We Don’t Need Another Manual

footprints

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
~Matthew 28:18-20

Flavor the the Month:  Discipleship

If you were to survey the largest church leadership conferences in the United States from the past 12 months, odds are that the major theme of the conference had something to do with discipleship.  From Verge to Exponential, there is no doubt that discipleship is the flavor of the month.

I find this shift encouraging.  Having worked in a mission-minded college ministry for so many years, it is exciting to see churches operating less like corporations and more like indigenous missions agencies.  I believe that this shift in the Western church is a helpful corrective to the insular, institution-driven models which have, for so long, quenched the fires of evangelism and mission.  Furthermore, this renewed emphasis on discipleship and mission is so widespread that it appears to be less a part of the latest fad and more a reflection of the Spirit-driven nature of church responding to the call of the Great Commission.

Consuming Discipleship

However, one of the things that I am worried about is the increasingly consumer-oriented nature of this shift.  Nowadays I can’t turn around without running into another book on discipleship.  There’s David Platt’s Follow MeMike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture, and Francis Chan’s Multiply.  There’s Jim Putnam’s Real-Life Discipleship Training Manual and Greg Ogden’s Transforming Discipleship.  The list is large and continues to grow.  Leave it to us Americans to take an awesome idea, package it, and sell it for the greater glory of God.  (And yes, I did just link all of those to Amazon.  You are now free to indulge your shopping impulse).

Now I genuinely believe that these authors have a deep desire to help men and women grow to maturity in Christ and that these books are not written for personal gain.  However, what I see when there is this explosion of books is a mad dash to buy, read, consume and regurgitate without thought to the consequences and without critical reflection on Scripture and our own contexts.  We end up going and attending conferences with these authors, spending money on airlines and hotel rooms, eating out, eating in, and buying more books, all in the name of advancing the cause of discipleship.  Finally, if any of this is actually applied, it is applied by buying more books, giving them to more people, and telling them to go and do likewise.  The result:  cookie cutter disciples being cranked out by the latest book buying craze.

Now all of that sounds rather cynical, but for the record I write this as someone who has partaken.  I am just as guilty of following this model as the next pastor and for that I must repent.  The reality is that we spend so much time reading and talking about discipleship that we miss the point:  to help people to grow into full maturity in Christ.  And the truth is that we don’t need another manual to help us do this.  Why?  Because we already have the one manual we will ever need:  Scripture.

Spending Time with The Rabbi

What I find interesting about the vast majority of these discipleship books is how they all center around one simple idea:  look at what Jesus did the in gospels and do likewise.  That’s it.  Jesus not only came and died for us, but he also modeled for us how to live.  Furthermore, when he gives the Great Commission to his disciples he is essentially telling them to do exactly what he did with them.  “Go and make disciples…baptizing…and teaching them to obey all I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).  Jesus makes clear that his intention was for them to follow the example that he had laid down.  So, I think the challenge for us is to set the manuals down for a while and to just spend time with our rabbi.  Jesus shows us how to make disciples in the way that he taught, and he invites us to join in him in that process.

So here is a challenge for all of us:  before picking up another discipleship book or training manual, spend some time in the gospels and ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did Jesus help people grow spiritually?
  • How did he help shape and form his disciples as people?
  • What were Jesus’ rhythms of life with his followers?
  • How did he teach, both in word and deed?

I think we will be surprised by what we find.  Furthermore, this approach puts us right where we need to be:  at the feet of Jesus, watching what he does and learning from him.  My hope is that this will be the key to our discipleship; that we will be trained in the way of and formed by Christ himself, and sent to help others do the same.

QUESTION FOR DISCUSSION:  As you read the gospels, what have you learned about how to make disciples?  What has Jesus taught you be his example?

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8 thoughts on “We Don’t Need Another Manual

  1. Jo McCroskey says:

    I think I hear you echoing Solomon’s wisdom that there is nothing new under the sun. I agree with that. Discipleship isn’t new. In fact, it’s a very old concept. Older than Jesus. So why do we need a new wave of conferences and books? We should just read the Bible and do what it says, right? If everyone who went to church on the weekend was a disciple of Christ that would probably be sufficient. The problem as I see it, is that not everyone who attends church IS a disciple of Christ. A LifeWay study of 2900 Christians showed that only 19% read their Bible daily. Barna studies show us that 40% of Christians don’t believe Satan is real and nearly the same number don’t believe in the Holy Spirit. These are some pretty big disconnects. If our loving God is trying to reach His people and wake them up in their church seat, equip them with the armor of God (Eph. 6), and send them into the harvest, He is going to need some additional voices that can reach them. Clearly there is a revival going on that the Holy Spirit has ignited and that these books and conferences are encouraging. For that I praise God. That’s answered prayer. I don’t agree with your premise that the result of all of this is “cookie cutter disciples.” What does that even mean? Does attending conferences and reading books make us a lesser quality disciple than if we had just read the Bible? Jesus’s disciples were not cookie cutter identical and I don’t believe we are either. He’s chosen us with our very different gifts and experiences to reach people whose lives have not yet been transformed by the Word of God. If the books and conferences make disciples at all, and I would contend that they only accomplish what the Holy Spirit is already doing, then I praise God! We desperately need more disciples and whatever speaks to people and inspires them to become passionate followers of Christ is working for God’s kingdom so I’m for it. Alan Hirsch wisely said, “You cannot teach what you do not know and you cannot lead where you will not go.” I believe these conferences and books are calling people to something higher, something they have not considered, something they have not been willing to do before and God’s Spirit is at work there, as Philippians 2 says, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Jesus asked us to be of one mind with each other and these books and conferences are a sign that God is at work in His people, helping them to be in unity and focused on His mission. .Another speaker at the Exponential conference (can’t remember whom, sorry!) said, “Let’s believe God’s word when it stretches us. Let’s obey God’s word when it costs us. This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ.” I believe these speakers and authors are holding up the Word of God and shouting to God’s people, “Listen! Wake up! There’s something more! Come alive!” just as the prophets of old did. God has used people to remind us of the Truth of His Word all throughout history and I believe He is doing that again now. So whether it’s Elijah or Jim Putman, I’m willing to listen and learn from them — and I’m VERY excited about the work we are doing to become more passionate disciples of Christ and to help others do the same. So yes, the B-I-B-L-E is the book for me and I agree we should all spend time listening to God through His Word first and foremost, but I’ll read discipleship books and attend conferences and share what I learn with others. It’s the kind of contagious energy that moves forward the cause of Christ. We can use all the motivation and inspiration we can get! I’m all for whatever WORKS. Discipleship is a much more difficult, long term path than being a church goer. It requires patience, discernment, wisdom, and a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ. Fruit doesn’t appear over night in the lives of those we work with so we’re going to need all the camaraderie we can find as we get serious about making disciples. Let’s not think of it as a bandwagon, but as a revival, and let’s be FOR it.

    • Jo,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m not suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from these conferences and books. As I mentioned in my post, I’ve attended many of them and own most of the books that I tagged in the post. I agree with you when you say that there seems to be a revival going on in this area and that is a healthy thing.

      My concern is that the Western church tends to have a pattern of picking up books like this, reading them, and then super-imposing them on their congregations and communities without critically thinking through a couple of key issues:

      1. Is what I’m reading in these books really reflective
      of how Jesus made disciples?
      2. Is this system really appropriate for my context and the people to
      whom God has called me?

      I believe the control here has to be rooted in the Scriptural example of Christ. All I am asking people to do is to pick up Scripture and look at Christ BEFORE implementing what they are reading and hearing. We are often too quick to throw a 3, 12, or 24 step manual at people before we have considered what it means to relationally and intentionally lead them in their walk with Christ. Again, I’m speaking as one who has done this and seen the poor results.

      It is this mode of operating that I think leads to the cookie-cutter disciples that I am talking about. We read a good book, hear a good talk, or observe an awesome ministry and say, “I need to be like that” rather than helping people hear Christ for themselves and ask the question, “Who has Christ called me to be? Who has he called us to be as his body in this community?” Too often we settle for form and disciple people to structure rather than to authentic maturity in Christ. Hence, the cookie cutter.

      My exhortation here is to a healthy dose of self-reflection in light of the example of Jesus before we implement the newest method and buy the latest book, DVD, or conference package. Hopefully that clears up some of what I am presenting in this post.

      Thanks again for posting 🙂

  2. Jo McCroskey says:

    Thanks for clarifying Nick. I definitely agree with the need for self reflection. It’s not about busily doing the next thing (although it is about LIVING the truth not just gathering knowledge), it’s about truly abiding in Christ and living in obedience to ALL He has called us to. You’re right, we will need a very individualistic approach not a cookie cutter “method” as we work with people. Love these meaningful discussions. I would enjoy lots more of them! Thanks for your thoughts!

    • Jo,
      Thanks again for commenting:) I share your passion for wanting to talk further about this, especially in regard to finding ways to put into practice what we are learning about discipleship. Maybe this is something we can continue to talk about in light of recent discussions at Trinity about discipleship. Again, I appreciate the thoughts.

  3. Dan says:

    Yes – the Christian book publishing/conference cycle can be a dangerous and misleading thing. In order to speak at most conferences, you need a book – have you ever noticed? Write it and you are considered an expert, even if you are not attempting ministry in real life (here comes the consulting fees!). Over the past 20 years, I’ve been schooled in the harsh realities of the false promises of the latest “prophets” for the church (or profits for the publishers?) who are still predicting the demise of the church contrary to Jesus’ own words unless we buy a book, attend a conference and join their movement. One can only hope Christian books help us learn from Jesus through the experience of those who are learning from Jesus – fortunately they don’t all miss the point. 1 John 4:1 seems appropriate: Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world.

    • Jo McCroskey says:

      Very true and you are helping me to understand Nick’s point. I am most wary of people who talk a lot about discipleship without being involved in it or who teach/lead without living the life themselves. Granted, we all need to grow to be more congruent but too many people speak with authority about or want to lead others in things they do not do. Alan Hirsch nailed it with his statement that you cannot teach what you do not know and you cannot lead where you will not go. At some point, even though I’m a fan of the books and conferences for now, you have to get to work and leave all the rhetoric behind. I find it important to sift each book or speaker’s message for truth and blow away the chaff. Even when I totally disagree with people, they can strengthen what I know from Scripture or my own experiences.

    • Thanks for posting Jeff. I appreciate your own take on this. I’ve often wondered about many of the speakers that I’ve seen bouncing from one conference to the next. How do they have time for on-the-ground ministry? :p

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