Five Reasons We Don’t Disciple (Part 3)

Article
08.22.2014

In my last two posts, I offered three reasons Christians and churches don’t disciple. Bearing in mind that I develop programs for a career, this next one is a bit awkward to say: our churches are program-dependent.

Here’s a modern day parable, told to me by a friend at seminary. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is (possibly) true.

A young man walked into a Christian bookstore in Chicago and asked where the bumper stickers were. The assistant said, what kind are you looking for? The man said, I’d like to buy a fish sticker. The assistant said, oh I’m afraid we’ve sold out of those. To which the man responded, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EVANGELIZE WITHOUT FISH STICKERS?

As Western evangelicals, we have become increasingly reliant on courses, programs, techniques, and methodologies to do the work of evangelism and discipleship.

Now, as I said, I write this post as someone whose job it is to write good programs. I’ve worked with Christianity Explored Ministries for thirteen good years, and we work hard at making our programs as biblically faithful and as easy to use as possible. I believe in their value. I’m grateful to God that they can be very helpful indeed in the right hands.

But in the wrong hands? Programs become a sub-par, plug-n-play, hearts-not-in-it, one-size-fits-no-one stand-in for genuine discipling. And what’s worse, running these courses may delude us into thinking we’re “doing” evangelism and discipleship when actually, we’re just prayerlessly and heartlessly going through the motions. We’ve come to believe that the magic is in the methodology. We buy a product and we expect it to work for us, with no further spiritual investment on our part.

This first appeared as an anxious blip on my e-dar (evangelical radar) about five years ago. We would work solidly for 18 months to produce a new course—crafting Bible study questions, writing and rewriting talks and scripts, testing the material in various places, rewriting some more, shooting and editing a DVD series—and then on the day of publication, just as everyone was having a lie-down or checking into rehab, an email would appear in my inbox. “Thanks for the new course,” it would say perkily. “When’s the next one coming out?”

Allow me to translate: “HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO DISCIPLE WITHOUT A NEW PROGRAM?”

Brothers and sisters, discipleship is possible without programs. Jesus wrote a really good book about it.

And a program—however biblically faithful—is no substitute for ongoing, personal discipling. At least not the kind of ongoing, personal discipling Jesus has in mind in Matthew 28: “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20)

For a start, programs are necessarily a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. However tailored they may be to a particular demographic (literate/semi-literate/illiterate/adult/teen/child, etc.), they are not written by you, and therefore they cannot be perfectly tailored to the situation in which God has placed you. A person who always uses exactly the same set of Bible study questions with every person he disciples is probably not doing a great job. Similarly, a presenter on a DVD can never personally engage with someone the way you can. He cannot hear the specific cries of a person’s heart and then speak directly and biblically to them.

Secondly, programs can imply that discipleship is a matter of following the correct “process” rather than cultivating the correct character.

It should go without saying that a child’s character is most profoundly shaped by the character of his or her parents. Rather than doing what we say, children naturally tend to do what we do. By contrast, techniques and programs can implicitly give the impression that what we say is important, but what we do, not so important. We may begin to believe that the program we use in our church is more important than the character of the people we have teaching it.

Thirdly, we sometimes use programs in the same way a family might use the DVD screens in a Nissan Pathfinder: as surrogate parents. Yes, it’s a great way to keep the kids occupied. Yes, it means we don’t have to engage them as much on the journey. But it can compromise the quality of our parenting. It can be a dereliction of our personal responsibility to those in our care.

So my question is, have we been too ready to get the babysitters in? Have we been too ready to outsource our discipleship, and in so doing, have we forgotten how to do it ourselves?

At their best, programs increase our reliance on God and his Word. But at their worst, programs simply increase our reliance on programs. If they do, our discipleship will suffer.

Come back next week and, if I still have a job, I’ll suggest a final reason we don’t disciple.

Editor’s note: Click here for parts one and two of this series.

By:
Barry Cooper

Barry is an author, teacher, and screenwriter, and the Co-Founder of Christianity Explored Ministries. You can follow him on Twitter @barrygcooper.