"The lack of discipleship and spiritual formation is laid bare for the world to see."
Sam Chaise – Former General Secretary of Canadian Baptist Ministries reflecting on this current moment in North American culture.
Over this past year there has been much dialogue and discussion around the revealing of the actual depth of our discipleship efforts in the Church. Much of our formation has been laid on the foundation of a reductionist soteriology which has relegated a "decision for Christ as more an adherence to a partisan understanding of politics, a "get out of jail free card" regarding the final judgement and eternity, and an approach to sin-management and prayer which is supposed to guarantee us a Kingdom Now experience that does not know how to navigate suffering, let alone inconvenience.
Wow. A lot to unpack here, and a blog like this is certainly not designed to carry the weight of an in-depth treatment of the challenges we are facing, but we hope to get us thinking – perhaps another Metanoia moment for us – about our approach, methods and expectations regarding "making disciples" in the Way of Jesus.
We want to pique your interest regarding discipleship with this one thought today. Don't underestimate what people can handle and what they not only can learn, but what they want to learn about. We have for all intents and purposes whole communities being shaped more by social media, the news media and Google searches than we may want to admit. Our lean, especially when things are tough, is to reach for the quick fix, the "simple" answer and the teacher that holds our interest and has the most Instagram hits. We are swimming up-stream in a culture that has bought the notion that succinct answers, one-liners and pithy slogans are the way to hold, educate and lead people. A good dose of swag also helps. May we propose, this is a myth. And it is a myth that the church growth movement perpetuated and the current market-place of Christian thought, celebrity, conferencing and even worship music feeds.
Our experience in Hollywood some years back really brought this home to us. We had a very young demographic in our emerging community which included a significant number of people that had no faith background and little understanding of Jesus. Mix that with kids that had come from all over America to make their "break" in the Hollywood scene of film, modelling and a wide array of pop culture expression. For those who did follow Jesus the disorientation and overwhelming baptism into LA literally had many of them in over their heads. Among many other things, we were determined to work with the attention span of this "generation." We worked so hard at shortening our talks. Moving quickly through liturgy. But one day several in our community sat us down.
"We want to learn" they said. "Why are you not giving us more to chew on and explore about our faith?" Honestly, we were shocked. We realized in that moment that attention spans were not so much the issue, but rather if we were boring or not. How we were engaging and how authentic we were.
Before you put up too much resistance to what we're saying here, let us quote Todd Kessler as he unpacks some of his story with USA Today as a co-creator of the children's TV show "Blues Clues."
"In, 1998 when I first presented the concept for the children's TV series Blue's Clues to a roomful of television executives, my proposal was met with nearly complete skepticism. At the time, conventional wisdom held that children were afflicted with "short attention spans," yet I was proposing a continuous 25-minute narrative, which is more than seven times longer than anyone believed the attention of a preschooler could be held. The only way to get preschoolers to engage with a TV series, the executives insisted, was to give them easily digestible bits of content in a "magazine format," like most other preschool series.
I disagreed wholeheartedly."
Kessler goes on to cite scientific research that challenges the notion of the "short attention span." In fact, he calls it "the short attention span myth." Yet, it is so embedded in our pop culture phraseology that it has had definite impact on how we operate in the Church as well as in the spheres of entertainment and education in the culture at large. He does go on however, and this is helpful.
"Just to be clear, I'm a huge fan of shorter picture books, just as I was a fan of the way Sesame Street mastered the short segment. But these shorter picture books, many of which are gorgeously illustrated, are to my mind more akin to illustrated poems than stories. The format is a wonderful addition to the world of children's literature, but it should not be the only format available. Children are also drawn to dynamic narrative and rich character development, and those tales generally need more than 700 words to tell."
We agree with Kessler. This is not an "either or" suggestion. We must be creative. We need to master the art of discovering rhythms and awareness of not only how our communities are engaging with our leadership and instruction, but their capacity as well. Life is busy. The times are challenging. But again, let's not underestimate what we can learn together and how deep we can go.
This current pandemic has afforded us an amazing opportunity to become creative and re-imagine how we are doing ... well ... everything. So many of us were tossed into the deep end of the pool with online servicing, Zoom calls and virtual pastoral care. But there are ways to navigate this space. Let's pray for wisdom in this moment which affords us an incredible invitation to deeper discipleship. Don't shy away. Lean in. Learn. Model well.
Our future is bright. We can fulfill the mandate of Christ to us to make disciples. Far beyond conversion stats, we can call forward communities of Jesus followers who can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, fear no evil and proclaim and celebrate the loving kindness and mercy of the Kingdom of Heaven as we do the stuff of Jesus and call people to follow Him.