Choose Your Own Adventure: The Dangers of Self-Directed Discipleship

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One of my favorite childhood book series to check out from the school library was the  Choose Your Own Adventure series. As the title implies, rather than be restricted (heaven forbid) to a storyline determined by the author, the reader is free to determine, on page after page, his own way forward in the book – resulting in many possible different endings via different paths. The story was more or less what you made it – you were in charge. And it was great!

What works in children’s fiction, however, may not be so great in the realm of Christian discipleship.

Two weekends ago I had the privilege of attending the Ekklesia Conference and Pastors’ Pre-Conference. The first message of the conference was just what the doctor ordered for our generation, speaking of “the dangers of digital shepherding.

The message commended the many benefits that come to Christians by virtue of modern technology, but warned against the limits and dangers of digital media as the means to care for your soul.

Over the last several years, I have often thought of a similar, parallel set of challenges that come in the realm of making disciples and equipping for ministry. While my own ministry training foundation was laid at a school that I found by way of radio, books, and the internet, I also am concerned for those whose search for Christian growth begins and ends with those resources rather than the healthy confines of a sound local assembly.

Rather than simply attending church, serving as needs arise (Romans 12:10), submitting to godly leaders (Hebrews 13:17), and learning from more mature Christians (Titus 2:2-8), too many believers today are charting their own course in the realm of what they learn and from whom they learn it.

Every Christian is responsible for his own soul before the Lord (Romans 14:10, 12), but his preparation for that day demands the assistance of others.

So my additional, long-standing concern is not just the dangers and limits of what this form of discipleship itself entails, but rather it is what it enables.

These concerns fall into the following categories of harmful things enabled by a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of discipleship:

  • Enabling unaddressed weakness in many areas (despite growth in some others)

In 2002 I made a New Year’s resolution to work out every other day, and kept it without fail for eight months before a case of carpal tunnel got me out of the habit (long-term, as it turns out). When I began doing weight training, I simply used the machines at the YMCA for nearly every muscle I could think of.

But after speaking with my bodybuilding cousin, I soon learned the truth: while machines were helping me to lift more raw weight in some directions, they actually were not as good for my physical ability as working out with dumbbells. The reason? Only a limited portion of my muscles were actually being worked in the workout. Sure, some of my triceps might get bigger, but what about the surrounding supporting muscles? I might have better “results” with the machines, but I would be in much worse shape.

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Discipleship according to your own selection can easily create a similar problem.

You pick and choose what you want to learn and who you want to learn it from. You gravitate easily toward hobby horses and away from blind spots. You keep learning more of the things you’re more familiar with because they are easier to you. But no one is there to challenge or balance you. You’re among the most dangerous kind of person there is: you don’t know what you don’t know.

Meanwhile, you are comparing yourself to everyone else doing machines in the gym and you think you’re doing pretty well because your numbers are better than theirs. All the while, you’re setting yourself up to rip a muscle somewhere when you have to lift an unexpectedly difficult load using muscle groups you never worked.

This is why Mark Dever argues that it may actually be harmful to engage in some types of formal discipling relationships outside of one’s own local church:

Furthermore, if a friend of yours attends an unhealthy church, you might be doing damage to their spiritual life by discipling them. How? Your spiritual support, ironically, enables him or her to remain in a church that does not teach the Bible. This is not an absolute rule, but it may be better just to encourage your friend to join a healthy church. Christians need the whole body, not just you.

Over the years I have known many people who recognize that they need more instruction than what their church is willing to give them. They have taken concerns to leadership and realized that things just aren’t going to change. The church is not interested in training intensely in the Scriptures; that’s what seminary or the library is for.

So they rightly seek to learn God’s word, and resources outside the church are a great blessing to them. But instead of these resources helping them to see that they need to be around others with a similar commitment to grow, they sometimes instead cause them to be content to get just enough from the sermons and books to experience some degree of growth.

And are they growing? Sure! But it is similar to training on machines: it’s limited to the areas they know about; it’s deceptively relative (in comparison to others in the same malnourishing situation); and it’s leaving them exposed to major problems when unexpected but inevitable tests and trials come.

A second concern about what this kind of discipleship does:

  • Enabling increasing knowledge with little sharpening challenge from others.

Spend any time in a well-taught church and you will find the self-made theologian. This is the person who has studied intensely on his own. He is very passionate about growing in knowledge and may even be deeply concerned for godliness. He talks about the books he has read and the sermons he has listened to.

This self-made theologian often comes from the type of church mentioned above. He is often a trophy of God’s grace to open someone’s eyes to the need to learn the Bible broadly and deeply. He has suffered many long years under the ministry of unqualified leaders. He has been for so long the smartest theological mind in the room (actually, not just in his own mind) that he is not used to others outclassing him in their knowledge and character.

It is a blessing to see this kind of person humble himself and say (as I heard in at least one new member testimony at my previous church), “I used to think I knew a lot of the Bible until I came to this church.”

But the danger is this: that so much puffing up has already taken place that humility is a difficult, difficult task for someone with such a background. Self-will and pride have possibly run unchecked for years. The largely-correct beliefs and the insightful observations about the flaws of their previous ministries are suddenly found to be only part of what they need to be mature in Christ, and it is hard to admit this.

In an evangelical world where there are so many deliberately shallow ministries, it is unsurprising that this often happens. But when it is seen, it should be addressed as the great danger to the soul that it really is.

The best thing a self-made theologian can do is to find the leaders of a faithful church and make himself an open book for instruction and pushback on anything and everything that can be shown him from the Bible.

Many seminarians would testify that it took every bit of their 3-4 years and perhaps longer to beat the self-will and oversimplifications out of their biblical and theological perspectives. I’m still doing it myself to this day. I heard it said on more than one occasion, “No one knows more than a first-year seminary student.” It’s entirely possible that this is, facetiously, true.

Yet, I am nearly convinced that the man who has read Grudem’s Systematic Theology on his own 4 times without seeking out intense pastoral discipleship could probably give him a run for his money.

Beware of being a self-made theologian who won’t actively put himself in a situation to be challenged by other sound biblical minds.

The world is full of self-made theologians, but the church is no place for them.

A third problem with this a la carte discipleship is:

  • Enabling individual study and growth to the neglect of corporate body life and ministry

Every Christian should be faithful not only in public but also (and especially) in private. But personal Bible study is the means to an end, not the goal in itself.

Paul told Timothy that the goal of their instruction is love (1 Timothy 1:5). Love for God might be included in that command, but love for neighbor definitely is (cf. also Romans 13:8-10). The goal of learning, then is love in action.

But many people may well be content to simply study the Bible for personal growth, while neglecting this connection between instruction and love of one another in the church. And the number of available resources to enable this individualism is staggering.

The sheer number of “one another” commands given to New Testament believers indicates plainly that no one can live a fully faithful Christian life apart from ministry among the body of Christ.

But the individual customization of Bible instruction on-demand often morphs from a great supplement into a detrimental replacement to biblical learning in corporate fellowship. Presence with the body of Christ should be the goal of instruction, not just one more alternative.

It is a blessing for people who are sick or otherwise kept at home to be able to learn from a distance via audio recordings or live stream. Thank God for this! But the moment it becomes a preference rather than a wonderful backup plan, it has gotten in the way of true spiritual growth.

The same thing goes for individual discipleship: many want the personal attention and friendship that “discipleship” (one-on-one) provides, but how much they truly want to grow must be called into question when corporate worship is optional due simply to their own lack of desire to attend.


So what does a Christian need?

He needs the “whole body”, having been equipped for ministry, to work properly in each individual part (Ephesians 4:12-16).

He needs the challenge of shepherds giving oversight who can and will point out unnoticed areas of theological and personal weakness.

He needs others to sometimes set the agenda for what he is learning, because they see a deficiency in his life, or because God providentially uses them to mention something they have been learning from God’s word that he has never thought of.

In short, he needs God’s design for discipleship: a faithful church with faithful leaders who will help him grow in all the ways that Christ intends for his beloved people.

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