Harrington, Bobby and Alex Absalom. Discipleship that Fits: The Five Kinds of Relationships God Uses to Help Us Grow. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2016.
Lately, there are few books that I talk about more than Discipleship that Fits by Bobby Harrington and Alex Absalom (other than the Bible), so it is fitting that I've finally got some time to write a review.
I was first introduced to Harrington's work during the literature review for my doctoral research. I noticed an idea presented in DiscipleShift, by Jim Putman and Bobby Harrington was showing up in other work on discipleship; but typically, this ideas was only given one or two pages. The concept, shared in secular work, centers around relational spaces. The proximity, size, or space in which a group exists has different advantages and disadvantages in discipleship. In his book, Discipleship Uncomplicated Warren Hayes refereed to these groups by where they meet in a home. Living room, dinning room, and so-on. Discipleship that Fits is a book entirely dedicated to these relationships/spaces and identifies them as Public, Social, Personal, Transparent, and Divine.
Understanding these relationships between groups is vital in discipleship. Missing any relationship means there's likely a lack in the full range of possibilities of discipleship as a church. House Church movements often want to disregard the public space. Small groups (Personal relationships) are often seen as the only relationship for discipleship in church, but while that relationship has great advantages, it misses out on the advantages of the Social relationship, Transparent relationship, and Divine relationship. Each relationship has different strengths and weaknesses.
Harrington builds on the 1960s work of Edward Hall, and a more recent work by Joseph Myers called The Search to Belong (2003). The idea is that physical distance shapes the nature and depth of relationships (51). Harrington takes the physical distance idea and compounds that against the intimacy of the relationship. He points out that someone standing next to another in a shopping line may by physically close but intimately very far. The same is true for a group of people on an airplane. But there are still huge advantages in this space. Harrington also looks at the spaces more as "contexts" (52).
Discipleship that Fits starts with a discussion on discipleship. Why is it biblically important? How did Jesus model discipleship, specifically in the different relationship contexts? And what are some ways in which discipleship might be more natural and easier than we've tried to make it? Harrington answers these questions and many more in discipleship.
For the remainder of his book, each of the relationship contexts is examined. Strengths and weaknesses of each relationship context bring the reader to new conclusions. Why can't we just dump the Sunday service? Oh, because the Public relationship context has advantages in discipleship that can't be picked up anywhere else. Why should every church have Missional Communities (or whatever they call their Social space context) and how do those communities fit with Small Groups in relationship to discipleship? This book deals with that too. And what about one-on-one discipleship? Also covered.
Discipleship that Fits puts to rest the arguments about different group types. Sunday school or small groups? Missional communities or dinner parties? Is it okay to meet in larger gatherings or should we dump all that and only meet in houses? Small church or mega-church? These questions all come from thinking that misunderstands the value of different relationships. Harrington argues that a church should have every type of context represented if it is to be as effective as possible in discipleship.
After reading this book, I realized that I was trying to cram Social spaces into our Sunday services (Public space), causing some grief. I also realized we were missing Social contexts. At the church where I pastor, we started making changes, understanding how to better capitalize on the strengths of each relational space. We also started doing things a little differently within each of those contexts and have found much more fruit.
I often flirt with thinking there's not much value in a Sunday gathering, but that is because I often miss the value of discipleship in the Public space. I also now understand what drives pastors into their preferred relational contexts. I see my own preferences and understand why I would rather have a church in one relational context over another, but I also know that all five are completely necessary. I love the Personal context but I can't try to make everything fit in that context or it just gets awkward. In addition, our church misses out on other discipleship opportunities. Churches shouldn't give preferential treatment to one space over another because it's the balance between them that has the most value. I also started seeing that some of the different things we were doing at Redeeming Life, although somewhat different, were actually all camping out in only one or two spaces; therefore, we dumped some of those things in favor of adding other activities that function in other relational spaces.
I believe this book should be required reading for any seminary student, pastor-in-training, missionary, and frankly, anybody in ministry. It's also helpful for the church member who wants to see things dropped at church or is jaded against discipleship in different contexts beyond his or her own preferences. There are so many young people who think the Sunday gathering is obsolete, but I now know these individuals simply don't understand the Public space (which they love so much in non-church context). If you know someone like this, get him or her a copy of this book. There are many people of older generations who want everything done at the church building on Sunday morning. They have a lot in common with the jaded young people--it's a misunderstanding of relational contexts. Get these folks a copy too. Just imagine what could happen when we all start to see discipleship the way Jesus discipled in the various relational spaces and followed his example!
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