Review: Charles A. Davis’ Making Disciples Across Cultures

 

Davis sets the goal high:

“What I needed, and what is needed today, is a set of universal disciple-making principles by which to evaluate the cultural and theological assumptions that in turn precipitate the methods and patterns of behavior common in churches and among church leaders” (22)

To do this he has crafted ten principles with sliding cultural values. They are:

  1. Disciples Let God Lead from the Invisible World (Visible vs Invisible)
  2. Disciples Hear and Obey (Knowledge vs Behavior)
  3. Disciples Develop Relational Interdependence (Individualism vs Collectivism)
  4. Disciples Do What Love Requires (Gospel-Truth vs Works-Justice)
  5. Disciples Make Disciples (One-Way Delivery vs Group Interaction)
  6. Leaders Equip Disciples for Ministry (Equippers vs Ministers)
  7. Disciples Live an Undivided Life (Public vs Private)
  8. Disciples Engage in Personal and Public Transformation (Personal vs Cultural)
  9. Disciples Keep the End in Mind (Church vs Kingdom)
  10. Disciples Organize Flexibly and Purposefully (Organizational vs Relational)

These ten principles make up the structure of Making Disciples Across Cultures. Davis has provided the church an invaluable resource birthed out of his own experience with cross-cultural disciple making. He shares his successes and failures and invites us to understand disciple making through different cultural lenses. With all that in mind, Davis succeeds in many ways.

He starts exploring discipleship principles from a solid foundation—some core definitions for understanding the disciple-making mission:

“A disciple is one who moves closer to Jesus as a learner, follower and lover, together with other disciples” (32).

“From the first conversation about Jesus with an unbeliever to the final breath, our task is to make disciples—before salvation, after salvation, and throughout life” (36).

“Following Jesus also has a unique dimension. Jesus himself only did and said what the Father told him to say or do, and he expects his followers to do the same” (39).

One minor note at this point, Davis seems more comfortable with the charismatic gifts than I would be. However, I am aware enough to know that could be partly my own cultural assumptions. I have connections with missionaries in the Middle East, for instance, who tell me that many converts from Islam do so after having a vision of Jesus. I do appreciate how Davis always ties in the use of the charisma to the authority of Scripture (that ties in with the third principle above).

“When we carefully submit what we believe we have heard from God to other trusted members of the body of Christ, judging by the Spirit within us and by Scripture, they can help us discern whether what we have heard is indeed from God or if it is simply a product of our own imagination or, worse, if we have been deceived by the enemy” (49 also see 62 “the truth of God’s word”).

I also appreciated the community focus through out Making Disciples Across Cultures (29, 41 “With few exceptions I found the word [disciple] overwhelmingly used in the plural”; 49, 81, 104, 177, 191, 196, 216).

“God has the capacity to build one body out of millions of diverse individuals. Under his headship, that body has the capacity to accomplish infinitely more than any individual, even though he knows each individual personally, having given each one the gifts that he knows will best contribute to the whole” (81).

Chapter 11 offers a stand out section on the difference between organizational structure and organic growth of the body. The discussion gives fresh eyes to some issues we face in America. We have these old organizational structures (i.e., mainline denominations) but the body has essentially malnutritioned. These decaying organizations can go on for years and decades, but the life is in the body of Christ. I want to offer a pushback for his discussion on gathering informally in homes and small groups.

Discussing this one day with others on this disciple-making journey, one said, “It seems as if these cells and households are the essentials. If you can gather in large groups, such as missional communities and crowd gatherings, it’s a bonus. But if all you have are the latter, you’re probably in trouble. (196)

I would submit that it’s not an either/or. However, the gathering together as one assembly for worship is a Scripture mandate. The writer of Hebrews commands,

23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

I can’t dig into all the background of this passage, but Hebrews deals primarily in terms of the covenant people (i.e., falling away, cultic description, etc). It would be inconceivable in that context for home fellowship to be more important than the gathered cultic worship of the covenant community. I would argue and this passage also gets at this via a different road. As we are called by God to the gathered worship of the body, we are sent out to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds . . . [and encourage] one another.” Therefore, if you miss the gathered, you will have a malnourished scattered fellowship/mission.

Making Disciples Across Cultures ends on a high note and this last selection is worth quoting in its entirety:

During the twentieth century missionaries came to believe that if we gathered homogenous people together, the church would grow faster. Surely bigger churches were better than smaller ones. They reasoned pragmatically that people from one class or caste or ethnicity would not want to become Christian if doing so meant they had to join a church that consisted primarily of the other class, caste or ethnicity. Church growth became an end in itself, and the manifold wisdom of God took back seat. 

The homogenous unit principle made some sense as a strategic entry point for evangelism, and in some places of the world, simple isolation or language differences might force one group to be homogenous. But when it becomes characteristic of the global body of Christ, the homogenous unit principle categorically contradicts Scripture. If Paul had believed in this principle, he would have had Jewish congregations and Gentile congregations, and the good news of the manifold wisdom of God would never have become apparent. John’s vision—of men and women from every tribe, language, people and nation gathered together as one kingdom and priests to serve our God—would be false (Rev 5:9-10). (211)

Man that strikes right to the heart of a major issue in the American church. We have turned discipleship into marketing schemes and to do so we’ve rejected the early New Testament example of diverse body of Christ. If you take nothing else away from this review, let that stick to your bones. I would encourage pastors and leaders in churches to slowly work through Making Disciples Across Cultures and have difficult and important conversations about disciple-making in our churches.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the project manager for the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.