Crash Diet Discipleship

20 04 2009

Most Christians have little interest or understanding of their need for ongoing discipleship training.  But when Christian leaders do become interested they seem to almost universally make the same mistake.  They treat discipleship training the same way many overweight people approach a diet – one new wonder diet idea after another.

When you’re overweight the only sustainable way to lose weight and keep it off is to make a lifelong change to your diet.  Sure you may start with an aggressive, unsustainable diet to knock off a bunch of weight in a single blitz, but if that doesn’t give way to a new approach to eating and exercise, the weight will come right back.

Most stabs at discipleship are like wonder diets that take you through a one time process like “40 Days of Purpose” or a membership course or one small group curriculum after another but is this creating a lasting change in your spiritual diet?  Is this an entry point into life-long discipleship training or a quick fix that replaces ongoing training?

So before you pull the trigger on the latest discipleship gimmick guaranteed to help your people grow or your money back ask yourself, is this sustainable?  If someone comes into our community 6 months from now can they get the same training?  If someone trains with us for 10 years can we keep challenging them at deeper levels?

God gave Israel a one-year curriculum for spiritual growth in the Torah that would repeat every year and deepen throughout one’s life.  Classical education involved one year’s worth of material every child would learn and deepen in every year.  The basis of discipleship must be a sustainable process that taps into the creation of an annual discipleship rhythm.  This is sustainable, repeatable, reproducible and endlessly challenging.

So let’s step off the discipleship roller coaster and design a lasting diet that can truly transform lives.

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Church Planting – The latest Good Mission to Replace The Great Commission

25 03 2009

bait-and-switchFor years now I’ve read and enjoyed fellow Kentuckian Michael Spencer’s blog and I appreciate and agree with so much of what he wrote regarding The Coming Evangelical Collapse which rightfully spread like wild fire around the blogosphere.  He’s a prophetic voice in the post-evangelical wilderness.  But, like most prophets, he deconstructs flawed ideas far better than he constructs new ones.  He’s ten parts hammer to one part screwdriver and in his uncharacteristically brief post on his proposed solution to the Coming Evangelical Collapse, Spencer lends his voice the cacophony of innovative evangelicals who believe planting more churches is the way we fulfill the Great Commission.  And on this one point he is wrong.

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is where Jesus commands his disciples to go and make more disciples.  I’m going to say the most simple statement that may sound so obvious even writing it seems absurd.  But I can also say, that in all my life, I have almost never met a Christian leader, pastor, author, speaker, church planter or missionary who actually believes it.  And it is this:  there is only one way to fulfill the Great Commission and it is – to make disciples.

Our enemy will happily promote any idea, strategy, cause or movement that is not entirely focused on the intentional training of disciples.  He will be happy to see our Christian efforts achieve financial, numerical and even reproductive success as long as we’re not counting the completely transformed life of reproducing disciples.

You might be saying to yourself, “wait, isn’t that what we’re doing?  Even our mission statement as a church is ‘to make disciples’.  Doesn’t almost all Christian ministry result in making disciples?”  no, No, NO!  They do not.  Jesus said in Matthew 28:20 “teaching them to obey everything…” in other words – training.  Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:25 that Olympic athletes go in to “strict training” to get a fading crown but we go into strict training to get a crown that will last forever.  I’ve asked several hundred Christians this question or a similar one that quickly exposes if you are making disciples or not.  On a scale of 1-10, “10” being Olympic training and “1” being training as a Barista at Starbucks, where would you plot the intentional discipleship training you regularly give or receive.  Guess what everyone says.  “I don’t give or receive hardly any training” or they simply say, “ah… negative 5”.  And here’s the dirty little secret: it doesn’t matter if they are in a main-line denomination or in the most innovative church plant to emerge from Acts 29, they are not making disciples.

So, no Michael Spencer, planting churches does not fulfill the Great Commission.  Church planting has been the latest in a long line of replacements for the Great Commission.  And all of these replacements have been good things – biblical preaching, church growth, church planting, small groups, missional communities anything please but NOT intentional discipleship training.

There are three simple reasons why church planting, as an activity, does not result in the intentional training of disciples and I’ll put it in a three point alliterative outline for my evangelical friends – church planting 1)divides, 2)demoralizes and 3)distracts.

Divides – The most common result of a church planting effort is the creation of a new worship service ministry.  In a city with 10,000 true Christians guess how many are currently involved in a worship service ministry – maybe 9,000+ and guess how many are involved in a weekly rhythm of discipleship training – maybe 50.  Huh…what if you had two choices when going into a town with 10,000 true Christians and 100 different styles of worship services with the goal of fulfilling the Great Commission.

Option #1 – Plant a new more innovative worship service
Option #2 – Start a discipleship training movement as a ministry to the 100 existing churches and the city as a whole.

Which is more likely to result in more trained disciples (i.e. help fulfill the Great Commission)?

We need 100% of the disciples in a city clearly connected to our mission of training disciples and if they coordinated with each other instead of building a new hipper wall against one another it would make the task far more effective.

Demoralizes – You would never think to build a ministry intended to reproduce disciples around a single person.  But we don’t hesitate to build churches around one man.  Why?  Because it reproduces churches.  Of course the byproduct of this activity is passive consumers, and then more churches and then more passive consumers.  How exactly does this fulfill the Great Commission?  Yah, I’ve read countless books of innovated dudes who are trying to find a new and creative way to take this existing hierarchical structure that hinges on one person and PRESTO morph it into a disciple-making machine but it doesn’t work.  Why make more of what isn’t working?  Why not do what Paul did in Acts 19 which was NOT to plant a new church but to start a city-wide disciple-making movement.  Disciple-making movements make more disciples than churches.  I wonder why?  “But in my church of 3000 I’ve seen several new Christians turn into disciples.”  Yes, and you can build an entire house with a edge of a dime instead of a screw driver and ya, a few boards are bound to hold together, but as your brother and friend I feel that maybe I should hand you a screw driver.  Church planting is like a caffeine high.  It works for short time but its biggest result is a head ache and the need for more caffeine.  When the church plant dust settles and the “new” and “exciting” gives way to the routine you still have a bunch of people sitting in chairs, not reproducing disciples.

Distracts – And of course the biggest problem with all this new fervor for church planting is that it is a distraction to a clear mission with a clear solution.  Yes, we can do both/and.  I’m sure the comments will light up with people telling me not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Can’t we do biblical preaching and discipleship, worship services and discipleship, small groups and discipleship, mega-church and discipleship, social justice and discipleship.  Don’t ask, yes you can, but you won’t.  Why?  Because institutional survival demands you do those other things first and they don’t lead to the training of disciples.  A typical church structure has the following priorities by design –

Priority #1 – The Worship Service – To be involved in that church typically means to regularly attend that worship service (Church member involvement 100%)

Priority #2 – Small Groups – Christian need community and the service doesn’t provide this (Church member involvement 50%)

Priority #3 – Serving in a Ministry (You NEED people to do this to pull of the worship service every week (Church member involvement 20%)

Priority #4, #5, #6, #7….is a list of things churches like to do and discipleship training gets lumped in here so we can get that old guy from the Navigators to shut-up about it. (Church member involvement, less than 5%)

Good discipleship training can and will lead to each of those other things naturally but none of those things will naturally lead to good discipleship training.  God made the chicken before the egg and you need to train disciples BEFORE you experience the fruit of trained disciples – the local church.  But you won’t because you don’t believe me.  As long as their is a glimmer of hope that current programs might some day produce new results without the need to change you’ll keep waiting.  And so on it goes.

Jesus said “go make disciples” and he said “I will build my church” but like Adam in the garden we would rather eat the fruit than work in the dirt.  Disciple-making can be tough, toilsome work but it’s what our Lord commanded us to do and no activity, no matter how seemingly good, should replace it.





Releasing Trainers Seminar

2 03 2009

picture-4About 6 months ago I did this training for those wanting to create training modules for the City Church of Northern KY.  We believe one way you expand discipleship training is to equip and release trainers in each community to systemically impart elements of their spiritual DNA into the lives of others on an ongoing basis.  This seminar is one way we encourage the emergence of this kind of discipleship movement.

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Click on the links below (right click and “Save as” to download).

Releasing Trainers Seminar Audio

Release Traininers Seminar Slides





Missional vs. Attractional vs. House Church Models all have the SAME flaw

10 12 2008

311641077777511Tim Keller (admired equally by the missional and attractional church) dropped a bomb shell the other day by commenting on a post about the never-ending debate regarding the fruitfulness of missional vs. attractional churches.  The missional model believes you build the church through being “incarnational” which often means small communities living life with non churched people, enfolding them into community as they move toward a belief in the Gospel.  Attractional churches set up excellent programs usually centered around a worship service that draws the non churched in and slowly works on building a belief as they move visitors through a defined assimilation process.  House churches critique both models believing you build the church by gathering believers together in a shared common life.

All three models miss the point.  We are never commanded to build the church.  We are never commanded to plant a church.  We are never encouraged to develop church building models of any kind.  We don’t build the church.

Jesus has already weighed in on this debate.  Listen to two thing he said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18), and “Go and make disciples….” (Matthew 28:19).

Not only is there not a command in the New Testament to build or plant a church there is not a single narrative in Acts where you see Paul or anyone else involved in the activity of church planting.  Thousands of churches emerged through Paul’s ministry but he didn’t build them, they emerged as Paul proclaimed the gospel, made disciples and released the 5-fold ministry (Ephesians 4:11).  [Read this for one example of this in the city of Ephesus]

So what happens when we neglect our mission (to make disciples) and, instead take on Jesus’ responsibility (to build the church).  A very strange thing.  Because the church is supposed to emerge organically through the training of disciples, when WE build it, we have to change its basic nature into something synthetic.

Let’s use farming as an example.  Farmers don’t grow plants they cultivate fields.  God is responsible for the natural laws that cause plants to grow.  So imagine going to a farm where the farmer confused his role (to cultivate fields) with God’s role (to grow the plants).  I picture row after row of lego plants and the farmer with a bag of green legos going out day after day to add one more to each plant until its time to start over again.  Synthetic plants bearing synthetic fruit so we don’t have to trust Jesus to build his church or labor at the dirty job of cultivating, weeding and harvesting the field.

And I must say, before you write this off as an impractical theory that doesn’t work, we actually do this and we have seen churches organically emerge over and over.  One quick current example is my friend Stephen who was taking a vacation with his family in August in the Northeast when he was asked by two different groups, who have not been trained, if he would stay and do some discipleship training.  Now it’s December and two new churches are beginning to emerge that no one planted or built and by the time Stephen leaves they will be self-sustaining, training disciples city-wide and able to reproduce.  How, through the training of disciples NOT through the planting or building of churches.





The Great Commission in One New Sentence

17 11 2008

I think the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-21) lays out a very clear mission and method for discipleship but everywhere I go it seems people are ceaselessly asking the question “how do Christian grow and mature”.  Such as the latest post on David Fitch’s blog under that title.

So, since we seem to often miss the practical nature of the Great Commission, I want to boil it down:

Go to all nations = continual, world-wide expansion

Make disciples = initiate a systematic, clear, repeatable discipleship process

Baptizing them = death to self and resurrection into a devoted trinitarian community

Teaching them to obey = training

Everything I have commanded you = comprehensive

So if you want to see Christians “grow and mature” why not try this:

Create a clear, systematic, repeatable, comprehensive discipleship training process for those who have died to themselves and been resurrected with Christ baptizing them into a devoted trinitarian community and repeat until we disciple all the nations on Earth.

Since we’ve tried everything else and it hasn’t worked, lets try Jesus’ idea for a change.





Restoring the Mission as City-Wide Discipleship Podcast (Seattle, August 2008)

9 09 2008
  • What did Paul actually do when he spent a year in a new city?
  • Why is the Christian faith not having a deep impact on most Christians or the culture in general?
  • Do we have a central mission around which everything else is formed?

These are questions I’ve wrestled with for a long time and in this conversation I lay out what I believe to be the biblical mission that must be restored to the church – city-wide discipleship.

In this podcast we discuss –

  • Why restoration is needed without falling into restorationism
  • I share my journey in rediscovering the centrality of discipleship as the mission
  • We midrash 3 passages as a group (Mt. 28, Jn 17, Acts 19-20)
  • We discuss how church structures interact with the need to disciple a city
  • We talk about the need for the re-emergence of the city-church
  • We share how we use the Story-Formed Life to begin a training center

Listen to the podcast by clicking the link below (to download right click and “save target/link as”)

Restoring the Mission as City-Wide Discipleship Podcast
To see the slides click here




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.