The Dangers of Copycat Discipleship

by Aaron Dorrett

The manager of a shoe factory in a communist country was given a bunch of foreign shoe models to put on display in their factory. The shoes stood there as an example of the products they were trying to replicate. The copies they made were then placed next to the originals. The factory workers were instructed to look at both models, determine where they fell short, and learn how to make their shoes correctly. “Our goal is to raise the quality of our shoes to an international level,” the manager explained.

But I think they might be missing the whole point of what an “international level” in shoemaking is all about. There’s no innovation here, no spark of life and creativity. They don’t have the freedom for experimentation and expression that brought forth those great shoe designs in the first place. They can only carefully copy the things set before them. They work so hard, trying (and failing) to make fake copies of the creativity and fashion seen in others.

The same thing can happen with the methods and trainings in cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship. Experts and catalyzers tell us tales of great movements and then ask us to check how we’re measuring up against their blueprint for greatness. Are we doing as much seed-sowing and praying as the top 10% percent successful workers? Are we doing what we saw people doing in the big revivals?

Are we teaching people to run their meetings according to the most effective model? Are our disciples sharing with their communities like the people in that movement did? Are we seeing fast reproduction?

Where are we falling short? What do the numbers on our gospel conversations app show? What are we doing wrong? How do we get these awesome movements we see in other parts of the world? Is our goal “to raise the quality of our fruit to match the level of the international movements they tell us about”?

Again, I think that approach misses the point. It’s not real life. It’s not the natural outworking of love and interaction with Jesus. It’s not the freedom and creativity of children doing something for their Father. It doesn’t birth new and beautiful things. It’s dry and in some ways empty.

The product might look good at first glance. It might be very impressive when viewed from a distance through the lens of numbers and reports. But on closer examination, something about it just seems off.

The whole process can create feelings of striving and failure as we try to measure up to what’s been done by others before. It also burdens our disciples with an ungodly pressure to perform as we push them to match our man-made goals.

Instead of the life-giving, dynamic process of growth and relationship with Jesus, we have a set of tasks and objectives handed down from human masterminds. We can end up with a heavy yoke that’s been plastered with stickers of Biblical phrases but that didn’t come from Jesus. It’s as soul crushing and dehumanizing as those grey factories full of forced labor.

There is tremendous value in learning from what’s been done in the past, and we would be foolish not to do so. Just as any shoemaker would draw lessons and inspiration from shoes made by others, we should study what others have done in cross-cultural gospel work. We can observe what has been life giving and fruitful for others and be inspired to go after similar things.

We also must learn from the mistakes of the past and do our best to avoid the deadly pitfalls of dependency, cultural colonialism, and foreign control. In that sense, it’s good to learn from what works well and what causes pain, especially in development work.

But the work of spreading the gospel and making disciples is ultimately a miraculous process. It springs out of an intimate relationship with Jesus. It’s a divine gift. It’s a work of faith and love. It cannot be reduced to a method to be copied or a numerical target to be hit.

The life that comes from faith in Jesus grows out in beautiful, unique, and creative ways and creates living structures of community that are sensitive to the cultures where the seeds of faith are planted.

Real life cannot be created by engineering meetings and activities that look like the meetings and activities produced by someone else’s life. Some things cannot be created by pure imitation. They cannot be manufactured by paying workers to copy a product. They cannot be given as deliverables to a manager. We can’t replicate spiritual fruit with factory-like, extra-Biblical processes.

If some great leader asks you to copy a method, or reach some metric for ministry output, you don’t have to work for them. You can walk out of the factory.

Pioneer gospel work can be done without any of these methods, metrics, or man-made mission statements. What we need is real fellowship with others and a desire to follow Jesus’ command to be his witnesses and to teach others to follow him. Beyond that there is so much freedom and possibility.

Your heavenly Father delights in the unique work and play of his children. He infuses us with the miraculous, life-giving sap we need to grow in new, creative, and life-giving ways. You can work with him, and he’ll provide everything that you need.


Aaron Dorrett has spent the last 15 years overseas, living in the the Muslim world. He loves wandering the streets and enjoying “random” encounters and conversations with locals. He also loves music, learning languages, and barbells.

Confusing Method with Message

My first summer in China was before the internet was invented. Okay, it had to have existed somewhere in the world, but it was not part of daily life and I did not know words like email, internet, Facebook, IM, DM, IG, WWW. LOL, or hashtag.

I spent six weeks with other North Americans teaching oral English in the morning (my own class) and listening to lectures on methodology in the afternoon (all participants combined). A highlight was the cultural exchanges in the evenings. We North American’s talked about holidays, budgets, and sports, among other topics. Our Chinese students sang songs and performed local dances. Six evenings we showed movies we brought on VHS tapes. We were so cutting edge.

The Christmas presentation stands out because behind the scenes my team had heated interactions over how much to share about Santa Claus. No surprise, some wanted only the birth of Christ mentioned while others felt because it was a culture lecture Santa should be mentioned.

In the end, we came together as a team, invested tons of effort into the presentation, and reaped the rewards of knowing that regardless of what happened we had rightly handled what had been entrusted to us.

I only have vivid memories of one movie: Hoosiers.  According to one review on IMDb, it is “about an intense coach (Gene Hackman) with a questionable reputation who finds himself in a small Indiana town faced with the unenviable task of turning around tiny Hickory High’s 8-man basketball team. Basketball fans will appreciate the movie for its authentic portrayal of small-town high school basketball in the 1950’s. ALL viewers will enjoy this fun film for its triumphs and its classic, feel-good story of David and Goliath.”

I would add to that review, “And if you happen to be an American who loves sports and is watching this movie in China, it will move you to tears as you well up with emotions about your passport country you are unable to articulate.”

Flash forward to today. We missionaries and cross-cultural workers still have discussions about what to share, how to share, and if we should share in a certain setting. Opinions can be strong and varying convictions may lead to team splits.

China, like many parts around the globe, is a very different world today than it was in the early 90s.

The seismic shift in technology leaves me laughing at a young woman who watched a VHS tape projected onto a big screen while sitting on a folding chair she carried from the classroom, carefully choosing a location near a ceiling fan. Lots of summer programs will be happening around China this summer. I can almost guarantee not one tear will be shed over Hoosiers.

And this is as it should be. But some changes are easier to flow with than others. For the first summer in forever, the Chinese government is very serious about cultural lectures not involving the Christmas Story because the goal of these programs is no longer about “cultural exchange.” Currently, Christmas is classified as a “Western Holiday” and as such has no place in China.

Sidestepping the whole “Western” versus “Religious” discussion, this week I have been thinking about how sneaky it can be for us to combine methods with message. Once combined, a change or “attack” or new policy to a method can be confused with the message.

Now, while it is true that some governments, schools, businesses, or leaders are anti-Christian and do not want the hope of Christ shared, they can not stop the power of love through friendship. Yes, they can make it more challenging, I am not trying to minimize the inconvenience or outright discrimination. I am also not talking about persecution.

But the recent changes in China have been a mirror to my own heart, my own thought processes, my own melding of method and message. Having seen the blurring of lines, this week God has asked me to sort through in my own work and ministries, asking myself what is

Method—and needs to be held more loosely.


Message—which also may ebb and flow with knowledge and maturity, but is foundational and not to be changed lightly.

Summers (or winters, depending on the hemisphere) can be times of change in the intensity of ministry activity. If you are in a season of increased activity, you may not have much space for the work sorting can take. For you, spend time noticing and jotting down comments you hear, activities you are involved in, and ways you go about sharing the Good News. Later, spend time reflecting privately and with ours about your work and what methods you use to share a message. Are there methods you are so wed to, they have blurred into the message?

If you have time this week, spend some time with God and those close to doing your own sorting.

Since you came to the field, how have your methods evolved and changed with the times, technology, and political sensitivities?