You may have noticed alright, that evangelicalism is not what it used to be. Whereas, in a former time, evangelicals emphasized the necessity of personal repentance, conversion and regeneration based on faith in the atoning work of Christ, today this kind of language seems to be fading. If you’re watching you will notice that these terms are being replaced by words such as discipleship and mission. So, practically speaking, you probably won’t often find the average church pastor preaching for a critical faith response in relation to Christ’s death on the cross for sin. Instead you’re more likely to hear a call to commitment to follow Christ in some particular mission. If anything you might hear an invitation to become a participant in the journey of faith with the people of God in some particular church.
Those who notice this change in approach to evangelicalism may well wonder about how and why it is happening. In part, it is consistent with the characteristics of post-modernism which itself is a reaction to the structured approaches of modernism. Since it is true that post-modernism questions the absolutism of the modern period, then we should not be surprised to see the impact of this reaction on the western church. Today’s generation is not as concerned about the eternal future as it is about current reality and experience. In the view of today’s younger demographic the Christian faith is not so much about preparing for the after-life as it is about experiencing the presence and power of Christ in this present time.
Furthermore, today’s generation is not so interested in neat little formulas and prayers that initiate a relationship with God as it is about spiritual experience that is possible through a variety of forms. Post-modern Christians are reading Scripture with a new interpretive paradigm – one in which they are looking at what it means to live as an authentic follower of Jesus. Their modus operandi is discipleship and mission, not conversion and sanctification. Real faith is not so much confessional and ceremonial as it is active and authentic.
It should be understood that this reaction to modernism and change in how evangelicalism is perceived, is not all bad. It is true that evangelicals of the modern period tended to focus too much attention on preparing for eternity. From personal experience, this writer knows all too well, the kind of approach to evangelism that was designed to help people cross the line of faith and become believers, thereby receiving assurance of salvation for eternity. In my experience of evangelism, discipleship was all about what happened after conversion. It had a distinct beginning.
There is much to be said for the new approach to evangelicalism that invites people on a journey of faith that consists in living each day in a relationship of worship, learning, and obedience. Who can argue with the importance of experiencing an authentic and adventuresome relationship of mission with Jesus instead of waiting for “pie in the sky, by and by?” The paradigm shift that post-modernism compels is a welcome emphasis.
However, post-moderns should be careful not to put all their eggs in one basket. For if post-moderns aren’t careful, they will find themselves adrift in a sea of moralizing and a kind of pharisaic legalism because they have lost sight of the meaning of grace and mercy.
What I mean is that there is no substitute for genuine Christianity based on a deep appreciation for the significance of the atonement as a starting place for the Christian faith. It is vitally important to a biblical understanding of discipleship that the true believer is one who truly appreciates the depth of human depravity and need for Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It is difficult to appreciate the nature of true discipleship without reckoning on the brevity of life and the ultimate appointment that we all have with death and our Maker. Jesus Himself made many references to being prepared for eternity as the life after this one.
John writes that being a Christian is all about obeying God’s commands, the most important of which are to believe on Jesus Christ and to love one another (1 John 3:23). Biblically, true Christianity consists in both a confession and obedience. In Paul’s letter to the Romans (as well as in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2) it appears that the journey of faith begins with a confession (see Romans 10:9, 10, 13). I think it would be a mistake to discount the significance of a critical moment of response to the message of Christ. Faith as a critical moment is amplified by the biblical idea of regeneration or being, “born again.”
While appreciating the importance of discipleship as an on-going journey of faith that pursues mission in obedience to, and with Christ, let’s not lose sight of the Gospel’s emphasis on God’s atoning grace in Christ’s sacrifice for sin – as the starting point of what it means to be a true follower of Jesus.