The Fatal Flaw of Discipleship Strategies

The Fatal Flaw of Discipleship Strategies

I’ve probably spent the last 15 years of my life trying things in the local churches I’ve led or with leaders I’m coaching or walking alongside to help them innovate discipleship strategies. And more recently at Catapult, we’ve been piloting some new strategies to help churches create a discipleship process that really gets the fruit they are going after. As you can imagine, the learning has been in overdrive.
The more I’ve done this work, the more I see that there are probably 6 different kinds of Discipleship churches.


Each has a different strategy, different outcomes, pros, cons and almost all of them have a fatal flaw. But as you’ll discover at the end, there is one fatal flaw they all have in common.

Church #1: Discipleship as Preaching

Headline: Churches with this discipleship strategy love (mostly) expositional preaching and rightly dividing the Word of God. And that’s a good thing!

Greatest Strength: This creates a culture of people who love the Word of God in both their Sunday morning experience and in daily times with the Lord, nourishing them as they go.

Fatal Flaw: These churches overestimate what preaching can do in and of itself. Did Jesus preach? Absolutely. But the Bible shows that’s not what the majority of his discipleship process looked like. Jesus was the best disciple-maker who ever lived. And while preaching was part of his strategy, it was a small piece of it.

Church #2: It’s all organic, baby.

Headline: Disciples are made in the everyday comings and goings of life; after all, the Great Commission says, “and as you go, make disciples.”

Greatest Strength: Some things are simply better caught than taught. The organic process allows people to learn from the places of real life where the Gospel is being lived out, in real time. After all, how much of the twelve disciples formation happened just by being with Jesus and processing in real time?

Fatal Flaw: There is often a lack of intentionality, focus and overall direction for where the person being discipled is being taken. Sometimes it feels like it’s just two people in a coffee shop or bar hanging out and it’s not really going anywhere. Jesus knew exactly where he wanted to take twelve and was exceptionally intentional about getting them there.

Church #3: Just join a small group!

Headline: The seeker sensitive movement and simple church emphasis created a place for everyone in the church to go. Most churches are using some version of a small group strategy. But does it lead to spiritual transformation?

Greatest Strength: People can form deep relationships with a consistent group of people over a long period of time who can love them, grow with them, walk with them and speak into their life.

Fatal Flaw: Ultimately the small group strategy started as a kind of relational flypaper. Churches were trying to close the “back door” of the church. Small groups are great at cultivating relationships because that’s what they were designed for. But they weren’t necessarily designed to help people grow spiritually or propel them into mission. The real fatal flaw? A fair number of small groups are led by spiritually immature people leading other spiritually immature people.

Church #4: We’ve got a program for that.

Headline: This strategy focuses on creating a large choice of classes and programs that pinpoint people’s felt needs and then seek to deliver the goods.

Greatest Strength: People are able to locate a place of weakness, pain point or something they simply want to learn and then applies the Gospel to that specific area.

Fatal Flaw: There are a couple. First, it creates a caste system of the elite vs. consumers of religious goods and services. Second, very rarely does this discipleship strategy create a culture where people are engaging in everyday mission or discipling people of their own. Third, it means the church is always looking for “the next program” to scratch the itch of those consumers.

Church #5: Discipleship as a spark.

Headline: Churches deploy and execute a system for discipleship that leads to reproduction, train people in it and release them as yeast into the dough of the church and wider community.

Greatest Strength: Reproduction gets into the water and as you get into generational disciple-making where disciples are making disciples, it leads to people outside the church who don’t know Jesus yet. Discipleship is now leading to evangelism.

Fatal Flaw: This model is built on low control. That can sometimes be positive, but there’s often a drawback with unintended consequences. The spark that you light might look different than you think it should. Or maybe it burns something down.

Church #6: Discipleship as optional.

Headline: Churches with this strategy see the almost exclusive mission of the church to get people to heaven when they die and very little time or energy is spent on this present life.

Greatest Strength: There tends to be a heavy evangelistic fervor in this culture, albeit for a very small version of the Gospel.

Fatal Flaw: When discipleship is seen as separate from the Gospel, as an optional add-on, it means people are missing the essential ingredients for transformation. They might go to heaven when they die, but they often cause a lot of misery and brokenness while on earth. Very few people who aren’t Christians look at their lives and think, “I want that kind of life.”

But what’s the fatal flaw they all have in common?

One of the things we’ve found at Catapult is virtually all of these plans are IMPORTED or CUT-AND-PASTED from other places. And what might have worked in one place rarely works in a different place…or it works quite differently. For instance, the small group strategy that might be producing a lot of specific outcomes for Andy Stanley at North Point might be imported somewhere else and rarely gets the same results. (Which, by the way, is an incredibly frustrating experience for pastors!)


So what’s the fatal flaw? It’s not having a contextualized discipleship process built on your church’s DNA.


It’s for this very reason that we created the Disciple Making Innovation Lab. We wanted to help churches create something unique to their DNA, theology, vision and context that leads to deep spiritual transformation and reproduction of disciples who make disciples. (And actually works!)

Wanna hear a little more about this Lab? Check out this video and get more info at this page.

Schedule a Call to Hear More.

What does Weezer have to do with Church Innovation?

What does Weezer have to do with Church Innovation?

At the end of 1995, Rivers Cuomo enrolled at Harvard University to study classical composition.

There were two things that separated Cuomo from the rest of his classmates. First, he’d recently undergone the Ilizarov procedure. When he was born, his left leg was two inches shorter than his right leg, and the painful procedure involved breaking the bones, a steel brace and months of stretching and physiotherapy. Th second differentiator? As the frontman of the band Weezer, he was one of the most famous new rock stars on the planet. The Blue Album had just been certified platinum (selling more than 1,000,000 copies), including iconic tracks like The Sweater Song, My Name is Jonas and Say it Ain’t So.

 In the end, classical composition didn’t stick. “”The only time I could write songs,” Cuomo later commented on his time at Harvard, “was when my frozen dinner was in the microwave. The rest of the time I was doing homework.” He dropped out two semesters before graduating, citing a hatred for modern classical composition and wistful longing for a Weezer reunion (He eventually finished his degree in 2006, earning a BA in English).

 But one thing did stick from his time at Harvard, and not something you’d expect for someone who’d later write inane lyrics like for a song called “Beverly Hills”:

 Beverly Hills
That’s where I want to be!
Gimme gimme gimme gimme
Living in Beverly Hills
Beverly Hills
Rolling like a celebrity!
Gimme gimme gimme gimme
Living in Beverly Hills

So what stuck at Harvard? He started to obsessively use the programming language Python to study music and then generate new musical ideas. Yes. You read that correctly.

 As Gab Ginsberg wrote in her article for Billboard magazine, “The Weezer frontman has lengthy used algorithms to optimize his songwriting, funneling creativity by way of laptop applications just like the programming language Python. Cuomo is thought to carefully dismantle a success music, analyzing every component to seek out precisely what works, and apply that information to his personal writing.”

In other words, he wanted to take the mystery out of why some music works and other music doesn’t. Why does a song become a hit?

Over time, his acumen grew, and so did his legendary spreadsheets. In describing the writing of a recent Weezer album, Cuomo commented, “I wrote a program to get all the information from Spotify’s API, and we seemed on the songs that have been hottest that weren’t tagged “basic rock” or “various rock,” and that got here out earlier than 1994…I feel there have been about 200 songs within the report, so we picked the highest ones and began studying them.”

He doesn’t just study them. He uses them to generate tempos, chord progressions and hooks (the catchiest part of a song that gets stuck in your head). Talking about their 2017 release Pacific Daydream, Rolling Stone journalist Brendan Walter wrote, “Cuomo estimates he drew on thousands of riffs, chord progressions, and beats stored on his home computer for the album, and even wrote a custom formula in Google Sheets to pair up musical ideas – some dating back to 2000 — based on their key and tempo.”

Everyone thinks that what makes some songs successful is a mystery. Rivers Cuomo turned into an algorithm on Python.

Weezer has dropped 13 albums. According to Nielsen, they have 1.4 billion on demand streams. The ridiculous song Beverly Hills? As of the writing of this book, it’s been watched 52 million times on YouTube. Weezer songs are generally stupid, shallow and inane. But they are also wickedly catchy, and they’ve been writing hits (and cashing those royalty checks!) for more than 25 years.

Rivers Cuomo literally created an algorithm to crack the code of “Why do these songs work?”

So let’s make a hard right turn and talk a little bit about kingdom innovation. Now I’m not here to say that anyone can “crack the code” for how innovation works within the life of the church or the kingdom. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, he’s known as the wild goose for a reason! But I do think when God is on the move and he’s clearly up to something, we are wise to ask, “Why is this innovation working? What is God doing? What’s at work here?”


Because God is in the multiplication business.

That innovation that started with one person, or one group…God may very well want to multiply it. How do we know this? Well Jesus says that a kingdom return is a like a farmer who scatters seed and receives 10, 30, 60, 100 fold in return. That’s multiplication!

What Rivers Cuomo did was simply pay enough attention to what people like about hit songs to codify the process. I think the Lord wants to call a whole new generation to pay attention to what he’s up to in this brave new world and learn how to innovate within it.

My new book on kingdom innovation, Ready or Not, is almost here! It comes out on October 6 and I hope you’ll consider picking up a copy!
A Year in the Bible with a 10-Year Old

A Year in the Bible with a 10-Year Old

When my daughter Avery turned ten, we began a journey that lasted a little over a year where we endeavored to read through the whole Bible together. We got up early, using a Bible reading plan we developed, and spent about an hour a day reading the selected chapters, discussing and praying together. We made the agreement that if we did this together, we’d take a trip to Israel, just the two of us, and go explore the places and the stories we’d just read about.

Needless to say…it was a wild ride that didn’t go exactly as i’d planned! (BTW: A special shoutout to my friends Jon Tyson and JR Briggs, who each had unique contributions in starting and shaping this journey.)

If you’re reading this, I think there’s a high likelihood that, like me, you believe in the centrality of the Word of God and have daily engagement rhythms that are built around that principle. Knowing that, I’d like to share 5 lessons that I learned over the course of Avery and I’s year together.


Lesson #1: I had to adjust my idealized picture of what this was going to be like.

Look. I’m a man who likes a plan and I had a very specific plan going into this year and a very specific feel for what this was going to be like. I could envision the breakthrough she was going to experience, the discussions we’d have and all of the ways she’d grow closer to the Lord as a result of this.

About three weeks into the process, I had to pivot. What I was trying to do was use my own process for reading the Bible and prayer and apprentice her in that…while doing my best to make allowances for the fact that she was ten years old and I’m…well…I’m older than that.

But truth be told, that age gap was significant and we are very different in temperament and personality. So I flexed the plan, but if I’m honest, that was difficult for me. I had a very specific idea in my mind of what was going to happen, how things would unfold and what her response would be. But as I saw the young woman in front of me who God has entrusted to us, it was most important that it was built around where she was at and what Jesus was doing in her. While that felt a little bit like a death, it felt incredibly necessary. Bonhoeffer talks about how the idea of Christian community can often kill the reality of Christian community. That was definitely going on here.

One addition we made was using The Bible Project videos as both a teaching tool and a carrot. She LOVED those videos. So she knew that when we finished a book, we’d be watching a recap of what we just read, and we’d get to watch the recap of a book that we were starting to read. It really motivated her and gave her life. I really can’t recommend this more highly for both kids and adults!



Lesson #2: The Discussion is where it’s at.

Of course we know this…but do we know this? I’ve been doing my own individual daily rhythms with the Bible and prayer for such a long time, it can be difficult to remember that the Bible started as a communal document that was read out loud and then people would immediately engage. Only a few hundred years ago did people start having Bibles in their homes.

I was struck again how potent and powerful it is to discuss what we’re reading. Our normal progression was to have discussion around three central questions: 1) What does the text say? 2) What is the Spirit stirring in me? 3) What am I taking away for the day?

Doing this out loud and not just in silent prayer or in a journal for a whole year was different. And quite refreshing.



Lesson #3: The win was the consistent rhythm, not just the content.

Over time, breakthrough can work a little bit like interest in that it compounds over time. Another way of thinking about it is what Eugene Peterson says; it’s a “long obedience in the same direction” that ultimately brings about spiritual transformation.

I was struck by how often our prayer times returned to questions around the Fruit of the Spirit…where we were seeing God at work and where it felt like we were stuck. (I’ll readily admit that when things didn’t go like I wanted them to, the fruit of patience was regularly lacking.) The consistent rhythm of responding to the Spirit, praying, and then almost asking, “How did it go yesterday?” was a major key for us as the months rolled on.



Lesson #4: The Bible is hard. It’s especially hard for girls.

There’s a sociological principle called The Curse of Knowledge that says once you know something, it’s hard to un-know it. If I didn’t wholeheartedly believe that to begin with, I definitely do now.

I grew up in a house that read the Bible and talked about the Bible all the time. So many of the stories and passages are things that have been in me for decades. I’m so familiar with them that the prospect of reading for the first time can make them become unfamiliar. 

But let’s be real: There are some CRAZY stories in there and having a lens to understand those stories is really important. Case in point — The first book of the Bible (just a few pages in!) has stories about genocide, mass slaughter and some really difficult stories about rape. I mean…if you haven’t had the “sex talk” with your kids yet, it’s going to come up. The Bible is grisly, earthy and gives a full picture of the darkness of humanity.

And that is particularly true if you’re a girl. The number of questions and discussions we had around what was happening with women in the Bible never waned over the year together. Some of these discussions were quite powerful, and some of these discussions were quite frustrating. But it renewed my perspective that the Bible gives a full picture of the human condition (which is why the Gospel is such good news), but that if you want people to read the Bible, you better have a legit hermeneutic that can handle the scrutiny. (PS: My daughter never stops asking questions, and if I wasn’t giving a good enough answer, she kept pushing and pushing. I really like that about her.)

Read the Bible with a ten year old girl for a year who’s going through its entirety for the first time and you’re going to get a front row seat to how the rest of the world is skeptically looking at the Bible and Christians. This isn’t a sign of unhealth, but of legitimately wrestling with the text.



Lesson #5: It was totally worth it.

My daughter grew in her relationship with the Lord, we made deposits in her life that will last for decades and it grew our relationship in some really deep, beautiful and unexpected ways. I learned so much from this year together. As a father, as a lover of the Bible, as someone discipling other people. And there are so many things I’d probably do different if I could.

But you know what? I’ve got two more kids who will someday turn ten. And I’ll be doing it again for each of them.

How we got 10,000+ Leaders in Coaching Groups

How we got 10,000+ Leaders in Coaching Groups

When we started the COVID-19 coaching groups, Daniel Yang, Todd Milby, and I were hoping we’d have somewhere between fifty churches join in. As we continued to talk with leaders of other networks, we began to realize the number might be a little bigger, but our expectations didn’t massively shift.

Early on, we made a strategic choice: We decided not to brand the work under any particular organization. If we believed we were better together, it needed to function and be communicated as a collaboration. It was a trade-off: No single organization got the credit, but it meant more people (Mass) might be part of it. So from day one, these coaching groups were a combined effort of Catapult, the SEND Institute, the NewThing Network, Christ Together—a collection of leaders who were already working together in one way or another, with each of us bringing some of our coaches to the table.

We made another strategic choice: We would not charge for participation in a coaching group. Every coach gave their time away. That made it accessible to anyone in the world with internet access. We offered groups on every day of the week (except Saturday and Sunday), including some with early morning slots, to account for global time zones. We asked coaches to help lead at least two groups. This was our radical minimum. Not surprisingly, the first and fast followers of our coaches quickly turned into a hotbed with a center of gravity. And as more groups developed, more hotbeds started to emerge and multiply, and they started to share best practices. Very quickly, a tribe was developing, and it had all the relational thickness that Alan Hirsch calls Communitas—the friendship, community, and relational bonds formed in the fires of being on mission together.

The groups themselves happened on Zoom, so if we had five hundred people register for one time slot, the only thing keeping us from scaling was the number of coaches, because each virtual breakout room required one coach to every six to eight participants.

We started Week 1 with a few hundred churches participating in groups, and we decided to lower another barrier that might hurt scalability: We didn’t close registration after Week 1. As it turns out, the experience of the first week was sticky and sneezable. We grew to 1,094 churches at the end of Week 2.

But it didn’t stop after Week 2. Word got out what was happening; not only was it helping people stabilize and re-normalize in the midst of the crisis, but it was helping leaders mobilize their people into mission. We had more and more people clamoring to get into groups.

Like Rent the Runway, we had a problem on our hands: a lot of new churches wanted to get into coaching groups, but our infrastructure was starting to creak. We were running out of coaches, the IT support needed to sustain the team maxed out, and the logistics of running that many groups, with that many people, were redlining the effort. At this point, the way we were scaling the innovation was using the Resourced model. This was only possible because everyone was donating their time, and we were using technology already in our budget.

A number of networks, denominations, and mission agencies asked if we could start groups for churches in their tribe. There was just one problem: the infrastructure built for the Resourced model was tapped out. But if we pivoted to the Groundswell model? It was suddenly scalable to a new level. However, doing this would mean sacrificing control.

In the end, we made a choice. We gave those leaders everything we had and held nothing back: Detailed notes of every session, scripts, worksheets, slides, training videos we’d recorded for coaches, video replays of each week, email templates. Everything we had, we gave it to them, free of charge. We trained the leaders of those tribes of churches, walked them through the essentials of the radical minimums and what they’d need to do. We then released them to be the yeast in the dough of their specific tribe.

This pivot worked.

At the end of Week 2 there were 1,094 churches in a coaching group. At the end of Week 5, there were more than ten thousand churches in a coaching group, spread across thirty-nine countries, speaking eleven languages.

And after that? We simply stopped counting.

What a Sleeper Hit Movie Tells us about Innovation (& Critics)

What a Sleeper Hit Movie Tells us about Innovation (& Critics)

The Greatest Showman opened in December, 2017, in the midst of a crowded field; The Last Jedi has opened just a few days earlier, and it’s hard to imagine any Star Wars movie not sucking all of the air out of the room. The studio, 20th Century Fox, had modest expectations for the success of their musical movie, but it didn’t even reach those. In its first weekend, The Greatest Showman brought in only $8.8 million.

In the movie industry, the opening weekend provides an indicator of how well a movie will do. If you go to a website like Box Office Mojo, they obsessively track a movie’s box office ratings and are able to very accurately predict the long-term financial future of a movie after the first weekend. Typically speaking, a movie can expect a moderate-to-steep decrease in ticket sales in the second weekend.

With a whopping $84 million budget, and a measly $8.8 million takings in their first weekend, The Greatest Showman was facing catastrophic financial loss. After the first weekend, it seemed there was virtually no scenario where the studio could make their money back.

Every once in a while, you’ll find a movie with only a 30 percent decrease in ticket sales from the first weekend to the second. Usually this is caused by a combination of two factors: An increase in critical praise (as usually scored by a percentage system on the website Rotten Tomatoes), and an increase in positive audience response (often tracked through a grading system developed by the research firm CinemaScore). This isn’t exactly surprising, right? If critics love a movie and audiences love a movie, it stands to reason its mass appeal should make it successful. The Greatest Showman, however, did not have those two things coming together.

Most critics despised the movie, scoring just a 56 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

The audience, however, loved it. When audiences were polled walking out of the movie, the average viewer gave it an A. But remember what the best-case scenario usually is? A 30 percent decrease from weekend one to weekend two. But this movie? It was an anomaly. In the second weekend, tickets sales almost doubled. And the run of success continued. In the end, the movie had a global box office gross of $434 million.

Vox writer Alissa Wilkinson explained the phenomenon of The Greatest Showman and how it stacks up historically:

One of [the] measures is a movie’s multiplier, calculated by dividing its total domestic box office returns by its first-weekend returns. This helps demonstrate the movie’s staying power with audiences past the first weekend and indicate strong word of mouth. Few films have multipliers that rise above single digits; the highest multiplier of all time belongs to Titanic, which opened to $21.6 million but finished its 10-month run in theaters with a multiplier of 21.

Any guess on what the multiplier might be for Showman? Well it didn’t catch Titanic, but it came in second all-time with a multiplier of 19.8. The movie went from disaster to darling in just a few weeks.

But what did the movie have that critics paid no attention to? The soundtrack was written by the writers of the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen and the movie La La Land. In other words, the people writing the songs had just received a Tony and an Oscar and this was their next big move; a musical starring Hugh Jackman about a group of misfits who become a family. Grandiose, family friendly, PG musical movies don’t tend to get produced very often. This was a movie about a three-ring circus, with obvious hooks in the songs that went on for days, endless positivity, and bright colors everywhere. There was clearly a gap in the market, and The Greatest Showman filled it (whether critics wanted to admit that or not).

Part of what it means to take innovation seriously is to pilot and iterate, getting the feedback of lots of people as you go so we can defeat the Curse of Knowledge. But we also have to acknowledge the places that can lead us in the wrong direction. Consider, for a moment, how critics play into innovation. People with influence and a critical report are one of the key things that hold innovation back, even as we are in the final stages. But often critics are the carries of the curse. Their “expertise” keeps them from seeing different ways of doing things. At the end of the day, innovation is rarely for critics. Innovation is for those who need it.

What if Peter had listened to the critics and not gone to Cornelius’ house? Then Christianity could still be made up entirely of ethnically Jewish people. What if William Tyndale had cowed to his critics? Then the Bible wouldn’t have been translated into English as the printing press was taking off. What if John Bunyan had listened to the criticism about his “plain style?” Then Pilgrim’s Progress would never have become one of the most influential works of the last five hundred years. What if Hannah More heeded the criticism of conservative commentators around the topic of an unmarried woman with a voice and an agenda? Then the slave trade wouldn’t have been abolished for at least another hundred years.

It doesn’t mean we don’t consider criticism. Being able to listen to, reflect on, absorb, and then iterate is a hallmark of a great leadership.

But it does mean innovation will almost always happen in spite of critics. Nothing comes into the world universally praised.

The Greatest Showman didn’t need a giant opening to be a hit, or for it to be critically adored. It just needed a few rabid fans who would spread the word. Almost all kingdom innovations start small, and like a seed with forest potential, grow over time and then begin to multiply.