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Book Reviews Christianity Ministry

Mike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture: Language Creates Culture (Chapter 5)

Cover of Mike Breen's Building a Discipling CultureI am reviewing Mike Breen and Steve Cockram’s book, Building a Discipleship Culture. Breen’s approach to disciple-making and ministry is appealing. So I wanted to blog through the book chapter by chapter.


In the previous posts on Mike Breen’s book, I discussed his view of discipleship and his assertion that many of our churches’ problems can be traced to problems with disciplemaking.

Chapter 5 is the introduction to the heart of the book. Breen and his co-workers have developed LifeShapes, which form the “shared language” of his approach to disciplemaking. From Chapter 6 onward, he introduces these LifeShapes.

As we discussed in the last chapter, Breen thinks that a discipling culture needs a shared language. When I first read the book, I found his stress on having a shared language as odd. And I’m still not sold on this. I agree with him that having a way of talking about different aspects of the Christian life and discipleship is helpful in teaching others. But, as you’ll see, Breen seems to think we can have a discipling language that assists in creating a discipling language in the same way that a society’s language helps create that society’s culture.

But Chapter 5 is where Breen explains why he thinks a shared language is so important. So let’s look at what he says and think carefully about it.

Language and Culture

“Sociologists say that language creates culture….The idea that language creates culture may sound strange, but it’s quite intuitive when we start to see it all around us.” (Kindle Locations 632-641).

Most people never think about the ways that our ways of talking impact the culture we create. All of us impact the cultures we are in –– whether it is the culture of a family, the culture in a workplace, or the culture of a church. But we do. Of course, leaders usually have more impact than others, so the ways that leaders talk do impact a culture.

At a more expansive level, there are good reasons to believe that a society’s language shapes its culture. But I don’t think we have to accept or even to understand the thinking and research behing this. As Breen says, you can see how the ways that you talk affect the smaller “cultures” that you live in. I tend to be a little sarcastic (okay, more than a little), and my sarcasm influences the groups I’m around. Often, they become more sarcastic.

You see this in your life. So, after a moment’s reflection, you probably would not disagree with Breen.

In Bill Hybels’ book, (http://www.amazon.com/Axiom-Powerful-Leadership-Bill-Hybels/dp/0310285402)[Axioms], he talks about how important it is to craft memorable phrases that define goals and values of your organization. In Hybels’ experience, these phrases get picked up and used throughout your organization (in his case, his church) and can greatly affect people. The culture begins to be shaped by it.

This is what Breen is discussing. He wants a way of talking about following Jesus that is memorable enough that the people around him begin using the concepts and phrases. Then, over time, these concepts become a part of the culture and are passed on to others.

I mentioned earlier that I do think that Breen overreaches in this chapter. One reason is that I think he makes too much out of his LifeShapes being a language in the sense that sociologists talk about a language. It’s not that what Breen is talking about is just a smaller-scaled version. Despite similarities, we are really talking about two different things here. If we standardize a way of talking about following Jesus and making disciples, then we can affect our church’s culture. But I’m not comfortable saying that it is a full-blown, culture-creating language. Also, many churches are effective at disciple-making who do not have a standardized language.

But we can move on and not reflect to much about this. It really doesn’t affect things all that much. As long as we understand the role a “shared language” would play more along the lines of Hybels’s memorable phrases and not a society’s language, I don’t think there is too much objectionable here.

Language and Our Christian Subculture

“We know what it’s like to create a religious culture. Most churches have developed a whole language that is particular to the church world that some people are fond of calling “Christian-ese.” We have developed a religious language rather than a spiritual or discipling language. We use words that no one outside of church uses. We know religious spaces have certain rules, certain decorum and certain dress codes.” (Kindle Locations 652-655).

Since language creates culture, the way we talk and act have contributed to the Christian subculture that most of us are familiar with and lament. Notice what has happened. Rather than our language conveying Christian principles to outsiders and to new Christians, our language has created a subculture which is a large reason that non-believers and new Christians often feel alienated when they first start attending church.

Some people, however, criticize the church having any subculture of its own. But I don’t think Breen has a problem with the church having its own subculture. (I suppose he would think it is unavoidable, giving that a group of people usually develop their own ways of talking, and Breen stresses that “language creates culture.”) Rather, Breen wants us to be intentional about the language that we use and the resulting culture it creates. The problem with the typical subculture the church has created is that it is a subculture of exclusion and alienation. Rather, the church’s subculture should be one of disicpling.

A Language of Discipling

He says:

“This language should be the DNA of Jesus’ teachings, Scripture, leadership, mission and discipleship. The language should be shared by you and the people you are discipling, and eventually, by everyone in your church community. If we want to create a culture of discipleship, we need a language to support it.

“One of the reasons we have seen so much success discipling people is we have an agreed-on language. The language we use, called LifeShapes, is a collection of eight shapes with each shape representing a foundational teaching of Jesus or principle from his life and is one that I (Mike) started developing in the early 1980’s. Over the past thirty years these shapes have become fully formed into this language.” (Kindle Locations 664-670).

One reason many people find Breen’s discipleship material so effective is the discipling language that he’s created. Having these concepts––which summarize some of the basics of the Christian life and discipling –– to use in one’s ministry can slowly change the way people talk. In some ways, it gives people ways of talking about things that they’ve never had before.

For example, the first LifeShape that Breen introduces in the book is the Learning Circle. Since we’ll learn more about the Learning Circle next chapter, permit me to summarize it briefly and save the fuller explanation for later. Basically, the Learning Circle gives you a way to process things God has been teaching you in your life and to discern ways to live out the things God is teaching you.

The Bible teaches that God is active all around us, teaching us through the Scriptures, our conscience, fellow Christians, the Holy Spirit’s promptings, and so on. And I had taught that pretty consistently in my old ministry. But the LifeShape of the Learning Circle gave some of my students a way to talk about what God was teaching them. It slowly began to change the culture, I think.

Breen has done the hard work to find ways to talk about different aspects of the Christian’s life, like prayer, evangelism, relationships, spiritual gifts, spiritual health, etc. Though the LifeShapes are admittedly weird and cheesy, in my experience, they work.

Having a way to talk about evangelism or prayer or spiritual health helps lead to a culture where those things are talked about and emphasized. And, because we are in an image-based culture, Breen has found that tying these concepts and ways of talking into shapes makes them more memorable.

A Language Lived Out

But we have to be careful that we don’t misunderstand all this talk about the language we use and think that just talking about the various aspects of following Jesus is enough. We should have a language to talk about the way Jesus lived, but that should also be modeled in our lives. Breen says:

“Each shape serves as a kind of portal or rabbit hole, with an endless number of Scripture passages, stories or practices attached. Let’s be clear: The biggest question about someone isn’t whether he or she could teach for five hours on a silly shape. The question is, does his or her life actually embody and incarnate the shape and Scripture teaching, and can this person multiply that into someone else’s life? That was Jesus’ criterion and so it is ours as well.” (Kindle Locations 741-744).

And, because of that, the language that Breen is going to introduce us to in the following chapters –– the LifeShapes — do not need to be the basis of a sermon series or a new small group study.

“Lastly, on a very practical note, if you are a pastor, we highly recommend you not teach LifeShapes in a sermon series. If you do this, you will be subtly telling your community that this is just another program, but more importantly, it’ll come across as more information for them to engage or ignore. The best way to teach LifeShapes is in the context of a Huddle where you have all three types of learning functioning together.” (Kindle Locations 752-755)


I found this chapter to be the driest in the whole book. Breen’s ideas in this chapter are helpful, but I’m not sure I find all of his framework necessary. Using memorable phrases and principles make those “stickier”, which help influence the culture. But I’m not sure it’s a necessary part of building a discipling culture that you “develop” your own discipling language or use an already developed language. And, as usual, Breen’s exegesis seems a little stretched. I don’t think Jesus’s language (“Kingdom of God”, “Repent and believe”, and so on) functioned anywhere near how Breen is going to use his LifeShapes. But, nonetheless, Breen’s approach will likely be effective for ministries.

Book Reviews Christianity Ministry

Mike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture: Building a Discipling Culture (Chapter 4)

Cover of Mike Breen's Building a Discipling CultureI am reviewing Mike Breen’s book, Building a Discipleship Culture. Breen’s approach to disciple-making and ministry is appealing. So I wanted to blog through the book chapter by chapter.

Is Breen Too Focused on Disciplemaking?

If you have been following this series, then you know that Mike Breen stresses disciplemaking. Before you complain that he only talks about discipleship, you need to remember two things. First, this book is about discipleship. But, second, Breen believes the problems with today’s churches arise from our poor, and often non-existant, disciplemaking.

Becoming Experts at Disciplemaking

Since Breen considers disciplemaking important, he does not merely want ministers to implement a program to make disciples in their churches. He wants to make sure that churches and ministers are informed and equipped so that they can be experts at discipleship.

Breen says:

“What we want to do is help you learn the craft of discipleship and encourage you to put in the hours and perseverance necessary to become great at it….If there’s anything any of us should become great at, it’s making disciples who can make disciples.” (Kindle Locations 533-540).

I suspect that one of the reasons that Breen has been successful in coaching ministers and churches is his emphasis on becoming experts at discipleship. Church leaders often believe that good intentions are more importance than striving for excellence. Though we have God’s grace for our ministry failures, this doesn’t exempt us from doing our best. Given the importance of disciplemaking, we should strive for excellence in it.

But many church leaders are happy if they can point to programs that are intended to make disciples. It doesn’t matter if they are effective at doing so. You would probably be surprised at how many ministeries and programs are considered successful simply because they exist.

The Importance of a Discipling Culture

Breen says an essential element of disciplemaking is forming a culture of disciplemaking. He says:.

From our experience doing this, if you want make disciples, if you want to build a discipling culture in your community, you are going to need three things:
1) A discipleship vehicle (we call it a Huddle)
2) People need access to your life (discipleship can’t be done at a distance)
3) A discipling language (our discipling language is called LifeShapes).” (Kindle Locations 533-540).

These three components will help build a discipling culture in your ministry or church and help you make disciples. The first two are obvious. You need an organized way to make disciples. You could meet with people one-on-one just to pray. Or you could have a small group. But Breen has found –– both from studying how Jesus made disciples and from his own experience –– that one of the more effective ways to make disciples is to use what he calls a “huddle” as the discipleship vehicle. (We’ll discuss huddles later.)

Breen describes a Huddle this way:

“A huddle is the group of four to ten people you feel God has called you to specifically invest in, and you will meet with them regularly (at least every other week) to intentionally disciple them in a group setting” (Kindle Locations 546-548).

Second, if you are going to make disciples, your life needs to be open and accessible to those you are discipling. You have to be available to spend time with them and help them during crises; you also have to model the Christian life for them by letting them see how you live.

The regular meetings of a huddle is the organized component. The organic component is giving the people access to your life. And when you disciple people you have to make a strong effort to rearrange your life and schedule to give them access.

“Giving people access to our lives doesn’t necessarily mean we constantly schedule additional time for coffee or drop everything for them at a moment’s notice (though depending on the situation, it could mean that). If someone is struggling spiritually, invite him or her to go to the grocery store with you and talk with you on the drive there and at the store as you shop. Fold the person into your normal comings and goings. It doesn’t have to mean more work; it means we are more efficient and smart in how we use our time” (Kindle Locations 578-582).

It is easy to see why Breen thinks we need those first two elements. But it is more difficult to see why he thinks the third element is important.

When I first read this book, I did not find a shared discipling language to be important. But Breen stresses the importantce of having a shared “discipling language” to help create a culture of discipling. He does not discuss it much in this chapter. In the next chapter, he argues for its importance. At this point, let me just appeal to my own limited experience. I recently discipled a groups of guys for about four months. I introduced some of the the discipling language that Breen suggests. (Specifically, I used three of his LifeShapes.) I was skeptical at first, as were the guys I discipled. But we persevered and began to love the discipling lanuguage. We found the LifeShapes useful. They gave us a language to talk about aspects of following Jesus. And they were useful in reflecting on ways we could become more like Jesus.

If you are like me, you’re probably skeptical about this. And maybe Breen’s discipling language will not work for you. You’ll likely find, I think, that they are helpful. Regardless, you need to find your own way to talk about the Christian life and discipleship. You’ll need that as you not only make disciples, but as you train your disciples to make their own disciples. This gives them a portable way to talk about being disciples of Jesus that they can use when they disciple others.

When you have a discipleship vehicle, give people access to your life, and use a portable discipling language, you will incorporate the three forms of learning (Information, Imitation, and Innovation) into your disciplemaking. Your disciplemaking will become more effective.

The Learning Triangle

Breen describes the interplay of these three forms of learning this way:

“We suggest that if you want to be a disciple, and if you want the people you disciple to be able to disciple others who then disciple others, you will need to follow the path of Information to Imitation to Innovation. Information is incredibly important, but having it right in our heads isn’t enough. We need to see how that Information becomes knowledge and is incarnated in the everyday life of another person. We then apprentice ourselves to that person, learning not only the Information but also how to do what he or she does. And finally, after becoming confident in knowledge and practice, we have the capacity to innovate new ways of discipleship and mission.” (Kindle Locations 609-614)

What’s Next?

In the next chapter, Breen begins a new section of the book. He defends his assertion that an agreed upon discipleship language is essential to a discipling culture and disciplemaking. After that chapter, he spends the remainder of the book describing his discipling language, the LifeShapes.

We only have one more chapter of theory before we get into more practical considerations. (Of course, if you are like me, you enjoy the theory more than the practicalities.)

Book Reviews Christianity Ministry

Mike Breen’s Building a Discipling Culture: What It Means to Learn (Chapter 3)

Cover of Mike Breen's Building a Discipling CultureI am reviewing Mike Breen’s book, Building a Discipleship Culture. Breen’s approach to disciple-making and ministry is appealing. So I wanted to blog through the book chapter by chapter.

The Disciple as Learner

As we’ve looked over the earlier chapters of Breen’s book, we have seen that he emphasizes disciplemaking. But what is a disciple? In recent years, the word ‘disciple’ seems to be the center of many discussions. Is the church currently misguided in its approach to disciplemaking? How should we make disciples? Must a person even be a disciple to be a Christian?

It is well-known that Dallas Willard defines a disciple as an appentice. And one of my former preachers said that a disciple was a “follower-learner.” Breen says that he is fascinated by the word ‘disciple’ because of this aspect of learning. He says:”Scripture really seems to be getting at something here, something about orienting our lives around becoming lifelong learners of Jesus” (Kindle Locations 251-252).

And if one understands learning to be at the core of being discipled, then one will begin thinking through how we learn. One’s reflection on learning will affect one’s practice of disciplemaking. Though Breen’s discussion of this felt a little simplistic at times, the simplicity gives him a clear vantagepoint to apply these reflections to disciplemaking.

How We Learn

Breen says:

“There seem to be three different ways that we learn, but unequivocally, we learn best when there is a dynamic interplay between all three at one time: 1) Classroom/Lecture passing on of information 2) Apprenticeship 3) Immersion.” (Kindle Locations 256-259).

Passing on information is fine, but it is difficult to translate that information into practice. Take, for example, the often used example of learning to ride a bicycle: you could read a book on it and still not be able to ride a bike. For this reason, Breen thinks learning information needs to be coupled with apprenticeship. “In many ways, the practice of apprenticeship is about investment. Someone invests their time, energy, skills and life into ours, teaching us to do what they do.” (Kindle Locations 287-288).

We also learn through immersion, where we are immersed in a context where something is used or some skill is practiced. We learn from merely being in that environment. “The key to immersion is having access to the culture you are hoping to shape you.” (Kindle Location 306).

The research has shown us, according to Breen, that people learn best when there is an interplay of the three types of learning. I find this to be true, at least from my own experience it has been true.

The Problem with How We Make Disciples

Breen sees this as a major insight into the the problems churches have with their current approah to disciplemaking. The way we train churchgoers to follow Jesus is primarily through lectures. There is little apprenticeship, and we have not created a culture where people can be formed into disciples by being immersed in that culture.

Of course, as most people who have been involved in a local church knows, most of the options at a church fall firmly within the “information” category. There is no little opportunity for apprenticeship and immersion. Breen says: “Yet almost all churches have built a whole discipleship process on that first style: classroom teaching. Hear the sermon. Join the small group. Go to the membership class. Read your Bible (hopefully you figure out how to do it). Go to class 201 or 301, and ‘yes, we have classes for that.’” (Kindle Locations 380-386).

Breen thinks is one of the main reasons for the lack of vibrancy in our churches we see in Jesus and his immediate followers. The disciples of Jesus would have received the three types of teaching from Jesus. They followed him around and learned a great deal from watching and imitating him. But few Christians are ever discipled by anyone, and so most Christians never have the opportunity to learn from apprenticeship and immersion. Learning through a lecture or in a classroom setting, no matter the talent and intelligence of the teacher, is always shallow and flat compared to a learning experience that includes such teaching alongside apprenticing and immersion.

If churches and ministries did a better job of providing learning experiences that included lectures, apprenticeships, and immersion, they would have better success in forming disciples of Jesus.

Discipleship and the Yoke of Jesus

I really like Breen’s books. As I’ve said, I find him insightful. But sometimes his biblical interpretation is unusual. I’m not sure if I just haven’t been exposed to a major viewpoint that he is presenting, or if his interpretation is idiosyncratic.. This chapter’s discussion of Matthew 11:25-30 provides an example of that. Breen comments on Matthew 11:25-30. He thinks that when Jesus said in Matthew 11, “Come to me….take my yoke…”, he was appealing to the imagery of yoking an older ox with a younger ox so that the younger ox could learn the rythym of the workday. When the younger ox aged, he would be paired with a younger ox to teach the rhythm of the work day. So Breen thinks that Jesus is applying this imagery to the discipling/apprenticing relationship. (Kindle Locations 456-458).

As I said, I have never heard this understanding of this passage. Maybe Breen is right. Maybe he isn’t. But, fortunately, his argument in this chapter does not depend on his interpretation of Matthew 11. It serves more as an illustration than a support.

Discipling as Immersing Others in Your Life

Finally, to undergird the importance of apprenticeship and immersion in disciplemaking, Breen uses Jesus as an example. He says:

“Jesus had what many scholars call his “Retreat Ministry,” a period of time that was dedicated completely to the disciples, when he retreated to places the crowds would never follow, when the disciples could be immersed in relationship and have complete access to him. Here’s the interesting thing: Most people think that at least eighteen months of Jesus’ public ministry was this time. That means at least half of his time was spent with these twelve guys.” (Kindle Locations 460-464).

I know that Jesus spent a lot of time with his disciples. I also know that we don’t know the details of how Jesus spent the majority of his time between his baptism and his death. So I’m not sure how these scholars know that much of that time was “dedicated completely to the disciples.” But, again, Breen is using this as an illustration, not as a crucial point. Furthermore, even a cursory reading of the gospels shows that Jesus did spend time focused on his inner circle of disciples. He answered their questions and provided access to his life that others did not have. And this time seems to be intentional; it might have been unstructured and organic, but it wasn’t aimless or haphazard.

If Jesus had intentional time with an inner group of followers, why is it so rare for ministers to do so? I suppose we just aren’t convinced that focusing so much on a small group of disciples can have a noticeable impact on our ministries and the Kingdom of God. The urgent and immediate issues of ministry also edge out any time we would otherwise have for focusing on a few disciples. But Breen is right. For the health of the church, the quality of our disicplemaking, and the advancing of our mission, this needs to become the norm for ministers and not the exception.

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