My latest interview:
Theologians are generally leery, even disdainful (usually in quiet, socially accepted ways!) of “lay” people. And so-called “lay” people tend to return the favor. There are many reasons for this, and Keith Johnson helps unpack them for us.
Johnson’s book is desperately needed since the animus between professional theologians and the church is acute and does not seem to be getting any better.
The author provides a good historical sketch of how theology moved away from the church and found itself in the academy. This offers perspective for how we ought to proceed in understanding the challenge of wedding theology to the church.
Johnson writes with a gracious touch but makes clear how we all need to make amends for our less than Christlike behavior.
The apostle Paul said many provocative things. These things were not simply provocative. More importantly, there were true. For example, Paul said that we ought to “follow Christ as he did” and in Philippians Paul writes, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
We know Paul valued relationships. From his earliest days as a Christian Paul benefited greatly from mentors like Ananias and Barnabas, later peer relationships like Silas were a huge blessing, and then Paul built into the lives of many people like Timothy, his “true son in the faith.”
Paul says if we do what he did the “God of peace will be with us.” What a promise!
How should these relationships inform our own convictions?
I’ve been involved in discipling men for about forty years now. I have also been the beneficiary of being discipled. I’ve certainly read a number of discipleship books…plenty for a lifetime.
So when Zondervan sent me a (unsolicited) copy of The Disciple Maker’s Handbook I came pretty close to setting it aside. I decided to give it a read. I’m glad I did.
Harrington and Patrick do a terrific job of both offering practical instruction while peppering the book with thoughtful insights on discipleship. This is an accessible book that novices to ministries of discipleship will find most helpful. This kind of accessibility many times means something leans towards the superficial, but thankfully it is not the case with this book.
One of the many strengths of this book are the various exhortations and insights on being intentional when it comes to discipleship ministries.
Conversion and Discipleship, that is.
The following description of Bill Hull comes from his web site: “Bill Hull’s passion is to help the church return to its disciple making roots and he considers himself a discipleship evangelist. This God-given desire has manifested itself in twenty years of pastoring and the authorship of many books.” Bill’s latest book, Conversion and Discipleship: You Can’t Have One Without the Other (http://www.amazon.com/Conversion-Discipleship-Cant-without-Other/dp/0310520096) framed this conversation.
Moore: Late in life, St. Augustine wrote his Retractions (some like to translate it reconsiderations). He was working through the body of his works to see what might need to be changed or clarified. You’ve written several previous books on discipleship. To what degree is your present book akin to Augustine’s Retractions?
Hull: Augustine wrote over 100 pieces of significant literature, my corpus is twenty-two books and a few articles and I suppose hours of video, blogs, tweets, and other recordings. Overall I have less to regret than the Bishop of Hippo, but your question gives me an idea for the next book.
At the twentieth anniversary of each of my disciple making trilogy, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker, The Disciple Making Pastor, and the Disciple Making Church, I reread the books and contemplated some changes. I found it easier to write a reflection at the start of each chapter than reconstructing the book’s arguments. What I found to be true in that exercise was that the problem of nominal or weak Christianity still existed, but that I would choose some different modes or methods to solve the problems. Conversion and Discipleship is like throwing a “smart bomb” into the middle of the church and see what is left after the smoke clears. What is significantly different than my previous work is that it starts the conversation at the “What is the gospel?” level rather than the “Make Disciples” level. There are really three levels of conversation when it comes to the world revolution that is the Great Commission. Upstream it is, “What does the gospel we produce naturally produce, disciples or consumers? The midstream conversation is, “What is a disciple, why are they important, and what difference do they make?” Finally, there is the downstream conversation, “What is your plan? Because if you don’t have a plan, you don’t intend to do it.
Moore: I’ve been the beneficiary of discipleship for almost forty years now. I’ve had several men invest in me and I love doing my own part with other men. In both of the seminaries I attended (Dallas and Trinity), I was constantly surprised how many of my classmates (many coming from solid, Christian families) never were discipled. Why is that?
Hull: Everyone has been discipled, by a family, a church, a culture. Everyone has a spiritual formation; even a terrorist has been discipled. I know their meaning when they say such a thing; they have not been worked with by another person in a systematic way where there was some start and finish to the process. That reveals how powerfully the insularly educational discipleship process has been embedded into the evangelical mind. I think Winston Churchill put it nicely, “We teach what we know, we reproduce what we are.”
Most contemporary discipleship runs aground because it is educationally based, and self-focused. It is about finishing curriculum and evaluates itself by asking the question, “ How am I doing?” This is not the kind of question or life than Jesus invites us into. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus, “A man for others.” As his disciples, we are to live for others; the church exists at its best when it exists for others. If you try and make a Christlike disciple from a conventional gospel you will fail, every time you will fail. Another factor is that discipleship has not been central to the teaching available in seminaries, churches themselves and the pastors have very little theological or practical basis for beginning such a process or developing a workable plan.
Moore: We live on the far side of mass evangelistic outreaches with the likes of Sunday, Moody, and Graham. To what extent do you think that approach to evangelism has brought confusion about the integral nature of discipleship?
Hull: There is a lot to say here. I will restrict myself to how modern mass evangelism separated conversion from discipleship. The first step in the separation was to replace the gospel with the plan of salvation. The gospel is the complete story of God, humans and the redemptive drama. The early fathers saw the four gospels together as the “gospel.” The drive to evangelize and get decisions created the “Plan of Salvation,” a four or five point extract of the gospel. Through the popularity of mass evangelism the plan of salvation replaced the gospel in the perception of the American church. The split between conversion and discipleship was complete when the Navigators and others created a category called discipleship. Discipleship included a system, a planned curriculum or study, and had tiers of ascendance. You would start as a convert, the after a period of time you would earn the moniker, disciple, then worker and finally leader. This all meant that conversion or being a convert was an entry level Christian. Discipleship then was a post conversion option for those who were so inclined, but it had no bearing on heaven, forgiveness of sins or eternal life. This of course has led us to the present need to reunite conversion to discipleship, and realize truly, that we cannot have one without the other.
Moore: I’ve had many conversations with those who advocate a “free grace” perspective when it comes to the gospel. (I don’t even like the term. Kind of like the “Department of Redundancy Department.”) As you know well, it came to prominence during the 1980s. I was at at Dallas Seminary at the time and the teaching of Zane Hodges, the late professor of New Testament, was influential. Others continue to advocate the “free grace” position. What do you think about this recent interpretation of the gospel? Has it had any effects on how we understand the integral role of Christian discipleship?
Hull: Dallas Willard commented on the misunderstanding of grace, “We have not only been saved by grace, we have been paralyzed by it.” He meant that it created a passivity among Christians. Bonhoeffer was disturbed about what his own Lutheran church had done to Luther’s understanding of grace. Willard said the grace was not opposed to effort, but was opposed to earning. Bonhoeffer famously, called what his church practiced, “Cheap grace.” All that needs to happen to corrupt grace is to it assign it a single place only in our spiritual journey, the point of conversion. Therefore, when someone says, “I was saved by grace on July 1, 1986, we then leave that big dollop of grace behind as a memory and we live on that memory. Grace becomes only a memory, but not a means of power and energy to strengthen our effort to work for Christ and his Kingdom. Grace too often breeds passivity. We keep waiting for a special work, command or power before we act. God’s grace is an active force that is ever ready to empower us.
The only way out of this corruption of grace I know is to act, quit asking a lot of personal therapeutic questions about self, and start obeying, doing what God has already commanded us to do, then you will experience grace. Much better than sitting around and contemplating its meaning.
Moore: You regularly refer to Dallas Willard in your latest book. What role has he played in your own understanding of Christian discipleship?
Hull: My first attraction to Dallas was his writing. He reached my mind before he did my heart. I first met him in 2001 and he complemented me on something I had written. Of course, that warmed by heart. I heard him say two things that stand out in the development of my life and understanding. The first was, “ I never try to make anything happen.” I really did question his sanity when I heard him say it. I thought, “ a typical philosopher who doesn’t need to make anything work.” But he was talking about forcing the action, attempting to get people to accept or recognize his work, or to through human effort attempt to earn God’s favor. I found this a profound truth, coupled with this: “ Don’t seek to speak, seek to have something to say.” This was not a call to passivity. It was a call to humility and allowing God to provide the opportunities.
The second statement was, “There has not been in twentieth century anyone who has put together a theology of discipleship.” I questioned this statement as well, because I thought I had done it. But in conversation with Dallas over a period of months I came to agree with him. His comment and subsequent conversations was the impetus for the publication of Conversion and Discipleship. Upon Dallas’ death, I sensed it was time for me to give it a go. While it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, it is my good faith effort as a writer to put out a respectable street level theology that can help leaders make disciples.
Moore: Another friend of yours, Robert Coleman, wrote the influential The Master Plan of Evangelism. For those who may not be familiar with the book, there is much in that relates to the subject of discipleship, and discipleship is what Coleman continues to do even now at 88 years old. This book continues to sell at a rather brisk rate, yet I don’t hear it mentioned much in evangelical circles. Is my own experience unusual or do you think there is a rather pervasive neglect of Coleman’s message?
Hull: Dr. Coleman is a national treasure, not just for the church, I mean for the nation. There are so few people of such an age who are so full of Christ. The Master Plan is one of those books that everyone remembers they read, even if they never read it. It is short and simple. It is the reason it remains one of the best sellers of all time. I believe somewhere around five million have been sold. It was used by Billy Graham in follow up to his crusades and offered on television. It is no longer marketed or repackaged strongly and that explains partly why it is less known to the younger generations. There are a few discipleship classics, but none with the history, clarity and brevity as the Master Plan. It is the gold standard.
Moore: What are a few things you would like people to take away from your book?
Hull: I would hope that it would change the way you think. I have always believed that the most important part of a leader is what he or she thinks, for it drives everything else. The book’s thesis is, “All who are called to salvation, are called to discipleship, no exceptions, no excuses.” If that is believed and practiced, then the church will fill the world with Christlike disciples, they will preach the gospel to the end of the earth and then the end will come. Our choices do matter, our efforts do count, and in the end, God has given us this work to do. Discipleship is about world revolution.
Another reason to like Augustine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8X6deLrAyRY
Sometimes we need someone to cut through the fog and say what should be obvious, but got lost somewhere along the way:
Friends of ours asked various people to offer their counsel to their eighteen year old son. Here is what I wrote:
I was not a Christian at eighteen so you are blessed to know the Lord at an early age.
There are many things I would like to offer by way of counsel, but let me highlight a few.
It might get confusing at times determining whether something is God’s will or simply the desire of well-intentioned Christians. You will need discernment and courage to be able to decipher which is which. I have found meditating on the book of Proverbs very helpful.
A few years back I had an unexpected stroke. The doctors don’t know why as my arteries were clean and I have a strong heart. Then I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and shortly after that was back in the hospital because I have a problem with the electrical current for my heart.
Seeing others suffer around me in the ER was sobering and gave me a greater compassion for them. Being sick and keenly aware of your own mortality can produce good fruit. You are wise if you prepare now for unexpected twists and turns. I have seen many Christians get bitter at God, and I have seen many trust Him in deeper ways. Developing strong roots now will help you be the second person.
It is too easy to get caught up in good things which are not the best. I have many interests and am curious about many things which are not bad things per se, but they can keep me from focusing on the few things which are truly necessary. Make primary things primary.
Be grateful for family and friends. They know you best and will be loyal in ways others won’t.
One of my all-time favorite books is The Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan understood better than most that Christians are individuals. Some people struggle more with doubt, some more with worldliness, and so forth. Read widely and read the best books. Bunyan’s book certainly helped me through my stroke.
Most of all, remembering that God is merciful, loving, and good no matter how the circumstances turn out. Mine turned out very well, but God is good irrespective of the outcomes of one’s circumstances. Notice how often people attach the words “God is good” to prayers where the desired outcome occurs. Well, God is good whether you get healed or not. The cross of Christ settles once and for all that God is loving. Looking back at Christ’s work on the cross is what gives stability to the Christian’s life.
Determining God’s goodness based on whether He is fixing my circumstances in the way I deem best is what an older believer in the faith calls a spiritual cul-de-sac. If we measure the goodness of God by how well He fixes our negative circumstances, we will find suffering a constant threat to “growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus.”
Sincerely in Christ,
Watching the video I posted yesterday reminds me of a simple, yet widely neglected truth: Christians must wrestle with the beliefs of their faith. We are now embarrassed to say doctrine and theology. Sounds too impractical. If people come to that tragic conclusion, it is either the teacher’s fault or it could be the student’s fault. But it is never the subject of vibrant and life-giving theology. And notice how I felt compelled to modify theology. Maybe I am too defensive!
What happens when we mainly attract people to church with the social benefits, yet they don’t really understand much of what the Christian faith is about? Well, if they get troubled and want to ask probing questions, they might be told good Christians don’t struggle with such things. I’ve heard my share of such horror stories.
Christianity is true, but rightly understood it is beautiful, compelling, worth everything we are and have.