By Dave Coles
2 Timothy 2:24-26 says: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”
Those who raise questions, concerns, and objections to Church-Planting Movements (CPM)/Disciple-Making Movements (DMM) generally have what I trust are good motives: Defending what they know, what has been done, what they understand Scripture to say, and what feels right based on past experience. So we need to listen well to their concerns, treat them as loved siblings, and respond kindly to their objections.
Much hangs on our understanding of what’s biblical vs. unbiblical. The word “biblical” can have several meanings. Two of the meanings are similar but vitally different in their application. 1.) “consistent with biblical teaching, principles, and values.” 2.) Explicitly taught or modeled in the Bible. The vital question is: Should we do only things specifically mentioned in the Bible?
A recent book, Missions by the Book: How Theology and Missions Walk Together, by Chad Vegas & Alex Kocman, presents the central premise that in missions we should only do what we see in Scripture. Anything else is unbiblical. I’m glad they came right out and made this explicit. Usually, these two different meanings of “biblical” work as a sleight of hand – a hidden trick to win an argument at an emotional level: “The Bible does not mention Discovery Bible Study (DBS), so it’s unbiblical.” By that definition, holding a copy of the New Testament in your hands is unbiblical. Nobody in New Testament times ever did that! It would also be unbiblical to read the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles together. Nobody in New Testament times ever did that either.
Let’s look at two specific issues that I received from DMM catalysts in the past week:
1. “What is the biblical basis for an unbeliever leading a DBS if a believer is available to lead it? In the New Testament, it seems like when an unbeliever had a question about God, the Lord provided a believer to explain/help the unbeliever – ex. Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius.”
Good question. Note the phrasing: “biblical basis.” You won’t find an example or a command of an unbeliever leading a DBS. But foundational to answering this good question is a huge issue, often overlooked in questions and critiques of DMM.
When we look at ministry approaches used in Acts and the rest of the New Testament, we forget one HUGE difference between that time and ours in terms of salvation history. They didn’t have the New Testament available! Think about that. How would you try to reach the unreached if you didn’t have the New Testament, and most people were illiterate?
How could you convey the gospel? At that time, the premier method was talking to people face to face (which is still a great method!). The Lord occasionally supplemented that with miraculous means, such as dreams, visions, or angels, to bring seekers to someone who could tell them the gospel message. But it was usually some form of face-to-face proclamation.
By the end of the first century (after New Testament events were over), some of Paul’s letters and some of the “words of Jesus” were being quoted but not yet identified as Scripture. One hundred years later, some parts of the New Testament were being collected and placed together. About 300 years after New Testament times, the New Testament was essentially agreed on as a canonical entity. But it was not widely available for the next 1000 years.
In the 20th century, Scripture became widely available (through radio, television, smartphones, the internet, etc.) with new translations into hundreds of additional languages. Does God intend for these stunning advances to make a difference in the proclamation of the gospel among the unreached? Or should we only use the methods that were available in the first century?
A basic question I like to ask opponents of DMM: When unbelievers hear or read God’s word and interact with it for themselves, is that a good thing or not? Is God for it or against it? But still, it doesn’t precisely answer the original question: “What is the Biblical basis for an unbeliever leading a DBS if a believer is available to lead it?” First, they’re not leading; they’re facilitating. Using the word “lead” reflects the traditional church paradigm we need to escape. But more importantly (and I may step on some toes here), it’s not precisely true that “Scripture and the Holy Spirit is all they need.” That’s an important and radical challenge, so I don’t disagree with the use of that phrase. But I think we need to admit that it’s a bit misleading. And this brings us to the second question.
2. “Is there a role for the spiritual gift of teaching in the DMM model?” The short answer is “Yes.” It involves relationally grappling with everyday life, empowering local people from start to finish, and intensive teaching of new believers and leaders at all levels. Most literature & training on DMM has focused on the early stages of DMM (finding people of peace, DBS with unbelievers, etc.) for two good reasons. 1. The paradigm is so radically different that people must grasp how the difference applies at the very beginning, or they’ll never get it. 2. Our main goal is implementation. People don’t need theory at the 300 level if they haven’t yet applied the basics. But that leaves (often teaching-gifted) theoreticians (such as missiologists, seminary professors and others) thinking that the whole model consists of DBS with unbelievers. They can feel offended or threatened when they hear that DBS is “about discovery, not preaching or teaching.” Or “outsiders facilitate rather than teach” (Watson & Watson, p. 73). Those are good and radical statements of a vital principle intended to jolt people into realizing how radical this paradigm is. But now we have to clarify that, honestly, facilitating discovery IS a form of teaching — a form that’s much more effective than what we usually think of as preaching or teaching.
Thankfully Watson & Watson also clarify in Contagious Disciple Making: “We have to learn to teach by asking a minimal number of questions, not by giving the answers to every question or having an expressed opinion about everything” (p. 15). “We teach and guide them by example and work to discover what the Bible has to say and to obey it” (p. 19). Facilitating a DBS or equipping another person to facilitate a DBS also constitutes a form of non-directive biblical “teaching.”
CPMs employ a variety of teaching methods. Many movements use inductive Bible study patterns; some use more directive teaching but still in an interactive format. Most movements gather leaders in coaching groups for peer coaching and mutual learning. All have various levels of specific curricula they use in discipleship. And the approach is much more relational than most Westerners are accustomed to. The focus of discipleship is not just conveying information but on transferring a lifestyle shaped by the ways of Jesus.
Here are a few examples of teaching methods from a family of rapidly-growing movements in Southeast Asia. These teachers have an important role: equipping small group leaders of between five and 500 linked small groups. The teachers’ concrete equipping activities include:
- Responding individually to small group leaders who voice questions about the Bible that have emerged in their groups, that they do not yet feel they can answer well.
- Introducing new Bible study series and facilitating leaders to discuss them in small groups. The facilitating teacher highlights anything significant in the text that the groups’ representatives did not yet report.
- Preparing new Bible study series based on feedback from small group leaders, who help identify common needs.
- Writing other Bible mentoring tools, i.e., teaching various Bible study methods.
- Developing short teaching videos on issues with a particular equipping function, especially on sharpening skills in Bible study.
- Teaching medium-sized gatherings of 20 to 200 people: For example, speaking to all kinds of believers (i.e., to celebrate Idul Adha on the Islamic calendar, remembering Abraham’s sacrifice of his son by a walk-through-the-Bible teaching on True Sacrifice.)
In this modern set of rapidly-growing movements, gifted Bible teachers play numerous vital roles in equipping God’s people and building up the body of Christ. Although the roles look different than what most Westerners envision, these teachers exercise their gifts in forms that meet the needs of the rapidly-expanding movements they serve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Coles is an encourager and resourcer of Church Planting Movements among Unreached groups, serving with BEYOND. He has served among Muslims in Southeast Asia for 24 years. He has dozens of articles published (plus videos and podcasts posted) about Church Planting Movements, contextualization, reaching Muslims, and the nature of the church. He is coauthor of Bhojpuri Breakthrough: A Movement that Keeps Multiplying, coeditor of 24:14 – A Testimony to All Peoples, and associate editor of Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations.”