If you have your ear to the ground in Christianity today you hear one question being asked over and over again. The question is, “How do you disciple people in today’s world?” It may not always be asked just like that, but that is the gist of it. They key to answer that question is found in Jesus Christ. He is our model. There is no substitute for that. One voice that I have found very helpful in unpacking Jesus’ ministry for our culture today is Mike Breen. Mike has been discipling people in Europe for the past 25 years and has a knack for understanding how the eternally useful principles of Jesus’ ministry can be applied in contemporary Western society and churches. Mike Breen and Steve Cockram lay out their approach in their book Building a Discipling Culture (get it on kindle). I am going to spend a few posts unpacking their approach and share my own thoughts about how this might work out for some of us guys who are in more traditional ministry contexts (aka not church planters). In these posts I am just going to hit the highlights. I don’t want to take anything away from Breen’s book. I would recommend that you buy it as well as his other two books Multiplying Missional Leaders (one of my favorite ministry books of all time) and Launching Missional Communities.
Chapter 1: The Challenge
Jesus calls us to make disciples. The problem is, most of us who have gone to seminary have been trained to build and lead an organization rather than make disciples. Breen says it this way, “most of us have actually never been trained to make disciples. Seminary degrees, church classes and training seminars teach us to grow our volunteer base, form system and organizational structures or preach sermons on Sunday mornings and assimilate newcomers from the Sunday service…Most of us have been trained and educated for a world that no longer exists.” (p.11)
It isn’t that we are trained for a world that doesn’t exist. That world is alive and well. It is the corporate world. The problem is the church is not a corporation but we train leaders to manage it that way. We treat churches more like corporations to be managed than organisms to be nurtured, watered, and experience healthy growth. We adopt corporate methods and measures of evaluating success. We train people to run programs, not disciple people. Breen says, “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church you rarely get disciples.” (p.12). He goes on to say, “Most of us have become quite good at the church thing. And yet, disciples are the only thing that Jesus cares about and it’s the only number Jesus is counting. Not our attendance or budget or buildings. He wants to know if we are ‘making disciples'”.
Now he has hit the nail on the head of what confounds many of us in ministry but we didn’t have the words to describe. We know what Jesus has called us to, we know what we have been trained to do, and we know what is actually happening. The problem is, these three things don’t often overlap very well and so we feel the void. It gets even tougher. When you are executing what you have been trained to do and what “church culture” encourages it would seem that you would feel fulfilled through those efforts but too often things feel flat. Have you been there? Does this make sense of why you have felt or are currently feeling that way?
Mike takes it a step further and in doing so he really describes what many ministers find frustrating painful today. “Effective discipleship builds the church, not the other way around. We need to understand the church as the effect of discipleship and not the cause. If you set out to build the church, there is no guarantee you will make disciples. It is more likely that you will create consumers who depend on the spiritual services that religious professional provide.” (p.12). Isn’t that what we are experiencing today? Isn’t that much of the byproduct or even directly results of much of our past work? Isn’t that part of the culture we have created that plagues the church today? The point is, we have challenges ahead that must be addressed. Some of them are the direct results of our past misdirection, mismanagement and poorly defined methods of calculating success. Jesus had only one measure for calculating success and it was the degree to which we are making disciples.
Lastly, Mike believes we have divorced mission from discipleship. In our efforts to be more mission minded we have looked out and placed the emphasis on shaping people outside the church to the neglect of discipling those inside the church. He says the result is we stopped investing in our people and directed our energy to outsiders. It is great that we have gotten more outward focused but if you follow the ministry of Jesus closely at all Jesus never neglected the discipling process of the insiders for the sake of time with the outsiders. There is so much more that could be discussed from chapter one but the main point is this – we have challenges ahead if we hope to embrace the call of Jesus to make disciples it is going to take a real investment of our time, energy, attention and resources. But what else would God have us do?
Thank you Mike Breen for writing this book and the rest of your work. It is a God send to me and my ministry. My prayer is that God will continue to use us here and many others abroad to join in the work of discipling others. It starts here and it starts now.