Your Discipleship Tools Are Too Weak

30 08 2008

As I’ve discussed the making of disciples with church planters and church leaders and they admit disciples are not being made I find myself saying this line over and over again (Your discipleship tools are too weak).  This is the diagnoses I find most accurate for so many churches and ministries.  Their discipleship is Sunday worship, community groups and a class a year.  I find myself wanting to ask, “are you really TRYING to make disciples or are you trying to check it off the list so you can get on with what you believe is the REAL mission?” (which is usually either “being missional” or balancing the four E’s or the the 4 W’s or some other construction of 4 different missions).

So what is the test of an effective discipleship process?  How do you know when your process is intense and complete enough?  Jesus gives us that answer in the Great Commission when he describes discipleship as “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Notice –

  1. “teaching them to obey” means teaching without obedience is not really a part of discipleship (which passes for the vast majority of what we think of as discipleship).  There’s a word in English for teaching with a direct outcome focus and that word is training.  If your discipleship isn’t training (if it’s only teaching) it’s not discipleship.
  2. “obey everything I have commanded you” which means discipleship must be comprehensive.  Most people ignore this line with a “sigh” and saying to themselves “see, its impossible”.  We have an enlightenment definition of comprehensive knowledge but I think both Jesus and the disciples thought this was entirely possible maybe in a 1-2 year process.  Paul says to the Ephesian elders after 2 years “I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” (Acts 20:27)  So we move on to part 27 in our 49 part series through the book of Luke not considering that we are actually responsible to train each disciple in our care to obey “everything”.  This requires an aggressive, comprehensive, systematic plan for discipleship.

So let’s try this approach.  Erase from your mind what is “practical” in your church or context and let yourself dream for just a moment.  Five brand new Christians come to you for training.  You have no tools yet (no worship service, no small groups, no classes etc.).  What would you design that would turn these 5 into fully trainied and obedient disciples?  When you’re done architecting the process ask yourself why we are not willing to sacrfice our sacred cows to weild tools strong enough for the task we are given.  Until we are we’ll never stop being baffled by why our weak tools simply don’t work.




21 responses

30 08 2008

I would do what we are doing. Get them into Fight Clubs and City Groups, which are gospel-centered communities of missional disciples.

Fight Clubs are small, biblical, reproducible, missional triads that foster beating the flesh and believing the promises of God–hardcore, joy-filled, biblical discipleship. City Groups are larger groups that cultivate steady state community and mission through sharing life and truth, loving one another, redemptively engaging people and culture, and praying for one another and the city.

30 08 2008

Hey Jonathan,

Thanks for jumping in here. If you’ll permit some friendly comments on your approach –

Fight Clubs sound ideal if the goal is accountability and encouragement and City Groups sound like an effect tool for mission but for what Jesus described in the Great Commission “TEACHING them to OBEY everything” it seems like a linear process would be important especially for new believers. Putting three new believers in a triad would not likely be advisable as a discipleship method (iron only sharpens iron if you start with iron) and if you put one trained disciple in with them the question goes back to “how did that guy get trained and why not put those two guys through that process BEFORE they develop that through a triad?”

30 08 2008

Sure thing, Jeremy. I am not saying teaching is unimportant. We teach to obey through all of this, as well as in sermons and classes.

We train leaders who initiate the Fight Clubs, but we emphasize that a leader is a fellow disciple, not a superior disciple. So, their role may be leader but their identity is disciple. This way they can enter into discipleship, not from “above” but from “within” the gospel. I submit my sin and temptation to others from the secure place of being in Christ. This promotes more biblical, Jesus-centered community while deconstructing the hierarchicalism often present in one-on-one discipleship-driven churches and relationships. We need both peer discipleship and mentoring, but all from within the gospel. Teaching to obey, yes, requires a didactic process, but ultimately aimed at the heart. Obedience from the heart to Christ’s commands. Disobedience is typically not because a disciple does not possess the correct information, but rather because their heart’s believe something other than that information/truth/commands/promises. What we need is encouragement to believe what God has revealed is good and true, so that we will obey. After all, teaching is consistently something that instructs both heart and mind. This is where we need one another–Fight Clubs, City Groups. Discipleship is a community project.

30 08 2008
Michael Foster


I have a two related question.

First, what have you found to be the weakness of Story Form Life in producing disciples?

Second, let’s say I deliver 5 nearly non-literate lower class culturally diverse 40 somethings non-Christian to your doorstep. Do you have discipleship tools in place at present for this category of people?



30 08 2008
Michael Foster

Opps, I doubled post the warmly michael.

31 08 2008

Jonathan – Yes, I agree with all your comments particularly that discipleship is to the heart (the seat of true faith) and not merely the mind. I like the emphasis of identities primarily flowing from the Gospel.

I’m very interested in the training process that gets someone into a fight club or city group. I think that systematically reforming the heart through a faith building dialogical, intentional, process is a missing component in almost every discipleship strategy and I’ve been astounded at the fruit this produces.

31 08 2008

Hey Foster –

1. Weaknesses in the Story-Formed Life? Well one point to note is that we are reforming the SFL constantly so the weaknesses 6 months ago are no longer the weaknesses of today and the weaknesses from the surveys and discussions we had the past few months will most likely be addressed this next go around (the HUGE strength of a repeatable process).

I’d say the biggest weakness currently lies in the ability of the teacher to lead a midrash. During the SFL training day in Seattle we spent half the training just on midrash leading. None of us were formally trained to lead an intense discussion of diverse people for the purpose of building faith. We were trained to give speeches (if we were trained at all).

I should also point out the SFL is NOT our discipleship process. We use 3 tools (outlined here) so the SFL is one part of 1/3 of our process but it is important because it’s the first step.

By the way we just completed the initial development and testing of another 5-week training called The GodWalk Training that is a training intensive (not a teaching course) I’d like to show you sometime.

2. Do we have tools for 5 nearly non-literate, older, poor people. Yes, our tools would work but they would have to be translated and adapted (and ideally led by a native of their culture). These people represent a completely different culture, in my opinion, and I would no more assume our current process (in its current form) will work for their culture than I would assume it would work for someone in rural India. HOWEVER, the three tools I mentioned (via the above link) would be the same as would the content. It would have to be translated and contextualized for any new culture.

I’m excited to see some guys from Young Life adapt the SFL for high school students with great success (and the success at adaption will always come down to the translators understanding of both the SFL and the different culture).

1 09 2008

Jumping into the stream here for the first time…

I wonder why more of our discipleship/training tools are not just originally created to be culturally relevant to the largest part of the population as possible? Everyone is born an “oral learner” and everyone is truly “story-formed” from birth. Only approx. 50% of adults in No. America are lucky enough to become functionally literate with over half of the literate half being preferred-oral-learners. Meaning, of the half that CAN learn (much less reproduce) our literate based discipleship tools, half of THEM will choose not to. But…they all remain story-formed from their early upbringing. We never lose our “heart language.”

Do the math on this… something like 75% of folks in No. America are going to absolutely need to be discipled/trained in a methodology different than the one most of us are working from or currently building. In our community we still tend to (selfishly) create new learning tools in a literate form that a small percentage of our people can really, truly grasp, almost none can reproduce…and THEN we re-work it into a form that the entire spectrum can benefit from. We are trying hard to create tools from the beginning that can be useful and fully reproduceable by the majority of people.

I think this might be some of what Foster is looking for…?

P.S. It was GREAT being with you last weekend in Kirkland! Thanks again…

2 09 2008

Hey Caesar, thanks for jumping in! It was great meeting and interacting with you last week and I’m looking forward to learning more from you guys.

100% agree that everyone is Story-Formed and our discipleship should reflect that.

I have much bigger questions, however, regarding the assumption that most people are “oral learners”. I’ve read several sociologists on this subject and they seem to all suggest our culture (and almost every culture around the world) is “devolving” into “visual learners”.

Postman and others have described the oral cultures of the past as people with vast memories (since they never wrote anything down) and the ability to almost indefinitely listen to sustained arguments (Lincoln-Douglas debates).

In contrast they describe how we went from an oral culture to a text culture now to a visual culture where people have almost no memory, yet rely on pictures and videos instead of text. Thus the rise of things like the Jesus video in missions work. When I was in very poor parts of Mexico and Egypt, I was struck by how every shack had an antennae on top with a flickering television inside.

This is a HUGE reason why I never do the SFL without a video projector. When I project 5 verses from a narrative onto the wall (the visual text being the center of the room) people actually keep the conversation about the story and stay centered on the text. When I used to read it orally or even pass it out on paper, within 3 minutes the conversation would leave the text/story and get onto discussing a topic the story brought to mind (our memories, even for the details of a story, are deeply degraded by our continual visual over-stimulation).

When I think about translating the SFL I think almost entirely about video. Every time we do the course it gets more visual as we’ve begun to use the animation effects of Keynote ’08 to make short clips of illustrations we’ve developed (thanks to Ben Crawford). So I would say the course as it stands is about 70% story/text and 30% visual. Some cultures would need it to be more like 50/50 unless they are truly illiterate then it would need to 100% visual.

By the way, I guess I have translated the SFL to one illiterate group and that is for my kids. We go through the story progressively but I pick out stories and have them act out the story during Family Worship and then we have a short midrash. Works great.

2 09 2008

Thanks Jeremy…

Oral learners… how many of us as children had their parents standing over our cribs showing us books with words or pictures waiting for us to “get it” or learn? They spoke to us and told us stories about our home, family, relatives, life. All of us know at least part of the story of our personal family heritage and yet almost none of us have ever been given a book on the topic. We know it all because of story. This is truly the universal heart language. We never ever lose this medium.

I also maintain that narrative and story IS very visual in it’s medium. We all completely see a story unfolding (in living color) in our minds when we hear it. It is the same reason that for many of us (gifted with literacy), when we read a book, the movie just doesn’t measure up…the images that we have in our minds eye are always so much more vivid AND connected to our own experience.

Story and dialog is a very visual medium that can/should be enhanced with visuals when appropriate, but things like projectors and literate lists of verses etc. are not always transferable in a given culture. Again, we are striving to create and deliver discipleship in the most reproducible and affective ways possible. Reproducibility is always the acid test.

3 09 2008
D. Goodmanson

Now I know where all the cool kids are hanging out. Jeremy, one thing I’d add is that I believe discipleship should include both a systemic and systematic plan. In our pragmatic Western culture I think we too often think of a systematic plan as the answer when if we were truly living life together many of the discipleship moments would occur in the normal stuff of life (systemic).

3 09 2008

I agree Drew. Jeremy has helped us wake up to the more systematic stuff after years of adjusting the pendulum over to the systemic discipleship that happens in real time. That has been our strong suit. Now our challenge is not to lose or over value either…to bring the pendulum back to the center.

P.S. You are one of the coolest kids I know…

3 09 2008

Caesar – I can see what you’re saying re: how visual the story is etc. Where do we draw the line between reproducibility and contextualization? Does my discipleship process need to work at Harvard in the same way and in the same form as tribal missions in South America? What about to the diverse cultures of Tacoma or Cincinnati? I agree both are Story-Formed but are they BOTH best delivered orally (to the same extent).

Drew – Dude, I’ve worked hard on this blog to thoroughly establish my geekness so let’s make sure to distinguish me from any coolness that comes in from the outside.

I agree 100% that discipleship (the process through which we become more like Christ) should both be an intentional process (system) and something that happens as we live life together (systemic). I’ve chosen to use the phrase “discipleship training” to refer ONLY to the systematic approach (although training does happen in many other contexts). This distinction is consistent with all areas of intense training.

Examples – in the army you go through basic training (bootcamp) and other trainings but you also learn some of your best lessons on the battlefield. It would be disastrous however to neglect the former for the later or confuse the former with the later (the way Christians often do). Also, in the Olympics there’s a difference between running the race and training for it (although no one would deny you learn during the race as well).

Biblically this distinction seems to exist as well. In Matthew 28 Jesus tells us to make disciples and then refers to the main activity as “teaching them to obey everything” (which sounds like systematic training to me). They are baptized into a new community (as Caesar pointed out to me in our Midrash) but I don’t believe that can be seen as the same thing as, or a replacement for, teaching them to obey everything.

3 09 2008

In regards to Drew’s point…
I think his systemic/systematic stance really brings out the multiple views of what a disciple actually is. In one sense it was an automatic state (one who drops everything to follow Jesus) and in another sense it was a process (teaching them to obey everything…). I think Drew’s point of systemic discipleship (holy crap this is going to get annoying to distinguish) is important, assuming that you are dealing with true disciples in the submission to lordship sense. I think Jeremy’s systematic approach is important in that “iron sharpening iron” only works if you have actual “iron” and getting iron might require a process than a serendipitous string of events. To that extent one may presuppose the other? Now that I’ve thoroughly confused everyone including myself, while possibly not making any coherent point, I will leave.

4 09 2008

Jeremy, I’ve read you talking about Midrash a lot, and I have a definition of that term in my head, but I can’t make it apply to how you are using it. I can’t seem to find a definition on your blog. Can you explain what you’re talking about or point me to something that will?


9 09 2008

Ali – Sure, Midrash is a Hebrew word describing the process of how Rabbis would come together and interpret and then apply a passage in community.

In our context we –

1. Give people a passage of Scripture for them to study and read ahead of time
2. We ask them to aggressively engage the text by writing notes, circling words, jotting down questions and marking anything that strikes them.
3. Then we come together, read the passage out loud and begin with the simple question “what struck you”.
4. We lead the group toward interpretation of the text keeping the discussion focus on the meaning of the text.
5. We discuss application

And since everyone was engaged in the study, interpretation and application process they all equally own what was discovered and must believe and apply those elements. If not they need to speak up. “Midrash like your life depends on it because it does” is something I tell people.

That’s a very short description (we have a lot of teaching on how to lead a Midrash which I’ll post on the SFL site).

11 09 2008
Michael Foster


Have you written on how you nuture/cultivate systemic discipleship?

11 09 2008

Hey Foster –

Yes, there are three structures I’m constantly writing about that make up what Drew is calling “systemic discipleship” and they are –

Family – here, here and this blog
Body (church) – here, here and this blog
Eldering (Shepherding/Mentoring) – here and here (the part on mentoring)

HOWEVER, I don’t use the language of systematic and systemic (Drew and I discussed this a while back here on his blog).

I don’t read systemic discipleship into the Great Commission (focus on the verbs: go, make, baptize, teach and obey). I think Drew and I agree on substance I prefer to use different language. The Great Commission is really talking about discipleship training (teach them to obey everything) and so I try to use the word “discipleship” to refer to that training process (systematic) instead of everything that might encourage growth as we live life together. I believe its the neglect of the development of this systematic approach that is our first problem but certainly once you are doing that it must birth these systemic structures – strong families, healthy bodies (church) and mature elders.

11 09 2008
Michael Foster

Thanks Jeremy. I’ll check those out.

As always, I find this conversation insightful but frustrating. I feel like there is a categorical error somewhere. Perhaps, it is the idea that the systemic and systematic can even exist apart from each other. They seem utterly symbiotic.

18 09 2008

Foster – I completely agree. They are symbiotic. I assume that part too much because we come from the community-obsessed simple church world. We need to get together and compare notes soon. Writing you an email…

21 08 2013


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