Meeting 3DM

I first encountered 3DM in 2011 or so. I had just come off a 7-year stint as a pastor of a small church that turned out to be more of an exit ministry for people who were leaving a cult. Once they were nursed to spiritual health, my people fit beautifully into a local Bible church, and my work with them was done. Even before I had really begun to consider what to do next, God called me to a bivocational gig in Colorado.

One of the local pastors — a seasoned church planter named Dave Cheadle — was starting a mentoring group for young pastors. He invited me to join it, and I did. It was through Dave’s ministry in that group that I really learned how to make disciples.

Embarrassing as it is to admit it, I had managed to grow up in a Bible-believing church, get through Bible college and seminary, and begin in pastoral ministry without ever really grasping how to make disciples. Looking back, I’m grateful that God arranged things so that I did some disciple-making without really understanding what was required–He is good! But my intentional attempts at discipleship always dissolved into just another Bible study. I didn’t really understand life-on-life discipleship until Dave modeled it for us. The group walked together for a couple years, and along the way we worked through a few books and a lot of Bible.

The group had been going for some time when Dave encountered 3DM. Favorably impressed, he had us read through Building a Discipling Culture (then in its first edition).

I’ll save my commentary on the book for a review later. For our purposes now, it’s enough to say that I was deeply unconvinced of the need to develop our own language (the shapes) to disciple people, and at the same time deeply blessed by the way Breen had successfully organized, clarified, and added to my understanding of discipleship. It was worthwhile enough for us that Dave ended up taking a deeper dive into 3DM, and over the coming years I engaged 3DM’s other books and resources.

As I dug deeper into 3DM’s resources, I found a few things:

  1. A lot of the content was solidly biblical, but some of it was exegetically or theologically weak.
  2. A certain amount of the material seemed not true to real life, either because it was missing key ingredients (like trying to re-create oikos without shared housing and a business at the center), or because it was greatly oversimplified (like “language creates culture”).
  3. The delivery vehicle could cause problems.

The delivery vehicle was very carefully crafted.  3DM was working hard to offer multi-million-dollar church corporations exactly what they wanted to buy: a slick, professional suite of tools and systems. (Yes, I know the official line is “there is no 3DM system.” But the medium is the message.) In our case, the slick package presented to us was definitely not a match for our scruffy, working-poor town and the ministry we were doing here. We adopted a “eat the meat, spit out the bones” approach to 3DM, and moved on.

Since then, I’ve read various other writers in similar fields of endeavor: Soma, Hugh Halter, The Faith of Leap, Reggie McNeal, like that. I found a lot of good insights, but also an embarrassing tendency to act as if returning to basic Christianity is some unprecedented move of God. I understand how someone might feel that way: recall how far I got into my ministry before I understood disciple-making! But no. Living on mission, in close community, making disciples–that’s been Christian practice all along, and there have been people doing it all along. We haven’t discovered something new; we’re just ignorant of our own history.

Lots of us come from traditions that got distracted by other things at the expense of the fundamentals. The answer is as simple as it is unmarketable: admit that we have a problem, dump the distractions, and start investing the bulk of our time and effort in the most important things. (In other words, repentance.) But it’s easier to sell a book about the new thing God is doing than it is to sell a book about repenting of your distractions.

As we repented of our distractions, we turned to the Bible for answers. The more deeply we engaged the biblical Story, the more we found that the Bible has its own language and tools for cultivating disciples. Consequently, we paid less and less attention to various missional authors. We gratefully used tools from the missional genre when they fit the job at hand, but I honestly never expected to revisit this material in any kind of deep way.

But God–while very reliable–isn’t particularly predictable, and He had a plot twist headed my way….

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