A Review of “Transforming Discipleship” by Greg Ogden

tdIt’s perhaps shocking, perhaps not, that so many discipleship gurus pay so little attention to the methodology of Jesus. Jesus was, after all, the first disciple-maker, and yet few seem to follow his manner of relational, intentional, life-on-life discipleship. Greg Ogden is not one of those people. His book Transforming Discipleship is a massive corrective to overworked, over-professionalized, and ineffective pastoral models of discipleship. He gives perhaps one of the best defenses I have ever read of focusing pastoral ministry on a few in order to effect transformation in many.

Ogden is part of a long line of practitioners who are shifting their focus from programmatic, large-gathering, discipleship strategies to an individual and customizable focus on disciple-making. I am grateful for this shift, it is a return to the simple and reproducible model of the New Testament. It is a turn against the professionalization of ministry. Ogden’s book precedes the litany of like-minded works with the same refrain, books like Trellis & the Vine, Discipleshift, Community, and Transformational Groups, all of which argue for the relational over the programmatic. In many ways his book is fairly similar to the others.

He starts off with an examination of the “discipleship deficit” we are experiencing in the contemporary church. He diagnoses eight factors “that have contributed to the church’s failure to grow self-initiating, reproducing, fully devoted followers of Jesus” (40). He starts from the top, looking at the pastor and exploring the ways in which he has contributed to the failure. In particular, he notes that pastors have been distracted from their primary calling to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (40). He picks up this theme elsewhere in the book exploring how even good things like administration and pastoral care can consume the leadership so much that they make little time for equipping leaders. He writes:

If I were Satan and wanted to fatally stunt the growth of disciples to maturity, what would I do? I would divert the leaders from fulfilling their God-given function of equipping the saints. Instead, I would distract them with other good and high-sounding activities that have nothing to do with growing people to maturity and engaging them in ministry. This is exactly what has happened. We have shunted our spiritual leaders into being program developers, administrators, and caregivers. (41)

A good deal of the blame lies at the feet of well-intentioned pastors who have misplaced their focus. He points readers again to Ephesians 4:11-16, which encapsulates the goal of pastoral ministry.

In the second part of the book Ogden does a tremendous job of grounding a different methodology in the Scriptures. Perhaps better than any other author I’ve read on the subject this author demonstrates how our discipleship methodology should be informed by what Jesus has done. Borrowing heavily, no doubt, from the formative work of Robert Coleman, Ogden unpacks the ways in which Jesus and Paul made disciples and he finds that they limited themselves to a few intentional relationships. He very thoroughly grounds his approach in the Scriptures and invites us to see the value of the way Jesus and Paul make disciples.

In the final part of the book he transposes this method onto our church contexts. Three key ideas make up this component of the book: relationships, multiplication, and transformation. In each corresponding chapter he unpacks these ideas in greater detail. The heart of the book has really been about discipleship through personal relationships, but here he gives us more specifics. Many authors talk about the importance of personal relationships but Ogden spells that out with more tangible practices. What does it look like to develop a personal relationship aimed at making disciples? He lists four characteristics, showing how they contrast pointedly with programmatic approaches to disciple-making. The particularly unique contribution of Ogden’s personal relationship approach is discussion of Triads.

While one-on-one relationships have their place (namely in coaching, sponsoring, or spiritual guidance), Ogden believes that three-person groups create a vastly different dynamic that lends themselves well to disciple-making. He notes how three people engaged in a mutual discipling relationship creates a vastly different context from one-on-one. In one-on-one there tends to be a hierarchy that limits how much a disciple wants to participate and limits the amount of conversation you can have on a subject. It also limits the reproducibility of the discipling relationship. Three people engaged in doing life together is something that can be reproduced. One expert teaching another is not as easily reproduced. Reproducibility is a major concern for Ogden, it’s partly the reason he has so boldly adopted the triad approach. He believes it best serves this potential.

I really loved this book. It was very challenging and practical. Ogden writes from years of experience and fruitfulness and writes with an eye towards implementation. While many authors have a sense that discipleship needs an overhaul, and many have ideas about how to do that, they lack the awareness to help leaders implement these new ideas. Ogden gives us more direction in this area. If I think he undervalues the role of small groups in discipleship, I nonetheless found many of his principles applicable to that setting as well. Transforming Discipleship is the philosophical grounding for Ogden’s curriculum Discipleship Essentials. The two books really belong together, but even if you don’t use the curriculum, Transforming Discipleship is a great resource for pastors who need assistance in overhauling their own discipleship efforts. I highly recommend this book. If we want to make disciples better we should seek to implement the model of Jesus. Greg Ogden can help us do that, and for that I am immensely grateful.

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