The main idea of “contagious disciple making” is both simple to summarize and presents a real challenge to the contemporary church. It is to model and encourage trusting obedience to Christ as we discover his will in scripture, and to share these discoveries with others. This simple and compelling idea is a breath of fresh air for a Western church long on talk and short on obedience.
The authors (father and son) have been involved in church-planting movements throughout the world resulting in thousands of churches being planted under indigenous leadership in each country. This was not always the case and the first part of the book recounts the “re-thinking” that took place for them in moving from attempting to plant churches that conformed to Western ideals to launching Disciple-Making Movements. They argue, to begin with, that the task of church planters is not to contextualize the gospel but to “deculturalize” it–to help people discover the message without Western cultural or denominational accretions.
What is crucial is simply building relationships within the appropriate structures, often family or tribal or village, where one can lead people in discovering for themselves from the Bible the basic message of the gospel, and even as they are learning it and beginning to act on it, to share it with others. Even before becoming disciples, proto-disciples are making disciples. From the start, and at every phase, an emphasis on obeying what one discovers, and inviting others to discover and obey is central.
The disciple-maker facilitates discovery and encourages obedience. This is so different from a teacher-student model that focuses around transfer of knowledge. Instead of creating perpetual learners, disciples quickly learn to become disciple-makers themselves and continue to perpetuate this with those they lead in discovery. The approach is one that respects and holds up the priesthood of all believers rather than a cult of experts.
The second part of the book explores practices around this core mindset that have proven important to these movements. Parts of this reiterate the focus on disciple-making from the first part and seem repetitive at times. But the authors also cover the importance of prayer movements, the nature of discovery groups, how churches are established out of these, and the development of leadership through mentoring that concentrates not simply on action but also character.
I found two sections particularly thought-provoking. One, concerning engaging lost people, talked about identifying the “silos” in which they live — the different affinity groups by family, village, or interest that bring people together. Rather than seek to “extract” people from this group, the Watsons advocate disciple-making within these groups so that families, villages or significant parts of affinity groups come to faith, rather than isolating a single convert from the former “silo” of which they were a part.
The other section concerned finding the “person of peace” in this silo, the person sufficiently spiritually receptive to host the disciple-maker as they form discovery groups. They recommend not attempting to plant in a particular “silo” without having the support of such a person.
There was much that I found to be refreshingly helpful. I work in university ministry that incorporates much of what these authors recommend, building groups around discovering what it means to follow Jesus in scripture, defining leadership in terms of those who are making disciples with others, doing all this in a context of prayer, and even thinking about the different “silos” on a university campus.
At the same time, I found myself wrestling with a tacit anti-intellectual, anti-theological emphasis that focused on the Bible and nothing but the Bible. I’ve seen too many unorthodox movements that are able to appeal to the Bible to say that relying on people’s personal discoveries from scripture to counter false teaching.
Also there is the question of Christian witness and discipleship in centers of learning and culture. While it is true that unlearned disciples who had been with Jesus confounded the religious elites of their day (which underscores the priority of trusting and obeying Christ!) I would contend for the value of coupling that devotion with the development of a Christian mind that is both theologically acute and culturally astute for engaging these culture-shapers. Just as a willingness to learn gaming is important to reaching a “gamer” silo (an example used by the authors), this intellectual work, which underlines the value of the theological enterprise and the intellectual work Christians are doing in many fields, should be encouraged for those engaging the intellectual world.
Yet the authors’ challenge to churches long on words and experiences and short on consistent obedience is one that needs to be heard. The authors contend that “A church that condones disobedience to God’s laws cannot stay a church. A church that does not practice grace and mercy cannot stay a church” (p. 159). Any of us seeking to plant or develop a ministry or church do well to heed this.
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