Written by Derek Cooper
Monday, 17 December 2012 00:00
The twentieth century in Latin America has been the century of the evangélicos, or evangelicals. From the small beginnings of this tradition in the late nineteenth century in Latin America to the beginning of the twenty-first, the number of evangélicos has risen dramatically. In Central America, in fact, several countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador boast Protestant populations of close to 40%.
Given the rapid change from a traditionally Roman Catholic society to a more Protestant one, especially in that cluster of Central American countries mentioned above, scholars have scrutinized the retention number of many Protestant churches. The results, at least from one conclusive study in Costa Rica several years ago, are abysmal: A very high percentage of those who have regularly attended a Protestant church no longer do so.
There are two answers to this question. Aside from lack of sufficient pastoral care, the primary reason why so many Latinos are entering the revolving door of Protestantism is due to an inadequate model of discipleship. As one Latin American scholar states it, “The churches that have lost more members are those that have no clear plan of discipleship” (Introducing World Christianity, 182).
As we shift our conversation from Latin America to North America, the topography, language, and culture change but the results do not. Church attendees are defecting en masse. And they are not being discipled.
Many of the churches in the Northeast, where I live, use the term discipleship like they do a “classic” book that everyone has heard of but few have read. We need to think long and hard about why and how we use this word. Fortunately, I must add, I have sensed a change in wind during the past few years, where more and more pastors are aware of the leaking boat of discipleship and have prioritized repairing the leak. At the same time, all hands need to be on deck, and churches need to take upon themselves their primary role of existence: to make disciples.
When it comes to discipleship, there are many ways to define it, and there are also many images or metaphors that can be used to understand it better.
In our book Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus, Ed Cyzewski and I thought carefully about each of these things. In terms of a definition for the word discipleship, we were aware of the many ways other authors over the years have defined it. But instead of wading through a pool of definitions, we decided to keep things simple and not become focused on the definition over against its broader significance. When we did provide a short definition at times, we tended to do so from the perspective of the Bible, which offers different yet complementary understandings of the term.
The Gospel of Mark, for instance, defines discipleship as two things: (1) being with Jesus and (2) being sent out by Jesus (see Mark 3:14). And still other biblical passages view the term from a slightly different lens.
Settling on an appropriate metaphor for discipleship was more difficult, since the Bible allows readers to interpret discipleship in many different ways. After careful consideration, we decided that the notion of a hazard was one good way to talk about discipleship. According to one dictionary, the term hazardous implies great risk and potential peril. When coupled with another metaphor of discipleship – that of following Jesus – Ed and I agreed that the long journey of following Jesus is a risky one that is perilous, challenging, and extremely hard. True, there are great moments of joy and happiness, but nevertheless the path to following Jesus is not one marked by teddy bears with ice cream cones but rather orange safety cones with yellow tape that alert us to regular hazards, obstacles, and risks.
Of course, there is another risk involved in discipleship. And that is the risk of not discipling. As was the case with the study on the defection of evangélicos in Costa Rican churches, so is the situation in North America: You can disciple those who attend your churches or you can expect mass defections. It’s your choice. But we hope and pray that you take the longer, more difficult, more risky, and exacting – yet always more rewarding – journey of discipleship. There will be hazards along the way, but in the end Christian believers will be better equipped to deal with all the complexities of life.
Derek Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical, where he directs the LEAD MDiv program and co-directs the DMin program. His most recent book is Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus. His faculty page can be found here.