Over the last several years, Crossway has published the 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series of books. This series is by and large an explanation of the ministry that has grown out of Mark Dever’s well-known ministry at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. As I wrote in an earlier review of the first seven volumes in this series, these tools provide a concise and clear introduction to the centrality and importance of a healthy local church (Themelios 40 : 181–84,). The recent addition by Mark Dever, Discipling: How to Help Others Follow Jesus, is a worthy contribution to the overall goal of the series.
The structure of this short book is straightforward. In the first section, Dever defines discipleship, provides an explanation of it from the Bible, and answers some possible objections. In short, discipling is “helping others to follow Jesus by doing deliberate spiritual good to them” (p. 19), and the clearest pattern we see for this in Scripture is the example of Jesus and his apostles. Since this book is in the “Building Healthy Churches” series, it should not be surprising that in the second section Dever argues that the primary context for discipleship should be the local church. In the last part of the book, he outlines some basic patterns for discipleship and emphasizes that the discipleship process is the primary way to raise up leaders in the church.
The conclusion of the book is not actually written by Dever, but instead by the long-time Robin to his Batman, Jonathan Leeman. Even those who only know of Dever’s ministry from a distance often hear about the pastoral internship program and other discipleship programs at Capitol Hill Baptist. Leeman explains how Dever’s discipling ministry has been marked by “exercising authority and giving away authority” (p. 105). That is to say, Leeman explains how Dever models the way every disciple-maker and disciple should understand how to use authority to help others follow Jesus and to how to hand off authority to others for the same purpose. The proper use of authority (both in its exercise and its transference) is in short supply in the world today. If this book encourages better use of authority, it has served us well.
As I mentioned, this is a short book, so I do not intend to write a disproportionately long review. However, apart from what I have mentioned above, I would like to highlight one point and raise an additional issue a reader might consider while reading the book.
While there are many books on discipleship, it is unlikely that few of them emphasize the local church to the degree that Dever does in this book. While he does mention the need for parachurch ministries to submit their disciple-making efforts to the local church, he emphasizes the need for local churches to ensure that they are in fact committed to discipleship. “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?” (p. 52). Sadly, the answer is often yes.
Dever’s solution is not to restructure the church or advocate for some new ecclesiological structure, but instead to lean into what the church was always supposed to do, but with an eye toward discipleship. The weekly gathering should help others follow Jesus. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper should help others follow Jesus. Our regular interactions with each other should help others follow Jesus. Being intentional about orienting these things toward discipleship should slowly transform the culture in a church.
Discipleship, however, does not stop with these “regular events.” Dever also encourages the intentional, focused relationships built around one-on-one meetings that have clear aims and outcomes in view. While I have benefitted greatly from being in both the “junior” and “senior” role in these kinds of discipleship relationships, my fear with this pattern is that we can check the discipleship box by having a 30-minute meeting every other week. But if we are truly rooting these relationships in the context of the local church, we can help fight against this tendency.
By bringing our discipleship relationships out of the corner table at Starbucks and into our Sunday morning gatherings and beyond, we will multiply the benefit of those Starbucks meetings exponentially. This is precisely the pattern Dever describes in Discipling. As you read this book, be careful not to separate the tips for how to disciple from the primary context for discipleship: the local church. All of the patterns of a healthy church complement and support each other, and when the practices taught in this short book are placed alongside the other healthy church patterns taught in this series, then you and your local church will benefit greatly as a result.