Unintentional Nondiscipleship (May-Jun 2008)

By Matt Dabbs

by Wade Hodges
May – June, 2008

About a decade ago I developed an allergic reaction to the purpose-driven method of discipleship. Part of it was that I’m not much of a baseball fan and couldn’t get fired up about asking people to make their away around the bases until they victoriously slid into home. A bigger part of it was that the whole process seemed to be too linear, too pre-determined, and too programmed to be useful to the Holy Spirit. I tried to implement a version of the model with newcomers at our church and found myself struggling to invite them to move from base to base because I didn’t really believe that such a process would help them to become more like Christ. Looking back I realize that the line between my desire to be theologically sound and my youthful arrogance was finer than a strand of elfin hair.

My frustration with the model and my desire to teach Rick Warren a thing or two about making disciples launched me in the direction of exploring a more organic, non-linear, and less programmed way of discipling newcomers. I developed a theory that discipleship is more likely to occur when self-motivated learners are given the freedom to develop their own discipleship path rather than having one imposed on them by church leadership. I envisioned offering a variety of experiences and classes that would be helpful in facilitating the discipleship process. These offerings would be determined by encouraging the church to tell her leaders what kind of discipleship experiences would be the most helpful. Newcomers (and long-timers) would be invited to participate in the experiences that would be most beneficial to them at their particular stage of their journey with Christ. For some it might be learning how to study the Bible, for others it might be learning how to pray, and still for others it might be a service project. A few might even decide to take a long nap.

After nearly a decade of unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to implement this pick-your-own-program model of discipleship, I’ve come to several conclusions. First, most of the Christians I know are not self-motivated in the area of discipleship. They don’t wake up looking for ways to grow in Christlikeness. They’re not carrying around with them a list of ideas for improving the discipleship process in hope that a church leader will finally ask their opinion.

Second, most Christians are too busy to add additional discipleship experiences to their calendar. It seems unrealistic to expect them to drop activity in the community so that they can attend more church activities, especially if they can’t connect the dots of how those activities are helping them to follow Christ more closely. Once we stopped guilt-tripping people into Wednesday night class attendance they stopped coming. Turns out they weren’t really interested in a discipleship experience, but rather they were just trying to keep God from getting mad at them.

Third, even those Christians who are motivated to grow in Christlikeness usually don’t excel in self-directed discipleship. They get off track or they gravitate to the areas that are comfortable for them and don’t seek out new experiences that will stretch them. We end up with people sitting in Bible classes who already know way more Bible than they’re living. Instead of seeking out opportunities to put the Bible they know into practice, they keep coming back to class because they’re convinced that Bible class attendance is a spiritual gift.

The brutal reality I’ve had to face is that self-directed discipleship doesn’t work. Why would it? Self-directed discipleship is what newcomers were trying before they showed up at our church. Having made a mess of their lives, they come to us hoping that we can help them figure out how to make sense of their lives.

They may not be looking for a base path to run or a series of steps to follow, but they are looking for some very clear, simple, directions for extracting themselves from the mess they’re in. They don’t know what they need to be doing differently or else they’d already be doing it. If we are not prepared to offer them some structured guidance for discipleship then we shouldn’t be surprised when they decide that it’s much easier to do self-directed discipleship from home or seek out another church where someone will tell them what to do.

I still believe that discipleship can’t be reduced to a series of steps on a flow chart and that Christlikeness cannot be programmed. I’m still hesitant to put together a list of programs or classes and then tell people that spiritual maturity is attained by working their way through the list. Participating in a program or sitting in a Bible class doesn’t guarantee that we’re growing spiritually any more than making repeated trips to the library guarantees that we’re getting smarter.

Better programming is not necessarily the answer, but neither is eliminating all structure from the discipleship process.

What I think has happened is that in an effort to avoid programming spiritual formation, I also let go of intentionality. I was hoping to see people grow spiritually, but I had no real plan for facilitating the process. It’s almost like I thought that God would pump down special gas from heaven that would magically make us more like Jesus. Very few Christians in my experience have gotten a whiff of God’s magic gas. I haven’t seen any cases of spontaneous Christlikeness break out in the church. I don’t think I’m the only one having this experience.

More and more churches have mastered the art of unintentional nondiscipleship. No structure. No plan. No programming. No growth. No surprise.

That we’re excelling at unintentional nondiscipleship is both good and bad news. The bad news is that we’re not making disciples. The good news is that we haven’t really been trying. If we had been trying, then the overall lack of spiritual growth would be depressing. Since we haven’t been trying, there is a sliver of hope.

So what would happen if we were to hold the need for intentional discipleship in tension with our skepticism that better programming is the key to solving this problem? Where would we even begin?

We could start with the desired outcome. What kind of person do we expect lifelong exposure to the gospel to create? What virtues, habits, and attitudes would we expect to find in a mature Christian? Even a quick skimming of the New Testament would give us a handful of verses that might stimulate our imaginations for the kind of outcomes we’d hope to see. I bet most of us have never had this conversation with our leadership team. We’re too busy analyzing the correlation between weekly attendance and giving or trying to think of ways to silence our critics in order to think about such things.

Once we have a clear picture of the desired outcome we could ask: What kind of experiences or habits would help create this kind of person? What skills would this person need? What would this person need to know how to do? What are the unpredictable variables that have the capacity to shape this person’s formation (tragedy, failure, success, persecution)? How do we prepare ourselves to accept the unpredictable and embrace the unprogrammable?

Assuming that we could could come up with some solid answers to these questions, we could then intentionally create environments in which we’re more likely to have the experiences, pick up the skills, and learn the necessary info that will catalyze our spiritual growth. Would we be willing to leave behind whatever programming – no matter how traditional or cherished it is – if we determined that it wasn’t helping contribute to the desired outcome?

In the midst of all of this, can we leave the Spirit of God lots of room to surprise us with the variety of ways he brings about our transformation?

Finally, can we cast a compelling vision of the kind of people we hope to see being formed in our churches without falling into the trap of legalism or guilt-induced participation? When the response to our vision and intention is mixed, can we concentrate our energy on those who want to participate in such an endeavor, instead of obsessing over how to better engage people who always seem to be moving away from us?

Frankly, I’m not sure if we can do any of these things given the current level of stuckness I’m experiencing. I’ve written these words more as a confession than as an attempt to offer advice. I don’t have any of this figured out. I’m certainly not ready to roll out a new and improved version of the base path. I am, however, ready to admit that I’m tired of striking out with unintentional nondiscipleship. I’m ready to try something else. New Wineskins

Wade HodgesWade is a graduate of Abilene Christian University where he received degrees in communication and Christian Ministry. He has been married to Heather since October of 1996. They have two young sons, Caleb and Elijah.

While Wade will preach on just about anything, he especially loves to speak on the topics of faith development, male spirituality, and missional theology. He also likes to tell a story or two when he gets the chance.

His favorite part of sermon preparation is going to the movies.

He served as the Preaching Minister for the Sterling Drive Church of Christ in Bellingham, Washington for six years. He has been the Teaching Minister at the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma since March of 2003. A key emphasis of the ISWW this year was unity between Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, and keynote speakers, including Bob Russell and Max Lucado, from the two groups shared the stage during the evening sessions.

You can read his blog at [www.wadehodges.com].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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