I just finished reading the book, Growing True Disciples, by George Barna. In this book, the author examines and assesses several discipleship models that various churches are using today.
Barna’s aim is to provide church leaders with a tool that will aid them in assessing and maximizing their church’s effectiveness in discipleship, and to exhort church leaders to become serious about pursuing a culture of deeply committed discipleship. Barna’s stated presupposition is that a growth in discipleship and the development of a culture of discipleship will only be possible through a radical paradigm shift, and a giving of oneself wholly to the effort. Barna’s goal throughout this process is to encourage churches to pursue a radical and whole-hearted approach to discipleship.
In his opening chapter, Barna gives several transitions that churches may most likely go through in the effort to transform their discipleship strategies into effective ministries. The list included such things as shifting from program to people-driven ministry focuses, shifting from an emphasis on memorizing Bible stories to emphasizing biblical principles, and shifting to a concern about quality rather than quantity.
Barna argues that any discipleship program should first “focus on the fundamentals.” Barna argues that discipleship is preparation “for a particular lifestyle more than for a specialized occupation.” The purpose of discipleship is to instill in the disciple the fundamentals of building a life of Christ-likeness.
Barna also emphasized that making disciples is not an option, but a mandate. In fact, it’s what the Christian life is all about. He then gives some examples of discipleship – Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist – and goes into detail about the church in Jerusalem as an example of a church “committed to both being and producing disciples of Christ” (26).
Barna also discusses the obstacles to discipleship. He boils it down to several reasons, such as inconsistent effort, or simply no effort at all, but he posits that the root problem is simply “a lack of passion to be godly” (42). Barna argues that one of the main reasons Christians struggle with their spiritual maturing process is that the local church does little to nothing to aid in the process. He argues that one of the primary responsibilities of the church is to develop a means by which the members may actively grow in discipleship. Barna then discusses the importance and effect of mentoring relationships, and closes the chapter by emphasizing that while churches have done well at stressing the importance of spiritual growth they have done very little to facilitate “an environment in which spiritual growth is a lifestyle” (55). One statement that stood out to me was this: “Most disappointing is a widespread lifestyle among Christians that fails to demonstrate the practical realities of the Christian faith” (83).
Throughout the book, Barna is (I think rightfully) arguing that an improvement in the state of discipleship in modern Christianity requires a radical transformation of worldview and lifestyle.
In chapter seven, Barna takes the reader through five different models of discipleship he studied in various churches which he deemed to be effective discipleship strategies. The five models are the Competencies Model, the Missional Model, the Neighborhood Model, the Worldview Model, and the Lecture-Lab Model, and Barna explains well the different aspects of implementing these various models.
Barna then argues that perhaps the best method of developing an effective discipleship ministry is to utilize the beneficial aspects from other models. He says that most of the churches he studied were very quick to borrow and implement aspects from other models if it seemed to be a beneficial tool. Ultimately, each church must adapt and mold its discipleship strategy to fit its own unique needs.
One possible critique to be made: Barna seems to attribute the rightness of the different models to their effectiveness. Because of this, there is a noticeable lack of discussion surrounding the issue of whether a model is in fact biblical. It seems to me that the standard by which the church must judge whether to adhere to a particular model or philosophy is not whether it seems to be observably effective, but whether it is biblical. It seemed that a couple of the discipleship models were developed around the felt needs of the congregation. When a large part of the curriculum is developed or decided by the people going through the program, it has the potential to develop around the interests of the people, while at times failing to meet the actual growing needs of the people. Also, the Missional Model leaves the primary weight of the growing process up to the people, with very loose guidance and little formal direction from the leaders. This may lend itself to a failure to meet essential needs in the growing process, and leave the people lacking in key aspects of discipleship. One of the other models which seems to be more driven by the Word, and actively lead by the mature leaders in the church, seems to be a much more biblical model (e.g. the older teaching the younger – Titus 2:4).
Barna has delivered a useful tool for pastors and church leaders. His concise, methodological content is understandable for anyone. This book has the potential to ignite a passion within church leaders for developing an environment of discipleship, and urging others on to a deeper level of devotion to Christ. Growing True Disciples is a uniquely valuable tool because of the thorough explanation of each model of discipleship. While I don’t think a church could use any one of these models without any revision, the information contained in this book is more than enough to begin transforming the discipleship attitude and method of your church. I didn’t agree with everything Barna had to say, but overall, it was a worthwhile read. I certainly recommend this book to church leaders, but it would be accessible and beneficial to anyone.
Bottom line – be more intentional about making and being fully devoted disciples of Christ!