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Panopticon Discipleship

February 16th, 2022 | 3 min read

By Jake Meador

(I’m just trying to do some short stuff that would’ve gone on Twitter, in much less thoughtful, developed form, on the personal blog instead.)

One of the trends I have noticed in many conversations with people who have left the church is that I don’t think their churches thought of discipleship in terms of “preparing people for virtuous agency.” “Discipleship” basically meant hovering over people to make sure they read their Bibles, but it seldom engaged in a real way with the difficulty and complexity of life. Indeed, in many cases it didn’t engage in a real way with the difficulty and complexity of Scripture! There’s an irony here because they—we, really, I grew up in this world too—heard a great deal about “discipline.” But in practice “discipline” mostly meant “thoughtlessly obeying authority figures and practicing prescribed rituals.”

The outcome of this is that as many of these young people have entered adulthood and begun making their own decisions about their lives, they’ve not been prepared to think about things like ordering desires toward higher goods, belonging to institutions and exercising virtue within the confines of local organizations, and so on.

This is one of the many reasons I continue to be concerned about the way CRT and other cultural trends are used within evangelical circles. What I’ve seen many times is that white evangelicals will use these trendy intellectual concepts (or, frankly, intellectual concepts that were trendy 10 years ago) as a kind of cultural shibboleth without ever actually understanding the concept in the first place.

Even the best-selling books in our circles that go after “wokeness” rely almost entirely on secondary sources to make their arguments, for example. That’s because we’re not really after understanding, I don’t think, but rather the maintenance of a certain way of life which is sustained not necessarily through ordering affections and desires toward good ends, but rather simply through a kind of automated acquiescence to authority figures.

The worldview movement plays a role in this as well, as Brad Littlejohn noted several years ago in this essay:

One gets the idea from a fair bit of Christian worldview literature (especially when some conference or course is being advertised) that a worldview is almost like a set of categories you can download, and then march out into the world equipped with the right answers and knowing in advance how to refute the wrong answers. But this is not how people learn—not how they learn real meaningful knowledge and wisdom at any rate. This kind of pre-packaged knowledge turns out to be awfully flimsy and brittle when confronted with the complexities of the real world.

(I’ve also tried to get at this problem in the past.)

It seems to me that one of the great needs we have right now is discipleship of both young people and of adults that sees its goal as equipping people to exercise virtuous agency as they go about their life. And it’s not clear to me how many of our ministries of various sorts as well as our churches have been aiming toward that goal in recent years.

This, of course, is precisely why we sometimes joke that Mere O exists to defend nuance and word counts on the internet. The world is complex. If Christians aren’t prepared to engage with it in its complexity, one of two things will often happen.

Some will remain Christian but their faith will only be sustained by their ability to maintain the simplified fantasy world they’ve constructed in their minds.

Others will encounter the complexity, find that they can’t make sense of it through the Christianity they were taught, and they’ll think that the only intellectually honest path is to set aside Christianity and embrace the complexity.

It is also possible, of course, that some will essentially read their way into the catholic faith and through their reading find communities that are healthier and more mature. This is certainly a better outcome than either of the first two scenarios. And yet even so the fact that so many of us have had to walk that road is evidence, I think, of a certain failure of discipleship in many Christian churches and ministries.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).