I read Thom Rainer’s Simple Church a few months ago. I liked his proposal of having a clear, simple model of making disciples that was shared by the whole congregation (“congregation” is that a Baptist like Rainer means by “church”) so that everything it does is aligned with that model. Compared to the way disciples are accidentally made in so many traditional churches, I found the idea of a simple process attractive.
But I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it.
First, the sub-title of the book claims too much – “Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples.” When I read the book, I found a very modern, rationalized, linear model for making disciples – a veritable disciple-making factory. When I look at the way Jesus made disciples in the Gospels – and if I want to discover God’s way, who else ought I to consult? – I don’t see anything as neat and simply reproducible as what I see Rainer proposing. Jesus approached each of his disciples differently. He didn’t run them through a program – even a simple one. He took them with him so they could see what he did and learn to trust him and his way of life.
Second, while I understand the attraction of a simple, linear process, I’ve seen too many who have become disciples by other means. One of the images I use when I talk about the life of discipleship is crossing three lines. As disciples of Jesus we cross a line of commitment to Jesus, a line of commitment to our own spiritual growth (that is, we aren’t just babies waiting for someone to take care of us), and a line of responsibility for the spiritual growth of others. It makes perfect sense to imagine that a disciple would progress in exactly that order. It’s an order commonly adopted in churches – we can see it in the Saddleback baseball diamond with its CLASS system.
But things don’t always work that way. I’ve seen people drawn to faith by starting at the “end” – by joining in ministry toward others. If we ask them why, chances are they won’t say, “This is a natural fulfillment of my love for Jesus.” Rather, they might just say, “I see the need, I have the ability to do something to meet it, so I do it.” While a few might have the thought of earning favor with God through their actions, there is no necessary reason to suppose such a thought.
Todd Hunter argues this same point in Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others. He says,
We are accustomed to seekers following this model: first they believe Christian truth,then they join our churches, and then they take on our practices and behaviors. I suspect, though, that upon reflection we may see that people have come to faith in more varied ways. Today many people are starting at the ‘end’ and practicing their way into the faith. It seems to be working just fine. Others start in the middle by joining a Christian community before they believe.
What happens when we insist on a particular assembly line method of making disciples? At the best, we’ll make some disciples – which is far better than simply limping along making none. But we’ll also miss many people. I think we’ll also miss God, since God appears to lead people to Jesus by multiple means.
So where can we have simplicity? Where can we have a clearly shared model of disciple-making with which we align all our ministries? Put briefly, I think we need to have three elements present at every stage, even if one is in the forefront. We need people to keep in view that Jesus is the center of all we do. We need people to keep in view that Jesus joins us together for his purposes. And we need people to keep in view that his purposes are not merely for our sake, but for the sake of the world.