Pastor Bill Clem of Mars Hill Church writes a work on defining a disciple of Jesus Christ, an ultimately disappointing book that is far too American and seldom convicting. While there are brilliant sections strewn throughout, the book is neither groundbreaking nor wholly biblical. A missed opportunity for a much needed discussion.
Despite my best efforts and Bill Clem’s best intentions, this is the definition of disciple that I gleaned from his work:
A disciple is someone who looks like Jesus and joins a small group community.
Of course, I doubt this is Clem’s goal. Yet the book is so American that I could never see it working in an urban or third world context. With an almost abstract, self-help style, Clem writes in largely conceptual strokes about mind-molding and relational-sharing, but hardly ever touches on the Great Commission to Go and to Make.
It might be unfair that I expected a book like Radical. David Platt’s seminal work on discipleship felt much closer to the biblical reality of carrying the cross, denying the flesh, and giving your all for Christ. When I read a book about disciples, I expect urgency and adventure, not megachurch-style small groups isolated in an upper-class neighborhood.
While Clem gives a nod to the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the great anti-Nazi preacher who authored The Cost of Discipleship and was hung for plotting against Hitler — in Clem’s work there was never any sense of risk or rejoicing. He instead makes discipleship appear like a nagging grandmother’s task of checklisting spiritual progress and attending church to copy the “stoic” personality of Jesus.
It doesn’t help that Clem is quite an obnoxious writer, using run-on sentences and never taking a single breath. Not a short sentence to be found. He goes for easy cliche quotables that call attention to themselves. He uses overly long passages of Scripture with little pay-off or coherence. There are weird illustrations and analogies that never work — fireflies and motorcycles didn’t do it for me. The writing is also so bloated that he could have easily cut the chapters by half and still had the same material. There was little focus in each chapter. I grieve over writers who think that a computer allows every single thought to be equally worthy of publishing. Clem may consider a typewriter.
The fundamental error here is that Clem keeps confusing identity with discipleship. Identity is a crucial part of the Christian life and deserves its own book. Clem does great work here on the spiritual psychology of identity, but sputters on discipleship. You may expect a book on discipling but you’ll get something else. And even on discipleship, while Clem tries hard not to make it into a programmed plan, it becomes exactly that. There are so many steps and precautions and lists that I lost count.
I was very excited to read this one since I enjoy the Re:Lit writers; Mark Driscoll’s foreword had me primed to dive in. But halfway through I felt the missed opportunity, and near the end when the book had outworn its opening themes, I was forcing my eyes to finish reading. While Bill Clem is obviously a loving person with great things to say, he may have considered a better copy editor or more critical test readers.
The opening sections of Disciple are the best part of Clem’s writing. He seems most excited when he discusses imaging Christ and joining His Story; even more unfortunate then that the rest of the book doesn’t carry this enthusiasm.
At times, when Clem is talking about identity, he speaks straight conviction. When it comes to trauma, people-pleasing, emotional issues, control issues, greed, and soft spiritual talk, Clem lights up the pages. He is passionate for people to escape their slavery from false life-theologies, and he does so with aplomb.
It’s easy to tell Bill Clem loves the church and loves Jesus. I’m sure if I spoke with Bill Clem over coffee, he could tell me what he was going for and clear up much of the confusion. But if you’re expecting a work on the biblical meaning of discipleship, you’ll need to look elsewhere. If you expect a work on identity and escaping the imprisonment of an idolatrous mind, then there’s some work here worth reading.