I just finished George Barna’s latest, Growing True Disciples, New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ. Barna is the President of Barna Research Group which does a ton of market research that had been really helpful in developing more faithful churches. I was interested what Barna had to add to the conversation about discipleship systems. Overall, this is a helpful text. But before I get to the really helpful part, let me share a couple of thoughts. First of all, this is not groundbreaking information. Barna’s premise is that churches need systematic approaches to make committed disciples of Jesus Christ. University UMC is pretty aware of that fact. Our Directing Pastor Charles Anderson introduced that premise at University on his arrival. University asked the Bishop to have me join the staff specifically to implement this system. My passion for discipleship happened a few years ago upon hearing the work of Dan Glover who has since written, Deepening Your Effectiveness, Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation in which he makes a solid case for the need of a systematic approach and talks about how to do it. I wrote a paper on the topic last year in which I made the clear point that none of this is new as John Wesley, in trying to revive the life of the Anglican church, created an elaborate and effective discipleship system. None of this is to say that we don’t need another book on the subject. We need a bunch. Most churches are still not getting this and different voices add to the possibility of being heard, but this is not new. So, if you are already convinced and convicted on the need for churches to get back in to the discipleship business, most of this book will just make you feel better about your convictions. But, as you will see below, there are some gems.
One other thing I want to point out is a clear bias in the Barna’s research. I am not using the word bias pejoratively. This is not hidden bias, it is just how Barna bases his research. When evaluating whether or not people are Christian, whether they are living as Christians or have a Christian worldview, Barna and his team use a fairly arbitrary list of factors that I do not always agree with. Barna is pretty clear in his mind what makes a Christian a Christian and what makes a disciple a disciple and I respect that. We should all be a little more clear. However his dedication to those beliefs makes his research something different from unbiased numerical data. For on this, read Adam Hamilton’s thoughts on a book by two of Barna’s Associates, unChristian, by Kinnaman and Lyons. (http://adamhamilton.cor.org/2008/06/26/do-you-have-a-biblical-worldview/) Let me just summarize with this: if you and I disagree on what exactly makes a Christian, we will disagree on who is a Christian and who is a disciple and we will have trouble agreeing on how to measure the effectiveness of systems that make disciples.
I don’t want to be too hard on this text. There is a lot of good stuff to be gleaned if you are passionate about making disciples. Because this book is well researched and involves input from a number of churches, there is a lot of useful insights. I love the list of things that did not work, approaches that did not achieve results. I won’t list them all (if you are into this stuff, you will have to read the book) but here are a couple of gems: Trying to produce disciples without having a clear definition of discipleship didn’t work. Seems like a no brainer but there is where Barna’s clarity of conviction that sometimes throws his research off shows its power. I think a lot of churches can’t agree on what a disciple is. So, how do you go about helping someone become one? Here is something else that didn’t work: doing discipleship activities without a long-term strategy that is the foundation for decision making and resource allocation. In other words, in Barna’s words, “discipleship is a process not a program.” I have believed from the beginning of my research that if you try to tack discipleship on as a program offering, you fail. Here at University, how we make disciples affects every decision we make. I am working on budgeting right now and every single dollar needs to be accounted for in terms of the phases of growth in discipleship. This might be the most important point of the whole book and a point that it makes a number of times in a number of ways.
A number of people ask me for help in creating a discipleship system at their church. The question I am starting to offer back is, “does your church want to have a discipleship system” or “does your church want to become a discipleship system?” That is the place I believe we need to start. If we don’t see the main role of the church as making disciples of Jesus Christ and if you do not see that as meaning something more than getting them to join, then plans and programs won’t work. However, I believe that if we start with the clear understanding of what a disciple is and a passionate drive to be about that, the rest can fall into place.
Thanks to George Barna for adding to the discussion.
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