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The Cause and Cure of Shallow Christianity

Review of ‘Emotionally Healthy Discipleship’

George P Wood on March 26, 2021

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American Christianity has often been described as “a mile wide but an inch deep.” In other words, there is a mismatch between the quantity of believers and the quality of their discipleship. The rise of the “nones”* has narrowed American Christianity’s adherence since the 1990s, and Peter Scazzero worries that its discipleship has become even less deep over the same period. In Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, he outlines both the cause and cure of shallow Christianity.

According to Scazzero, traditional discipleship programs operate on the thin surface of people’s lives. Church leaders assume that if people convert, attend church, and participate in the congregation’s ministries with their time, talent, and treasure, they will impact the world. Multiple studies — most famously Willow Creek’s Reveal — call that assumption into question. Program participation does not necessarily result in deep change.

Why? Scazzero traces the answer to “four fundamental failures”:

“An emotionally healthy disciple slows down to be with Jesus, goes beneath the surface of their life to be deeply transformed by Jesus, and offers their life as a gift to the world for Jesus.”
  1. We tolerate emotional immaturity.
  2. We emphasize doing for God over being with God.
  3. We ignore the treasures of church history.
  4. We define success wrongly.

Each failure is worth considering, but in my experience, the fourth is the one that trips people up most.

Too often, Christians think of authentic faith as something that leads to more when it comes to money and better when it comes to health. That is why the prosperity gospel is so prevalent in American Christianity. We have “Christianized” the American dream. Ministers are not exempt from this more-and-better mentality. Too many of us use buildings, dollars, and people in the pew as metrics of our success, as if quality could be measured by quantity.

For Scazzero, this more-and-better mentality is not a biblical one. “Success, according to Scripture, is becoming the person God calls you to become, and doing what God calls you to do — in his way, and according to his timetable.” In other words, success is being like Jesus. Scazzero writes, “An emotionally healthy disciple slows down to be with Jesus, goes beneath the surface of their life to be deeply transformed by Jesus, and offers their life as a gift to the world for Jesus.”

What does this with-by-for-Jesus life look like? Most of Emotionally Healthy Discipleship is devoted to explaining and putting into practice seven marks of healthy disciples. They are:

  1. Be before you do.
  2. Follow the Crucified — not the “Americanized” — Jesus.
  3. Embrace God’s gift of limits.
  4. Discover the treasures hidden in grief and loss.
  5. Make love the measure of spirituality maturity.
  6. Break the power of the past.
  7. Lead out of weakness and vulnerability.

What these marks do well is identify things that are necessary to produce deep change in the lives of individuals and congregations. The first mark may be the most important. Too many churches focus only on the spiritual, but humans are not merely spiritual beings. As Scazzero puts it, “wholeness certainly includes the spiritual aspect of who we are, but it also includes the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual dimensions as well.” Emotionally healthy discipleship addresses all five dimensions of human being.

What these seven marks do not describe is the totality of a church’s discipleship program. They assume that a church engages attendees with Bible teaching, doctrinal instruction, and training in corporate and private worship. Moreover, they assume that certain systems are already in place. As Scazzero notes, “each of these marks falls within this larger biblical framework of community, including life-on-life discipling relationships, small groups, and serving.”

If church leaders want to produce emotionally healthy disciples, then, they need to use Emotionally Healthy Discipleship as a supplement to (and/or corrective of) existing programs, not as a total replacement. According to Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship (the book) and The Emotionally Healthy Discipleship Course (a training program) address what was “missing in present-day discipleship.” They do not outline a complete program.

I have not reviewed the discipleship course, but the book is excellent, and I recommend it to church leaders. If you are a pastor, read it with your leadership teams. It will no doubt lead to important and constructive conversations and, I hope, a better, deeper practice of Christianity in your church.

Book Reviewed
Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Moving from Shallow Christianity to Deep Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021).

* The term “nones” names people who claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. For more on them, read The Nones by Ryan P. Burge, which I reviewed here. I also interviewed Burge for the Influence Podcast here.
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