Evangelicalism in the USA: Discipleship failure owing to catechesis failure

At the end of July a friend who is much wiser and far better known (I make bold to call him my friend, and I don’t think he’d mind, but it’s not like we’re close buddies) wrote to me and quite a few others to invite us to share our perspectives on the current state of evangelicalism in the USA. How did we get here? It didn’t take me long to come up with my answer: Over the last five decades or so the evangelical church in the US failed to form its adherents into disciples. As a result, US evangelicalism became hollow. All that was needed to cause it to implode was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And that stimulus came.

The discipleship failure is owing to catechesis failure. “Catechesis” is the latinized spelling of a Greek word that refers to teaching. The church is not in the business of just getting a lot of “followers” in the shallow sense of that word that is so prevalent today, as in so-and-so has so many “followers” on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. The mission of the church (read the end of the Gospel of Matthew again) is to “make disciples, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you.” That teaching is catechesis. It is indoctrination, though we are wary of that word because we often see it used in negative ways. New Christians have to be taught to observe, which means not just to be aware of what Christ did for them according to some particular doctrinal slogan, but to become observant in the sense of putting Christ first, ahead of every other loyalty. Key elements in catechesis would include knowing scripture and doctrine and practicing the sacraments and prayer—all in a way that purges away all contradictory and competing gods and spirits and loyalties and enables an integrated life of faith.

This life of faith is not one of several parallel and nonintersecting lives that the believer lives, along with family life, work life, neighborhood life, political life, etc. It is the believer’s whole life. Family, work, community, and politics are to fit within the life of faith and be formed by it. Any element, aim, tendency, or style in your family life, work life, or political life that is discordant with or insubordinate to the gospel of Jesus are not allowed to override or redirect the influence of the gospel on your life. Elements that cannot brought into submission to Christ have to go.

But Christians do not automatically become faithful disciples. It is a difficult process, powered by the Holy Spirit and deliberately fostered, cultivated, by teachers and pastors, older sisters and brothers in the faith, according to inherited patterns. This is the meaning of catechesis. No catechesis, or inadequate catechesis, means that people are not formed into disciples, or that their formation is defective.

I would point out three main elements in the failure of the evangelical churches to form disciples. There may be others. One could ask about sacraments, but I choose these three because they are precisely the three that most evangelicals would say are the most important, the ones in which the evangelical churches pride themselves on being fully up to speed, better than other branches the church (the mainline Protestants, for example, or the Catholics). So here are my nominations for the three key failures in evangelical catechesis and disciple formation:

  • Lack of Bible. Despite its often vehement endorsement of the centrality and reliability of scripture, the evangelical church has not managed to get its adherents to read the whole of scripture well. You could ask both about quantity and about quality. Quantity: What do you suppose the average would be if we could ask how many hours per week self-professed evangelicals spend reading the Bible individually? I bet the total would be a small fraction of one hour. Adding in communal time would not raise the average much: though evangelical preachers claim to be offering “biblical” preaching, their usage of that adjective is loose. They mean “correct” or “orthodox” at best, and often something worse. The volume of scripture and the extent of close engagement with it in evangelical sermons tends to be low. And in evangelical liturgy (unlike high-church liturgies) there is no sustained discipline of reading the whole bible (OT, Psalms, Gospels, Epistles) aloud together in every service. Quality: Most church attendees never learn basic principles of interpretation: how to read all of scripture, in its two testaments and multiple genres, coherently and constructively. They are taught, whether by precept or more likely by implication, that many parts of scripture don’t even remotely matter for them and their lives, while other selected (according to what principle?) bits, with no reference to context, must be absolutely determinative.
  • Lack of doctrine. This is closely related to the lack of scripture, because engagement with scripture in the church is doctrine. (Augustine’s classic little guide to Bible interpretation is called De doctrina Christiana—”on Christian teaching.”) But when scripture is used mostly as a vast, murky, and unexplored pool from which the preacher can fish out isolated prooftexts in support of pet “biblical” (= whatever we in our camp say) teachings and hobbyhorses, there is no doctrine, in the sense of comprehensive teaching about God, the world, and the life of the people of God in the world; there is just reinforcement of prejudice and inoculation against real doctrine. With regard to the life of the Christian in a secular society, both the Reformed and the Catholic traditions offer rich, coherent teaching about how we should relate to the world around us; and even the post-Reformation traditions that are generally thought of as non-magisterial (the Pietists, for example, and elements within Baptist history) offer plenty of edifying stories, sermons, and more sustained pieces of writing. Twentieth-century writers from Reinhold Niebuhr to Alexander Solzhenitsyn offer plenty to chew on—and it’s mostly deeply grounded in scripture. But evangelical preachers either know none of this, or know it but fail to pass it on. They just hammer on particular verses about particular sins (the ones they don’t like, not the ones we’ve all learned to be quite comfortable with) and fail to teach a comprehensive understanding of how we can get from particular bits of biblical story and law connected with Israelite or Jesus-following individuals in Babylonian or Roman imperial settings to the responsibilities of a contemporary Christian citizen in a prosperous Western constitutional democracy. So we get abysmally ignorant applications of a verse plucked from Romans 13, for example, instead of any fully formed sense of the responsibility of an American Christian vis-à-vis secular government. Evangelical Christians swerve and veer in utter confusion between wanting to put their favorite TV preacher in total control of the government and wanting to stay separate from politics altogether.
  • Lack of prayer. Most Christians throughout all of history—and we shouldn’t expect it to be completely different today—were never going to become competent biblical scholars or theologians. But every Christian is invited and expected to live a life of prayer. This means not just following a pattern of written or memorized words every day with knees on the floor or eyes closed—though that’s a very good start. It means what Luther meant when he said “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Jesus said, on several occasions, “Take heed to yourselves.” To lead a life of prayer is to lead a life, not exactly of self-critique, because we cannot critique ourselves wisely when relying on our own perspective, but of radical openness to critique by the Spirit of God. Somehow, in our present moment, so many evangelicals are captive to a deep need—compulsion—to find themselves, their fellow believers, and their nation innocent. Evangelicals used to sing “Oh may I then in Him be found, dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” But we don’t sing that anymore. In our current moment, the evangelical impulse, sold out to a certain species of right-wing politics, is to insist, if not explicitly then by clear implication: Faultless I stand in the unfailing righteousness of my nation, my own church/sect/faction, my own self-righteous mind, and I don’t want to hear otherwise. There are pockets of interest in spiritual formation, but there the risk is getting lost in hyperspiritualized self-absorption in which one absolves oneself of all responsibility for re-emerging to do the Lord’s work in the world; or if one does re-emerge into mission, that mission does not include participating as a well-formed Christian citizen in civic affairs. Evangelicals don’t know how to live life together in the constant presence of God in the midst of life in the world.

Both as an individual Christian and as a Christian publisher (my day job—believe it or not, I would not be able to support myself as a blogger), I struggle to know how best to address all this.

On one level, one wants to denounce the lies, deceptions, betrayals, and subversions directly, and I’m sure that’s a necessary part of the picture. But to the extent that we are trying to reach hearers/readers who are not formed in the practice of repentance, or in a coherent and comprehensive pattern of teaching, or in the manifold prophetic challenges posed by scripture, we run into a brick wall when directly addressing Christians with a word of reproof. They simply won’t have it. We get a violent rejection-reaction. You don’t even have to reprove them or denounce their political idol directly. Many pastors over the past several years have seen their mere failure to evince enthusiasm for Christian nationalism, dominionism, and fundamentalism provoke the departure of a fourth or a third of their congregation. As Robert Jeffress said openly about his choice of a presidential candidate, so also many evangelical Christians want a pastor who behaves as a blustering bully. And the bullying (power plays and dirty tricks in ecclesial councils at various levels) is picking up; pastors tell me about it. Also in Christian institutions like seminaries and universities.

The response to that mindset cannot be to rail against the proponents of bullying in a voice that will feel to them like counter-bullying. And reducing the target to a particular label—name-calling—won’t help either. Trump is the current elephant in the room, the last straw, the stimulus that occasioned the implosion. But Trump didn’t invent the world, the flesh, and the devil. He and his most notorious acolytes (think of Jerry Falwell Jr., for example) have not even been the first to set them up in the churches and other evangelical institutions and suggest bowing the knee to them in those sacred spaces. They have just done it more boldly and to greater effect than others. I mean, railing against Trump and his leading cronies can be our response, but I have learned that it doesn’t help. Well, it may bolster Christians who already perceive the problem, which is not worthless, because they (we) are subject to nonstop gaslighting from several directions and so need bolstering. But it won’t appeal to or help the people we identify as false prophets and dupes of false prophets, or as unformed or malformed disciples. And it is unseemly and unwise to point fingers so confidently. We all have our deformities and must constantly take heed to ourselves.

The larger solution, if there is one, has to be finding, heeding, and amplifying the wise voices that can communicate the loving grace of God in a way that will lead to reformation of life from the inside out until people who see themselves as being serious about God, the Bible, doctrine, and prayer (which is how evangelicals tend to see themselves, or used to) are really so, and are able to make a positive difference in their world, never in captivity to any worldly ideology, but participating vigorously and helpfully in the world, including the political world.


For more extensive examination, from numerous sources, of the failure of US evangelicalism to stand up to recent political encroachments and corruptions, see Peter Wehner, “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart.

2 thoughts on “Evangelicalism in the USA: Discipleship failure owing to catechesis failure

  1. I resonate with your argument and have written an evangelical catholic catechism (instruction in the basic teaching of Christ) with plans for a companion volume of mystagogic reflection (instruction in the mystery of the gospel). My hope and prayer is that churches will heed the call of Matthew 28:19-20. Thanks for your advocacy.

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