HOW GREEN BAY’S AARON RODGERS PROVES THE PRIORITY OF DISICPLESHIP. The Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers is according to most analysts the best quarterback in the NFL—Tom Brady’s five Super Bowl rings notwithstanding. He’s the all-time career leader in passing efficiency and holds records in more passing categories than anyone else in NFL history. His team won the Super Bowl in 2010 and he was recognized as the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2011 and 2014. In this, his tenth year at the Packers’ helm, his team will once again be among the favorites to play in the Super Bowl.
Rodgers proves the priority of discipleship and should be a red flag for every congregation concerned about the next generation of believers.
But Rodgers isn’t just about football, and in this month’s edition of ESPN The Magazine he talks at length about his other life, the one he lives outside his NFL cult-like status. One aspect of the interview stood out to me. Not because of my passion for football but because of my vocation as a pastor. It turns out that Rodgers’s biography is not only an inspiring story of how a young athlete overcame all kinds of obstacles on his way to becoming a champion at the highest level of his sport, it’s also a cautionary tale of how a young Christian lost the faith of his childhood. Rodgers proves the priority of discipleship and should be a red flag for every congregation concerned about the next generation of believers.
Reared in a Christian home, Rodgers followed the same route as do most young people in evangelical churches. He had a stable family heavily invested in their local fellowship, and early on not only heard the gospel but saw it demonstrated in his home. And, like students everywhere in the same kind of environment, Rodgers committed his life to Jesus at an early age. Later, as a young adult, he continued to describe his spiritual experience as a close relationship with the Lord: “The Lord is my Rock. He has always been there, always present at good times and bad; and to me when I feel His presence, my life is full.”
But then something changed, as the ESPN article makes clear:
Then, not long after he became the starter in Green Bay in 2008, he met Rob Bell, a young pastor from Michigan whom the Packers invited to speak to the team. When the talk ended, Rodgers waited for the group to dissipate and then introduced himself to Bell, best known for his progressive views on Christianity. The two men struck up a friendship. Bell sent Rodgers books on everything from religion to art theory to quantum physics, and the quarterback gave him feedback on his writing. Over time, as he read more, Rodgers grew increasingly convinced that the beliefs he had internalized growing up were wrong, that spirituality could be far more inclusive and less literal than he had been taught.
At the time Rob Bell was the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a fast-rising celebrity on the national religious scene (in 2011 Time magazine placed Bell on the Time 100—a list of the world’s most influential figures). An international speaker, film-maker, author, personal coach and conference leader, Bell’s beliefs over the course of his career morphed from coherent biblical doctrine into a mishmash of eastern religion, modern philosophy, universalism and the kind of progressive religion that abandons the institutional church and its teachings for the sake of personal gratification. In Bell’s world, spirituality came to be a subjective experience with little connection with the objective truth of biblical revelation. He became the Pied Piper of American evangelicalism and for people like Aaron Rodgers too great a temptation to resist.
As the ESPN article details, Rodgers fell for Bell’s teachings:
After Super Bowl XLV, Rodgers and Bell spent a lot of time talking about what he experienced on that bus — how he felt, or didn’t feel, and his realization that absolute success on the field didn’t make him completely content. It wasn’t until he confronted his own “narrow-minded” views about the world and his place in it, he says, that he experienced a sense of the fulfillment he yearned for. “I think questions like that in your mind lead to really beautiful periods where you start to grow as a person,” he says. “I think organized religion can have a mind-debilitating effect, because there is an exclusivity that can shut you out from being open to the world, to people, and energy, and love and acceptance.
“That wasn’t really the way that I was, maybe the first 25 or 26 years of my life,” Rodgers continues. “I was, you know, more black-and-white. This is what I believe in. And then at some point … you realize, I don’t really know the answers to these questions.”
Young people lose their faith for lots of reasons—personal choice, the hypocrisy of some spiritual leaders, life experience, gradual loss of interest. The ESPN piece indicates that Aaron Rodgers lost his because of the impact of a heretical teacher. As sad as it is, we shouldn’t be surprised. The Bible makes clear that the ancient world as well as our own was filled with teachers whose goal in life is to lead people away from Jesus. The Apostle Paul in his farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-30 said as much: “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
Rodgers’ experience throws a spotlight on the church’s main task of making disciples
Rodgers’ experience throws a spotlight on the church’s main task of making disciples. I don’t know what his church’s ministry was like during his formative years, but I do believe that if he had been more deeply grounded in the Word of God and the life of faith as a younger person, he would have been less susceptible as a young adult to drifting from the faith. His church was probably like many if not most churches today—better at growing large ministries than doing the hard work of making disciples. Here’s a previous blog on the central role Bible teaching must have in children and student ministries.
We’re called above all else to make disciples of Jesus. Our ministries—especially with children and students—must provide real-life training in biblical foundations and spiritual maturity adequate for a lifetime. If we don’t make disciple-making a priority, more and more of our children and students will be in danger of making the same choices as has Aaron Rodgers.