Disciplism – Part 3
Now I need to give you some context for what I’m about to say in this chapter. You should know that I have spent most of my adult life being reasonably obsessed with trying to unlock the codes of what makes for highly transformative missional movements—those kinds of movements that really get it done, exhibit explosive growth, achieve high transformation, and have societal impact.1
Examples of some of these movements are the Early Church (prior to Constantine), the Celtic missions, the Moravians, the Early Methodists, the Early Pentecostal movement, the Chinese House Church movements, the Church in India, etc. I’ve really tried to understand what exactly makes these movements tick—the specific factors that have come together to create such catalytic growth and impact. And not just for the sake of academic interest. I am deeply committed to understanding how exactly we can learn from these profoundly significant high points. What can they teach us about ourselves? How can their story interpret ours? What do they tell us about Jesus’ original design and intention for His Church?
So what I am about to say is weighted with lots of personal reflection: I can say categorically that one of the most demonstrably identifiable aspects, and therefore one of the irreplaceable keys to catalytic movements is that they are obsessed with discipleship and disciple making! Discipleship is factored in from the beginning to the end, and at every level of the organization. In other words, if you took discipleship and disciple making out of the equation, these movements would have never been what they were. In fact, it is highly unlikely that they would have existed at all without a strategic commitment to discipleship. Discipleship is so critical because it is the means by which Jesus works through His people.
A while ago, my friend [and 3DM leader] Mike Breen wrote a very provocative article cheekily suggesting reasons why the missional church will fail.2 His conclusion: If we failed to do discipleship, the missional church would fail. I have to agree with him here. And as far the contemporary missional church movement is concerned, whatever else we hope to achieve in the kingdom is never going to happen if we fail to integrate discipleship and disciple making into the heart of our practices. If we fail in discipleship, the whole thing fails. There is no doubt; discipleship is a critical/strategic issue. And while it is not a short-term solution for a systemwide problem, discipleship is the appropriate medium to a long-term solution that will heal much of the malaise in our churches.
Reframing Evangelism Within the Context of Discipleship …
So hopefully you see our strategic need for discipleship and disciple making in our churches. Now, I want to look at how discipleship applies to and makes a difference to evangelism—just one of the irreplaceable aspects of the witness of the church. I hope to show you how discipleship thinking can make a wholesale difference to our practices and our impact in the world.
I want to start with a rather provocative statement that’s going to make many of you readers want to take me down. All I ask is that you give me a few minutes of understanding before you dismiss what I say. Try your best to just hear what I am really saying. Here goes …
I believe that the key to the health, the maintenance, the extension and the renewal of the Church is NOT more evangelism, but more discipleship.
In fact, I will go one step further and say that the way we are doing the work of evangelism right now is actually blocking our capacity to get on with the real job of the Church, namely disciple making. In other words, more evangelism the way we do it now will not solve our problems but actually might exacerbate them. If we persist at aiming at evangelism (in the prevailing understanding of it), we seldom, if ever, get to discipleship. History provides more than ample proof of this outcome. But at no time has this been more evident than in this age of mass consumption.3 Making more disciples is the real solution. I suggest that we need to refocus our efforts on discipleship and do whatever evangelism we can in that context. We need to reframe evangelism within the context of discipleship.
Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Epictetus noted that, “it is impossible to teach a man what he thinks he already knows.” In other words, if we think we have really got it locked down pretty tight, then we’ll never feel the need to learn anything new about it. Of course, we know what it means! Who doesn’t? So for example, when Western evangelicals tend to use the word “evangelism,“ we think we know what it is. For us, it is a settled formula embedded into a set of practices that are simply taken for granted.
And here lies the rub. Because what has got us here is not going to get us there, we are going to have to think very differently about our problems if we are going to resolve them. There is some unlearning we need to do here if we are to advance the cause of Christ in our time. We need to think differently about many things—and perhaps especially evangelism because we take the inherited approach as settled. And as shocking as all this sounds, I want us to really reconsider the meaning and significance of the Great Commission.
Now let me be clear. I’m a card-carrying evangelical deeply committed to the proclamation of the evangel (gospel). I speak from within the movement—as an insider—so please put what I am saying here in that context.
I suggest that when we use the phrase “the Great Commission,” we tend to use it as a kind of synonym for the term “evangelism.” In other words, to be a Great Commission church is understood to be coda for being a really evangelistic church—one that is committed to regular outreach and evangelism and encourages all their members to do the same. In fact, this understanding became popular from the time of the tent crusades and was adopted and embedded deep into the theological and methodological consciousness of what is called the “church growth movement.” But I suggest that using the Great Commission as a synonym for evangelism is a huge category error that simply proves Epictetus’ point about not knowing what we think we already know.
- All my work has explored aspects of this. However, my centerpiece book is The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand!Rapids: Brazos, 2006) and it guides much of my other writings. For a logic of my own writings, see http://www.theforgottenways.org/alan-hirsch.aspx.
- Why the Missional Movement will Fail: Part 1; Part 2
- See Alan and Debra Hirsch, Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), section two, especially chapter four on religious consumerism.
Excerpt taken from Disciplism a free ebook by Alan Hirsch available here.