Discipleship is not a Program

January 4, 2013 — Leave a comment
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I have spent the last year or more living in a missional community in Peru, where discipleship is a core value of ours–if not THE focus of our mission.  If you’ve spent any time on my blog in the last year as I’ve been processing what I’m learning and what God is showing me, you’ll have read posts that dealt with my thoughts in more detail, as well as heard podcasts with various authors such as SJ Hill, and Stephen Crosby, and discussions with fellow missionaries Shaun Wissmann and Mark Burgess.

That being said, I’ve escaped a lot of bureaucratic relationship-less churchianity in recent years, and have said time and again that people don’t know any better if they have never experienced anything different than what they know.  As such, with the mentality and worldview I have increasingly gained as a result, I was shocked and laughed quite uproariously when someone sent me a “discipleship manual/ministry handbook” from a relatively well known large ministry–at least to an older generation that was spawned during the Jesus People Movement of the early seventies.

I’ve seen documents like I was emailed before, and have even been asked to sign documents like it, but nothing as over the top and cult-like as this manual was.  I got through the first half of it (it was 27 pages) before getting the jist of it and realizing there’s nothing Christlike about it, but it resembled more a bootcamp for drug rehab than anything I would expect a Holy Ghost filled church to engage in.

Selected excerpts:

While (Name withheld) is a great opportunity for many men, it is definitely not for everybody. In order to help provide every candidate with the best help they can receive, the ministry seeks to accept those whom we are equipped to minister to and to point others in a direction in which they will be best served. In order to be considered as a candidate for the ministry the applicant must meet the following criteria:

So far so good right?

Except for the fact it goes on to list some ridiculously strict criteria that I’m willing to bet none of the original 12 disciples could have ever lived up to before Jesus selected them to be followers of His.  And of course, at the bottom of the criteria was listed the following in larger font and bold letters:

Must be able to provide a one-time $250 cash donation to the ministry, in order to have something of your own invested in changing your life. 

Ah.  Now we get to the crux of the matter.  I love how when people are charging for something that ought to be free, they claim it’s so you are “appreciating” it more.  Of course.

When I read the Scriptures, I see Jesus spending time in prayer the night before selecting his disciples, and I’m pretty certain they all had issues and were not perfect yet.  But can you imagine if Jesus charged a one-time monetary deposit and lengthy application process to take on disciples?  But yet that is very similar to many ministries today in the West do.

I’ll tell you something–when you won’t disciple someone unless they pay for it, then you are not actually discipling them, but rendering coaching services that are paid for.  Period.

The document then went on to list very specific clothing that was allowed to be worn, and how many of each item, followed by this, again, in larger and bold font:

Clothing & items will be inspected upon entrance to the Ministry. Maximum clothing amounts will be strictly enforced. Items not listed above MAY be approved on a case-by-case basis at the sole discretion of the ministry team. 

Is this something any ministry or Christian should consider themselves permitted to expect and enforce of another believer, all in the name of “discipleship”?

Note the type of privileges allowed (the bold font is exactly as it was in the PDF):

  • Students are not permitted to use the phone for the first 30 days. After 30 days one (1) 15 minute phone call per week is permitted. Sundays between 2-5 if the phone is open during that week.
  • Passes must be submitted for approval no later than Friday evenings between 4PM-5:30PM.
  • Family Visitation is the first Sunday of every month from 2-6 pm. This is a potluck visitation and all families are required to bring a covered dish or dessert. 

If you didn’t tell me this was a church, I’d immediately assume it was bootcamp for drug rehab or some kind of cult.  An awful lot of effort it made to block communication with the outside world, including and especially family–why?  So they can’t rescue the enrollee from such a dark atmosphere of control?

A few of the rules that made me cringe the most:

-No communication or relationships/friendships with females. (this includes contact by phone, mail, visitation, third-party, etc.). (this was the only rule in bold)
-Anything and anyone on the premises (including personal vehicles) are subject to search by the ministry team or anyone that they authorize to do so.
-No television at any level.
-No computer/video games. No laptops at any level. Radios must be kept at volume and content levels acceptable to anyone in the immediate area.
-You may not carry more than $20 cash at any time.
-Cell phones may not be possessed by anyone.
-You may not murmur or complain. Grievances may be submitted to the ministry team.
-Use of I-pods outside apartments is prohibited.
-All outside reading material must be approved by staff.
-No sleeping in on days off.

Now why on earth anybody would pay money to enter such a program and be discipled by such control freaks is beyond me.  But obviously this wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a vacuum for it somewhere.

The name of the ministry has been withheld to protect the guilty, but if you’d like to see for yourself that I’m not making this up, I’ll happily provide the document in a private message.

But you’ll just throw up if you see the rest.

Further Reading on Disciple-making

Article: Are You Making Disciples?  by Anna Burgess

Podcasts on discipleship with her husband Mark

Steve Bremner

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Steve Bremner is a Canadian missionary to Peru, who is called to raise up disciples who flow in the power of the Holy Spirit within a missional community named Oikos. He is passionate about blogging and podcasting, and is general editor of Fire Press, and also produces & co-hosts its podcast called Fire On Your Head. If you like Steve's blog, you'll also like his Kindle books. Note: this post may have contained affiliate links of which I receive a small commission if you purchase something I recommended.