Book Review: “Discipling” by Mark Dever

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“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
—Matthew 28:19-20a (ESV)

Discipleship: Jesus commands his followers to do it. But what does discipleship look like? Where do we disciple? And how exactly do we do it?

Mark Dever has written Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus, the latest entry in the 9 Marks series “Building Healthy Churches,” in order to answer some of these basic questions. The stated goal of the book is to “help you understand biblical discipling and to encourage you in your obedience to Christ” (19).

Not sure where to start with discipling other believers or not sure how discipleship should fit within the context of the local church? Start here.

What is discipling?

Early on in the book, Dever defines discipleship as “helping others to follow Jesus” (13). He expands this a bit later on the same page and says discipling can also be defined as “deliberately doing spiritual good to someone so that he or she will be more like Christ.” The simplicity of these definitions helps the reader both begin to understand the concept while also encouraging them that they themselves might be able to disciple. No need to be some sort of “superchristian” or professional beforehand!

Later on Dever gives a more comprehensive definition that sums up his main points about discipling:  “Discipling is a relationship in which we seek to do spiritual good for someone by initiating, teaching, correcting, modeling, loving, humbling ourselves, counseling, and influencing” (74). This is by no means an innovative definition, but that is its strength. Dever’s basic definitions of discipling give an excellent introduction to the concept and properly define discipleship in terms of our relationship with Christ and with others.

Where do we disciple?

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this book is Dever’s strong advocacy for the idea that discipleship is at its best when occurring within the context of the local church.

“[T]he Bible teaches that the local church is the natural environment for discipling” (53), Dever contends. The same context where we are baptized into Christ’s body, hear the word preached, participate in the Lord’s Supper, and have an opportunity to love and forgive one another should be the primary context where discipleship occurs. “[T]he local church is the primary discipler of all Christians” (54). This local church emphasis will not come as a surprise to anyone who is already familiar with the 9 Marks series, which exists to help believers build healthy churches.

Dever even goes so far as to use parachurch ministries in general and The Navigators in particular as an example of discipleship that happens in large part outside of the context of the local church. In comparing them with discipleship in the local church context, Dever makes the following assessment:

I am thankful for [The Navigators’] ministry, especially in the area of discipling. Having said that…[making disciples is] what the church should be doing!
…Certainly there are some circumstances—such as sailors on a battleship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—that require discipling apart from the local church. It would be tragically wrong, however, to use something like a campus ministry or a businessman’s fellowship to replace the local church when it comes to making and growing disciples. (52)

These are strong words and a bold claim. Dever gives it some nuance by acknowledging that though this should be what the church is doing, it all too often is not! “If it’s unwise to do discipling without a church, it’s worse to do church without discipling. Yet isn’t that the case with many local churches?” (Ibid.) But this very problem is the reason that this volume on discipling exists: to encourage and illustrate discipling within the local church context.

To try to sum up or clarify his argument in this section, it seems the “levels” of discipling Dever argues for are:

  1. Discipling in a local church context
  2. Discipling disconnected from a church context
  3. Church with no discipling
  4. No church and no discipling

Yes, discipleship is a good thing wherever it occurs (if done well). However, it is a better thing when done in a context that reinforces it, gives it structure, and also benefits from it: the church.

For those who don’t know, I spent two years as a student and four years as a staff member involved with The Navigators in California. My life was indelibly impacted by the men and women that poured their lives into mine, that labored alongside me, and that I was privileged to pour into as I was discipled and as I discipled others for those six years. I could not be more grateful or  humbled by that impact in my life.

I say this here because as strong as Dever’s words are, they are needed ones! If discipleship must exist outside of a local church context, its primary aim should and must be to equip those being trained to turn around, roll up their sleeves, and dive into serving and discipling in their own local church with the ultimate goal of bringing a transformed disciple-making culture into their church! Discipleship that never connects to a local church is much more likely to be discipleship that has a reduced long-term impact. I have personally seen this in far too many cases over the few years to doubt it.

Discipleship is one of the great needs of the church.  “Churches don’t need programs so much as they need cultures of discipling, cultures where each member prioritizes the spiritual health of others” (68). Far too many churches lack this type of culture. There is much work to be done here! This is the aim of my personal ministry and this book is a welcome step in addressing the lack.

How do we do it?

Dever’s focus in answering the “how” is more on the general basics of the process and less on the specifics. Dever’s main advice is 1) choose someone, 2) have clear aims, and 3) know that discipleship is costly. The main specific strategy that he recommends is inviting disciples into the regular routines of your own life.  “So much of disciping is doing what you ordinarily do but bringing people along with you and having meaningful conversations, like Jesus did” (85).

If you are looking for exhaustive lists of topics for discipleship, examples of pre-composed discipleship plans, or stage-by-stage analysis of the phases you should aim to take disciples through, you will be disappointed. Perhaps Dever could have included a short sample of his own method in an appendix or been a bit more specific here. But that is perhaps beyond the scope of this volume.

The Verdict

Discipling accomplishes the goals that it sets out to achieve: Dever lays out a simple yet thorough understanding of what discipleship is and gives plenty of encouragement to the reader. Everyone who reads this can come away knowing more about the process, feeling more like they can and should disciple, or both!

Additionally, the book convincingly makes the case for discipleship in the context of the local church. It is short, accessible, and inexpensive. This is a book that will serve well as an introduction to discipleship but that can also fill a niche in the library of someone who already has some other resources and experience with discipleship.

That said, it is not exhaustive (nor is it meant to be). Those looking for a more in-depth or hands-on book would do well to begin here but continue by utilizing some of the 35+ resources Dever lists in the appendix of further resources (and/or Personal Disciplemaking by Christopher Adsit, a personal favorite that he doesn’t include).

Discipling is a solid resource that will challenge you and that I highly recommend.

4 stars out of 5


Dever, Mark. Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. 128 pp. Hardcover.

 

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