A Review of “Discipleshift” by Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington

discipleshiftSometimes I wonder how the early church ever made disciples without all the amazing resources we have at our disposal today. It seems that every week I am being made aware of some new book, idea, or tool that is going to “change the way we make disciples forever.” It’s a wonder anyone grew in Christlikeness among the early church, after all they didn’t have our discipleship gurus. For all our tools and resources, however, I am not sure we’re actually doing a very good job at making disciples. “Today’s institution has a polite form of religion, but it seems to lack power, the power to radically change the wayward course of society,” says Robert Coleman (11). In many ways the church has overcomplicated discipleship, and as a result, is not accomplishing it. To help correct this problem within the church today Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington have written Discipleshift. If the authors sometimes fall prey to a professionalizing tendency, their book nonetheless offers great insight in to a simple method of making disciples.

The play on words in the title is intended to signal five shifts that must take place within the church for genuinely biblical discipleship to happen. The five shifts make up five different parts of the book each involving a chapter on philosophy and methodology. The shifts are stated as follows: from preaching to making, from informing to equipping, from program to purpose, from activity to relationship, from accumulating to deploying. The key idea for the authors is that discipleship, the fundamental mission of the church, is first and foremost relational. Each shift is, at its heart, a shift towards intentional relationships that help people grow in godliness.

The authors start by defining a “disciple” for us, both biblically and clearly (45). They point out that a major problem among churches is the lack of a clearly defined and agreed upon understanding of what a disciple is. Without this agreed upon definition the churches ministries will head in different, divergent, even conflicting directions (43-44). A disciple, says Putman and Harrington, is built around three key attributes: following Christ (head), being changed by Christ (heart), committed to the mission of Christ (hands) (51). This definition informs the rest of their work; how we make disciples will require us to engage all three aspects of a true disciple.

As the book continues to unfold the authors get caught up in models and diagrams. They discuss the five stages of discipleship, and the four spheres. They have a rather overwhelming diagram with tons of materials packed into it. As far as diagrams go it is overly complicated and not helpful as an illustrative tool. Diagrams are meant to compress material into manageable bits, the five stages diagram in particular is so full of information it is utterly useless. But that is not to suggest that the book does not do a good job of highlighting its main point. The diagrams notwithstanding, the book continually encourages us to see discipleship in more simple and relational terms.

The best chapters are those that dissect pastoral ministry in the professionalized contemporary Christian context. They pull no punches in urging pastors to recognize their own shortcomings, their poor relational skills, their over-programmed ministries, and their professional ministerial mindset. Pastors are not THE ministers, they are equippers. Chapters 5 and 6 are so helpful in arguing and proving this point. They were especially encouraging to me.

I was greatly encouraged by Discipleshift. The book may oversell itself a bit. The publishers describe it as “groundbreaking ideas to fulfill your church’s mission.” These are not groundbreaking ideas. They are in fact old ideas, common ideas, and ideas that are by-in-large experiencing a rebirth at the popular level of Evangelical ministry. Trellis and the Vine echoed these ideas several years ago, and the authors mention Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger’s more recent work as a spring-board to their own. The idea of simple, relational, reproducible, and contextual discipleship is not new and groundbreaking, but it is Biblical and helpful. Much of the content in here can be found elsewhere, they cite research from numerous related works, but Putman and Harrington do a good job of synthesizing the material. For that we can thank them. If it’s not the best book on discipleship you’ll read, Discipleshift is still a very helpful reminder that simple and relational is the best model of Biblical discipleship.

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