A Critical Book Review
Concentric Circles of Concern: Seven Stages for Making Disciples by W. Oscar Thompson, Jr. with Carolyn Thompson Ritzmann (Revised and Updated by Claude V. King)
Thompson, W. Oscar, Carolyn Thompson Ritzmann, and Claude V. King. Concentric Circles of Concern: Seven Stages for Making Disciples. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman & Holman, 1999.
Dr. W. Oscar Thompson, Jr. enjoyed the privilege of teaching “a thousand young seminarians how to share their faith” (p 203) before his death to cancer in 1980. After twenty years of service as a pastor, Thompson took a teaching position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he taught evangelism and touched the lives of many students. Some of these stories appear in his book, Concentric Circles of Concern: Seven Stages for Making Disciples. In addition, “he served as president of the Oscar Thompson Evangelistic Association; as pastoral consultant of Cancer Counseling Research Foundation: and pastoral consultant and board member of the Trinity Valley Hospice Association, Inc.” (back cover). At the time of the book’s publication, Thompson was married with one daughter.
Claude V. King was a staff member of an evangelistic church in Nashville, Tennessee before entering seminary in New Orleans. While in seminary, he stumbled upon Thompson’s Concentric Circles of Concern in a bookstore and believed the Church would be well served to read this book (p 1). King, the best selling co-author of Experiencing God, then embarked upon updating Thompson’s book as well as adding study guides and tips for interacting with the text at the end of each chapter. King has also authored numerous learning programs including Final Command and The Lord’s Table and he serves as a discipleship-training leader.
Concentric Circles of Concern opens with an explanation of what might very well be the foundation of the rest of the book, the “. . . most important word in the English language, apart from proper nouns . . .” (p 8)—relationship. Relationship according to Thompson is how the early church transmitted the gospel and how it is to be best transmitted today. A right relationship with God and with others is the critical first step in sharing the gospel because the gospel does not flow from one house to the next house on the address list, but instead through our relationships. Thompson proceeds to explore who we are connected to through our relationships and how we can strategically reach them for the Lord.
Using seven concentric circles, Thompson shares where to place each of our relationships within these rings. In the center is ‘self,’ followed in an outward direction by ‘family, relatives, friends, neighbors and associates, acquaintances,’ and then “Person X” (p 20). As explained, the church is too often focused on saving Person X—that unknown person that bounces in and out of our lives or that we send missionaries to—when we are not working to reach those relationships closer to us. Thompson takes it even further by suggesting that we will be ineffective reaching Person X if we are incapable of reaching out to our other relationships. In the visual representation of his evangelism model, Thompson places “Seven Stages for Making Disciples” around the last ring of the concentric circles. In board game fashion, the stages are: 1. Get Right, 2. Survey, 3. Pray, 4. Build Bridges, 5. Show Love, 6. Make Disciples, and 7. Begin Again. By going around the circle, there is no beginning or end to the stages, although; the logical starting place is the top of the model located at Get Right. The remainder of the book is an explanation of Thompson’s model and how it is to be utilized.
In “Get Right,” Thompson shares the importance of reconciling and forgiving any of our relationships that are hurting or broken. He also explains the significance of not only knowing about God, but actually knowing him intimately and growing in a personal walk with him. Under “Survey,” the reader is expected to think about every person he or she knows and place him or her in the appropriate circle, saved or unsaved. This list could be a couple hundred people or more long. Once the list is compiled, Thompson calls his readers to “Prayer.” Many pages are devoted to how to pray, whom to pray for, and the importance of prayer. “Intercessory prayer,” writes Thompson “is like a guided missile. It always hits its target” (p 117).
“Building Bridges” as explained by Thompson, is primarily examples of various methods and the importance of reaching out to those in the circles where only weak relationships exist. Paired closely with this section, “Show Love” allows the love of Jesus to flow through us in order to help establish credibility and build the relationship to a point where step six may be possible. Both of these sections include Thompson’s many suggestions and stories about building bridges and showing love.
Step six, “Make Disciples” excludes what typical books on evangelism include, that is, systematic methods of sharing the gospel and overcoming objections. Here however, Thompson shares the importance of authenticity. A definition of a disciple is offered as well as tips for helping shepherd new believers into the fullness of the Body of Christ. In turn, they too will begin the Concentric Circles lifestyle themselves, which is part of the “Begin Again” step. Beginning again means to make the process a lifestyle of evangelism and bring others along.
Concentric Circle of Concern is loaded with success stories, mostly those of Thompson’s seminary students, which serve to make his point through anecdotal narrative. Often, conversations are restated, bringing the reader right into the classroom with Thompson.
The Church should thank King for resurrecting this fantastic book and adding tools to help make Thompson’s work perfect for a small group study or a guide book for a local church evangelism ministry class. His additions, “Personalizing the Chapter” and “Building up the Body” help bring practical and immediate application to Concentric Circles of Concern. No longer should the methodology of reaching the lost and making disciples be a topic of mere discussion. However, King should have done more to modernize the text. Even in 1999, the year of republication, few if any people were still using ham radios or traveled with CBs in their cars. How many people have exchanged sending post cards and mail for e-mail? Leaving those examples and suggestions in the text is fine, but King might have better reached his younger audiences by including some additional examples of how to connect with the lost, to include the use of Internet. If the book were to see another edition printed today, the inclusion of text messaging, social networking, and other technological methods of communication might be helpful.
Thompson Concentric Circle model is brilliant and should be employed in the lives of any Christian claiming to be evangelical. The simplification of the model (perhaps over-simplification) allows it to be shared and taught easily. (Just the other night, I shared the model with some fellow Christians and drew it from memory, explaining it with little trouble.) The model, without Thompson’s examples, still holds a convicting power that should ignite the heart of any Christian desiring to reach his or her lost relatives, family, friends, co-workers, and so on.
However, few if any stories are provided that do not have the intended results of reconciliation and salvation. Should a reader not see the same results, he or she might become discouraged, and in fact, discontinue his or her efforts. Thompson should have provided stories of people that pray but do not see the expected results, as is often a difficult part of evangelism.
In addition, Thompson presents such a systematized model, that there is little room for variation or modification. Evangelism and outreach can sometimes be much more complicated than Thompson has alluded to. Relationships come loaded with problems, that indeed need God’s intervention, but the examples provided suggest that prayer and a single letter or visit will resolve all the difficulties. Allowing for some variation in his claims, Thompson might have earned a greater credibility for his work.
The largest oversight however, is in his section called “Make Disciples” which shares in part, the title. This section, which should logically be the largest, is the shortest (other than the obviously short “Start Again” chapter). Thompson discussed what a disciple should be and how to get one involved in the Body of Christ, but he seems to skip over the part of actually leading someone to the point of decision. After building up to this point, he simply encourages his reader to be honest. “Sharing the gospel or sharing what Jesus has done in your life” says Thompson, “should not be a problem” (p 181). But for many today, it is a problem. He continues to encourage his readers to trust the Holy Spirit and then offers his suggestions on how to share the gospel in a single paragraph followed by a couple of success stories (minus the actual conversation surrounding the decision). Thompson writes, “Just simply talk to people about what the Lord means in your life. Share John 3:16, use a gospel track, use a marked New Testament, or whatever” (p 181). One would think a book on making disciples could include at least a few more pages dedicated to this conversation.
Thompson’s process to get right, survey, pray, build a bridge, love, make disciples, and start again is great and much needed in the Church today. This book, paired with one or two on the actual process of leading the lost to the Lord, make an excellent church class on how to reach the lost through servant evangelism in our relationships. Despite some oversights, this is a valuable book for any Christian who wants to share the Faith with the people God has placed in his or her life.
*I have no material connection to this book. This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.