Shepherding/Discipleship Movement Survivor's Blog

The present-day impact of the Shepherding/Discipleship movement from the perspective of a former member of Morning Star International (now Every Nation Churches and Ministries).

Friday, December 23, 2005

Thoughts on The Discipling Dilemma

I saw this quote from The Discipling Dilemma posted on another discussion board and thought it pertinent to quote here:

The word "discipling" is used in this movement to mean much more than making converts. It is used primarily to describe a system of intense training and close personal supervision of the Christians being discipled. Disciples are regarded as being superior to mere Christians. Disciples are said to be Christians who have received special training. This training includes much more than mere teaching. There is an intense one-on-one relationship between the discipler and the Christian being discipled. The discipler gives detailed personal guidance to the Christian being discipled. This guidance may include instructions concerning many personal matters of a totally secular nature. The person being discipled is taught to submit to the discipler. Furthermore, the person being discipled is taught to imitate the discipler. Christians being discipled are required to confess their sins to their discipler. Such confession is followed by rebuke, correction, admonition, and prayer. If the person being discipled seems reluctant to confess sins, the discipler asks probing personal questions to elicit the confession.

Discipling is hierarchical. There is a clear distinction between the discipler and the person being discipled. A Christian might have many peer relationships, but only one person is that Christian's discipler. That discipler is the person who must be imitated and obeyed. After a Christian has been discipled for a while, that Christian is expected to start discipling others. The result is a pyramid of relationships that resembles a multi-level marketing system. In various denominations where the discipling movement has appeared, the typical pattern has been for the founding pastor of a church to be at the top of the pyramid. That founding pastor disciples a small group of other pastors. Each of them, in turn, disciples a small group of lay leaders. The lay leaders then disciple members one step lower in the pyramid. That hierarchical system continues through as many steps as may be needed as the discipling movement spreads. The growth of the discipling network typically goes beyond one local congregation to include many other congregations established by the parent group. (The Discipling Dilemma Ch. 1)

Even though The Discipling Dilemma is primarily about the International Church of Christ, a non-charismatic shepherding group that split off from the mainline Church of Christ and is commonly viewed today as a "cult," this sounded as eerily familiar to me, a former member of Morning Star International/Every Nation, as it did to the person who posted it on a UBF discussion board. Shepherding groups come in a variety of theological flavors, but have in common a pyramidical hierarchy that presumes to act with God's authority over the whole group through replacing the counsel of the Holy Spirit and of Scripture in context with that of the group and its leaders, often through intense one-on-one discipling and "accountability."

The group I was a part of has charismatic roots; there are others which are fundamentalist (ICoC), Pentecostal (Master's Commission), evangelical (Navigators), para-denominational (YWAM), ecumenical (Promise Keepers), etc. Some, like the Navigators, have attempted to move away from their Shepherding roots (which went back to the early 60s, predating the "Fab Five"), others have not, at least not in practice. And even though the original Shepherding movement was discredited a number of times... in the 70s with the original Fort Lauderdale Five controversy, in the mid-80s when the Fort Lauderdale elders disbanded, in the late 80s-early 90s with the break-up of Maranatha Campus Ministries... it didn't go away but instead has spread and mutated to where even some ordinary, mainline churches today practice Shepherding in some form or fashion, even if they don't even know what it is, where it came from, and what its long-term effects and implications have been in other high-impact groups and settings.

In my personal experience as a member of Morning Star International/Every Nation, I witnessed all the characteristics Yeakley notes above, including:

  • Emphasis on special training. We were taught that in order to be equipped to win disciples, we had to go through our movement's training school, which was originally only available in certain churches but was implemented in all churches on a local level a number of months before we left. There was a plug for this training school in every sermon; we were told that one way of demonstrating our obedience to our spiritual leaders was by enrolling. My husband noted that this might cause division - an "us" vs. "them" attitude between those who were "trained" and those who weren't. It is in this training that one learns how "important" submission to spiritual authority is, and how to make disciples under the "covering" of this spiritual authority.
  • One-on-one discipleship/"accountability." We were taught that submitting to a personal "accountability partner," whether that was a cell group leader, a personal mentor, etc. would plug us in to spiritual family, impart us with our movement's "spiritual DNA," mature us as Christians, and demonstrate our obedience to spiritual authority. In addition, all Christians needed to have a Paul (someone "speaking life into" us) and a Timothy (someone we discipled and "spoke life into"). The authority flowed one way - down - from the pastors and leaders. This was conceivably how we were "covered" by Christ. One of our local pastors - someone who is now a vice president of one of the other groups listed above - even taught that regularly confessing sins to an accountability partner was required to get and stay saved - not just faith in Christ. Ding ding ding!!!! Warning! Warning!
  • Emphasis on getting people in the church and "making disciples." We were encouraged to recruit members from among our families, co-workers, friends, etc. and there were several programs designed to "plug" people in to the church once they started to attend. A certain amount of this is just ordinary evangelism... but when it got to the point where the entire congregation was involuntarily divided into outreach groups in order to get as close to 100% involved in service to the church (it was "only" 50%!) and to recruit new converts, it got a little scary.
  • Pyramidical authority structure. I could trace my personal chain of command as: me->cell group leader->associate pastor's wife->associate pastor->senior pastor->Jim Laffoon (our movement's prophet)->Rice Broocks (our movement's top apostle/CEO). We were told that these leaders had "delegated authority" over us and as such, spoke with the same authority as God over our lives. The fear of leaders was the same as fear of God.
  • Enforced confessions. We had lists of "accountability questions" that we answered in cell group meetings; we were also told not to be surprised if a pastor approached us with something we said in group. At least this certain cell group leader was honest - I know there were others who never told their groups that what was said in group was reported to pastors. Before we left, our "records" were checked, including whether we tithed, participated in church-mandated training, faithfully served the church, had any sins or issues reported to pastors, etc. Yes, yes, yes, no... This had them scratching their heads because we were model congregants for the most part. The only thing that was brought up was that I had missed some cell group meetings and so was less than faithful to my cell group. I also was too "isolated" because I did not have enough close relationships (in other words, didn't reveal enough personal issues) within the church. My local church, as well as the movement to which we belonged, also practiced something called "inner healing and deliverance"of curses and spirits including the Jezebel spirit, the religious spirit, spirit of rebellion, etc. Aside from the fact that this belittles the cleansing power of Christ's finished work on the Cross to heal us of sin and iniquity, this leads to mind and behavior control, not freedom from spiritual bondage.

The result? A congregation that is brought in line by fear, guilt and shame. MIND CONTROL.

About a year or so ago I wrote Dr. Yeakley about some of his research findings, since he had included Maranatha in a comparative study of "manipulative sects;" as I've said before, Maranatha is the group from which my former group was descended both legally and spiritually. His research revealed that these groups actually changed the personalities of their adherents away from what they were before toward the group norm; this was not observed in mainline groups. His hypothesis is that the more a person's personality type differed from the group norm, the more psychological damage that could be potentially done to that person:

Those who are already ESFJs when they come to the Boston Church of Christ are likely to fit in quite well and not feel much of the pressure toward conformity that others feel. The greater the difference between a person's true type and the ESFJ model, the more likely that person is to feel the pressure toward conformity. Those who come to the Boston church as INTPs are in the greatest danger. (Appendix; emphasis mine)

He told me in an email that the Maranatha findings, including the group norm, were the same as that of the Boston Church of Christ/ICoC. In 1998, after I became a Christian but before my association with this group, I tested as a very polar INTP. Ewwww...


Blogger jessica said...

i used to be in ywam- the cult.
When i came out of it...i found that my best friend had started going to a church-morning star intl. i went. i really liked alot of the people...but it was so similiar to ywam that it gave/gives me the creeps in alot of ways. Alot of things you have mentioned. Sheperding-EEEK!
You have validated my concerns. thanks for writing this. I don't know how i will ever have my friend and her husband see and understand this.

4:39 AM  
Blogger Cathy W. said...

I recently got kicked out of an Every Nation spin-off church.

I can tell you that, sadly, the hierarchical controlling leadership style was still in place but more carefully hidden.

It still really sucks, though.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The church I am currently in is dissolving and losing their building--and this is a good thing, as this congregation was practicing this heretical shepherding teaching. I'm not even sure the leadership knows that this stuff has a name.

12:59 PM  

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