates the importance of discipleship and the life of the mind. In the early 19th Century, the lack of discipleship resulted in the rise of several heretical religious worldviews. From the 1790’s to the 1840’s the movement known as the “Second Great Awakening” spread through the young American nation. This Protestant movement was wildly successful in gaining converts, but not nearly as successful in discipling new believers. The Second Great Awakening was facilitated by a number of charismatic preachers (Charles Finney was perhaps the most famous). These preachers were excellent communicators and their camp-style revivals were designed to solicit responses from the people who heard them. These same preachers, however, were less than effective in establishing a discipleship process for the new Christian converts. In the wake of the revival meetings, new converts were left largely on their own; local churches were not ready to teach and mentor those who were now interested in learning the truth about Jesus. As a result, a number of groups emerged simultaneously: The Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), The Evangelical Christian Church in Canada, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Seventh-day Adventist Church (from which Jehovah’s Witnesses eventually appeared), and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church were all the result of rapid growth followed by inadequate discipleship. [Read more…]

Identity Crisis: Should We Use the Term Apologetics?

skeptical guy pulling down sunglasses

Do you get blank stares when you mention apologetics? Should we drop the term and find another, like case-maker? Having tried apologetics as well as other terms, I think the problem is deeper. What can we do, and what might we learn from others who share a similar identity problem? [Read more…]

Articulating One’s Beliefs Can Be A Challenge

images-11Introduction.

Despite the fact of my not posting since the beginning of the month, I have not lost sight of the mission. Working with the people I work with, some of them being some of the most profane people that I have ever come across, I have not lost sight with how I am “wired” and the ministry mission. Even though where I am (on my job) during a good chunk of the week, I know the presence of the Lord and the conviction of His Holy Spirit, even while I “occupy Mordor” and pray for a change.

Thankfully I still do get to enjoy a day off during the week, and I am going to be protecting that day in the coming weeks for specific reasons, that I will not mention here. In spite of all the demands of my job, this week was a wonderful day off and allowed me to speak to a repair man for one of our appliances, and a handful of students at the Germanna campus.

What was the nature of these conversations? They were spiritual in nature, and I would like to share here some thoughts on what I learned about these conversations.

The Need for Articulating the Christian Faith

One of our appliances stopped working and we needed some outside assistance. Even though I was able to unstop a bathroom sink and our bathtub drain (thank you YouTube), I was not able to work this task.

The appliance repair company “rep” that came and assisted us is a Christian and attends a large local Baptist church regularly and adult Bible fellowship on a regular basis.  How did I know he was Christian?

Thankfully he shared that with my wife and me, by sharing the message on the back of his business card. When I asked him his understanding of his message, he started sharing with me a basic message of salvation and how Jesus died  for our sins on the cross. Of course I was happy to see him start there. However when I continued with him on his understanding at a deeper level, he started struggling. Why was there a struggle?

Allow me to share my concerns, as they are very similar ones that I am hearing in other conversations. [Read more…]

Why Does Opposition to Apologetics Come From Mostly Within the Church?

Apologetics is a branch of Christian theology that helps give reasons for the truthfulness of the Christian faith/worldview. The word “Apologia” means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15). The apostles approach to spreading the message of the Gospel is characterized by such terms as “apologeomai/apologia” which means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15); “dialegomai” which means “to reason, speak boldly” (Acts 17:2; 17; 18:4; 19:8), “peíthō” which means to persuade, argue persuasively” (Acts 18:4; 19:8), and “bebaioō ” which means “to confirm, establish,” (Phil 1:7; Heb. 2:3). [1]

Over the years, I have the privilege to collaborate with many others who are involved in the apologetic endeavor. One thing is for sure: Most of the opposition to apologetics comes from within the Church itself. But why is this? After all, though Jesus didn’t run around calling Himself an apologist, he did offer reasons and evidence for His Messiahship. As I just said, Paul and the apostles did apologetics on several occasions. I have written about more about here. Recently, I sent an email out to several ministry leaders about the need for apologetics in the local congregation.  Keep in mind, the list had about 100 people on it. I did get one response which led to a radio interviewRobin Schumacher discusses a story about his friend who sent a similar letter to ministry leaders. [Read more…]

Why Would Anyone Get a Degree In Apologetics?

Why Would Anyone Get a Degree In ApologeticsI feel honored to be a very small part of the faculty at Biola University (where I serve as an Adjunct Professor in the Master’s Degree program in Christian Apologetics). Two weeks ago I taught a class covering the material in Cold-Case Christianity and began by asking the seventy-four students in my class why they wanted an advance degree in apologetics. Thirty of these students said they were taking the class to grow in their faith. The remaining forty-four said they were either teaching apologetics locally or planned on teaching apologetics in the future. This latter group saw the Biola graduate degree as an important step of preparation. Not everyone agrees.

In fact, some people in the Christian community think an advanced degree in apologetics is largely a waste of time. Two people I deeply admire have come out publicly with this assertion: Max Andrews (of the Sententias Blog) and Glenn Peoples (of the Right Reason Blog) both wrote blog posts this year entitled, “Don’t Get a Degree in Apologetics”. Andrews and Peoples believe an academic degree in an advanced, specific discipline (i.e. biblical studies, history, historiography, theology, philosophy, physics, chemistry, etc.) is a far better choice than a broad degree in apologetics. Andrews writes:

“My advice is to pick a discipline and excel in that discipline. All the greatest apologists have a discipline: Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, NT Wright. etc. Don’t be a jack of all trades. Be a master of one and be skilled in many.”

Peoples agrees:

Think about those who have reputations as being the best apologists out there (whether they use the word “apologetics” or not). Everyone’s list will be slightly different, but the list will probably include names like C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Peter Kreeft, Richard Bauckham and others. Do you want to be a great apologist? Great. Do you think these people are / were great apologists? I agree. OK, now ask yourself what all of these people – along with probably every other person you might add to this list – lack. They probably lack a whole lot of things, but one of the things they lack is a degree in apologetics.

Let me take a minute to respond to these statements and make an important distinction between expert witnesses and case makers. Both have been incredibly important in every criminal case I’ve ever seen presented in front of a jury. Expert witnesses are critical and foundational to jurors. Without these men and women, the evidential foundation for each case would be insufficient. I rely on expert witnesses to testify about DNA, fingerprint, behavioral and other forensic issues; these folks are often the centerpiece of my case. But there is another critical participant in every jury trial. I’ve seen great evidential cases ruined by poor case makers. A young, inexperienced (or simply ungifted) prosecutor can make a mess of a case in front of a jury. Case makers are the directors, authors, orchestrators and presenters for every case argued to a jury. They seam together the divergent testimonies and translate the experts so jurors understand their importance (and their role within the larger case).

Expert witnesses are narrowly focused and typically have difficulty relating to the lay-people who make up the jury; the attorneys stand in the gap, weaving the expert testimony into the overarching case and “throwing the ball” so jurors can “catch it”. You can have great expert witnesses and still lose at trial. In fact, in every case I’ve worked, the defense has also called equally qualified, educated and accomplished expert witnesses who have testified in opposition to the experts called by the prosecution. The case makers (the attorneys) were responsible for arguing why their experts were more relevant than those from the other side. In criminal trials, case makers are just as important as expert witnesses, and this is also true in the Christian community. Without a good case maker, expert testimony can sound a lot like, “blah, blah, blah”.

There are very few (and I mean very few) expert witnesses in the Christian community who are also popularly accessible case makers. Let’s be honest about that. Some of these great thinkers are friends of mine, and I think they would acknowledge their role quite happily. Richard Bauckham’s incredibly important work, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, has not been nearly as successful as Lee Strobel’sCase for Christ. In fact, many of these amazing expert witnesses would still be largely unread (and unknown) if they hadn’t appeared in Lee’s work. Case makers make expert testimony accessible and show how the limited evidence offered by these experts fits into the larger case. That’s what Lee has done so brilliantly over the years. It’s no coincidence we’re experiencing a renaissance in apologetics simultaneous with the success of Lee’s books. Great case makers amplify the work of great expert witnesses. In fact, you could take the book sales of everyone mentioned by Andrews and Peoples combined (with the obvious exception of C. S. Lewis and Ravi Zacharias) and they wouldn’t come close to the book sales of Lee Strobel or Josh McDowell alone. Lee and Josh are great case makers (neither has an advanced degree in a specialty area by the way); both are relying on the testimony of great expert witnesses.

Let me make one final observation. Courtroom dramas are incredibly popular in our culture. Think about your favorite book, television show or movie in this genre. Now let me ask you a question: Which characters are highlighted most in these dramas? Who are the protagonists or antagonists featured in each story? In most courtroom dramas, the primary characters are the attorneys and detectives: the case makers. Think about it. Whenever an investigative drama features an expert witness as the primary character (in shows like CSI or Quincy) the experts are actually mischaracterized and given investigative or case making roles they don’t actually possess in real life. The culture is far more interested in case makers and investigators than it is in expert witnesses. People are more interested in the total picture than the minutia; they want to hear the case in their own language, and they are far more likely to embrace people with whom they can relate. Case makers are just as important as expert witnesses (and perhaps more important when it comes to influencing a culture).

So take a hard look at your gifting and your interests. If you’re better suited as an expert witness, interested in specific fields of study and focused academically, get the degree in biblical studies, history, historiography, theology, philosophy, physics, or chemistry as Andrews and Peoples would suggest. God will use you powerfully to establish the foundation from which a case can be made. But if you’re more interested (and gifted) in communicating the overarching, cumulative case for Christianity (constructed from the testimony of many experts), feel free to pursue a degree in case making (apologetics). The church needs expert witnesses and case makers and these are usually two different sets of people. Great expert witnesses aren’t always great apologists, and great apologists (like Lee Strobel, Josh and Sean McDowell, Frank Turek, Greg Koukl and many others you know by name) don’t have to be expert witnesses.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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