Discipleship in America, Part 5: Misinformed in America

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : February 6, 2006

One of the huge problems in American Christianity is the gap between our stated beliefs and our behavior.  This isn’t unique to American Christianity, however, we Americans spend billions of dollars to acquire more and more books or tapes or videos which are supposed to help us become better Christians.  We believe that if we listen to the right sermon or read the right book, that we’ll become better equipped to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. 

One of the embedded assumptions of Modernism is that education is the best medicine to just about everything.  And by "education" I mean the imparting of information.  This love of information seems to have developed naturally enough in the West.  We are, after all, the inheritors of Greek thought.  Our way of being educated assumes that one acquires the right sort of knowledge and from that knowledge one lives the right sort of life. 

Churches in America start with this assumption too, for the most part.  We assume that the Christian life begins when one receives the right sort of information (the proclaimed Gospel) and that the Christian grows through receiving information (the sermon), and that everything flows from there.  You may choose to object to this large simplification, but if an alien from space were to drop in, it would notice that Christianity seems to center around its worship gatherings, and that most American worship gatherings center around the sermon. 

This assumption, that the center of church life is the sermon is prevalent.  One contemporary example of this assumption is the satellite church.  If the center of church life is a sermon, then why is it necessary for the pastor to be present for the giving of the sermon? It isn’t.  The important thing is the imparting of sacred information.  (For a fascinating discussion on this phenomenon, go here)

The centrality of the sermon is very much a vestige of the Reformation.  American Christianity is largely protestant in its orientation–even non-protestant churches.  Our nation is perhaps the master of the information age.  We buy into the assumption that transformation begins with information.

But does it? Hauerwas (who I referenced early in the series) argues that we need to be disciples before we can accurately understand the Christian information in the Bible.  I’d argue that discipleship is more about living out a certain pattern than it is about learning certain bits of information.  This isn’t to negate the role of sacred information in our process of formation, nor am I suggesting that teaching doesn’t have a central role in formation.  However, it seems that American Christianity is largely informational rather than formational.  Christian formation isn’t about learning abstract principles and then hoping they work themselves out in our lives.  Christian formation comes through immersion.  One of my favorite theologians, Hans Urs von Balthasar, has suggested the we come into knowledge of God through living out the Christian life-form.  In other words, it is through the process of struggling through how we live out the Gospel Story that we understand the Gospel story. 

During the Arian controversy of the 4th Century, the Orthodox Christians sometimes accused the Arians of being argumentative and focused on talk rather than on living out the Christian life.  Orthodox Christians believed that the heart of the Faith is the Mystery of the Incarnation. As one scholar (Lewis Ayres) points out [Orthodox Christians] "emphasized that human beings would always fail to comprehend God and that one could only make progress towards knowledge and love of God through discipline and practices that would reshape the imagination." Our imagination must be made fertile for knowledge of God.  Christian practices don’t simply flow from our knowledge, they condition and prepare our knowledge.  We don’t center our lives, then, around sacred information, but around Spiritual practices and real relationships. 

As long as we start with information, and center around information, we will continue to be stuck in our passivity, with a huge disconnect between our professed beliefs and our Christian living.  What we need isn’t more and better sermons.  Sermons that are processed by poorly formed imaginations won’t result in transformation.  We must, therefore, begin to reshape Christian imagination.  And this comes through the intentional cultivation of Christian practices.  What some of these practices are, and how they form a healthy Christian imagination, is the subject of my next post.

for further reading . . .

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3 Responses to “Discipleship in America, Part 5: Misinformed in America”

  1. James on February 6th, 2006 10:06 pm

    Without writing an essay responding to this post, let me make a couple of points. First, I agree to an extent about the need to live the faith rather than merely seeking knowledge about it. However, I believe that it is dangerous also to completely reject knowledge by going to the other extreme of merely living the faith. The greatest commandment tells us to be holistic in our love for God: to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength. A healthy Christian life will be one that is balanced, with the Christian knowing the things of God, and also doing them.

    Second, I assume that we are from the same generation (X). We both see that the church is entering a time of transition. The way the church has done things for the last sixteen centuries or so revolved around the parish, assumed everyone to be Christian, and based the message around human reason and Enlightenment thought. However, in America today the church (whether realized or unrealized) is entering into a new dynamic. This dynamic is much like what existed in the first couple of centuries of the church’s existence. We are moving away from the parish system with professional ministers and into a missional era with missionary pastors and church buildings that serve as mission outposts in an environment increasingly hostile towards Christianity.

    In this environment one of the main complaints against Christians is that they do not practice what they preach. I believe this goes to the point you are making. Christians need not only to be able to articulate the faith which comes from knowledge, but the faith must also be lived so that God is glorified through the works of faith and an unbelieving world cannot bring a charge of hypocrisy against the Lord’s church.

  2. Joseph Dworak on February 8th, 2006 9:07 pm

    Transformational vs. Transactional - Greg B likes to talk about this all the time - He says we are in an age of Greek Ethics - what you say you believedo not have to live out - but Hebrew ethics state you have to actually do what you say you believe - so serving homeless people if you believe in social justice… etc. Transformational vs. Transactional plays in as well.

  3. on February 14th, 2006 4:24 pm

    Discipleship in America, Part 5

    Since Ive been gone Mark Van Steenwyk has added two more posts to his helpful series, Discipleship in America. In fact, Part 5 may be Marks best post yet. With a pastoral tone, he challenges the modern assumption that the r…

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