Is Discipleship More Challenging Today?
Five Modern Hurdles to Ministry
A dear and discouraged friend lamented to me recently, “How do we minister in this climate?” He wasn’t talking about the humid subtropical weather pattern of the Carolinas (which is generally quite pleasant). He was referring to the ministry environment of the younger generation in the early 2020s.
A few conflicting responses arose within me.
Feeling the Pain
My first response was, essentially, I feel your pain.
The ministry I work with, Campus Outreach, focuses on life-on-life evangelism and discipleship. In my two-plus decades in campus ministry, I have not encountered a moment quite as challenging as this one. I believe that a conflation of cultural factors (COVID, technology, and modern philosophies, to name a few) has brought us to this place. While every individual and subculture is distinct, I have an educated hunch that most ministers in the Western world are experiencing many (if not all) of the following challenges on some level.
1. Fear of the Social Unknown
For the past two years, I haven’t witnessed much direct fear of COVID from young people. I have witnessed, however, their sheer terror in the face of new social situations. The trend was alarming in the years immediately preceding COVID (though I think it may have been more akin to FOMO in the 2010s), but it’s off the charts now.
The fear of being seen and known, of connecting with and building close relationships with others, while not remotely a new fear, has been given fresh license in the sanctioned isolation of the last two years. So, an invitation to any organic, communal platform for relationship — a retreat, a conference, even an ultimate frisbee game — is met with more reluctance than I have ever previously encountered.
2. Isolation in Public
To quote Tony Reinke, “The smartphone is causing a social reversal: the desire to be alone in public and never alone in private” (12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, 124). There have been venues where this reversal was already coming to fruition, even as far back as twenty years ago: the gym and the airplane, for example. But the social acceptability of a screen in hand (and eyes on it) means that gaining access to a person’s eyes implies interruption. The screen (and headphones!) is a social stiff-arm, a means of saying, “Don’t talk to me!” without having to be rude.
The wide world, therefore, becomes an extension of the living room, where risks have been minimized and the channels of communication are tightly controlled. Few truly experience what Bilbo spoke to Frodo about in The Fellowship of the Ring: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” It’s a wonderful quote, but it may have been rendered moot. If we can find a way to bring our recliners with us, the transformation will be complete. And the living room has always felt too personal to invade.
3. Loss of the Moral High Ground
Historically, my evangelistic interactions, whether with strangers or friends, have elicited a “should” factor from the recipients of the gospel. Their resistance to Jesus was often met with a counterbalancing sense that Christianity was nevertheless the right way. The moral way. But the current zeitgeist associates Christianity with ignorance, bigotry, and oppression. So now, we aren’t simply trying to convince people that life surrendered to Jesus is better than whatever the world of sex and money and power offers; we are trying to convince them that Christians aren’t inherently racist, sexist, and abusive.
4. Loss of the ‘Villain’ Category
In recent years, you may have noticed the preponderance of films, especially in the Disney canon, that tell the backstory of a classical villain (Maleficent, Cruella, Joker, to name a few). In each of the stories, the villain is portrayed as misunderstood and deeply wounded. To be fair, generational sin in a broken world is complex. But the contrast between the portrayal of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and in the more recent film where she is the titular character is striking.
Therapeutic language, with all of its benefits and drawbacks, has won over our society in a comprehensive way (I heartily recommend Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self for a thorough treatment of this trend). Twenty years ago, some pastors and theologians were vigorously countering the gospel of self-esteem. Today, many are rightly acknowledging and resisting previously overlooked abuses, but I am afraid that, in the process, the old self-esteem has entered through the back door.
A pastor I admire once presented the alliteration “Villain, Victim, Victor” to capture the categories in which all followers of Christ simultaneously find themselves. We are perpetrators of sin against God and others (villains), recipients of the sins of others (victims), and overcomers of sin through the finished work of Christ on the cross and the daily work of the Holy Spirit within (victors).
“The only doorway to the kingdom of Christ is through acknowledgment of personal villainy.”
In my experience, the personal category of villain has been largely erased. The category of victim is assumed, and affirmation of victory, even in the context of failure, is a given (“We’re all winners!”). But the only doorway to the kingdom of Christ is through acknowledgment of personal villainy. When there are widely accepted philosophical defenses to keep us from darkening that doorway, ministry is significantly more challenging.
5. Endless Buffet of Distractions
Life-on-life discipleship takes hours, days, months, and even years of commitment. It requires sustained scriptural focus. It takes single-mindedness and intentional relationships — qualities more easily attained without a constant barrage of stimuli, whether for entertainment (Netflix, YouTube, TikTok), human connection (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook), or information (podcasts, TED talks, articles — yes, I see the irony). Those distractions have drastically diminished the felt need for true community, for the discipline of silence and solitude, and for a true Paul to one’s Timothy.
Spoiled to Inflated Expectations
So, my first response was, I feel your pain. But then my second response was this: we have been spoiled.
American gospel ministry in the last half-century, especially on the college campus, has been nearly unparalleled in its fruitfulness. I sat in a room of more than seven hundred Campus Outreach staff in 2013, and the meeting host asked all who had come to faith in college through the ministry to stand. Some three-fourths of the room left their seats.
These staff had mostly attended college in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when ministry numbers were booming. As a student, I was part of a ministry that comprised nearly 10 percent of the entire enrollment of a “secular” college. The harvest of millennials was ripe on America’s campuses. Meanwhile, across the world, faithful missionaries were battling to translate the Scriptures, learn cultures, and hopefully see a convert or a few over years of ministry. They still are.
“We need to recapture the wonder of a single heart made new.”
With a background in such manifest fruitfulness, I have found, at least for myself, that I need to recapture a healthy theology of the cross, whereby we are poured out, sometimes agonizingly, for the formation of disciples (Galatians 4:19). We need to recapture the wonder of a single heart made new (Ezekiel 36:26). We need to recall the counterintuitive contentment that comes from seemingly fruitless ministry (1 Corinthians 15:58), and even the strange joy of suffering shame for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41). Which leads to my third and final response.
Hasn’t It Always Been Tough?
From feeling the pain, to needing to recalibrate assumptions, I also asked, Hasn’t it always been this way in some form or another?
In other words, is it possible that hitting the panic button during any given cultural moment is a bit reactionary? Our commitment to biblical Christianity requires us to believe that the Scriptures are sufficient to equip us to address the challenges of modern life and ministry (2 Timothy 3:16–17). It can only follow that they are timeless, implying that both the human condition in the twenty-first century and the cultural challenges of our day have not strayed too far from those in biblical times. I find it incredibly helpful to recall timeless spiritual realities when ministry moments seem bleak.
All still have the hardwired inclination to exchange the truth of God for a lie in order to worship and serve the creature (or the self) rather than the Creator (Romans 1:24–25). Christ crucified is still the stench of death to those who don’t have the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 2:15–16). And the ministers themselves still flag at times, struggling to continue to speak the aromatic gospel of Christ, always needing renewed faith, hope, and love.
People back then had a God-shaped void in their hearts. They were made for intimacy with God and with their fellow man, even as they suppressed the truth in unrighteousness. They longed to know and be known and were simultaneously terrified of that intimacy.
So, to quote Ellis in No Country for Old Men, “What you got ain’t nothing new.” In a foundational sense, in the ways that matter most, the resistance was exactly the same in AD 50 as it is in 2022. Daunting indeed.
But if the resistance is fundamentally the same, so too is the Spirit who indwells us with divine power. The word of the cross has never ceased being folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it has never stopped being the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). He has never stopped using foolish things to shame the wise, jars of clay to carry treasure (1 Corinthians 1:27; 2 Corinthians 4:7). And if that is true, then there will be a multitude that no one can count from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation who surround the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). So, no matter the spiritual climate, we offer him to the world with hope.