A major challenge your churches will face is the kind of discipleship or ministry programming that caters to spiritual apathy. We cannot settle for a kind of discipleship that lets people settle into boredom with Jesus as long as they are not bored with the church. In the church we are more concerned with apostasy than we are with apathy, but both are deadly to a vibrant walk with Christ. If it is our excellence in ministry that is keeping people’s attention, rather than the beauty of Jesus, then we have failed. The true Christ is impossible to grow bored with.
One of the reasons our people have grown bored with Jesus is because many of us — church leaders — have as well. We have settled for a cultural Christianity that is anemic and will not sustain disciples of Jesus.
The message of cultural Christianity is that God is merely good to us. The message of biblical Christianity is that God is good for us. The message of cultural Christianity is that we should seek God's goods. The message of biblical Christianity is that we should seek God's goodness. The message of cultural Christianity is that we should seek God so that he might provide for us. The message of biblical Christianity is that God is our provision. The message of cultural Christianity is that we should seek God in order to get things. The message of biblical Christianity is that we should seek God to get the highest thing — namely Himself.
Do you see the enormous difference between those two theologies? The message of cultural Christianity and deep, biblical, holistic discipleship are at odds and cannot be reconciled. One of my greatest fears as a pastor is the idea that people may be satisfied with church, but bored with Jesus. It terrifies me that people may enjoy the sermon, be participating in the small group ministry, be volunteering on one of our many teams, and be completely satisfied by their experience — yet be spiritually apathetic towards the person and work of Christ.
These two competing visions have real-life implications for the life of discipleship in the local church. Discipleship is fueled by our beliefs about who God is. The message of cultural Christianity and the message of biblical Christianity are deeply at odds, but unfortunately, the message of cultural Christianity is what is forming the majority of the people in our churches.
Something like this was happening in the Colossian church. They were, by all metrics, a relatively healthy church. Paul begins his letter by expressing his gratitude for them (Col 1:3). He encourages them to continue to grow in spiritual fruit (Col 1:9-12) and he reminds them of the basic truths of the gospel (Col 1:13-14). But then he turns his attention to the person and work of Christ (Col 1:15-23). He does this because the Colossian church was growing apathetic towards Christ. They were not apathetic about ministry or church, but they were growing more interested in those other spiritual things than in Jesus himself.
Apathy towards Christ but not towards ministry is a dangerous place to be. In the Colossian church there were people who were growing in their interest in spiritual things like angels, demons, and spiritual powers. There was another group of people who were growing interested in visible dominions, politics, and rulers. These people were elevating these visible and invisible created realities to the level of Christ. That is why Paul reminds them of who Jesus is—the image of the invisible God—and what He has done—created all things, visible and invisible. This is exactly what Paul says to a church that is apathetic towards Christ, but is still spiritually hungry:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Paul is trying to remind them that everything is about Jesus. It is entirely possible for a church to have a healthy budget, dynamic worship, relevant preaching, contemporary leadership principles, a thriving family ministry, and still be in danger of failing in its primary mission of making disciples of Christ. He is correcting their apathy towards Christ by reminding them of Christ’s preeminence. He is gently reminding the local church that if we are known for anything other than the preeminence of Christ in all things, then we have failed. When we grow apathetic, we will find spiritual substitutes for our ministries, but Paul is saying that apathy is corrected when we remind ourselves of the preeminence of Christ.
We are living in a cultural moment where apostasy from Christ is a real threat. It's entirely possible, and maybe even likely, that many people who once professed Christ will walk away from him. Apostasy is a real danger to the church, but apathy is equally dangerous. This produces a Christianity that elevates visible and invisible realities above the life of discipleship.
This looks like Jesus and politics, Jesus and business, Jesus and sports, Jesus and fitness, Jesus and finances, Jesus and spiritual warfare, Jesus and coffee, Jesus and community, Jesus and other forms of spirituality. Anytime we elevate created things—visible or invisible—we aren't elevating them to Christ, we are bringing Christ down to them. We are not giving him the honor and glory that is due to him alone.
A domesticated Jesus will never produce deep disciples. A domesticated Jesus is not worth following. The best medicine for a church that has grown apathetic is to introduce them to the awesomeness of Christ, which is exactly what Paul is trying to do for the Colossian church. “He is the image of the invisible God,” (Col 1:15). Never lose your awe of who Christ is, what he has done, what he is doing, and what he promises to do in the future. He is the image of the invisible God, he is the Creator of all things, he is the Alpha and the Omega, he sustains all things. He is the head of the church, he is the resurrection and the life, He is God Almighty.
Discipleship is learning about Christ’s supremacy over all things. It is truly companionship with Jesus though all of life.5 A scheme of the devil is to get people to renounce their faith in Christ, but another scheme of the devil is for people simply to grow bored with Christ. Satan will do anything he can to get you to take your eyes off Christ. He knows that you, or your church, do not have to renounce Jesus to cease to be useful in God's kingdom, you simply have to grow bored with him.
Deep discipleship is radically committed to a God-centered, a Christ-centered, vision of all things. One of Christ, and as we seek to help others deepen their faith, is that we will try to give people more than Jesus. True discipleship is not more than Jesus, but more of Jesus. Ministry is only worth doing if Christ is the one who gets all the glory.
5 Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine (Lexham Press, 2019), 60.
Excerpted from Deep Discipleship: Deep Discipleship: How the Church Can Make Whole Disciples of Jesus © 2020 J.T. English. Published by B&H Publishing Group. Used with permission.