About ten years ago, I remember being struck as I read John Stott’s last book (also on discipleship) how much culture impacts how we understand discipleship. Stott had chapters on environmentalism and international ecumenical cooperation (focusing on nuanced and negotiated written agreements and statements of faith). Some books on environmentalism talk about discipleship issues and some books on ecumenical cooperation also talk about the need to disciple people into church unity. Still, in general, those are unusual topics for a general book on discipleship. Stott was writing in a context where those were not unusual topics of discipleship. Stott’s UK background and the US background are different, so books on discipleship have different emphases.
Rich Villodas is a pastor in NYC. Three of the list of his discipleship values will be found in many books. Two of his discipleship values are less common. According to Barna, White Evangelicals have become more interested in racial issues and are more opposed to discussing racial issues. There is an increasing divide within the White Evangelical world regarding justice issues more broadly, but racial justice in particular. Pew shows a 15-20% drop in the percent of the population that self identifies as Evangelical over the past decade. (And I antidotally suspect that it may be an undercount, but it may also just be my cohort.)
The reality is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the demographic dominance of White Evangelicals of the cultural conversation is waning. If for nothing other than pragmatic reasons, there is increasing awareness among some about the need for ethnic diversity within the church. As part of an aside in an online lecture from Esau McCaulley on theology and race, he noted that seminaries and colleges that primarily have catered to White theological training will have to change, or some of them will die, solely because of demographic trends.
The Deeply Formed Life is not taking a pragmatic/utilitarian approach to the need for racial reconciliation among Christians. He is rooting it as a central value, particularly because of our racially and culturally divided age. John 13 quotes Jesus as saying, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” But evidence of that love is often lacking.
Sexual Wholeness is more common in discipleship conversation among teens and young 20 somethings, but that is most about avoidance and purity. Many have been grappling with the repercussions of the past 20-25 years’ purity movement, and there will be more grappling in the future. The key, which I think Villodas balances well, is to discuss why sexual wholeness is important and then offer grace for those who have either been sexual abused or more actively participated in sexual misconduct in their past. If polls around sexual activity are relatively accurate, teen sexual activity is down, but adult sexual activity outside of marriage (because of lower or later marriage rates) may be up. Porn use is pervasive, which seems to be correlated with reduced sexual activity. So this chapter is important, and what it means to be a Christian in a sexualized society should be part of an understanding of discipleship.
The three other topics are more traditional and tied to the historic church and traditional spiritual disciplines. The reality is that across cultures, some practices seem to be nearly universal around spiritual practices. Being quiet, seeking to hear God, working to live in a way that represents God well, and showing what it means to have good character and be impacted by Christ is no less true in NYC than in 11th century Rome or 4th century Ethiopia.
No book of discipleship is perfect for everyone. As much as we are to be oriented toward Christ’s Kingdom first, the reality is that we are always Christians within a local space and culture. And how we work out what it means to be Christian must necessarily be tied to that culture, geography, and time. This is a discipleship book worth reading.