Building a Discipling Culture

Breen, Mike, and Steve Cockram. Building a Discipling Culture2nd ed.  Pawleys Island: 3 Dimension Ministries, 2011.

Mike Breen and Steve Cockram’s passion to see discipleship come to the forefront of church ministry is evident from the very beginning of Building a Discipling Culture. They allege that many churches have their priorities reversed, focusing on building churches while neglecting to make disciples. They propose an alternative model that Jesus Himself espoused, claiming that “If you make disciples, you always get the church. But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples” (Kindle Location 100). They later elaborate, “If you set out to build the church, there is no guarantee you will make disciples. It is far more likely that you will create consumers who depend on the spiritual services that religious professionals provide” (KL 109).

So what is the difference between building a church and discipling people? Breen and Cockram argue that three things are necessary for building a discipling culture: 1) a discipling vehicle, 2) discipling relationships, and 3) a discipling language (KL 537).

A discipling vehicle is essentially a small group of four to ten people that you meet with regularly to disciple (at least every other week) (KL 546). Breen and Cockram call this group a “huddle,” and a huddle, diverges from traditional small groups in that it does not grow by adding new members, but by equipping and encouraging members to start their own huddles (KL 551). The reason for this is that, by definition, every disciple makes disciples (Mt. 28:18-20).

A huddle by itself, however, is inadequate for making disciples, because “the best discipling relationships always have an intentional, ‘organized’ component to them, as well as a less formal, ‘organic’ component” (KL 546). Covenantal relationships constitute the “organic” component whereby disciples have access to the discipler’s personal life. Breen and Cockram describe this dynamic in the discipleship triangle of “Information-Imitation-Innovation.”

Many churches convey “information” (classroom) very well. However, they often lack discipling relationships that facilitate “imitation” (apprenticeship and immersion), which in turn fosters “innovation” (KL 598). It would be a mistake, however, to equate discipling relationships with friendships. Friendship only requires invitation, but discipleship also entails challenge. Discipleship calls people to a greater conformity to Christ’s character and to a higher level of Christ-like competency. Breen and Cockram’s “Invitation and Challenge Quadrant” demonstrates that an ideal discipling relationship involves both high invitation and high challenge:

This kind of discipling relationship need not be inordinately burdensome. It can be as simple as inviting someone who is struggling spiritually to accompany you to the grocery store so that you can talk with him or her on the way and back (KL 580). It means inviting people to our quotidian comings and goings. This assumes, of course, that we first have a life worth imitating (KL 576), but we need not despair, because while we will never be perfect examples, we can be living examples (KL 624).

Up to this point, there is nothing radically insightful in Building a Discipling Culture that sets it apart from other books on discipleship. Almost 50 years prior, Robert Coleman delineated a similar process of discipleship in his classic The Master Plan of Evangelism, namely the Selection, Association, Consecration, Impartation, Demonstration, Delegation, Supervision, and Reproduction of disciples. Furthermore, modern books such as Colin Marshall and Tony Payne’s Trellis and the Vine (2009) also decry churches’ shortsighted tendency to rely on vocational ministers and volunteers to build churches through programs and events (the trellis), rather than training the whole church to make disciples (the vine).

What sets Building a Discipling Culture apart from the other books on discipleship is its discipling language. Breen and Cockram explain that “language creates culture,” and that in order to create a discipling culture, we need a language to support it (KL 632). The discipling language that Breen and Cockram, and their ministry 3DM, use is called LifeShapes. The LifeShapes are 8 diagrams that seek to capture the essence of discipleship. Breen and Cockram note that Jesus chose parables as his preferred teaching method in an oral culture, and argue that we live in a visual culture that calls for an image-based pedagogy (KL 687-692). Since most of the book is dedicated to describing these LifeShapes, I will summarize and evaluate each of them below (I have edited some of the LifeShapes to supply missing details and enhance clarity):

1. Continuous Breakthrough: “The Kairos Learning Circle”

Kairos is a Greek word that denotes punctual, opportune, time, as opposed to chronos, which denotes linear, chronological time. According to Breen and Cockram, every Christian encounters kairos moments “when the eternal God breaks into your circumstances with an event that gathers some loose ends of our life and knots them together in his hands” (KL 772). This event can be “positive (a promotion at work) or negative (getting laid off from your job). It can be big (your wedding) or small (a date night with your spouse)” (KL 815). The “Kairos Learning Circle” is a diagram that helps believers respond appropriately to their kairos moments. The straight line stands for the believer’s linear journey, at which point a kairos moment (X) takes place. At this point, the believer needs to enter the learning circle, which consists of observing, reflecting, and discussing the kairos event in order to plan, account, and act (KL 834). This is the same process as repentance and belief (Mk. 1:15). This first LifeShape is a useful tool for promoting attentiveness and responsiveness to divine encounters in people’s everyday lives.

2. Deeper Relationships: “The Triangle of Following Jesus”

The “Triangle” seeks to illustrate the holistic life of discipleship that entails “Up, In, and Out” relationships. Breen and Cockram use Mic. 6:8 as the paradigm: “Act justly” (Out), “Love mercy” (In), and “Walk humbly with your God” (Up) (KL 1080). They challenge Christians simultaneously to leave their comfort zones to seek out the lost (Out) and establish communities characterized by intimacy and accountability (In), both, without compromising a deep, personal relationship with God (Up).

3. Rhythm of Life: “The Semicircle Pendulum of Rest and Work”

Breen and Cockram lament that “We have become human ‘doings’ rather than human ‘beings’” (KL 1300), and argue that we need a Biblical framework for rest and work. To this end, the “Semicircle Pendulum” describes seasons of fruitfulness followed by seasons of abiding (KL 1399). Breen and Cockram write that bearing fruit is supposed to be natural, just as vines don’t strain to push out grapes. The reason why we strain to produce fruit, they argue, is because we do not have proper seasons of abiding wherein we cease activity and rest (KL 1414). Specifically, Breen and Cockram advocate breaking the day down into “eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, four hours engaging, and four hours disengaging” (KL 1468). They also highlight the need for extended times of retreat for resting in the presence of God (Mk. 1:12-13) (KL 1487), as well as daily times of quiet resting (Mk. 1:35-39) (KL 1496).

4. Multiplying Life: “The Square of Discipleship Multiplication”

Drawing from his discipling experience, Breen and Cockram observe four levels of disciples (D1, D2, D3, D4) and the appropriate leadership style for each (L1, L2, L3, L4) (KL 1547). The confidence/enthusiasm of the disciples is inversely proportionate to the leader’s consensus/explanation, and the competence/experience of the disciples is inversely proportionate to the leader’s direction/example.

D1=high confidence/enthusiasm, low competence/experience (Mk. 1:15-20).
L1=high direction/example, low consensus/explanation
“I do, you watch”
This is the first stage of discipleship where the disciples are excited about the new idea and purpose in their lives but have little competence (KL 1564-1572).

D2=low confidence/enthusiasm, low competence/experience (Lk. 12:32-34)
L2=high direction/example, high consensus/explanation
“I do, you help”
This is when the excitement begins to die down and discouragement creeps in (KL 1622-1639). Breen and Cockram add that D2 is the most important stage of development for disciples. The leaders need to be highly accessible at this point and emphasize the grace of God.

D3=low confidence/enthusiasm, high competence/experience (Jn. 15:12-17)
L3=low direction/example, high consensus/explanation
“You do, I help”
The leaders need to highlight the sovereignty of God at this point (KL 1691).

D4=high confidence/enthusiasm, high competence/experience (Mt. 28:18-20)
L4=low direction/example, low consensus/explanation
“You do, I watch”
By this stage, the disciples’ confidence and enthusiasm are no longer a fledgling bud, but a full-bloom flower rooted in the gospel. This is when the disciples are released to go and do likewise (KL 1736).

The leadership styles presented by Breen and Cockram mirror the three leadership styles first noted by psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1939: Authoritarian (Autocratic), Participative (Democratic), and Delegative (Laissez-Faire). The Scriptural references adduced in the book are only tangentially, if at all, related to these various leadership styles, and thus this LifeShape seems to be derived more from general revelation than from special revelation.

5. Personal Calling: “The Fivefold Ministries Pentagon”

The “Pentagon” is a visual mnemonic for remembering the fivefold ministries specified in Eph. 4:7, 11-13 (KL 1820). Breen and Cockram assert that every Christian is equipped to serve as at least one of the following:

Apostles – Visionary individuals who are always pioneering into new territory, initiating new churches, ministries, etc. (KL 1843)
Prophets – Perceptive individuals with the ability to foretell and forth-tell God’s revelation in specific circumstances (KL 1853).
Evangelists – Personable individuals who enjoy spending time with and sharing the gospel with non-Christians (KL 1872).
Pastors – Empathetic individuals who care for, comfort, and encourage God’s people (KL 1890).
Teachers – Analytical individuals who delight in explaining and applying the Scriptures for others (KL 1903).

Breen and Cockram teach that every Christian has a “base,” or primary, ministry, but may still be called to engage in “phase,” or secondary, ministries for certain periods (KL 1920). They note that prophets, pastors, and teachers have a natural preference for stability and tend to be introverted (KL 1990), while apostles and evangelists have a predilection for flexibility and tend to be extroverted (KL 2016). This diagram is helpful, but it can be misleading because it conflates spiritual offices with spiritual gifts. First, the Apostles were those commissioned by Jesus Christ Himself to establish churches where they previously did not exist (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Cor. 9:2; 15:8). There may be people with apostolic gifts, but they are not Apostles. Second, while any Christian with the gift of prophecy can occasionally prophesy (1 Cor. 14:31), there are those who are officially designated as Prophets in local churches (Acts 13:1; 15:31; 21:9; 1 Cor. 14:32). Third, while all Christians are called to evangelize (Matthew 28:18-20), there are Evangelists (Acts 21:8; 2 Tim. 4:5) who are to devote themselves entirely to the task of doing, and equipping others for, evangelism. Similarly, every Christian is called to teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16), but the Teaching Pastors (this designation is to be preferred since, in Eph. 4, the “Pastor” and “Teacher” are combined under a single definite article) were officially recognized as such and compensated for their work (Acts 13:1; Gal. 6:6; 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Tim. 5:17). Therefore, not every Christian is called to fulfill one of the five ministerial offices. Rather, the emphasis in Eph. 4:11-12 is that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” themselves as gifts to the Church so that they might “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” The spiritual gifts are distributed to each Christian (Eph. 4:7; 1 Cor. 12), but spiritual offices are given only to some for the purpose of equipping all for ministry.

6. Definitive Prayer: “The Hexagon of Lord’s Prayer”

The “Hexagon” is a way to teach the Lord’s Prayer as a model for our prayers (Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-15). It is based on the Father’s Character, and pleads for the Father’s Kingdom, Provision, Forgiveness, Guidance, and Protection (KL 2142). This LifeShape is instructive, although the Father’s Guidance and Protection really belong in the same category: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13).

7. Spiritual Health: “The Heptagon: Seven Signs of Life”

Breen and Cockram suggest that the seven signs of living organisms, namely Respiration (Prayer), Sensitivity (Fivefold Ministries), Growth, Reproduction, Excretion (Repentance), Nutrition (Obedience), and Movement (Delegation/Distribution of Authority), ought to characterize a living Church (1 Peter 2:4-5). They argue that these are “a useful diagnostic tool for assessing the spiritual health of those you disciple and the ministries they lead” (KL 2219). The connection between the signs of living organisms and the signs of a living church appears promising at first, but the strained analogy disappoints. For example, the word “respiration” does not naturally suggest “prayer,” nor “nutrition” “obedience.” Here, the LifeShape begins to feel less like a mnemonic and more like a gimmick. Instead of serving as a visual aid, the “Heptagon” is a visual distraction.The 9 Marks of a Healthy Church is a superior model for assessing the vitality of a church.

8. Relational Mission: “The Octagon: Finding the Person of Peace”

The final LifeShape, the “Octagon,” is a way to teach evangelism based on the “Person of Peace” principle found in Luke 10 (KL 2424). Breen and Cockram posit that God has already prepared Persons of Peace who are receptive to the gospel, and that our job in evangelism is to identify these Persons of Peace rather than belaboring the issue with those whom God has not called (KL 2431-2499). There is a time for sowing and a time for reaping.

The eight principles for unlocking, or discovering, the Persons of Peace are:

  1. Presence: We are to model the Presence of Jesus in people’s lives by showing kindness and speaking encouragement (KL 2524).
  2. Passing Relationships: For people we come across only once or twice in our lives, our objective is to plant seeds in hopes that others will water and that God will give the harvest in the future (1 Corinthians 3:6) (KL 2533).
  3. Permanent Relationships: Evangelizing our friends and family may take a long time. It is important at this point to watch, wait, and pray, rather than trying to force the issue prematurely (KL 2540).
  4. Proclamation: In proclamation, we invite a person to faith in Christ. This is one way to identify Persons of Peace (KL 2549).
  5. Preparation: Breen and Cockram utilize the Engel Scale as an example to show that there are various stages of preparation for non-believers. Some are closer to faith than others.
  6. Power: This is a method which uses “awe as evangelism,” through miraculous healings and such (KL 2569).
  7. Perception: This is what Peter Wagner calls “testing the soil,” and calls for spiritual discernment regarding individuals and situations in evangelism (KL 2576).

This LifeShape is also less than helpful because it confuses several categorical axes. First, there is the context of evangelism (passing and permanent relationships), then there is the method of evangelism (presence, proclamation, and power), and finally there’s the measure of evangelism (preparation and perception). Lumping them all into the same diagram with unclear, even if alliterative, headings muddles the Person of Peace principle. Moreover, there’s only seven sides to this Octagon…

Notwithstanding my fuss over minutiae, Building a Discipling Culture is an excellent practical resource if you want to learn about discipleship. Breen and Cockram have a knack for presenting nuggets of insight with memorable alliterations and catchy phrases. Consequently, the discipling model proposed in their book is extraordinarily simple and reproducible. It has, and will continue to, serve the Church well. However, if you are looking for a theologically-nuanced and comprehensive book on discipleship, this is not one. For example, it does not include ways to teach Scripture study or theology, and omits other essential spiritual disciplines such as fasting and silence. It also tends to assume that the gospel is central to discipleship, rather than accentuating its importance. Discipleship that is not properly grounded in the gospel can degenerate into pragmatic legalism. One would be wise also to consult Jonathan Dodson’s Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

Buy Building a Discipling Culture HERE.

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