Conversatio Divina

Part 7 of 12

Diagnosing the Problem of Christian Immaturity: A Theological Perspective

Kristen Deede Johnson

The sixth session of the 2024 Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop featured a presentation by Dr. Kristin Deede Johnson (theology, Western Theological Seminary) and comments by Dr. Kyle Strobel (theology, Talbot School of Theology). The session was moderated by Dr. E. Trey Clark (homiletics, Fuller Theological Seminary). Dr. Johnson’s paper was titled “Diagnosing the Problem of Christian Immaturity: A Theological Perspective.” This session initiates our attempt to explain the problem of Christian immaturity/malformation and consider actionable steps toward fostering greater spiritual and moral vitality among Christian individuals and groups.

Below is a summary and some key quotes from Dr. Johnson’s paper. In the video, Dr. Johnson briefly summarizes the main points of her paper and Dr. Strobel offers additional comments.

01.  Summary

Johnson’s genealogical analysis underscores a late connection between the “Great Commission” and 20th century models of discipleship. For all the good the call to “make disciples” has done, she argues that reducing discipleship only to what one finds in the Great Commission contributed to Christian immaturity, generally, and to a Christian dualistic imaginary that sees discipleship as a flight from the world (i.e. various forms of dispensationalism), specifically. She is primarily concerned with the way in which this kind of immaturity resists social transformation. In response, Johnson proposes models of mature discipleship as those that seek to join God in his transforming work in the present. For, “If we place the Great Commission within the larger narrative of Scripture, we see a vision of the Christian life emerge that involves being attentive to our everyday vocations, our locations and communities, and intentional cultural engagement.” 

 Johnson is leery of the connection between the “great commission” and models of discipleship for several reasons:  

  1. Its late arrival in Christian history (in 20th century evangelicalism). 
  2. Its links to various forms of dispensationalism in the work of figures such as Darby and Scofield. 
  3. Its reduction of discipleship to mere evangelism (“the making of disciples”). 
  4. Its understanding of discipleship as a response to a command, not as an overflow of gratitude for the good news found in Jesus. 
  5. Its dualism of this world and the next, and hence, its inability to imagine discipleship as participation in God’s ongoing work in the present. 
  6. It ushered in the “Great Reversal,” wherein Christians “no longer believed in the possibility of social reform through human efforts.”  

In summary the reduction of discipleship to the great commission creates a “sanctification gap,” which “bequeathed to us a vision of the Christian life that divorced evangelism from social engagement in ways that were unparalleled in the history of Christianity.” In response, Johnson offers three theological correctives for reimagining what it means to be a disciple of Christ:  

  1. That we not focus so much attention on the past example of Jesus, but instead learn to be attentive to his ongoing work in the present. 
  2. That we not understand discipleship “primarily as a response to a command (such as ‘go and make disciples’), but as a calling flowing from our identity as adopted children of God. In this sense, the work of the Spirit in conforming disciples to Christ is more significant than our work trying to obey a command.”  
  3. That “we shift from thinking about methods of discipleship and formation to a posture of open-handed discipleship that can inform all that we do as disciples.”  

In her conclusion Johnson suggests we model our lives on the early Christians, “who offered support to the sick, the poor, the uneducated, the lawbreaker in ways previously unimagined.” She offers the tree as a metaphor for reimagining disciples as those whose life is about transforming harmful gasses into life-giving oxygen. “We can become people who offer life to the world, rooted in Christ rather than fear or despair, attentive to our local places, discerning how we might offer life-giving oxygen, fruit, shade, and sustenance to the people and institutions around us, generously finding places of overlap rather than demarcating lines of division.”

02.  Key Quotes

“It’s in the 1900s that the Great Commission begins to take its place as the motive for missions. It essentially becomes shorthand for the call to missions understood as evangelism. It’s also in this time period that the Great Commission becomes solidified as the term for the parting words of Matthew.” 

“. . . premillennialism caught like wildfire in America, taking shape and spreading throughout the land – and along the way having an indelible impact on how Christians understand the gospel, conceptualize discipleship, and engage in the world.”  

“Profound divisions emerged. Either conservative belief or progressive adaptation. Either the saving of souls or engagement in social reform. Either hope in our removal from this earth or hope in our efforts to bring the Kingdom. Either lifeboat to heaven with Jesus or heaven on earth by our hands.” 

“Further, a central theme of this exploration of discipleship and the Great Commission has been the extent to which our contemporary understandings of discipleship flow from notions of the Christian life that are dualistic, built on a theological vision that separates this earth from the Kingdom of God, the church from this world, and evangelism from social reform. I sense that this history has a great deal to do with the challenges we are seeing in Christian formation today.” 

“Many of the struggles we see in discipleship today are connected to Christians not knowing how to engage the wider culture, particularly as it has shifted and changed in recent decades. Malformation seeps in as this vacuum is filled by people and places that offer Christians strategies for political and cultural engagement that cultivate fear, anger, and anxiety more than the fruit of the Spirit.”  

“Among many other things, trees are known for their capacity to take in potentially harmful gasses surrounding them and offer life-giving oxygen to the world. Trees do not offer this oxygen only to their own kind, but instead they improve the air quality for everyone…trees also offer beauty, shade, fruit, habitat for wildlife, and innumerable other things to the world. The world would be diminished in significant ways without the contributions of trees. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that was our reputation as Christians today?” 

“In Christ and by the Spirit, we are to open-handedly offer all of ourselves to God every day, not tight-fistedly holding anything back, but loving God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. And loving our neighbors as ourselves. This lies at the heart of the call to discipleship.” 

03.  Applications Questions

  • Johnson asks, “How do we encourage formation in which evangelism and mission flow freely from each of our lives in Christ, with Jesus’ words in the Great Commission as the affirmation of the calling we have received by virtue of the Gospel – not because we are told to, but because we can’t imagine any other way?”  
  • Johnson asks, “Having received the tremendous gift of new life in Christ, these early Christians offered all of their lives as living sacrifices to God. Through their open-handed discipleship, they, like trees, brought life and beauty to the world. What will it take for Christians today to inhabit this kind of open-discipleship?”  
  • Johnson imagines disciples in the world as trees. She writes, “the world would be diminished in significant ways without the contributions of trees. Wouldn’t it be amazing if that was our reputation as Christians today?” 
  • Do our ministries promote social transformation? How might we develop discipleship models that are more attuned to social transformation?  
  • What do you think about Johnson’s suggestion that, “we shift from thinking about methods of discipleship and formation to a posture of open-handed discipleship that can inform all that we do as disciples?”