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.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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