Failure to disciple make

Dan Dick and Taylor Burton-Edwards have been having a splendidly interesting conversation about disciple-making and the church. At my prompting, they both expounded a bit on what they mean when they make reference to a system of making disciples. Dan responded to my question with a summary of the United Methodist system of making disciples right out of the Book of Discipline.

Basically, since 1996, our Book of Discipline describes the simple framework for a discipleship system: reach out to people, engage them in spiritual community, relate people to God and Christ, nurture and strengthen people in their faith, equipping them to use their gifts in ministry to others in the world as the body of Christ. The process — referred to as our primary task — is prediated on three theological assumptions — that Christianity requires constant improvement and development spiritually for both individuals and the community of faith, that church is incarnational — the Spirit of God empowers the church to BE Christ for the world, and that there must be an inward and outward balance (we are formed in the Spirit to serve as the Christ). All quite Wesleyan (and Albrightian and Boehmian and Otterbinian…) and redefining the church as being about God and God’s purposes and not about US. A discipleship system aligns all spiritual processes and practices toward the end for which the system is designed: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. (Except for all the people who think this is too much to expect…)

Taylor said he agrees with this summary of what we mean when we used the term “discipleship system.” Here is the summary of this same outline at the UMC web site.

As helpful as this is, I find it leaves me still asking, “But what does that look like in practice?” I can now enumerate the pieces of the system – reach out to people, engage them in spiritual community, relate them to God and Christ, nurture and strengthen their faith, equip them to use their gifts in ministry to the world.

But being able to list the parts of a system and being able to develop, implement, and manage a system are two different things.

Dan proposes that so many of our churches fail to do these things because they think it is too much to expect or don’t wish to do it. I do not dispute Dan’s deep experience in this area, but I wonder if there is another or additional cause.

In in his recent book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande summarizes an article he read in 1976 about the reasons why medical professionals fail.

The first reason is because there are some things we just can’t do. The authors of the article call this “necessary falibility.” We are limited humans. We simply cannot do everything we want to.

The second reason is ignorance. We could avoid failure, but we simply do not know what we need to know. Gawande illustrates this point by noting that as recently as the 1950s doctors did not know that blood pressure had something to do with heart attacks and even if they had known that, they had no treatments to affect blood pressure. This is failure due to ignorance.

The last reason for failure is ineptitude. We can do something. We have the knowledge. We just don’t apply it properly.

In Dan’s presentation – if I understand him – the church fails so often to make disciples because it does not really want to succeed. In the medical analogy, it would be as if doctors simply decided they were not interested in saving lives. We fail to live out our mission because we do not really care about whether we succeed or fail.

That may be the case. Especially since the church has lost its evangelical zeal, many may view the work of the church not really that important. It is not life-or-death. It is not like people die because we fail. At least, that is what we modern and intellectual church people think. Old fools like John Wesley thought what he did actually mattered, but we’ve learned so much more than he understood.

Perhaps we fail because we do not care to succeed.

But perhaps we fail – in part – either from ignorance or ineptitude. It is not that all failing churches do not want to succeed, it is that they do not know how. They have never learned – and their pastors were never taught – how to set up discipleship systems. Or, they have been taught, but they are not experienced enough to bring that knowledge to bear in effective ways.

Gawande’s book is about the power of checklists – simple checklists – in conditions of complexity to assist people in bringing the right knowledge to bear in the right circumstances. It recalls to my mind the relative simplicity of John Wesley’s system for making disciples.

Here was a system that had several fairly simple to use pieces that were well-suited to his cultural setting. It had clearly defined steps people went through. It had checklists of questions for people to follow and answer. It had stages of development with clear gateways for moving from one to another. And it only took people into the system that truly wanted to be in it.

Attempts to readopt John Wesley’s system are ill-fated because the conditions and context have changed so much. We are a church, not a movement. Our culture is not his culture. The forms of a Wesleyan discipleship system needs to be different than the ones he invented, but maybe not that different.

How many of us really understand or know how to create that?

In some places we do parts of that well. Some churches are fantastic at parts and pieces of it. Some may even have complete systems that work well and move people toward Christian maturity, but they can’t translate the systems to other settings or because their success allows them to resist connectionalism they do not spread their knowledge and expertise.

But most churches that I know or have been part of flounder about quite a bit. There is no shortage of good intention. We are mired in ignorance and ineptitude.

At the very least, it seems to me, we need to get better at diagnosing the causes of our failures. We need to be able to tell the difference between “don’t care” “don’t know” and “did it wrong.” It is likely that churches do not fall neatly into these categories, but if we start from the position that we fail for different reasons, perhaps we will be able to craft better solutions.

6 thoughts on “Failure to disciple make

  1. Isn’t the checklist approach what “Deepening Your Effectiveness”, “Purpose Driven Church” and “Unlocking Your Church’s DNA” are about? Take into that conversation “Covenant Disciple” and even the “Disciple Bible Study” programs, and you have more than enough checklists.
    I am one of those crazy people that thinks the “Book of Discipline” contains more than enough in the way of checklists, but that there is not enough conformity to it, by local churches, let alone Conference and General Conference Agencies, primarily because there is no accountability. I would suggest that those agencies, and persons, as well as the outcomes of accountability are already present in the “Book of Discipline” and that we need people willing to take those stands, dole out the consequences, and establish patterns of accountability.
    The reality is that if we are unwilling or unable as a denomination or persons to hold ourselves accountable, the world will, either by extreme penalty (such as IRS sanctions) or simply continuing to walk away from our doors to bodies that are consistent in their words and practice.

  2. I was at a leadership event in our conference and Bishop Sally Dyck told us the story of a small little church in a small little town. It was a congregation of the few, but the faithful. They would often have young families come and join their churches and just as it seemed like they were beginning to get connected, those families would transfer out to bigger churches that had more youth programs and activities.

    The church was disheartened.

    But Bishop Dyck asked them to rethink what it was that they were doing. She asked them to think of the whole church as a hospital and to describe what part of the hospital they might be. Instead of a church that was failing – this congregation was a NICU… a place that birthed people into the faith and then when they were strong enough and knew what they needed, this church sent them out into the world to be connected with other churches.

    Maybe the question here in discipleship is that we DON’T take our connection seriously enough. Maybe we don’t have enough resources to do all steps of that disciple making process really well. But who can we partner with in our community, in the larger connection that does? What is the role that each of our congregations plays? What do we do well, what can we do better, and how do we need to rethink our church? (and I keep using the term rethink, as much as I fight it)

    Afterall, the paragraph summary at the top does say the methodist “system” – not the job of each individual congregation

  3. The core of Wesleyan vitality was this active, vital faith that not only converted individuals in their interior, but converted their actions, the people around them, and the society as a whole. I use the metaphor of greenhouses: exceptional environments that yield more vital, more robust, more fruitful growth with rapidity. My hunch is that constructing greenhouses in our culture is proving more difficult than in the relatively-homogeneous society the Wesleys ministered in.

    Somehow, (perhaps by invoking the Holy Spirit!) we need the blueprints to create some simple structure that leads to this four-fold conversion: I’m not sure we need another checklist, but we do need something to both connect us with each other (uniformity? better: unity, catholicity) and give our action apostolic efficacy.

    One more thought: Taylor has an interesting contention (if I get this right) about what the core competencies of congregations are, and that their role might be less greenhouse and more incubator. I’m not convinced that station churches are the right basket for us to put our eggs in as the “primary arena of disciple-making.” But if that’s what we have, the “how” is at least as important as the “why not.” And since I don’t have any answers, I’ll stop here 🙂

    This is not the first time in the last week I’ve come across The Checklist Manifesto; sounds like I need to read it!

    1. And now I’ve read the comments at United Methodeviations more fully & see Taylor’s expounded on precisely the congregational competency issue. Okay, more coffee for me…

  4. Thank you all for these interesting comments. I apologize for not responding to each in turn. My times seems to run away and hide from me the last few days. I hope these kinds of conversations are happening all over our connection.

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