Can Disciple Making Movements Happen in Our Western Christian Culture?

What you read in the Book of Acts is happening again, in real-time, in some very unexpected places around the world. Almost everyone connected with foreign missions in the past few decades has heard of these three letters: DMM (Disciple Making Movements) or CPM (Church Planting Movements).

Why not here in the United States?

This is a common question for anyone who has read about these movements, especially anyone who has been on short-term trips and experienced these movements firsthand. Here in America, Christianity seems to be sliding into cultural ineffectiveness and irrelevance. There is no doubt we need a movement, too!

I first heard about modern Disciple Making Movements in 2005 while taking the “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement” study course. What I heard was very exciting, but it felt disconnected to me as a lead minister of a growing church plant in the U.S. I was busy with the church I led: improving our worship time, growing our small groups, getting our youth and children’s ministry programs up and running, and a thousand other pressing concerns (most of which were not directly connected to disciple making).

It was during this very “Perspectives” course that God gave my wife and me a surprising but crystal-clear calling to hand off our leadership roles with this church and take my family to the other side of the world. It was a great blessing to share Jesus with an unreached people group in a remote area of Central Asia.

We had the typical missions training before going, which included learning to communicate the gospel across cultural barriers, learning to deal with culture shock, and learning how to help new believers grow a church that fits their culture while staying true to the essentials of the Christian faith. Even with this training, I expected to be able to take my American-lead-pastor giftings and successfully transplant them into this new situation. I soon learned that there was almost nothing I could transplant from what I did before. This was a time filled with hard and humbling lessons. It stripped down what I thought “worked” in God’s kingdom to the bare essentials.

As I sought God’s guidance and direction, He brought some amazing disciple makers into my life to learn from. I was blessed with a continual succession of connections with various movers and shakers in the “DMM” world. This included some extensive training with a mission organization focused on multiplying movements. I have become personally connected to disciple making movements in Asia, Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East. These movements are from many different “streams”—with trainings and methods that developed unrelated to each other. It is encouraging to see the great commonalities within all these streams, but it is not surprising. They are simple, Christ-focused, very biblical, and very obviously Spirit-led.

From my experience, it seems DMM-focused work is the only work we find around the world where the Kingdom of God is not losing ground. In fact, these movements are growing much faster than the population rate. We are not just talking about numbers with DMM (though every soul is important); we are talking about serious transformation of entire families and even entire communities. Some friends told me of a community in the slums of a West African city that was famous for being the most crime-ridden in the whole area.

Now, there are multiple small group churches in homes and workplaces on every block. Crime has almost completely stopped. The police are bored. The Lord’s Prayer is being answered as we see the kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. We are seeing entire people groups that were once completely unreached by the gospel become so saturated with Christ-followers that everyone who does not know Jesus hears about him from someone they already have a relationship with!

After working on the mission field in Central Asia and later in Easter Europe, God brought me back to the States. Again, this question rose to the top: Why not here? I know that I am not alone in asking this question. There are growing numbers of Christians throughout North America seeking to learn how to effectively make disciples who make disciple-making disciples (2 Tim. 2:2). Most major cities have at least a small network of individuals seeking to put DMM principles to work. Many churches, especially after our year of COVID, are reorienting their priorities and “trying this DMM thing out.” This is a good thing and, I believe, a God thing.

And yet, even with great effort and great commitment by a great number of people, we are seeing few if any true disciple-making movements here in North America. We are seeing some multiplying of congregations who focus on planting other churches. This shows good addition-growth but nothing like the exponential explosion of new disciple-making believers you see in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

We have church buildings in almost every neighborhood and yet there seems to be little transformative impact on the communities around them. The majority of people in this nation are sliding ever deeper into moral depravity and the church, for decades now, has seemed impotent to stop that slide. We all need to humbly learn what God is doing in these Disciple Making Movements around the world and, more specifically, understand what God wants us to do about what we learn.

Our culture is so very different than the places these movements are happening. Therefore, this will not be a “cut and paste” solution. It is important that we glean from these movements and learn what the core principles are that God is blessing. It is even more important that we do some soul-searching. We must ask hard questions like, “Have we brought into our church some type of pseudo-Christianized cultural identity that is not in line with the Kingdom of God?” or “Have we welcomed into our church barriers that keep our members from becoming disciple makers?”

Too often, DMM practitioners are antagonistic toward traditional congregational churches. Many leaders of these traditional churches are, likewise, unsure about this “DMM thing.” They might even be a bit threatened by these “radicals” trying to do church in homes and cafés. I believe both sides can bless each other and work together to forward God’s kingdom and bring about movements. This will only be done by opening our hands, and the ministries our handshold, allowing God to do as He wills with them.

Starting on Wednesday, April 14th at 10:00 am (CDT) in the Collective I will spend an hour each week with men and women experienced in disciple making movements in various areas around the world. We will try to identify core principles within global disciple making movements that God is blessing. We will also discuss what cultural forces within our Western culture build barriers against these blessings and keep movements from happening. You can join the Collective for free to attend any of these sessions.

Here are seven areas that we will focus on:

  1. TIME & MONEY – April 14th @ 10:00am (CDT): Disciple making takes time, something we in the west are rarely willing to give. Our schedules are packed to the brim and we seldom have any margin to add anything significant. Typical churches do no favors to their members because they plan lots of meetings, events and programs that often have nothing to do with connecting to the unchurched and making disciples. These schedule-fillers take up even more time. Disciple making means real sacrifice. In our hyper-busy culture, we must give up significant items on our agenda in order to do what God really wants us to be doing. Often, our busyness is a part of our identity. When people ask, “What’s happening?” We proudly exclaim, “I’ve been so busy!” Also, much of what fills our calendar has to do with how we make a living and create wealth. Some folks will have a hard time cutting down on the hyperactivity because that would mean struggling to pay the bills.

Our accumulation of wealth is also a huge factor to creating barriers to disciple making movements. The vast majority of movements around the world are happening in extremely impoverished areas, especially in comparison to our standard of living. The best disciple makers are willing to risk everything for the lost and wealthy people have a lot of “stuff” to lose.

Our churches are hindered by wealth as well. One common factor of typical disciple making movements around the globe is that the church has no dependence upon money to sustain it like typical Western churches with their buildings, full-time professional ministers and expensive programs. If the western church is to embrace disciple making, we will need to reprioritize our time and money.

  1. PRAYER & FASTING – April 21st at 10:00am (CDT): Every disciple making movement has an extraordinary emphasis on prayer and fasting. Statements like this are often heard: There are no disciple making movements without a prayer and fasting movement first. This brings us back to the first point regarding time. Serious prayer means praying far more than we think we have time for. This is not the type of prayer that we just wedge into the tiny spaces available in our daily planner. During my work on the field, God convicted my wife and I that our so-called “good prayer life” was not nearly enough. We had to cut out some valued things from our schedule so that we could pray and prayer-walk for hours every day. Suddenly, the very atmosphere of the city we worked in began to change and unimaginable doors of opportunity began to open before us. I love this quote from the pioneering missionary Hudson Taylor, “When we work, we work. When we pray, God works.”

The same is true with regards to fasting. It is crucial for any kind of breakthrough in disciple making and it should be a normal part of our sacred rhythms. Our fasting drives us into even more intense times of prayer and worship. Again, this takes time. We cannot fast in any meaningful way without altering our life and lifestyle around it. Don’t expect to have a weekend prayer retreat or a month-long prayer focus and then move on. It must truly be a prayer movement – moving us into a new way of living, continually connected through prayer and fasting to the Spirit of Christ.

  1. Valuing OBEDIENCE over just KNOWLEDGE – April 28th at 10:00am (CDT): Critics of disciple making movements often speak of the lack of Biblical depth with regards to new disciples. I have found the opposite is true but the “depth” has a very different look to it. They have a depth of understanding in areas that many decades-old church goers know little of. There is great understanding of subjects like taking up their cross, the cost of discipleship and the commands of Jesus to make disciples and proclaim the Kingdom of God. They may not know as much about contextualization of the scriptures or interpretations from the original language and the like (though that will come in time). However, what they do have goes deep like that of a foundation with pylons drilled down to the bedrock. This happens because, within these movements, these disciples get into God’s word regularly and purposefully. They are hungry for truth because they are active in sharing truth. Their Bible study, usually done communally, takes all newly discovered knowledge and immediately expects practical obedience to be borne out of that understanding. These Bible studies give space for God’s Spirit, the Counselor, to teach them exactly what they need to be doing from what they are learning.

Putting God’s Word into practice solidly implants His truth in the hearts of the obedient. Unpracticed knowledge is simply written in sand and will be washed away as soon as the rush of the next cultural tide comes in. Understanding with obedience strengthens faith because disciples see, firsthand, that God really does want to transform them and transform those around them. God is faithful! In most western Christian circles, we tend to prefer abstract knowledge that we can keep at arm’s length. This allows us to pick and choose what fits our lifestyle and our comfort zone. Our churches are often full of “spiritually obese” members, always getting fed but seldom working out their faith. It is all too easy to become like the Greeks at the Areopagus in Athens, hanging out on Mar’s hill while looking for that next “deep thought” or “new idea” about the teachings and doctrines we already agree with. For our western Christian culture to experience disciple making movements, we must change how we approach scripture and Bible study.

  1. Valuing COMMUNITY and RELATIONSHIPS over INDIVIDUALISM – May 5th at 10:00am (CDT): Disciple making is done through deep relationships and relationships are messy and, again, they take time. Most DMMs around the world are in cultures that place a higher value on family, community and relationships that is typical in the west. In this way, the Kingdom of God is very counter-cultural to western culture including western Christian culture. For disciple making to happen in a way that “sticks”, we will have to overcome our individualistic tendencies. We all long for deep relationships, friendships and community that matters.
    In the past few decades, churches have responded to this by forming small groups that foster deeper relationships than the large gatherings were able to bring about. This has been a good step but there is still something missing. These communities need to be more purposeful and go much deeper than we might be comfortable with. Think of the bond of brothers that occurs between soldiers who rush into battle together. That is the kind of missional community God blesses. It is what we long for even as we avoid doing what it takes to get it. That gets us to the next area…
  2. Valuing TRANSPARENCY and ACCOUNTABILITY over PRIVACY – May 12th at 10:00am (CDT): It is all too easy to shy away from accountability. Accountability is only as effective as our transparency is. No matter who is in your group, living your life as an open book makes you vulnerable and vulnerability is difficult. We live in a culture that values privacy and security on an extreme level. This allows us to keep our weaknesses and sin in the dark which is the realm of our enemy. God has designed faith communities to hold things up into the light where He brings forgiveness, healing and growth to them. The communities that happen within disciple making movements around the world are, to our western ears, shockingly transparent. They are more open because their leaders have modeled openness from the start. Their faith communities show regularly the power of forgiveness and healing. Confession brings with it great expectations of freedom in Christ. Too often in our Christian circles in the states, the thought of confession holds fears of shame and shunning. Notable exceptions to this are ministries like Celebrate Recovery. I know many who are a part of CR think that the church as a whole should be more like CR! In many ways, it should!
  3. HUMILITY & supernatural FAITH – May 19th at 10:00am (CDT): The mission Christ has given us cannot be done in the strength of our own knowledge and abilities. When Jesus sent out the 12 in Luke 9 (and Matthew 10) and the 70 in Luke 10, he gave them simple but seemingly impossible expectations: proclaim the Kingdom of God; heal the sick including the cleansing of lepers; deliver the demon possessed; raise the dead; discern who God is working on (people of peace) and disciple them; and be vigilant and alert because the enemy is targeting them (“lambs among wolves”). These were expectations that far exceeded their natural abilities, On top of that, their lack understanding of Jesus and His Kingdom is shocking (read the rest of Luke 9!). In other words, this mission was impossible! And yet, Jesus believed in them because He believed in what God could do through their mustard-seed-faith. The great co-mission handed down to us is is just as impossible in our own strength and wisdom. We must view it as a supernatural work of God and be humbly dependent on His Spirit. DMM is not about some new strategy some modern wise man has cooked up in their laboratory. This is about obedience to Jesus’ simple missional commands. It is about stepping out in faith.
  4. PERSEVERANCE and SACRIFICE – May 26th at 10:00am (CDT): Lastly, disciple making is not glamorous. It is challenging on a gut-wrenching level. Perseverance is key. We too often want quick and clean microwavable solutions. A movement does not start in a day or a few weeks or even months. Sometimes, it takes years before the exponential growth begins. As you hear stories of movements around the world, you will always hear stories of great perseverance and great sacrifice that accompany them. These movements tend to happen in areas with the greatest persecution. Why is this? Those disciples know from the very beginning what the cost of following Jesus will be and they still say yes. They entrust their jobs, their reputations, their ability to provide for their family, their freedom and even their lives to God. In these movements, the life of a disciple-making disciple is not safe or secure from a worldly perspective, but it is good and rich and purposeful and passion-filled and worth the cost!

I hope you will join us as we dive into these areas and learn from the core Biblical principles that modern disciple making movements show us. It is my prayer that God use these times to help us better understand how to work in unity to spark transformative Kingdom movements here in our own backyard.

By Ken Shackelford