Being Lifted Up

1 September 2020

In John 15, Jesus presents His followers with a vineyard as a metaphor for living in harmony with God. Jesus is the vine, all His people are branches, and–this part is much neglected–the Father is the caretaker.

The traditional 3DM rendering of this passage uses a semicircle, a pendulum that oscillates back and forth between seasons of fruitfulness (work) and seasons of abiding (rest). While it’s true that there’s a need to maintain healthy rhythms of work and rest (a lesson contained in Genesis 1 and a number of other places in the Bible), this passage is actually headed a different — and far deeper — direction.

The first necessary modification to the 3DM picture was suggested by one of my coaches, Jeff Allen. He moved “abide” from one of the extremes on the pendulum to the pivot point, thus:


Jeff’s point is that we don’t actually alternate between work and abiding. We abide in Christ all the time as we alternate between work and rest.

There’s another tweak we have to make in order to understand the passage properly, and that is a correct understanding of the Greek word airo, that is so often translated “He takes away” in v. 2. Airo means to lift up or take away, and so that translation is understandable…but absolutely wrong in this context. The word also means “to lift up,” and in this context, that’s much more to the point.

The conversation here is about the care of a vineyard. At the beginning of the growing season, the caretaker passes through the vineyard, looking for threats to fruitfulness. There are two conditions, not just one, that threaten the fruitfulness of the vines: too much growth, and not enough.

Where the branches are growing too much, they won’t produce good-quality fruit. If a branch is trying to produce too much fruit at the same time, it won’t have the nutrients it needs to make good-quality fruit, so all of the fruit will be stunted and poor. At the other extreme, some branches fall down into the dirt. Down in the dirt, they are in danger, threatened by rot, mildew, and pests.


The branches that are overactive, spreading themselves too thin, get pruned back. In other words, God will cut off some of what you are trying to do, in order to get you to focus all your resources in a smaller, more productive area. That is really hard to take, especially when some of the things God prunes off are things you worked really hard for. They may be good things, but if God is not authoring them for you, now, then it’s time to let them go. The job here is to accept the Father’s pruning with grace, and trust that He knows what He’s doing.

Then there’s the branches that have fallen into the dirt and aren’t producing anything…and this is where that Greek word comes in. “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He lifts up.” The caretaker lifts the fallen branch back up onto the trellis where it can thrive in the air and sunlight. If you have fallen into the dirt, and you’re not producing anything, your job is to let the Father lift you up, so that you might bear fruit.

There will be seasons in your life where you’re overproducing; there will be seasons in your life where you’re in the dirt. God will take care of you in either condition, and bring you back to fruitful health. The constant through every season is the command given in the passage: Abide in Him.


Not Perfect, Just Living

5 October 2019

“People don’t need a perfect example. They need a living example.”

They must have said that a dozen times in the first 3DM learning community intensive 6 months ago, and I meant to write about it, but didn’t get around to it. They emphasized it again in this one, and it reminded me.


Ridiculous as it is, this is actually God’s plan. To use fallible human beings, to use me, to show people how to become more like Jesus. Not just to speak directly to people through Word and Spirit, but to actually use me to guide his Church. Not just what I say; my example. Flawed as it is.

It’s ridiculous. It’s particularly ridiculous right now; my life is a hot mess. Constant financial strain, constant switching from one gig to another to make ends meet, with all the stress that goes with that. I don’t think it’s much of an example.

But then, Jesus was homeless, and Paul was constantly in threat of being murdered by enemies who followed him from city to city…and yet, people did want to imitate them. Jesus said, “Follow Me,” and they did. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” and again, they did. Is it possible they will see something they want to imitate in me, ridiculous as that seems on paper?

It seems that’s exactly what Jesus wants to do. And faced with that, there’s only one thing to say.

Here am I; send me.

Insight from Business?

9 July 2019

As an organization, 3DM largely packages its materials to appeal to large corporate churches, and those that aspire to their ranks. In contextualizing their materials to that environment–which is to say, to American corporate culture–3DM opens itself to a range of pernicious influences.

…but if you’re gonna…

Now, all truth belongs to Christ. We can profit from insights in psychology, group dynamics, neuroscience, physics, finance…you name it. We are free to read business books about organizational change just as we are free to read books on neuroscience. But just as we need to carefully filter out the evolutionary presuppositions of the neuroscience book, we need to filter out the various pagan presuppositions in the business book–and that’s going to be harder than we think. Christian thinkers have been waging war on evolution for generations. We haven’t been working nearly as hard to discern good from evil in business culture. And look at it — this is the culture that gave us record label accounting, Enron, the housing bubble of 2008, and so, so much more. It’s a disaster, and uncritically accepting insights and recommendations from that culture is not going to be good for us.

Before we try to metabolize any business advice, we need to go back to first principles, in Scripture. What is it that we’re actually supposed to be doing? Until we have an answer for that, we’ve no business trying to use business principles to “be more effective.” A lot of ugly presuppositions are being smuggled in through that word “effective.” Similar smuggling happens under the guise of “leadership.” Leadership is an important field of study; I’ve seen a lot of damage done by unskilled, untrained leaders. But the wrong training is sometimes worse than no training at all, and Jesus taught His people to lead differently than the world does.

It’s always working for somebody

In order to see the problem, we need to think about the way broken systems work. Russian communism was a horribly broken economic system, but members of the Politburo never lacked for food, medicine, or even entertainment. Washington Mutual was a total disaster, desperately broken, but Kerry Killinger, the CEO of that disaster, made millions–and when he was fired, walked away with a $15 million severance check. Washington, D.C. public schools are consistently failing (just look at the test scores), but D.C. school principals make 6 figures anyway.

The broken system is always working for somebody. Putting someone who benefits enormously from the status quo in charge of reform is just a recipe for failure; those are not the voices we should be elevating. In the church world, those voices are the successful church professionals, who are doubly acclimated to American business culture: first, because their churches run like businesses, and second, because the backbone of their donor base lives in business culture, and thinks of business culture simply as The Way Things Are Done.

So now what?

If we’re that deeply acclimated to business culture, then where will reformation come from? Here, history is our guide: real reformation does not come from a Staupitz, who functions smoothly within the system, nor even from an Erasmus, who lampoons its failings while remaining part of it. Real reformation must come from a Luther — someone for whom the system is not working. Let’s pay more attention to those people.





Marketing the Reformation to the Pope

23 April 2019

“Future generations will be amazed that at one time, we actually thought it was a good idea to run a church like a business.”
“Now that you’ve finished your SWOT analysis, here are some key ideas from the classic business book Good to Great that will help you shift the culture of your church.”
-same people

One of the biggest things screwing up our public rethink of church is the need to market the book/article/consulting service to the sorts of people who can afford pricey resources: successful church professionals.

These people are never going to reform church away from the corporate model, for the simple reason that they can’t. Externally, their organizations and donor base won’t let them, and internally, they have a cultivated blindness to the flaws of the status quo. It’s like trying to market the Reformation to Lorenzo de Medici.

Corporate church culture is certainly doing something, but let us not confuse organizational “success” with serving Christ. By every biblical metric, corporate church culture ties up huge amounts of resources for a very small return–when there’s any return at all. It makes dependent members rather than disciples of Jesus, it barely remembers the poor, and it generally pretends like other churches don’t exist. These are not simply shortcomings that can be readily fixed; they are natural results of the design. Every organizational structure inherently incentivizes certain behaviors and discourages others. The structure we’re talking about is a small number of paid, expert professionals providing religious services for masses of consumers. That structure needs loyal consumers and the amenities that reinforce that loyalty. Those loyal consumers donate, and the structure needs to keep the money in-house, where it can fund competitive salaries for its small stable of experts (and more amenities for donating members). Being a church, of course, it also needs a certain amount of visible outreach and charitable ministry. (Locally, that usually also serves as marketing to bring in more members.) But routinely, the total resources expended on mission are dwarfed by building fund or whatever.

There’s no reason why that model should control what we think of as possible, plausible, or legitimate. And so it seems foolish, if not outright self-sabotage, to choose the scions of that model as our primary discussion partners as we seek to reform the church.

3DM has done exactly that (as have most of the other folks in the discussion). I think it may be their biggest weakness.


What Fellowship Really Is

16 April 2019

“Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.”
-Hebrews 10:26-27

Consider one another. Think about what we’re being called to do here: look at the other believers you’re close to, and ask yourself the question, “How do I help move this person to be more loving, to do more good things?” And you let those people ask the same question about you, and act on their answers.

In 3DM, a “Huddle” is a small group of 5-8 people that meets for teaching, mutual encouragement, and support. One of the criticisms I see of huddles is that participants are vulnerable to inappropriate influence by the group leader, and that “groupthink” is a real danger. Uh, yeah. Any close relationship is vulnerable to inappropriate influence, and any group is in danger of groupthink. If you think that’s dangerous, try not having close relationships, small groups, or leadership. See how that works out.

Warning people away from a huddle because of the dangers of groupthink is like like warning people away from math class because they will encounter math problems. The danger is real, but quitting school is not the answer. The answer is to solve the problems, learn from the experience, and over time grow into the sort of person who can solve those problems easily. You take the math class because you want to get better at solving math problems. You join a huddle to get better at fellowship.

You will never listen to a sermon or Bible study lesson without the danger of false teaching. You will never be part of a meaningful group without the danger of groupthink. You will never have a close relationship without the danger of undue influence. You will never drive your car to church without the danger of a traffic accident. You will never eat the Lord’s Table (or anything else) without the danger of food poisoning–but consider the dangers of not eating.

You can no more avoid teaching or close relationships than you can avoid eating. You may not simply show up at church, swap small talk over coffee for a couple minutes before the service, and check off the “fellowship” box on your to-do list. You must study your fellow believers in order to stir up love and good works. The risks associated with obedience are risks we are required to run.

Do you gotta do it in a 3DM huddle? Of course not. Do it your way.

So here’s my question: who are you studying, and who is studying you?

Your answer should be a list of names. If your answer to either question is “nobody,” then something is wrong, and for you, joining a huddle would be a step in the right direction. A huddle is one way to obey the command. It’s not the only way. It might not even be the best way. But it beats the pants off disobedience, ya know?

I like the way a huddle fellowships better than the way most churches just don’t. So should you. It’s a handy means of obedience, and helps you form the habit of meaningful fellowship. (Same goes for LTGs, well-run small groups, etc.–we should cherish every form obedience takes.)

Let’s go back to those two questions: who are you studying, to stir up love and good works? Who is studying you? The names on my list are mostly not people I’m in huddle with. I make close fellowship a priority in my lifestyle. There are three families where if I don’t show up at their home unannounced a couple times a week, I get phone calls. If I don’t talk about anything consequential when I do show up, I get a raft of pointed questions. What about you? If you isolate yourself, who will call you? If you quit sharing your heart, who will ask pointed questions? If the answer is ‘nobody,’ you’re already isolated. Please, in the name of Christ, fix that.

Having made the case for close fellowship, I also want to acknowledge that human beings can screw anything up, so of course there are real dangers and temptations that come with it. Any cohesive group has the danger of groupthink. The answer to that is more fellowship, not less. Whatever you’re talking about in group, have significant conversations on those topics with people outside the group. In a multitude of counselors, there is safety.

As the group coheres, there’s a danger of the leader exercising undue influence. Same answer: get fellowship elsewhere too, so that you’ll notice if something weird is going on. For leaders, the answer here is humility. The purpose of the group is not to develop your followers as followers of you. The purpose is to develop your followers as followers of Jesus. Some of them might start very dependent on you–as Jesus’ followers started very dependent on Him–but your job is to grow them into co-laborers, as He did, as Paul grew Timothy and Titus, as Barnabas grew John Mark, and so on.

Which brings me back to an important feature of the huddles I’ve been part of: they stop. You graduate. The relationships you formed in huddle continue, but they come out of the greenhouse that is the huddle and into the wild and woolly garden that is the life of the church, which is the way it should be.

Maybe you end up leading your own huddle; I’ve done it a few times. Maybe you use other relational vehicles; I’ve done that too. But if the huddle has done its job, you have formed the habit of close fellowship with your fellow believers, and you’ll never go back to thinking that two minutes of small talk at the coffee pot is what “fellowship” really is.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

“Language Creates Culture” …Or Does It?

9 April 2019

Let’s just be honest here: no it doesn’t.

The maxim “language creates culture” is one of the central pillars of Building a Discipling Culture and the whole 3DM approach (and it works for them, for reasons we’ll get to below). There’s only one thing wrong with it: it’s not remotely true. At best, it’s a dramatic oversimplification.

Come on, we all know how this works:

  • “Secretary” is deemed too dismissive, so all the secretaries get an upgrade to “administrative assistant.” But since neither the pay nor the responsibilities change, pretty soon everybody knows that an administrative assistant is just a secretary.
  • The term “Social Justice Warrior” was invented by activists who applied it to themselves in a vain attempt to ennoble their whiny and meddlesome pursuits. But they didn’t change what they were doing, and so their whiny and meddlesome ways came to define what “Social Justice Warrior” means. Now, the term is so badly tainted that SJWs have (hilariously) taken to accusing their opponents of inventing it as some kind of dismissive slur. No–it became a dismissive term because the people who applied it to themselves are moral and intellectual lightweights. Developing new language didn’t change anything.
  • The CEO decides “Our mission is quality” is the new company slogan. But he doesn’t improve inspection processes or fund improvements to product lines. Relentless pressure for quarterly profits continues to drive a culture that rewards quickly producing something that’s barely adequate, releasing it, and moving on the the next product. “Our mission is quality” rapidly becomes something jaded employees hoot at one another as they discuss the flaws of yet another substandard product they’re about to ship.

The existing culture is far more likely to corrupt the new language than the new language is to change the existing culture. Those of us who’ve been around awhile have probably been part of several such failed culture changes. A young friend of mine tried to introduce “language creates culture” to his huddle of older businessmen, and it went over like a lead balloon for exactly this reason–they all knew better.

“Language creates culture” is not true; in fact it’s hopelessly naive. If only culture change were so easy! If you’re going to change culture, you have to a high-accountability change in values. (Remember that sentence!) When you are successfully incarnating, modeling, and passing on new values you often turn out to need new language that highlights the things you now value, and in that way, language can be part of a good culture shift. But just shifting the language won’t do it. (If you want a good look at the multiple drivers that change culture, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle is a good place to start.

So why does 3DM repeat the “language creates culture” slogan endlessly?

The people who are repeating this are good folks, and they honestly believe it’s true, but they’re not thinking effectively about what they’re actually doing. But they are actually doing something that–in a number of cases–is working pretty well. So let’s take a look at it.

The language they have in mind is the shapes, and what they’re actually doing with the shapes–at least in the average American church–is much more than changing the language. Remember, the average American church is very good at producing programs and sermons, and very poor at helping people become more like Jesus. Enter 3DM: what would you, as an average pew-sitting churchgoer, experience as you start to engage the first few shapes?

  • the circle: Suppose you begin to listen for what God is saying to you, test it in community with other believers, and take action on it.
  • the semicircle: Suppose you begin to prioritize rest and reflection, not just work.
  • the triangle: Suppose you begin taking regular inventory to see whether you are investing your time and attention in God, in His people, and in the world.

The point of these shapes is to get you to elevate certain priorities (hearing God’s voice, abiding over doing, and tending to your duties to God, His people, and the world), ask good questions about where you stand with those things, and act based on the answers.  Those questions challenge your existing values, and coaching and huddles provide accountability as your values begin to shift. So there it is: high-accountability change in values, which is what you actually need to shift your culture.

So in an odd way, in the total context of huddle and coaching, language really does create culture–because 3DM means something much more by “language” than what that word normally means. The “language” in question, the shapes, is not really a language but a set of teachings. 3DM is using the shapes to highlight concepts that most Christians agree on in theory but don’t actually practice very well.

That wouldn’t change things any more than a sermon does, (as some folks who taught Building a Discipling Culture as a sermon series or Sunday school curriculum found out the hard way,) except for one key factor: the concepts aren’t being introduced in the context of teaching. They’re being introduced in the context of small community discussion and accountability. That’s where change actually happens–ask any twelve-stepper. 

So to sum up: “Language creates culture” is bunk. It’s just not true. However, in the context of 3DM, the “language” of the shapes, used in the context of small-group discussion and accountability, shifts your values, which in turn begins to change your culture. Which is to say, there’s a lot more than language going on.

Another Look at 3DM

2 April 2019

Fast forward from 2011 to 2018. By this time, I’d spent quite a bit of time with 3DM materials, read most of the books, and could comfortably use the concepts I’d found helpful. During my years of work in the biblical Story, I had developed a lot of my own tools that stayed closer to the biblical text. But in real-life ministry, you use the best tool for the job, no matter where it came from. If my tools were a good fit for the person I was discipling, I used mine. If a 3DM tool was a better fit for the specific person and situation, I didn’t hesitate to use their tool instead, with joy and thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, my friend and mentor Dave, who originally introduced me to 3DM, was looking for a successor to step into his role at Centerpoint Church, a mission congregation composed mostly of homeless folks. He asked me to consider it, and as I prayed about it, God put a couple things in my heart: first, that I should say yes, and second, that there was no way I could do the job without serious coaching, accountability, and support.

Now, where does the new bivocational pastor of a 90% homeless congregation go to get coaching? Not a lot of places leap to mind, I can tell you.

In God’s kind providence, there was one place I knew I could trust…and we already had a relationship with them. It was Centerpoint’s parent church, Faith Community Church in Littleton. I had known Faith Community’s pastor, Jeff Allen, for years. In fact, Dave had introduced Jeff to 3DM in that same group I’d been part of back in 2011. In the intervening years, Jeff had gone all in with 3DM, becoming a coach, leading learning communities, and even writing a book (Small Church on a Big Mission) that used the 3DM platform to equip small churches.

Jeff was more than ready to have me…and he was ready to release control of the ministry, if that’s what I wanted. “I know you have great relationships with the churches in Englewood,” he said. “If there’s someone else that you’d rather have as your umbrella organization, we’ll be happy to have them step into our role.”

“No way!” I told him. “You have two choices: parent us and get us into your next Learning Community, or find someone else to do the job.”

And that’s how I came to be in the first-ever 3DM Hybrid Learning Community. Jeff’s passion is helping small churches, and learning communities have always been cumbersome for smaller churches. For a church with a full-time staff of 10, it’s no big deal to commit a team of 3 to multiple weekdays of training twice a year; they’re on salary anyhow, and it’s part of their job. When your whole staff is bivocational or volunteer, well, that’s a little different. This learning community is optimized for us.

So I’m taking a deep dive into 3DM’s resources. I don’t expect to change my basic “eat the meat; spit out the bones” approach to things. And knowing Jeff and his team, I don’t expect that to bother them much.

Meeting 3DM

26 March 2019

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….

Like Bread and Wine

19 March 2019

Over the next couple years, I’ll be involved in a protracted engagement with a number of people who are actively involved in using 3DM resources and applying their methods. I plan to discuss my experience here at some length; I hope these articles will be a help to others who are considering the brokenness of American church culture and considering various answers to it.

3DM offers one set of answers, and far from the only one. (There’s also Soma, Theopolis Institute, Trivium Institute, Greyfriars, Acts 29…the list goes on and on. And yes, those are not necessarily comparable organizations, which in itself illustrates the diversity of approaches.) I don’t think 3DM’s approach is The Answer To Everything; I found an earlier iteration of their material to be basically unworkable in my context, but still helpful and worth engaging. What I’m engaging now is a further iteration of their material, and I’m now in a different context, so…we’ll see how it goes. (That said, if you’re the kind that picks up your toys and goes home the minute you encounter unfamiliar terminology or an exegetical mistake, you’re going to find this difficult reading. But then, if you’re that kind, you’re probably over at Lighthouse Trails anyhow.)

3DM’s approach and resources present as a highly integrated, highly polished, highly developed system. So here’s the thing with systems like that. You stumble around, knowing you have a problem and not sure what to do. You find someone who has a couple of suggestions that look promising, so you look into their ideas a little further. The more you look into their system, the more you find. It’s all been carefully thought through; there are answers to everything! Everything fits together! Whether it’s a system of doctrine like Reformed theology or Dispensationalism, or a system of praxis like the 12 steps or 3DM, exploring a new system can be an intoxicating experience.

And “intoxicating” is the key. When you take in too much, too fast–faster than you can metabolize it–you get stupid and make bad choices. But like a fine wine, a good system can add value to your life, if you can take it in moderation, in doses you can metabolize. (Thanks to my pastor-theologian friend Tim Soots for the metaphor; he was talking about Barth at the time, but it applies just as well to other systems.)

Highly developed systems are also like a loaf of good bread: if the system is properly designed, the ingredients are well integrated to the point of being hard to recognize as separate entities. That is a design feature. Nobody eats eggs, flour, water, yeast, salt, and oil separately and thinks it’s the same thing as good bread. And if you find a lump of flour in the middle of your bread, it’s not good bread. The ingredients working together harmoniously is the point.

But every strength has a corresponding weakness. If the bread has one ingredient in it that you personally can’t digest — eggs, say — how can you eat it? It’s not like you can pick the eggs out of the loaf. And if, through some oversight, the baker has mixed in a quarter-cup of iron filings, then the loaf isn’t just useless to you; it’s bad for anybody.

At their finest, bread and wine become sacramental vehicles through which we experience Christ. At worst, they fully integrate indigestible and unhelpful ingredients, or make us drunk and stupid through overindulgence.

Wisely engaging a developed system (of doctrine or praxis) is not a simple task. It’s not really enough to simply glorify or condemn the finished product. The job is do take your time and unravel it. Dive deep into the ingredients, and examine how they work together. See what’s true and false, what’s bound to a particular context, what’s applicable to your own situation.

That’s what I intend to do here. Over the next few years, I’ll be writing a few different kinds of posts in this series:

  1. Autobiographical accounts of engaging and using 3DM tools and training (when I do)
  2. Reviews of 3DM resources
  3. Critical engagement with three particular content areas in 3DM training and resources: their use of Scripture, their underlying theology, and their grasp of the real world (pedagogical theory, culture formation, contextualization, etc.)

I hope it proves helpful to you. If you’re interested, you can keep up with these posts by checking on the 3DM category.

Jamie Smith, 3DM, and the Discipleship Gap

27 January 2013

A while back, I recommended Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom here. Let me repeat that recommendation. If you’re involved in education or Christian formation in any serious way, you probably ought to read it, or at least listen to the associated lectures (which are available free online). In a nutshell, Smith’s big point is that human beings aren’t simply “thinking things” — and so downloading propositional content into our heads, while important enough, is not the whole shebang. Rather, human beings are desiring, imagining creatures, and forming us into the image of Christ involves engaging the whole person in ways that go well beyond simply explaining some propositions.

Today I want to talk about an application of that important truth.

A while back, I was talking with a friend about bridging the gap between hearing a sermon in church and applying it in real life. We often seem to have an awful lot of trouble with that. I noticed this problem a long time ago — I grew up in the church. But the question is, what to do about it?

In the tribe I come from, the accepted solution was good, solid Bible preaching. A series on Ephesians, a series on Joshua, a sermon or three on a Psalm here and there. You could do a series on marriage or finding God’s will or whatever, but you always came back to straight expository preaching. Preach the Word, and all will be well.

And you know what? It worked. Well…it kinda worked. I know a number of the success stories. In some ways, I am one. We learned a large amount of Bible, and we heard someone explain how it could be applied in our lives. In a number of cases, we put the stuff to work, and it became part of the way we lived — which is to say, it worked.

Except when it didn’t. Except when we found ourselves unable to effectively fight a temptation even though we knew perfectly well what we were supposed to be doing. Or when we couldn’t quite see how to fit the propositional wisdom of Scripture into the warped situation we were facing. Or whatever. There were a lot of cases where it didn’t work well enough. If a problem went untended long enough, it got untenable, and then we ended up in need of pastoral counseling.

The lucky ones actually got good pastoral counseling. I was one of those, praise God. In some corners of the tribe, they didn’t believe in counseling. They believed in preaching doctrine, and the rest was up to the Holy Spirit. The people who needed counseling in those churches were in a really bad way, and those churches are some of the most toxic in my experience.

Even in our better churches, though, the problem remained. There was a gap between the good stuff we heard on Sunday morning and our ability to put it to work in our own lives. Something was missing. When I became an assistant pastor, I pointed this out to my boss and asked him if I could tackle the problem in our congregation. He turned me loose on it. So what did I do?

I realized (correctly) that Matthew is a manual of Christian discipleship. So I invited the people who were interested in closing the gap between their intellectual knowledge and their day-to-day practice, and I taught a Bible study on Matthew.

Did you catch that? The problem was that teaching the Bible wasn’t getting the whole job done, and I tried to solve the problem by…teaching the Bible some more. Now Bible teaching isn’t bad, just like water isn’t bad. But offering a glass of water to a downing man is maybe not the best idea ever, and if he objects, lecturing him on how water is necessary to life is simply not an appropriate response.

Which is to say, Bible teaching meets a need, but it is not the only need we have.


3DM — an acronym for 3-Dimensional Ministries, or some such — produces some of the most outstanding materials for discipleship that I’ve ever seen. There are some curricular materials, and the truth is, they’re kinda hokey. The hokiness, such as it is, makes the material memorable, but the curriculum is only part of the recipe. The key is a social vehicle called a Huddle — a small group of leaders and leaders-in-training that are being mentored through the process of life-on-life discipleship. The 3DM guys are adamant that you can’t just read a couple of their books and then start a Huddle on your own. You need to experience being in one first before you try to replicate it.

Now the books are kinda expensive, but being huddled by a 3DM coach or joining one of their learning communities (a 2-year process) costs a small fortune. A cynic would be inclined to observe that the 3DM guys are effectively saying, “Sure, you could blow $120 on books, read them, and try to apply what you learned, but it’s not going to work unless you give us a couple thousand more to guide you through it.”

Thing is…they might be right. That’s the way it worked for me.


I knew about the discipleship gap early in my career. I tried to address it, but even though I knew the problem was not lack of teaching, I fell right back into trying to teach my way out of it. It would be far too easy to do the same thing with any other material — from 3DM, or Navigators, or anybody else. If I make that mistake, I reduce whatever material I’m using to just another nifty currriculum with some good memory aids — and let’s face it, I can get 3 of those for $5 on the bargain shelf of my local Christian bookstore.

It me a year or so of being led in a huddle by an older, more experienced disciple-maker to bring me to the point where I could replicate the experience, where I was ready to disciple rather than simply teach. Which is to say that person-to-person transmission, in a high-contact personal context, really matters. God made us to learn, not only from the Book, but from the Body.