I always find Robert Webber’s writings to be relevant, thought-provoking, and stimulating whether he is writing about history, worship, or in this case, discipleship.
I have to tell you a personal incident regarding this book. On the day I was preparing to send my manuscript on Kingdom Discipleship to the publisher, I received a copy of this new book. As I started reading it, I found myself unable to put it down, so I held my manuscript for another day, read this book, and then wrote a brief summary as an appendix to my manuscript. I believe it is that important.
This book is a sequel to his earlier book, Ancient-Future Faith. My upfront criticism, which is not severe, reflects my commitment to reformed theology. I believe we toss around the term evangelism too loosely and often at risk is misunderstanding what the great commission of Jesus is really all about. (See the “In Case You’re Asked” article in the March/April Equip for Ministry.) I do not see the distinction between evangelism and discipleship because they are part of the whole process. Evangelism is actually part of the educational process of the great commission.
Having said that, I am encouraged by this book. It reminds me that at CEP we are focusing on the extremely important topic of kingdom disciple making. The book begins with a report, including conclusions of the International Consultation on Discipleship held in September 1999. Some 450 leaders from fifty-four countries and nearly ninety fellowships and denominations gathered in Eastbourne, England for that meeting.
There, many expressed concerns that far too many converts to Christianity have and are falling away, that there has been church growth without church depth, and many converts have been living a worldly lifestyle. They concluded there was a failure in the disciple making process. Something needed to be done to promote more effective and genuine life change.
Building on that conference and conclusion, Webber has written a helpful book of good, solid, rich, workable suggestions. CE&P suggests in order to produce kingdom disciples we need: information and formation leading to transformation of life and thought. Webber follows a similar pattern, using different terminology. We suggest that to make kingdom disciples, we must understand the Word (theology from world and life view) and then we need to understand the world in order to communicate God’s truth clearly. Webber likewise has two main parts to this book. The first part of the book is “The Process of Christian Formation” and the second part deals with “Cultural and Theological Reflection.” The last part includes four helpful appendixes which further develop the author’s thoughts.
In part one, Webber deals with the command to make disciples. Chapters follow on evangelism (conversion), discipleship, spiritual formation, and Christian vocation. He gives some helpful historical information in part one. He is clear in reminding us that the entire process of making disciples is done within community. It is not an isolated event.
The book, as Webber states, focuses on two main themes; how to do ministry and not get bogged down with programs, and how to turn converts into disciples. We must ask those same questions. Presbyterian and Reformed churches emphasize the beginning of the discipleship process with baptism of God’s covenant children, which Webber includes. But he tends to start the process at a later point when someone makes a profession of faith in Christ or instruction leading up to that event. Webber makes good use of history to compare and contrast our world today to help us understand how the process of disciple making should unfold. You will appreciate his usage of “rites of passage” from church history to further understand the process.
In the section on evangelism, Webber has some interesting and helpful descriptions of how people are converted to Christ in a postmodern world. He uses church history to emphasize the importance of developing relationships out of which the Gospel can be more effectively communicated and then lead to a more permanent relationship within the church community.
I also found some of his discussion questions to be thought provoking and helpful. His chapter on discipleship is probably the highlight of the book. I particularly appreciated how he emphasized church family, worship, and preaching as part of the process.
This is a book worth having, reading, and studying. If you share our concern about more effective disciple making, this book will be an asset. I agree with the publisher’s assessment that this book will appeal to both “emerging evangelicals as well as traditional church leaders.” Webber is unusually gifted to reach such a broad audience.