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Triathletes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am not an athlete. But I have the utmost respect for those who are. Among the most revered athletes in the world are the men and women who compete in the triathlon. The Iron Man Triathlon is the first I remember hearing about. The lean and chiseled competitors demonstrate a diligence and discipline that few can muster.

The main reason the winners do so well is because they don’t try to ride their bicycles in the water.

I know it seems simple. But the logic is inescapable. The cycling leg is usually after the swimming portion of the race. Not only is the bicycle unsuited for water, but using it in the water would require navigating the course backwards.

So it is with modern Christian discipleship. We are running a race unlike any Paul ever imagined. There’s much more to our race than mere running. The metaphor needs updating.

Here’s the thrust: Our race course has changed. Christendom is no more, aptly put by S. Michael Craven at the Christian Post.

In the age of Christendom, the church occupied a central and influential place in society and the Western world considered itself both formally and officially Christian. So when we speak of post-Christendom, we are making the point that the church no longer occupies this central place of social and cultural hegemony and Western civilization no longer considers itself to be formally or officially Christian.

Where once we relied upon sending good Christian men to Washington to ratify our beliefs with laws, that luxury is no longer the reality of the Church. Today, our culture is made up of a wide-range of world views.

The Myth of Patriotism Denoting Christianity

When we say, “But America is a Christian nation,” we are really saying, “We want things to be like they were.” The way things are “supposed to be” and the stark reality are often two different things. While we are visiting the 1950s, it is worthy to note that the good old days weren’t always good. This Christian nation was being hyper-developed in response to the threat of Communism. Churches swelled to capacity and exploded into prominence as neighbor after neighbor joined to prove his or her allegiance to the flag, and sometimes to the Savior.

From Chris Price’s American Church History blog:

The increase in religious sentiment in America during the 1940s and 1950s brings up an interesting question.  Was this Christianity more pro-Jesus or pro-America?  While Christianity and America are by no means mutually exclusive, some people seem to equate the mission of America and the mission of Christianity as one and the same.  I tend to view this as a danger, because America has at times been on the wrong side of issues (Indian policy and slavery are a couple of obvious examples far enough in the past not to engender a major political debate).  If Christians equate America’s mission with that of Christianity, they are likely to unquestioningly stand by if something similar came across the radar in the future.

Now What?

Now, our efforts to make disciples cannot rely on the assumptions of the 1950s.

  • We cannot assume that people will come to church because it is the right thing to do, or because it is the popular thing to do.
  • We cannot expect people to look favorably on religion in general.
  • We cannot expect people to agree with us because of social pressures or societal norms.
  • We cannot expect people to have a pre-existing relationship with Christ because it is a part of the common culture.

We must learn to navigate a new culture as disciples of Jesus, often un-welcomed and sometimes persecuted. And rather than ask for a do-over, we should adapt and overcome. Rather than ride our bicycle into the surf, we should face forward and seek the finish line.

The transition from swim to cycle and cycle to marathon is a place where folks are watching to see how the athletes manage the change.

History will mark whether this period of the life of the Church is marked by a smooth transition or a wrong-way error of epic proportions.

To succeed in this modern mess, we must recall the original pre-institutional methods of discipleship. Church renewal throughout history is marked by a return to relational discipleship, personal evangelism, and a reliance upon laity. Read up on John Wesley. Recall the Lay Witness Movement. Turn back the clock to the Reformation. But don’t seek the days of the super-institutional Church of the 1950s.

Those days are gone.

As missionaries in our own country, we have a to-do list:

  • We must emphasize our own discipleship first.
  • We must remember how to share our experience of Christ.
  • We must be able to transmit the Gospel message without jargon and code-words.
  • We must rely on Christ’s love for the sinner to motivate our efforts to transform the world rather than the desperate need to be “right.”

When did you discover that your Church was still living in the 1950s?

Which of these to-do list items will be hardest for you?

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Author: Joey Reed

Joey is the pastor of Grace UMC in Jackson, Tennessee. He and his wife, Laurinda, have two children, Jack and Becca. There’s also a cat named George living at their house. Their idea of a great day usually involves Happy Hour — at a Sonic Drive-In.