Book Review: Contagious Disciple Making, by David and Paul Watson
David and Paul Watson. Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery. Thomas Nelson, 2014. 256 pp. $12.99.
Someone has said, a mature Christian is easily edified. I’ll flatter myself for a moment and say that I am easily edified and often profit from books that I cannot wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. Contagious Disciple Making by David and Paul Watson would be such a book. This father and son team provide some interesting and helpful approaches to church planting among unchurched or unreached groups. They are men with a demonstrated commitment to prayer, evangelism, and a life-on-life approach to discipleship and developing leaders in pioneer settings. Those already in pioneer church planting settings will likely find some of the authors’ experiences to be helpful and applicable.
That said, pastors and local church elders will likely find that Contagious Disciple Making is not well-aimed at their local church contexts. More problematic, both pastors and church planters will be disappointed with the disconnected chapters, the lack of careful definitions, and not a few unsupported statements. Specifically the Watsons seeming inability to acknowledge that there might be more than one way to do discipleship and start churches from scratch often distracts.
BIG NUMBERS, SMALL SUBSTANCE
On the back cover we read that David Watson has “been involved with movements that have seen 100,000 churches started and he has trained more than 30,000 leaders from 167 nations. His son Paul has trained 1,500 disciple-makers in 14 countries and currently works to catalyze Disciple-making movements in Portland area.” Impressive numbers, for sure, even if impossible to verify.
Contagious Disciple Making is heavy on methodology and best practices. It’s written with a tone that suggests that anyone who assiduously follows David and Paul’s methods is guaranteed the desired results. Though there are Scriptural references in the book, and though the Discovery Groups are Bible-based, David and Paul appeal to their own experiences as the authority for this particular process of disciple-making.
I’ve no doubt the authors look to the Bible for direction in their ministry and help others discover and put into practice what the Word says, but the Contagious Disciple Making process is described like this: “Everything you read in this book comes from our personal experiences and the experiences of those we train” (xv). So, this book is primarily a recommendation of their experience as the way to engage in evangelism and discipleship that leads to new churches. Perhaps the authors could have suggested their experiences as one way, rather than as the only truly effective way.
David and Paul share more than one anecdote intended to prove that if one follows their process exactly, one will see great numerical results. Failure to follow the process perfectly or even deviating from the prescribed template for conducting a Discovery Bible study will negatively affect the desired results. Don’t believe me? Read for yourself pages 144-145 and pages 231-232. If Scripture had been the book’s guiding authority, it would have been a different and much more helpful book.
NOT ALL BAD
But as I said, I did find parts of the book challenging and helpful. Clearly, David Watson has been a tireless evangelist and disciple-maker and his son demonstrates that same work ethic. David and Paul’s enthusiasm for making disciples and starting churches among the unreached is one of the edifying features of the book. There’s also a strong emphasis on prayer and time-intensive mentoring.
The Watsons helpfully remind us that the appropriate response to Scripture and the gospel is obedience, not merely refining our doctrinal distinctives. It was equally edifying to read that discipleship and church planting are a lifestyle, and to be reminded that David and Paul Watson emphasize developing mature leaders and seem to eschew the obsession with rapid discipleship and rapid reproduction that has characterized the CPMs (Church Planting Movements).
THEIR ALTERNATIVE TO CPMs
Instead, they propose a DMM (Disciple-Making-Movement). On page 190 they write, “This book focuses on the 7 strategic elements and subsequent tactics necessary to start a Disciple-Making Movement.” Planting churches from scratch with DMM requires an approach or process like this:
- Find the person of peace.
- Start a Discovery Group with those people.
- Then move from Discovery Group Bible study to fulfilling all the requirements of a church.
- Identify someone in the group to be the leader and train that leader to lead and establish more groups through existing networks of friends and family.
A discovery group is similar to a guided Bible study but with more time spent on making new disciples, teaching obedience to Scripture, and accountability. Much of these details can be found on page 129.
Central to the DMM process of engaging lost people are these “Persons of Peace.” This approach is common on some mission fields. These people of peace are often: 1) open to a relationship with you; 2) hungering for spiritual answers to deeper questions; and 3) willing to share what they’re learning with others. This is similar to the old FAT principle. Look for faithful, available, and teachable people to disciple.
Ideally, some of these Discovery Group disciples become leaders who are mentored to lead local churches and start other churches by following the same process. Transitioning a discovery group to a local church, the Watsons say, might take from 6 months to 2 years (170).
Contagious Disciple Making promotes a very relational and intentional disciple-making process. They write, “Believers obey Christ, train others to be contagious Disciple-Makers who pray, engage lost communities, find Persons of Peace, help them discover Jesus through Discovery Groups, baptize new believers, help them become communities of faith called churches, and mentor emerging leaders” (5). This general process is a good one. It’s based upon the New Testament. And it’s one that pioneer and cross cultural church planters will want to embrace even if they make adjustments upon which the Watsons would frown. At these points, the book is a helpful corrective to those who would default to a merely informational or bookish approach to discipleship.
For those new believers who are growing and appear to have leadership qualities, the process leads to starting new churches rather than enfolding new disciples into existing congregations. In fact, the Watsons are adamant about not bringing a group of new converts into existing churches. I suppose this is one way to plant churches, but there are other ways. The assumption seems to be that churches cannot do discipleship or multiply themselves unless they fully adopt the DMM approach. That’s too bad, because some of the DMM approach might help pastors and elders be more intentional about reaching lost and unchurched people in their communities. I wish the Watsons were clearer on this.
This book is an improvement over CPM methodology. Unlike CPMs, which must be rapid, a DMM is not required to happen so quickly. But I also wish they weren’t so unnecessarily adamant about their admittedly experiential process being the process for now and the future.
WHAT ABOUT THESE METHODS?
After all, the Bible shows us proven techniques for pioneer church planters. They’re kind of boring and maybe not as easily boast-worthy, but they are often blessed by God in his kindness and wisdom. It goes something like this:
- Be relentlessly Word-centered.
- Focus on using reproducible approaches that center around the Bible.
- Then focus on unchurched and unreached by placing groups of believers around them.
- Intentionally invest for several years in a few leaders who also invest in others (2 Tim. 2:2).
- Focus on codifying the DNA of groups that multiply by teaching them to commit themselves to prayer, intercession, evangelism, replication, obedience, accountability.
This pretty basic advice for pioneer contexts is not often followed. Would that it were!
So would I recommend this book to others? Not without significant reservations. The Watsons are prone to overstatements and unhelpful comments about those who are not following exactly their DMM approach. The book is not very well organized or written, and the dismissive tone in regards to more institutional churches is hard to ignore. Pastor-elder types will probably be more put off by these things and may do better to read one of Bill Hull’s books like The Disciple-Making Pastor.
Perhaps the pioneer church planter who already has solid ecclesiology and a grasp of New Testament discipleship and church planting would glean new ideas; perhaps he would be challenged to greater faithfulness in prayer and multiplicative disciple-making. But the reader has to wade through too much simplistic and unhelpful hermeneutics and carefully sift through the book’s unhelpful ideas in order to glean some fairly basic, if often forgotten, principles for making disciples.