/ Great Commission / Robert Kelbe

Disciple Making Movements

The numbers, if they are to be believed, are staggering. Millions of Christian converts. Thousands of churches. And all this in a few years, with relatively little direct engagement.[1] It is no wonder that the recent missionary strategy known as “Disciple-Making Movements” (DMM) has become increasingly prevalent in Western missionary sending agencies. To put this in perspective, one hundred years of traditional Reformed Presbyterian (RP) mission work in Syria resulted in two congregations with less than a thousand members.[2] As the RPCNA continues to look to new mission fields, how should we evaluate this recent trend in missions?

We must continue to do missions in a way that aligns with our doctrinal convictions, especially relating to our Presbyterian ecclesiology. However, this does not mean that there are not lessons to be learned from contemporary missiology. The great missionary revival that began in the nineteenth century was largely fueled by the determination and efficiency of large, non-denominational mission boards which usurped the role of the institutional church, to whom the command and promise of the Great Commission was primarily given. Nevertheless, advocates of a traditional, Reformed understanding of the Great Commission could still rejoice at the progress of the Gospel and learn from the missional advancements that did not contradict their ecclesiology. For example, in 1831 the RPCNA created a foreign missions board to take advantage of the efficiency of a specialized board while maintaining the ecclesiastical oversight and authority of the synod.[3]

In a similar way, disciple-making movements have served as a helpful corrective to the traditional missiological model by highlighting the importance prayer and seeking ways to limit barriers to the Gospel in the hardest mission fields. However, as with the “Great Century of Missions,” success does not make everything about a methodology right. Ultimately, disciple-making movements build upon a foundation that emphasizes obedience above knowledge, which in turn leads to a devaluation of the preaching and teaching function of the institutional church. The RPCNA must seek to learn from some of the missiological insights of disciple-making movements while rejecting those elements that contradict our understanding of Scripture.

The Seven Elements of Disciple-Making Movements

In Contagious Disciple Making (2014), father and son team David and Paul Watson list seven necessary elements to “catalyze” a disciple-making movement. The terminology borrowed from chemistry is appropriate. Like a spontaneous chemical reaction, disciple-making movements hope to ignite a cascading chain reaction of disciple-makers that leads to explosive growth compared to slow-moving, traditional church-planting methods. The seven necessary elements of disciple-making movements are:

1. Disciples who make disciples

2. Prayer

3. Engagement

4. Persons of peace

5. Discovery groups

6. Establishing churches, and

7. Leadership development

1. Disciples Who Make Disciples

The first and most foundational element is that of disciples making disciples. Thus far, Reformed Presbyterians would agree. As covenanters we believe not only in the corporate witness of the church, but also in the personal witness of the individual believers to the lordship of Christ.[4] Individual Christians should bear witness to the Gospel in their private spheres and so participate in the work of evangelism and discipleship. Unfortunately, however, the DMM understanding of “disciples making disciples” differs in two ways which set the entire methodology on a faulty foundation.

First, DMM discipleship is focused on obedience rather than faith. This is encapsulated in the phrase, “obedience-based discipleship”. Traditional missions generally press first for conversion, demonstrated through faith and repentance, and then follow up with teaching and discipling. Disciple-making movements, on the other hand, press for obedience from the very beginning, even before a profession of faith. Proponents of this method argue that this is the way Jesus discipled the twelve during His earthly ministry,[5] although critics reject this assertion.[6]

Second, DMM discipleship is focused on making disciples rather than planting churches. In fact, the phenomenon of rapid church growth was originally labeled a “Church-Planting Movement.” Upon reflection, however, David and Paul Watson preferred the term “Disciple-Making Movement” to reflect the emphasis on multiplying disciples, which would then organically result in a church-planting movement.[7]

The emphasis on obedience is good, so far as it goes. However, it is probably more of a corrective to the evangelical church which strayed from an emphasis on obedience to the law of God. In fact, David and Paul’s chapter, “Be A Disciple Who Makes Disciples,” sounds a lot like an abridged version of the Westminster Larger Catechism’s explication of the ten commandments!

On the other hand, the corrective itself is imbalanced in the opposite direction. By overemphasizing obedience, the DMM methodology tends to deemphasize both doctrine and faith. David and Paul Watson write that “our focus in discipleship has become obedience to the Gospel, not adherence to a doctrine.”[8] By this he means traditional formulations of doctrine, but, regardless, this is a false dichotomy! Discipleship should include both knowledge and practice.

More troublingly, in the same paragraph, the authors also redefine faith to be identical to obedience: “In this form of teaching, faith is defined as being obedient to the commands of Christ in every situation or circumstance, regardless of the consequences.”[9] But let us be clear: this is not the kind of faith that justifies! Obedience-based discipleship ultimately undermines the core protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Obedience is already a part of the indigenous works-based religions. Therefore, Christianity must strive to emphasize the Gospel of justification by faith alone, which in turn leads to obedience.

Finally, the emphasis on making disciples to the neglect of a focus on planting churches underscores a low view of the institutional church and an underdeveloped ecclesiology. In fact, the Watsons devote an entire chapter to explain the limitations of “branded Christianity”. Instead of “branded Christianity,” the DMM model proposes the organic formation of churches without confessional standards, ordination requirements, or graded church courts. Perhaps these Presbyterian hallmarks hinder explosive church growth. Nevertheless, for the RPCNA, obedience is to plant churches according to our understanding of the jure divino form of church government.

2. Prayer

The second foundational element of successful disciple-making movements is prayer. David and Paul Watson noted that the leaders of their most successful disciple-making movements devoted an average of three hours a day to personal prayer, and another three hours a day to team prayer, while most also maintained regular jobs.[10] In fact, based on observation of disciple-making movements around the world, it became an axiom that “a prayer movement precedes every Disciple-Making Movement.”[11] In his book, Jerry Trousdale notes the same absolute dependence on prayer: “There are several crucial elements of disciple making that we will explore in this book, but one is always the starting point and sustainer: prayer. Abundant evidence suggests that a primary element in successful ministry among Muslims is the measure of prayer support.”[12]

It is no surprise that the methodology which tapped into the power of spontaneous self-replication would apply the same principles of exponential growth to prayer support. Therefore, David and Paul suggest several techniques to encourage prayer movements. “The goal,” say the Watsons, “is not to have one huge gathering. Instead, make it a goal to catalyze a hundred or so gatherings like this every month. These types of gatherings can be an effective way to mobilize anywhere from five hundred to a thousand people locally to pray for the community.”[13]

This last quote highlights a recurring focus on numbers, which is indicative of a quantitative focus in the DMM methodology. It is something akin to the “new measures” of the Second Great Awakening which thought that the right techniques and methods could guarantee a revival. Or, in this case, if only enough people prayed, then a disciple-making movement would follow. Paul Watson intimates that the reason many traditional missionaries do not experience rapid growth is due to a lack of prayer:

They often have a pretty good personal prayer life. When we dig a little deeper, however, we find their prayer network is pretty small—usually a hundred people or less. We also discover their communication with their network consists of a monthly newsletter and the occasional emergency prayer request e-mail. While this may sound good, this level of communication with a prayer network this small is not likely to support any Disciple-Making Movements.[14]

It is also not surprising to find a charismatic understanding of prayer in the DMM literature. Prayer is very much described as a two-way communication, in which God often speaks very specifically to the person praying.[15] Nevertheless, despite these caveats, disciple-making movements have done a great service to missions by highlighting the importance of prayer and showing that if we really believe in the importance and efficacy of prayer, we will find time for it.

3. Engagement

Building on the foundation laid by prayer, the next strategic element in a disciple-making movement is engagement. During this phase, the missionary seeks to find an inroad into a particular network of people. Here, again, the disciple-making movement model offers a helpful corrective to traditional missiological methods which often have a Western focus on individual evangelism.

Social anthropologists note that large populations become naturally divided into affinity networks known as silos.[16] One of the innovations of disciple-making movements is to use these naturally occurring silos to their advantage. Traditional “extraction evangelism” ignores these silos and as a result loses valuable opportunities for the spread of the Gospel:

Extraction discipleship is similar to extraction evangelism. Unrelated people convert, are pulled out of their silos, and are brought together to form a new church. They learn a new culture, begin to speak an insider language, and are encouraged to bring others into the new community—if the outsiders are ready to leave their old silos. Redeeming their old silo is not a serious thought, though other individuals will be sought—if it is not too much trouble (in other words, little or no persecution). Soon, the new believers are so adapted to their new silo and so alienated from their old silo that it is next to impossible for them to reach their families, communities, or nations. Families perceive their loved ones as being stolen or kidnapped from them in much the same way Christians feel about cults and their practices. Silos are suspicious of anyone who would abandon his or her cultural roots. And nations rarely tolerate traitors.
….
In our opinion, Satan is at work in these extraction methodologies. Satan encourages the use of extraction evangelism and discipleship strategies because these strategies do not take silos into serious account, and the result is the “winning” of one at the loss of the rest of the family, community, or silo. These are good odds for Satan—he will encourage us to win one and lose ten or more as a result of these methodologies. Most of us play into Satan’s hand, thinking we have done something great by “winning” one, when what we have really accomplished is the losing of a family, community, or silo as a result of extraction strategies.[17]

As traditional denominations like the RPCNA seek to expand into hostile territory, we must honestly reckon with the critique of extraction evangelism. Jesus promised that the Gospel would divide families.[18] Nevertheless, in the book of Acts we also see families converted together. Since social ostracism is such a barrier to the spread of Christianity, especially in Muslim countries, it makes sense that we would desire to convert entire affinity groups, as opposed to lone individuals.

4. Persons of Peace

Another strategic element of disciple-making movements is the concept of finding a “person of peace.” Don Richardson argued that God prepared cultures by embedding within them “redemptive analogies” that could be used to share the Gospel. In a similar way, DMM advocates believe that God prepares people groups for the Gospel by embedding a “person of peace” who will be open to the Gospel. The phrase comes from Jesus’ commands to the twelve apostles in Matthew 10 and Luke 9, as well as similar commands to the seventy in Luke 10.[19]

Ultimately, the concept of a person of peace is a helpful phrase but an unhelpful missionary strategy, as it is understood by DMM advocates. First, Jesus never guarantees that there will be a person of peace. Second, He never commands us to try to discern the person of peace beforehand. Rather, a person of peace will be manifested by their response to the Gospel. Therefore, the contention of Contagious Disciple-Making is overstated that “the disciple-maker has one job—find the Person of Peace,” and “if there is no Person of Peace, then you move on.”[20]

Thankfully, DMM practitioners recognize the inadequacy of the person-of-peace model. Ken Guenther, responding to Chad Vegas’ critique of DMM, also admits that the person of peace model is not used frequently in practice: “In my observations of mission teams that have adopted a DMM strategy, I do not see the same strong emphasis on the absolute necessity of finding a “person of peace” that Vegas attributes to DMM advocates, and which admittedly is found in Watsons’ writing.”[21] One reason that that the person of peace model is not well-adopted is that the rule is too subjective to be helpful. For example, on the one hand, the person of peace is characterized by an openness to the Gospel. At the same time, however, Jerry Trousdale admits that “there is another principle that, on the surface, almost sounds contradictory: sometimes the most difficult person to reach with the gospel will become the most dedicated follower of Christ.”[22] But if this is the case, then there really is no rule to follow.

5. Discovery Groups

The foundational organizational structure of disciple-making movements is an obedience-based, inductive Bible study known as a “discovery group” or “discovery Bible study” (DBS). Discovery Bible studies constitute a less confrontational, more passive alternative to the proclamation model of evangelism. In the proclamation model, the evangelist is a herald of the king with an important message of peace. In the discovery Bible study model, the evangelist is merely a facilitator who steps aside and allows the Scripture to speak for itself.

In keeping with the DMM model, discovery Bible studies are obedience-based. This means that unbelievers are encouraged to obey the commands of Christ before they believe the Gospel. This fact alone is not controversial. As Reformed Presbyterians we command all men everywhere to bow the knee to Christ! However, it also means that unbelievers may be encouraged to start their own discovery groups as an act of obedience even before they are converted. David and Paul Watson ask this provocative rhetorical question:

Did you know that lost people can evangelize? Well, they can if you keep it simple enough. Evangelism, at its core, is sharing the Gospel with someone else. When working with lost people, they don’t know the whole Gospel. That is totally okay. We just want them to share the story they just heard with someone who wasn’t in the group. We get them to think this way with a simple question, “Who do you know that needs to hear this story this week?”
If that person is interested, rather than bringing her into the existing group, we have the first lost person start a group with her, her friends, and her family. So the first lost person experiences the study in his original group and then replicates the same study in the group he started with his friend.[23]

How do these self-replicating discovery groups facilitated by untrained, and, in some cases, unconverted people avoid heresy? Watson and Watson admit that “all groups have the tendency to be heretical in the beginning.”[24] Nevertheless, proponents of discovery Bible studies believe that the method is ultimately self-correcting, for several reasons. First, they teach participants to challenge questionable assertions by asking “where do you see that in this passage?”[25] Second, they believe that the perspicuity of Scripture, the controlling power of the Holy Spirit, and the priesthood of all believers will enable believers to come to the right interpretation (and unbelievers to be converted!). Finally, because they are focused more on obedience than knowledge, they are perhaps less interested in plumbing the depths of the riches of Scripture in which theological difficulties are more likely to arise.

The use of Bible studies as an evangelistic strategy is a helpful emphasis of the DMM philosophy. The chronological presentation of the Gospel, following the overarching story arc of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, is also particularly effective for story-based oral cultures (whether pre-modern or post-modern!). Indeed, there is even a place for an inductive method of helping facilitate dynamic group learning from the Biblical text.

Unfortunately, however, this is also another area where the faulty foundation has led in a dangerous direction. The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that someone studying the Bible will necessarily come to the correct conclusion. Nor does the sufficiency of Scripture mean that traditional confessional formulations of doctrine have no value. Nor does the priesthood of all believers mean that God does not give pastors and teachers as gifts to the church.[26] Rapidly multiplying discovery Bible studies are key to the growth of disciple-making movements. But the rapid growth comes at the expense of doctrinal depth and fidelity. Time will tell whether these discovery Bible studies are building with gold, silver, and precious stones, or with wood, hay, and straw.[27]

6. Establishing Churches

The next step in the DMM model is to establish churches. In theory, Reformed Presbyterians would heartily agree. As soon as there are believers in an area, it is vital to begin the process of planting a formal church where believers can come together for worship and sacrament, where the Word can be preached, and church discipline maintained, for the good of the body of Christ. Furthermore, the church is protected from false teaching by a process of ordination, which, according to 1 Timothy 5:22, should not be hasty.

Unfortunately, the DMM philosophy does not share the Reformed Presbyterian view of the church. One proponent of disciple-making movements noted that “the Protestant Reformation brought many good things to our understanding of ecclesiology. Yet, it also cemented church forms that are relatively inflexible, difficult to multiply, and Western.”[28] The traditional church model has too much inertia to keep up with a disciple-making movement. Therefore, disciple-making movements utilize the rapidly multiplying discovery Bible studies as the basis for rapidly multiplying churches. Members are baptized and the discovery group morphs into a church:

At some point in this process the group comes to Christ, often all at one time or over a short period of time. They are baptized as they discover and obey the biblical teachings on belief in Christ and baptism, and begin the process of moving from being a Bible study group to being a church.[29]

But this is not a church that Reformed Presbyterians would recognize as a church. Trousdale encourages the infant church to define what it means to be a church, without any reference to the historical development of ecclesiology:

Don’t decide what this newly formed church should look like. Help the group to discover what a church is, its nature, its functions, and so forth. Let the members decide when, where, and how they should meet. Over time, this group will mature and understand more about the varieties of Christian cultures, and they will find healthy ways to relate to the traditional churches around them.[30]

This is another consequence of DMM emphasis on obedience over doctrine. It is assumed that if an untrained group of new believers with their Bibles cannot deduce the finer points of ecclesiology, then those finer points of ecclesiology are unimportant. But obedience must not be at the expense of the finer points of doctrine. True obedience requires good doctrine, and good doctrine will avail itself of the labors of the men who have gone before us. Ultimately, the inertia of the church may slow the growth of the church. But perhaps the church’s stabilizing effect is ultimately a good thing!

7. Leadership Development

The final strategic element of disciple-making movements is to train leaders so that the church can become independent. David and Paul Watson rightly realize that “if the disciple-maker stays too long, then he or she will cripple the growth of the new church. Instead of learning to depend on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God for guidance, the church will depend on the disciple-maker.”[31] Although their view of the church is more like a Bible study or a small group, the same basic idea applies to more traditional church-planting. The missionary must decrease; the indigenous church must increase.

David and Paul Watson also speak about the importance of mentoring, to train leaders as well as screen for potential problems. He notes at least one instance where a discovery group leader abused his authority to prey on young women.[32] Ironically, pragmatism led the Watsons where good doctrine might have led, had they not reinvented the ecclesiastical wheel. But as Presbyterians, we can go even further. Ordination is the sacred gatekeeper of the teaching office, and it is up to the Presbytery to assess the character and giftings of the potential pastor.

Conclusion

Disciple-making movements, (and the global church generally), have served to remind the Western church of the importance of prayer. Reformed Christians especially, who believe in the sovereignty of God, should reclaim this emphasis on the importance of prayer. Our orthodoxy must be demonstrated by our orthopraxy. If we believe in our absolute dependence on prayer, let us prove that belief with our time and energy! Disciple-making movements have also reminded us to remove any unbiblical barriers to the Gospel, by focusing on affinity groups where the Bible spreads most naturally in communalistic cultures, as well as by employing less confrontational evangelistic methods such as evangelistic Bible studies where the Word can work by the power of the Spirit prior to the commitment of entering the visible church.

On the other hand, disciple-making movements build on a foundation of obedience-based discipleship upon which Reformed Presbyterians cannot build. By stressing obedience, disciple-making movements risk making Christianity another works-based religion for disciples who are taught that obedience is the essence of faith. A focus on obedience also comes at the expense of an emphasis on knowledge. By downplaying knowledge, regenerate believers are denied the depths of the riches of the word of God, especially the riches that have been handed down in the form of creeds and confessions. Furthermore, disregarding the riches of theological reflection in favor of “every man and his Bible” has led to a shallow ecclesiology. New, untaught believers, reading the Bible without the benefit of past reflection, cannot be expected to unearth a full-fledged, Biblical ecclesiology.

The choice of “discipleship” as the guiding principle of disciple-making movements underscores a deemphasis of the church. The traditional church is characterized by ordination, authoritative preaching and teaching, and church discipline. In the DMM model, discovery Bible studies morph into house churches without the high bar of ordination. According to 1 Timothy 3:6, elders should not be new believers, “lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil.” But disciple-making movements rely on new believers effectively becoming elders in independent house churches.

As Reformed Presbyterians, we believe that God has revealed our ecclesiology in Scripture. We pray for growth, even exponential growth, based on the means God has ordained for church planting, and by the working of the Spirit rather than the working of a method. There are many things we can learn from the DMM model. However, we must not sacrifice our ecclesiology on the altar of statistical success. If God has ordained ecclesiological requirements that hinder explosive growth, then perhaps explosive growth is not the ultimate aim of missions. As Reformed Presbyterians, we might rather have to sacrifice explosive growth on the altar of Biblical fidelity.


Bibliography

Edgar, Bill. Founding Churches in Ottoman Empire Territory: RP Foreign Missions, 1856-1974. Written June 13, 1998. Accessed May 2021. https://broomallrpc.org/articles/founding-churches-in-ottoman-empire-territory.

Esler, Ted. “Two Church Planting Paradigms.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology. 30, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 67-73, https://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/30_2_PDFs/IJFM_30_2-Esler.pdf.

Guenther, Ken. “Response to Radius International’s Criticism of Disciple Making Movements (DMM).” Brigada Today. September 23, 2018. https://brigada.org/2018/09/23_24666.

Pockras, Nathaniel. RPCNA Digest and Index: Actions of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America since 1798. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Crown and Covenant, 2021.

Trousdale, Jerry. Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims Are Falling in Love with Jesus. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012.

Vegas, Chad. “Defining and Evaluating the Ideas Impacting Missions Today.” Radius Materials. June 11, 2018. https://www.radiusinternational.org/a-brief-guide-to-dmm.

Watson, David, and Paul Watson. Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.



[1]David and Paul Watson, Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014), xiii.

[2] Bill Edgar, Founding Churches in Ottoman Empire Territory: RP Foreign Missions, 1856-1974, written June 13, 1998, accessed May 2021, https://broomallrpc.org/articles/founding-churches-in-ottoman-empire-territory.

[3] Nathaniel Pockras, RPCNA Digest and Index: Actions of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America since 1798 (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Crown and Covenant, 2021), 15.

[4] Our elders, for example, are required to uphold Vow 3: “Do you believe that it is the duty of Christians to profess publicly the content of faith as it applies to the particular needs of each age and situation, and that such public profession, otherwise called covenanting, should be made formally by the churches and other institutions as well as informally by each believer according to his ability?” See also RP Testimony 2.17.

[5] See, for example, Trousdale, Miraculous Movements: How Hundreds of Thousands of Muslims Are Falling in Love with Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 101.

[6] Chad Vegas of Radius International, for example, writes, “We simply never see a command, nor a pattern, from our Lord, nor his Apostles, where unbelievers are discipled through regular obedience until they finally have sufficient trust in Christ to be baptized. Rather, the consistent method is the proclamation of the doctrine of the gospel. The proper response is faith and repentance, followed by baptism and teaching toward maturity in Christ.” Chad Vegas, “Defining and Evaluating the Ideas Impacting Missions Today,” Radius Materials, June 11, 2018, https://www.radiusinternational.org/a-brief-guide-to-dmm, 6.

[7] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 5-6.

[8] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 15.

[9] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 15.

[10] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 79.

[11] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 79.

[12] Trousdale, Miraculous Movements, 54.

[13] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 96.

[14] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 90-91.

[15]For example, in describing how to prayer-walk, David and Paul suggest the reader to “Take a notebook. When God tells you something, stop at a bench or in a coffee shop and write it down. You don’t want to forget it.” Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 99.

[16] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 105.

[17] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 107-108.

[18]See Matthew 10:36.

[19]Matthew 10:11 is representative: “Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out. And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you” (NKJV).

[20] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 127.

[21]Ken Guenther, “Response to Radius International’s Criticism of Disciple Making Movements (DMM),” Brigada Today, September 23, 2018, https://brigada.org/2018/09/23_24666, 4.

[22] Trousdale, Miraculous Movements, 161.

[23] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 146.

[24] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 150.

[25] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 151.

[26]See Ephesians 4:7-16.

[27]See 1 Corinthians 3:12.

[28]Ted Esler, “Two Church Planting Paradigms,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 30, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 68, https://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/30_2_PDFs/IJFM_30_2-Esler.pdf.

[29] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 169.

[30] Trousdale, Miraculous Movements, 127.

[31] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 173-174.

[32] Watson and Watson, Contagious Disciple Making, 203.