Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:19
Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. I am not a historian when it comes to Christianity (other than what is in the bible). But there is something about this phrase that has great significance today.
It was a phrase used by the early Christian church. It is unfamiliar to most of us today. It was first used by a Roman official in a letter from Diognetus in the second century. For context, there were two other streams of Christianity – one stream basically bought into culture and embraced it and reflected it.
The second stream went in the opposite direction and insisted on isolation from culture. You had two choices: either embrace and reflect culture in your practice and mirroring its values, or you isolated yourself from it.
The first option “undermined the uniqueness of the belief system” according to Gerald Sittser in Christianity Today. The latter movement became culturally irrelevant because of their isolation.
The Third Way was a short-hand describing that you can do both – you can both be in the world but not of the world. How does that work? Well, it means engaging in the world but not changing the belief system based on a culture around you.
The Third Way created something new and different in its theology, community, worship and behavior. It developed in the Roman culture – a very secular culture, and it is instructive for us today. Christians had to move new converts from their secular culture to discipleship.
It required taking an outsider and making them an insider. From a casual observer to a full-fledged disciple. It worked, creating generations of believers who were firmly established in their faith and able to expand Christianity over time.
The result was that a believer had an identity in Christ that changed all other identities – marital, ethnic and cultural. It broke down walls. It succeeded and grew steadily in difficult circumstances. It was a minority movement that influenced the larger culture, not the other way around.
Christians figured out how to engage culture without excessive compromise yet remain distinct without isolation which would have made them irrelevant. They figured out how to be faithful and winsome at the same time. At the heart of the movement was the identity and mission of Jesus, who summonsed them to a new way of life following Him.
If you look over the last century of church history, you see where mainline denominations have gone down the path of the leaving the third way behind to their detriment. Most large denominations are disappearing at a rapid pace because the truly have lost their way.
Fundamentalism caused isolation. Most Protestant denominations attached themselves to the world. Even the Southern Baptist church is suffering decline, recently reporting the biggest drop in membership in a decade.
Evangelicalism was an attempt to become the third way path. In the 60’s and 70’s, there was a broad attempt to engage cultural institutions. But even it may have lost its way in trying to “hip”(or “woke” in today’s jargon) and mimicking culture to be attractive.
Even Rick Warren used blatantly modern marketing to establish Saddleback Church – everything was designed to appeal to the culture around it. He created a cultural composite who was nicknamed “Saddleback Sam” based on demographics. The service was designed to appeal to “Sam”. It worked, but that approach can go too far.
In many ways, the current church is a consumer-oriented church. It means all to0 often of being passive: going to listen to a good sermon, listen to some good songs and interact with friends. Congregations come to congregate and little more. The pastor did the active part in delivering a message. The congregation’s job has become a passive role.
Discipleship requires more. While churches today focus more on the number of “members” on its rolls, very few track the number of disciples created.
The Third Way saw worship as a bridge between divine and human life. It was the method of preparing one to be able to return home to their ordinary lives in the market, home and neighborhood as disciples.
We have lost our way in some ways. We may need to look at a change in church culture which has defaulted into a culture of entertainment, politics and personality. We need to return to a culture of discipleship.
In my leadership training with pastors, I often emphasize that most ministry takes place outside the four walls of the church. They often don’t want to hear that. But we stand today in an environment where many church doors are closed due to a pandemic.
Maybe it’s a way of God tossing us out to rethink how we are to be strategic in creating a culture of disciples. One modest suggestion: a return to mentoring the next generation through life on life contact. It worked for Jesus and the disciples, and it can work now.
MENTOR TAKEWAY: You, as a mentor, are a tool of discipleship into the lives of your mentor. It is an invaluable investment.
FURTHER READING: The Early Church Thrived Amid Secularism and Shows How We Can, Too. Gerald Sittser
WORSHIP: Build My Life – Passion
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