By now, we are well aware of our predicament: The evangelical movement has lost much of its public credibility, and as a result, our witness has been deeply impacted. I won’t rehash all the reasons we got here, but I do want to hone in on two questions: At heart, what has gone wrong? And where do we go from here?

For the past eight years, I have served as a national discipleship leader, and I am convinced: At heart, our problem is one of discipleship. Our quandary concerns how our people have been formed — or, more precisely, mal-formed — as followers of Jesus Christ. Today, in multiple realms of life, many who claim the label “Christian” too often conform to the patterns of this world rather than to the person of Christ. The core work before us isn’t to win political battles, perfect our doctrine, or engage more forcefully in culture wars. The core work is to engage in a more comprehensive counter-formation for the kingdom of God.

We have been mal-formed, and what we need is to be re-formed. Our charge is to recover a kingdom approach to forming disciples — disciples who truly reflect the character of Christ and the kingdom of God. Only in this way can we fulfill our missional mandate to be salt and light to the world.

Our Call to Counter-Formation: A Case Study

Some time ago, I embarked on a church pilgrimage called Sankofa. The purpose of the journey was to explore historic sites of the Civil Rights Movement so that we might connect the racial struggles of our past to our present racial realities. I fully expected to engage in hard conversations about justice, so it came as a surprise when the facilitator clarified: “People usually associate race with justice. But at a deeper level, race is a matter of discipleship. Actually, when it comes to race, what we really need is to be re-discipled.”

This was a paradigm shift for me: My racial discipleship journey was not just beginning. We have already been racially discipled. We have been shaped in countless ways by the racial dynamics of our society, family, culture and generation. Our true task is to see how we have already been mal-formed by the world so we might choose to be re-formed into the new way of the kingdom of God. This, of course, sounds a lot like Scripture: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

In the Bible, we find metaphors for spiritual formation like baptism or wardrobe change (e.g., Colossians 2:11–12, 3:9–14; Romans 13:12–14). These metaphors speak of a dual process: We must first do away with the old before we can put on the new. This is also what Jesus taught throughout his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).

In the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus’ most extensive teaching on the kingdom of God — Jesus makes two things clear. First, God’s kingdom is comprehensive. Our king calls us to reflect his kingdom in every realm of life. In this one sermon, Jesus engages spirituality, money, lawsuits, sex, marriage, food, clothing and more (see Matthew 5–7). Beyond this, the kingdom is also radically counter-cultural and so, by necessity, deeply counter-formational. Consider that the Sermon on the Mount is essentially a series of counter-formational points: “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”

Reaffirming Christian Formation for the Sake of the World

Where do we go from here? If we hope to restore our public witness, we must begin with both comprehensive public theology and public discipleship. As discipleship leaders, let’s develop creative, holistic and counter-formational discipleship pathways that engage the whole person — head, heart and hands.

Let’s double down on our development of robust public theologies (“head”) that reflect God’s counter-cultural kingdom values in multiple realms of life. We’ve done much good work in this area in recent years, but we also need to make that work more accessible for everyday disciples. A beautiful example of robust-yet-accessible public theology can be found in the NAE’s resource, “For the Health of the Nation.”

Public theology must then be incarnated into the hearts of our people through counter-cultural public discipleship (“heart”) — discipleship that majors not on information, but on transformation. The formational opportunity before us is to engage disciples in ongoing spiritual practices and embodied discipleship experiences that have the power to re-form us over time.

This type of discipleship is what leads to transformational public witness (“hands”) — a humble, collaborative witness that is less about asserting Christian dominance than it is about contributing to the common good and becoming a faithful presence of salt and light in a dying world.     

A Framework for Counter-Cultural Public Formation

Restoring Our Salt and Light

We seek to reflect God’s kingdom not simply for our sake, but for the sake of the world, for our very purpose is to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13–16). But Jesus also made it crystal clear: It is all too possible for us to lose our saltiness and stifle our light. I submit that this is what we’ve been experiencing in our time.

Yet, thankfully, our hope is not in ourselves but in the God of all hope (Romans 15:13). As we recommit ourselves to the work of counter-formational kingdom discipleship — in partnership with Christ and through the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit — our saltiness can be reclaimed and our light restored. This is the Church’s purpose. This is the disciple’s call.