How well are Christians in America carrying out the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)? Not well, according to Greg Ogden. In the revised and expanded edition of Transforming Discipleship, he sets out to explain what went wrong with our discipleship efforts, why, and how to implement an effective church-based strategy for disciple-making. It’s a book pastors and other church leaders ought to read.
Ogden organizes his material into three parts. Part 1, “The Discipleship Deficit,” examines what went wrong and why. Part 2, “Doing the Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” looks to the Bible as a “method book,” focusing on Jesus’ and Paul’s respective models of discipleship. Part 3, “Multiplying Reproducing Discipleship Groups,” outlines how to implement a “microgroup” strategy for growing “self-initiating, reproducing disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Microgroups are groups of three or four people, “triads” and “quads” in Ogden’s words.)
According to Ogden, the basic problem with discipleship in America today is superficiality. Or, as the late John Stott put it, “growth without depth.” Lots of people bear the name “Christian,” but it’s not clear that they produce “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
Why? Ogden identifies eight “distractions” that mar our discipleship efforts:
- diversion of the church’s ministry from our primary calling to make disciples,
- discipling by means of standardized programs instead of personal relationships,
- reducing the Christian life to the future state instead of how we live now,
- promoting a two-tier understanding of the Christian life that makes discipleship for “super-Christians, not ordinary believers,”
- being unwilling to call people to become disciples,
- having a view of church as optional rather than as required,
- not articulating a clear pathway to spiritual maturity,
- and not having been discipled personally.
Ogden then contrasts the lack of discipleship in America with how both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul made disciples. Christian leaders typically turn to the Bible to identify what end their ministries should pursue, but Ogden effectively argues that the Bible also articulates the means by which we should pursue them. The Bible, in other words, is both a “message book” and a “method book.” While both Jesus and Paul ministered to groups of varying sizes, their most intensive efforts at making disciples focused on “invest[ing] in a few.”
Here’s how Ogden summarizes the matter:
Jesus intentionally called a few to multiply himself in them. He intended his ministry to become the ministry of the Twelve and be the means by which he extended himself to the world. To prepare the Twelve, Jesus followed a situational leadership model, adjusting his leadership style to the readiness of his followers. As Jesus adjusted his leadership to match the readiness of the disciples, he also changed styles to provoke them to the next level of growth. Jesus shifted his roles from living example to provocative teacher to supportive coach and finally to ultimate delegator. Though Paul’s language and images differed, his goal and process mirrored the model of his Lord.
So, how can pastors and Christian leaders implement Jesus’ model of making disciples in their churches’ own ministries? Ogden focuses on three words: relationship, multiplication, and transformation. “The necessary elements…,” he writes, “are to establish a relational disciple-making process that is rooted in a reproducible model (triads or quads) that brings together the transformative elements of life change.” If I could summarize Ogden’s proposal in my own words, I’d put it this way: Three or four people meeting weekly for a year to grow closer to Christ and to one another, using a curriculum that each member can in turn use with a new triad or quad the next year. This process is intensive, demanding and tailored to the circumstances of the individual members, but that is how Christ himself achieved His best results with His own disciples. If you don’t believe me, look at Jesus’ interactions with His inner circle of Peter, James, and John in the Gospels.
Using this model of disciple making doesn’t require that pastors and other church leaders ditch Sunday sermons, Christian education classes, or other forms of teaching. Both Jesus and Paul spoke to large crowds and smaller groups, after all. It does mean prioritizing microgroups, however, as Jesus’ and Paul’s preferred strategy of making disciples, as well as recognizing the limitations of large-crowd and smaller-group forms of teaching, which can be more informational than transformational.
Transforming Discipleship is a challenging read, though not because it is hard to understand. Rather, it is challenging because churches are tempted to implement one-size-fits-all discipleship programs that are easy for pastors to manage. (I speak from personal experience here.) The easy way is not always the best way, however. Sometimes, the best results require intensive effort on a smaller scale over a longer timeframe to achieve.
I encourage you to read Transforming Discipleship. The book combines passion for the Great Commission, keen biblical insight and helpful practical suggestions for implementing a microgroup strategy. Even if, in the end, you don’t implement the book’s discipleship strategy, it will help you work through the relevant issues—biblically and practically—so that you can better fulfill the Great Commission in your own ministry and that of the local church.
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