Why We Don’t Disciple #4: Our Churches Are Program Dependent

Welcome to “Why We Don’t Disciple #4”. Or, as you may prefer to call it, “Biting The Hand That Feeds.”

4. Our churches are program dependent.

Here’s a modern day parable for your delectation, told to me by a friend at seminary. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is (possibly) true.

A young man walked into a Christian bookstore in Chicago and asked where the bumper stickers were. The assistant said, what kind are you looking for? The man said, I’d like to buy a fish sticker. The assistant said, Oh I’m afraid we’ve sold out of those. To which the man responded, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EVANGELISE WITHOUT FISH STICKERS?

As Western evangelicals, we have become increasingly reliant on courses, programs, techniques and methodologies to do the work of evangelism and discipleship.

Now, here’s the hand-biting bit: I write this post as someone whose job it is to write good programs. I work hard at making them as faithful and easy to use as possible, and I believe in their value. I’m grateful to God that they can be very helpful indeed in the right hands.

But in the wrong hands? These courses become an inferior, plug-n-play, hearts-not-in-it-really, one-size-fits-no-one stand-in for genuine discipling. And, what’s worse, running these courses may delude us into thinking we’re “doing” evangelism/discipleship when actually, we’re just prayerlessly going through the motions. We’ve come to believe that the magic is in the methodology.

This first appeared as an anxious blip on my e-dar (evangelical radar) about five years ago. We would work solidly for 18 months to produce a new course – crafting Bible study questions, writing and rewriting talks and scripts, trialing the material in various places, rewriting some more, shooting and editing a DVD series – and then on the day of publication, just as everyone was having a lie-down/checking into the Priory, an email would appear in my inbox. “Thanks for the new course,” it would say perkily. “When’s the next one coming out?”

Allow me to translate.


Discipleship is possible without programs. Jesus wrote a really good book about it.

And a program – however biblically-faithful – is no substitute for personal discipling. At least not the kind of personal discipling Jesus has in mind in Matthew 28:19.

For a start, programs must presuppose that “one-size-fits-all”. In one sense, this is true. Biblical truth is biblical truth, and applies to everyone. But a presenter on a DVD can never personally engage with someone the way you can. He cannot hear the specific cries of a person’s heart and speak directly and biblically to them.

In addition, we may be tempted to use programs in the same way families use DVD screens in the headrests of a Renault Espace: as surrogate parents. Yes, it’s a great way to keep the kids occupied. Yes, it means we don’t have to actually talk to them as much anymore. But it can also be a dereliction of personal responsibility to those in our care.

So my question is, have we been too ready to get the babysitters in? Have we been too ready to outsource our discipleship, and in so doing, have we forgotten how to do it ourselves?

At their best, programs increase our reliance on God and his Word. But at their worst, programs simply increase our reliance on programs. And as a result, our personal discipleship of other believers will have suffered.

Come back next week and, if I still have a job, I’ll suggest a final reason we don’t disciple.

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