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Mentoring, Church, & Missional in Discipleship (My Response to a 9 Marks Book Review)

Last week the helpful, church loving ministry of 9 Marks posted a review of my book Gospel-Centered Discipleship. With so many books that can be read, I am grateful to Zach Schlegel for taking the time to read and respond to my book. His opening story narrates just the kind of application of the gospel I long for. I believe he got the essence of the book.

Is Peer Discipleship Enough?

While I don’t usually respond to reviews, this piece raised several questions worthy of response. The first two can be quickly answered, while the third, regarding my perspective on “missional,” will receive more attention. The first question inquires why I don’t talk about examples of discipleship from those older in the faith to those who are younger. This critique has been raised before. For those unfamiliar with the book, I am critical of the professional-novice discipleship relationship, which often creates a distance between disciples based on knowledge, spirituality, or character. An older and younger disciple schedule a regular meeting where insights, spiritual practices, or character exhortations are transferred. Do this and you have a “discipler.” This approach results in discipleship that is knowledge, spirituality, or character centered, not gospel centered. The older disciple acts as a guru to pass off best practices, while the younger disciple simply acts as a receptacle. This one on one discipleship is often bent on sharing faith but not sharing failures. With this lack of transparency, Christ is obscured. Disciples are not seen as equals, fighting together for belief in the gospel. This can be quite damaging because it creates a guru dependency that displaces Jesus. However, these dangers shouldn’t cause us to do away with mentoring altogether.

The Bible offers numerous examples of mentoring type relationships that are gospel-centered (Abraham/Isaac, Moses/Joshua, Elijah/Elisha, Jesus/The Twelve, Paul/Timothy). In fact, this kind of relationship is written right into our DNA as fathers and mothers who raise sons and daughters. The most discipleship influence we will ever have will be with our children. In fact, familial ecclesiology (as opposed to individual mentoring) is God’s appointed context for the flourishing of his followers. The apostle Paul refers to his discipleship relationships in familial terms. He refers to Timothy his true son in the faith (1 Tim 1:2). He acted as a father, mother, and brother to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2). Many more texts could be marshaled in support. However, just because Scripture provides a mentoring pattern does not mean every disciple is entitled to a mentor. In missionary contexts, very often those kind of believers simply don’t exist yet. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us as followers of Jesus to “make disciples of all nations” regardless of the availability of a mentor. With God as our adopting Father, the Savior as our redeeming Lord, and the Spirit as God’s empowering presence, we have all we need to make disciples. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly believe that mentoring discipleship is beneficial to Christian growth, provided it is Christ-centered. Then why didn’t I mention it in the book? The reason I chose not to develop this pattern of disciple-making is because there are already countless books available on this topic, and I believe the literature needs to be balanced out with good examples of peer-based, gospel-centered discipleship.

In our church, we encourage people to form two types of discipleship groups (Fight Clubs): peer and mentoring. For example, I am in a Fight Club with a local pastor, who is a dear friend. I also meet with two emerging leaders for discipleship every other Thursday at a local coffee shop for breakfast. While I retain transparency and confess my need for Christ, I also take the lead in challenging, exhorting, and encouraging them in their faith. However, this is just one part of our discipling relationship. We also share meals, play Tennis, watch movies, serve the elderly, spend time together with our spouses. We share life not just meetings. In addition, we teach a whole course on how to mentor and disciple those younger in the faith. I have considered turning that into a book; however, there are probably better resources out there like (The Walk, Bill Hull’s writings, and Robby Gallaty’s forthcoming book). To conclude, there are seasons where peer discipleship will have to be enough, but this is not a settling “have to”; it is a get to. Peer discipleship is actually the normative example in the Bible. It is the church carrying out the commands of the New Testament in the context of sharing life and sharing the gospel together.

What About the Church?

The review states: “What about the church?” I was surprised to see this critique of Gospel-Centered Discipleship since I spend a whole chapter on the church, making the case that there three conversions for every disciple–one to Christ, church, and mission. In fact, I say “the church is God’s appointed context for our gospel change.” The bulk of chapter six is spent on how to be disciples in community, living as the church. The author then raises this question: “How does he [the pastor] help them avoid the error that their Fight Club is their church?” Ah, this gives me some insight into the critique. My whole book presupposes a commitment to the local church. As I explain in the book, discipleship should happen through organized expressions of the church, what we call City Groups, where you can be the church to one another an the city. Fight Clubs are smaller subsets of a larger expression of the body of Christ. For us, discipleship happens in three spaces: Sundays, City Groups, and Fight Clubs. Each environment of grace fosters growth and appeals to a primary identity: Sundays (worshipper), City Groups (family/missionary), and Fight Clubs (learner).

On the one hand, I want Fight Clubs to become “church” to our people. These relationships should be so rich, faithful, and deep that they express the various “one anothers” of churchly activity: confess, repent, encourage, serve, love, speak the truth…to one another. This kind of discipleship is more intimate and less diverse. Therefore, a disciple needs also participate in larger, more diversely gifted expressions of the church such as a City Group. To head off narrow practices of church, we encourage our people to have “fight club conversations in their city groups.” By this we mean, continue transparency, confession, and truth telling in larger settings. If church isn’t thick, then discipleship will be thin. Ephesians reminds us that we have a whole body of gifts that exist for our growing up into the full stature of Christ. Therefore, it takes a church to be a disciple.

Is Missional Just Evangelism?

The final questions revolves around my use of “missional.” The author takes issue with my broader definition of missional, which includes everything from evangelism to social justice. Although I didn’t have space or focus to develop my convictions about the mission of the church, I did note that the Great Commission is often reduced to an evangelistic text; when in fact, it presupposes a larger practice of mission. The author is kind enough to mention my article on the Great Commission that develops my view, but points his readers to a book by Kevin DeYoung that I disagree with. Thus, he is at odds with me when he writes: “The dangerous irony is that defining missional this way threatens to shift a church away from a gospel center—the very thing Dodson is fighting for.” I disagree. In fact, I believe this broader understanding of the mission of God does more justice to the gospel and as world and life view, a theory of everything, that affects everything from creation to individual souls.

Very often evangelicals reduce the good news to what Scot McKnight has called “the soterian gospel,” a gospel for personal salvation only. Although the term may not be that helpful (in biblical theology God is saving the world not just humans), it is true that the gospel generates mission that is more than soul-winning. For example, in Colossians 1:15-20 Paul argues that the atonement is both for the elect and the whole creation. In Luke 4:16-19 Jesus announces that the Spirit of the Lord has come upon him to anoint him to proclaim the good news. This gospel proclamation issues forth in mission that includes city renewal (see background in Isaiah 61), social justice, and personal evangelism. Some conservative evangelicals are afraid that if we elevate social justice and cultural renewal to the status of evangelism that we will compromise the gospel and lose evangelistic impetus. Therefore, they conclude that missional must be restricted to evangelism.

This appears to be Schlegel’s concern. In fact, he expresses a fear that if given an opportunity between evangelism and tutoring that people will chose tutoring and neglect evangelism. Although I disagree his prognostication, my primary point is that he argues his case for a narrow definition of mission based on prediction of what someone might do. This is theology by reaction. He reveals his position when he states: “But if both are seen as equal aspects of the mission of the church, the church is at risk of communicating that evangelism is no more urgent than tutoring, or at worst, is optional.” Clearly, he believe missional to equal evangelism. This, however, is not how missional has been historically used. More importantly, I believe prioritizing evangelism over social justice, for example, introduces an unbiblical hierarchy in mission.

In the words of noted missiologist David Bosch, “Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God.” Perhaps this is the starting place of our differences. I believe the meaning of missional should be derived, not from evangelistic concern, but from biblical theology. If the mission of God is the reign and rule of the Triune God through history, then I believe this gets us closer to a gospel-centered and therefore missionally diverse understanding of mission. What is the reign and rule of God? The rule of the Triune God is unmistakably Christ-centered, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is this mission we are to announce and demonstrate–the reign of God in Christ in this world. Mission includes both social action and evangelism because both are a demonstration of God’s awe-inspiring, creative, redemptive reign breaking into our world (see Luke 4; Isaiah 61 and the five Great Commissions in the article above).

If mission is focused on God’s reign in Christ, which comes through the cross and resurrection, should we prioritize social action or evangelism? Michael Frost responds to this question, by citing six of the twelve historic positions noted by Bosch, which range from prioritizing evangelism over an optional social action (Position 2) to evangelism and social action as equally important with no prioritization of over one another (Position 6). Perhaps Schlegel assumes Position 5, which affirms the importance of both but prioritizes evangelism? I am arguing for Position 6–both are equally important and without prioritization. Both social action and evangelism are equally important ways of alerting people to the reign of God, and therefore, no prioritization should be made.

Rather, our emphasis should be on the gospel of Jesus, which is cosmic and personal, encouraging missional faithfulness in all areas of life by responding to the Spirit and seeking obedience to Jesus in every aspect of life. In other words, our entire life should be viewed and lived through the rule and reign of the Triune God, repenting wherever we fail and celebrating Christ wherever we succeed. I would like to have developed a longer response to the missional question, with greater biblical support; however, I have already exceeded my word limit. I do look forward to doing this elsewhere at some point. For now, I can point interested readers to the Great Commission article above as well as Ed Stetzer’s fine work on the Meanings of Missional.

In conclusion, this response is not meant to generate spiteful polemics, but to clarify my position and, perhaps by God’s good grace, increase clarity regarding some of these very important discipleship questions. I believe some real fruitful discussion could result, as two resource ministries (and an author and reviewer) reflect on Scripture for the good of the church and the world.

*Jonathan Leeman of 9 Marks was kind enough to respond to this article by pointing to his review of Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. Keller makes this very important observation: “Evangelism [speaking words] is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being. This is not true because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal” (139).”

I tend to agree with this; however, our good works also have eternal value and are rewarded as such. Even good works of cultural tribute will be present in heaven (Rev 21:22-27). Perhaps we could say evangelism, social justice, and cultural renewal are equally important for mission (avoiding dualism) but unequal in temporality? Yet, this seems to assumes that good works will not achieve eternal significance. Yet, Kuyper and Revelation 21/Isaiah 61 point to our good deeds as works of cultural tribute fit for the King of creation. Thus, it may be that long after our good works have faded from history, a great piece of art or work of social justice may reverberate in the new creation as a display of the reign of the creative, reigning Lord. Perhaps we are meant to remain in a tension on this matter…  

Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered DiscipleshipandUnbelievable Gospel. He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others.