Friday, October 26, 2007

what makes somebody a disciple?

It’s been an interesting week for me. Over the past few days since writing my last post, which included a thought on why cell groups sometimes don’t work, I read a post by a friend who was discussing the same thing. Between his post and several emails I received from friends, I was pointed to several articles and even a video by Willow Creek who apparently are now suggesting that the style of church they’ve been promoting for the last thirty years, might not be the way to go after all. I had not read their articles, seen their video, or was even aware of the discussion, but I was surprised to see that they were using the same language I had used when they suggested that maybe “one size doesn’t fit all”. Stay tuned boys and girls, I’m not completely out of my mind.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Willow Creek. On one hand, they challenged us to consider the things about our worship services which might feel a bit exclusive to outsiders (something that the Army still hasn’t really taken on board), but they also suggested that worship wasn’t seeker friendly. They brought cell groups to the forefront, something that I believe in very much, but they also gave us the four laws of cell (something that my church is obsessed with) and suggested that, if we didn’t follow them, we would never truly succeed with cell groups. They encouraged us to reach out to our communities, and even gave us many great tools for doing it, but they were also very happy to stamp their name on churches across the U.S. by developing the Willow Creek Association. I have to admit that the franchising of church has left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Sometimes it felt a little too much like church was a business for Willow Creek.

I guess it’s easy to take shots at those at the top. Madonna was criticized for adopting a child who was living in poverty. Oprah was criticized for starting a school for girls in South Africa. Bono is constantly being criticized for his mission to free third world dept. And Willow Creek will have their detractors too. But I have to applaud Willow Creek for having the courage to do the research, and then the courage to actually admit that the research had proven them wrong.

In a nut shell, Willow Creek is now admitting that regular attendance at a church programme does not necessarily affect long term commitment to Christ. Again, I haven’t read the book, but apparently they are now promoting personal prayer and Bible study as the way forward. I’m sure that that’s a bit of a simplistic description of their new direction, but I believe it is the basic idea. With that in mind, their new direction will include giving their members the tools they need to own their faith, rather than trusting the faith of a leader who is simply herding people from one programme to another.

All churches should take note of this, but I speak to mine own denomination now when I reiterate my concern that we are not discipling our people. Even our most traditional leaders are concerned with the fact that our Corps are depleted of leadership, yet we do not seem to be connecting the dots. Again, I am impressed with the fact that Willow Creek was willing to put their own necks on the line by funding the research, and then were further willing to admit that they got it wrong. A few years ago our now general was the territorial commander for the Salvation Army in the UK. Upon realizing that we had very few people entering our “seminary” anymore, he demanded that divisional leaders start pushing more people in that direction. He never bothered to ask why there were fewer people, mind you, and to this day, our “seminary” classes remain alarmingly small.

Why don’t we have more local leaders? That is the question that we should be asking. I believe that there are lots of reasons behind this, but one of them is certainly the fact that we’re simply not discipling people and helping them to take ownership of their faith. We usher them from one programme to another and then send them home. We wouldn’t expect somebody to learn how to dance by attending several ballet performances a week, and we shouldn’t expect somebody to take ownership of their walk with God when there are people who have been willing to do it for them for the last fifty years.

I look forward, only somewhat cynically, to hearing what Willow Creek’s plan of action will be.

Comments on "what makes somebody a disciple?"


Blogger eleanorburnejones said ... (8:15 PM) : 

Hi Tim,

I came back to the church a few years ago already taking for granted that discipleship required more than programmes and classes - because that was the way the orthodox Jewish world had learned. As a Jewish woman, preparing a convert for becoming a giyores/proselyte meant her living with me for a year to eighteen months to see Jewish life lived and join in naturally. I had to do this when I became Torah observant, moving just down the road from a lovely family with eight children. My eldest and I just became like part of the family, and they not only kept that up throughout the almost two years it took for me to convert with my then toddler, but they continued to befriend and help us for many years afterwards. I went to the classes as well in order to learn the theory, but you learn a life lived not a set of techniques.

Surely to follow Jesus you don't learn isolated components, prayer, Bible study and so on. You learn an integrated life, alongside a more experienced family.

Alan Hirsch's approach is similar, and he writes in The Forgotten Ways, and blogs on and I believe he recently spoke at Willow Creek to the Cell leaders.

I agree the church (wider as well as TSA) is in chaos here in the UK because it has lost its way in discipleship, perhaps afraid it has to either choose between being too prescriptive, legalistic and potentially abusive, and being so vague nobody knows where they're headed. But there is a competent middle ground where people can have freedom to explore the breadth of theological perspectives while focussing on what is important -


Warmest blessings, Eleanor


Blogger Mel Wiggins said ... (8:18 PM) : 

You are blowing a very neccessary horn. Only now, that I am part of a church that is not SA (but mind you, is also very programme driven) have I begun to realise the lack of first of all desire for discipleship I had growing well as the actual lack of discipleship. It was never really impressed on me in Church that my personal walk with God was THAT important, but it certainly was that I had the right kind of socks on to sing in the singing company! For real...the leader had spares if you wore the wrong ones)

Where I am now seems so still be heavy on programme, but is getting the balance more than Ive experienced before. My cell group has an outline each week from the Sunday sermons. Sometimes we talk about it, sometimes we pray, sometimes we just talk about our lives, and sometimes we eat food. It's not actually my daily bread for the week though.

I think what has been neglected in the Evangelical Church of this century is teaching on the importance of discipline. That is what I lack the most, and that is what keeps me from progressing in my discipleship 'journey'. I know this comment is long and probably all over the place, and now I have to rush off so I'm not going to even re-read it, but those are my thoughts from reading your post.

Also, what is the third world dept. Is that like the 'One' Campaign??....I really hope Bono can help get rid of their debt though;)


Blogger Sean said ... (2:38 AM) : 

Doing the most . . . to not disciple. That should be the new motto for the kettle sign. I think I can say without feeling any anxiety that the Salvation has dropped the ball in the area of discipleship, but so has most everyone else.

Discipleship is not only real important for the life of the church, it is the life of the church. I just finished a class at school today with a dude (professor) who was a major part of the team that started Promise Keepers and is huge into discipleship,(did his doctoral dissertation on discipleship as the call for the church) along with a guy who used to be in charge of discipleship at Willow. The biggest thing that I came away with, having already been convinced that discipleship was of utmost importance, was that discipleship basically starts today with me and whoever I am discipling. Also the model that Christ 'used' was to do ministry to the masses, feeding, healing etc., always in the context of having and teaching his disciples first. He did little (almost no ministry without his disciples) I bet if this was a practice in the Salvo, there might be a few leaders.

I have always been skeptical of Willow as well, but the more I have interacted with them, the more I realize that their heart is the lost and they have no qualms with changing anything they do to reach people with the gospel. I also feel like they are beginning to understand that the gospel is more than just news, but discipling people towards maturity. I have a buddy (JR, he is real big into the 'missional church') who I link on my blog who has some of the video links to the thought process from Willow during the Summit. (Interestingly enough, a major part of the Leadership Summit was a 30 min interview with Bono. . . freakin sweet)

The funny thing is, we have to base growth and health to an extent by numbers. The problem is, for the Army (and lots of other churches who still think 1955 was the pinnacle of life on earth)the numbers became more important than the actual health. Funny stat that dude (professor) threw out. If I intentionally discipled two people for a year (and then a new two people for the next year, and so on. And then those people discipled other people, reproducing every year, then . . .It would take 47 years to disciple the entire world. Starting with one.

We'll make sure they all get on the roster.


Blogger blogblogblog said ... (2:03 PM) : 

Discipleship is something to be done by women officers for which no other task can be found. This is the mindset of the USA East right now. Some of the officers doing the work have their heads and hearts in the right place. Others...not so much.

There are a few cases in which it's working. Those are situations in which there are capable employees looking after the discipleship program who are and have been dedicated local leaders in their home corps for years.

Unfortunately, that means success equals one person assigned to 30 or 40 congregations and, depending on the situation, having to convince the corps officers that discipleship matters.

Anything that becomes more about numbers and not enough about real change in people's lives is doomed to fail. Let's get Sean's pyramid scheme going immediately.


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