March 1st saw the launch of the new version of Discipleship Explored (DE), written and presented by Barry Cooper. Barry took time out to answer a few questions about this exciting resource from Christianity Explored Ministries & The Good Book Company, along with the vision behind it and his reflections on discipleship in the church in the West…
Q. So Barry, in a nutshell, what’s DE all about?
A. We know the things we’re supposed to do as disciples – read the Bible, go to church, pray, love one another, share the gospel – but why does it often feel so joyless? It’s because we are so often focused on the things we’re supposed to do rather than the One we’re supposed to be following. Discipleship Explored is a film series, grounded in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which gets us refocused on Jesus.
Q. The previous version of DE came out back in 2008, and some people may be familiar with that material. Talk us through some of the changes with the 2018 version…
A. Emotionally, I think, it’s much more resonant. The eight sessions have been completely re-written, and the films are all new. It’s simpler and more streamlined: each session focuses on one passage from Philippians instead of two. There’s a greater focus on union with Christ, which is so key to Paul’s thinking (hence all the session titles ending in “In Christ”). There’s now the opportunity to learn prayer from the lips of Paul, as we pray model prayers based on Philippians. And the films also now feature interviews with believers all over the world – sometimes persecuted believers – whose lives have been radically changed by Christ.
Q. Most people seem to have generally used DE as a follow-on to Christianity Explored, pitched at those who have made a commitment to Christ. Is that still the case with this version? Who is the target audience? And how does that relate to Life Explored?
A. I’m keen to say that you can use DE completely independently of LE and CE. You don’t need to have run either to use DE, though of course people who’ve experienced either LE or CE will be right at home with the Handbooks and general feel of DE.
The target audience is Christian men and women, whether they’re new followers of Christ or veteran. That said, if a non-Christian turns up, I wouldn’t turf them out.
A. The interviewees are friends, or friends of friends. Judy, for example, is my old professor of counseling, and she is just a riveting story teller and Christian communicator. Simo is a Serbian evangelist whose hair-raising story I’d read on a blog, and who we were put in touch with by a mutual friend. The director Stephen McCaskell had friends in the Middle East who’d fled ISIS. We wanted a broad representation of believers, in terms of gender, ethnicity, age and so on. But the main reason was to bring an element of personal story into the films. We wanted to show what it looks like to live out Paul’s letter “on the ground”, especially under conditions of opposition and persecution.
Q. As you teach and speak at churches in the UK and the US you must get a sense of the discipleship scene in the Western church. What are your reflections on strengths and weaknesses – and how has that impacted upon DE?
A. Generally speaking, I’d say there’s a lack of depth in the way we disciple others, and ourselves.
The analogy I use is the one of the dancer who’s dancing with grace and joy and rhythm. As you look closer, you see what drives all this beautiful movement: she has her earbuds in, she’s hearing the music she loves best in all the world and it’s transporting her. She is captivated and enthralled by it. It’s almost as if she can’t stop dancing.
Now imagine a second person walking into the room. She looks at the dancer and thinks: ‘I’d love to be able to dance like that! But she can’t hear the music. So she tries to copy the moves – the technique. And it actually seems to be working, at least for a time. But because she hears no music the movement is clunky, hesitant and self-conscious. She doesn’t seem to enjoy dancing the way the first dancer does. And before too long she’s exhausted – even though the first dancer is still going strong.
So much of our well-intentioned disciple training is actually forcing people to be that second dancer. Telling them to copy all the right moves – read your Bible, pray, go to church, share the gospel – while doing relatively little to help them hear the beautiful music that must drive it all.
What would it look like if our discipling of others (and ourselves) was less an act of technique-teaching, and more an act of turning up the music? What if it were less about mastering, and more about being mastered? What if our focus was on captivating and enthralling would-be disciples with the music of God’s surpassing love for us in Christ?
Q. The tagline for DE is ‘what’s the best love you’ve ever known?’. Obviously with that question you’re putting your cards on the table about what you think is critical for Christian discipleship. Tell us a bit more why you’ve gone for that…
A. It ties in with the dancer analogy, I think. Without being captivated by Christ and his surpassing love, the Christian life is at best a dutiful trudge. There’s little grace or enjoyment or energy. I want people to leave DE not feeling weighed down with a long list of things they have to do, but with a lightness, a happiness, as they reflect on what Christ has done, and who they are “in him”.
Q. September 2016 saw the launch of Life Explored, the third member of the Explored trilogy, which you co-wrote with Nate Morgan-Locke. The take-up on that seems pretty significant. As you & Nate planned and produced DE, how did the response to LE factor into that?
A. The biggest lesson we learned from developing LE was the importance of story and narrative in communicating the gospel compellingly. That’s a relatively easy thing when you’re working with narrative texts in the Bible (as we mostly were with CE and LE). But what about a pastoral letter like Philippians? That got us thinking about ways we could improve DE. And as a result, story has found its way into DE on a number of levels. There’s the story of how Paul came to be in Philippi, and the story of his relationship with them. There’s the story of our trip around the world as film crew. There are the personal stories of each interviewee. And even as a presenter, there’s much more that is personal and biographical in this version of DE.
Q. Practically, for someone who likes the sound of DE, what are the options for how they might use it?
A. It’s as flexible as you are. Run it one-to-one, in small groups, in large groups – you can even do DE as a solo study. You can run each session if need be in under an hour, so that also makes it useable in dinner breaks at school/work.
Q. Finally, what’s next? Is there another Explored brewing in your brain? Marriage Explored? Church Explored? America Explored?!
A. It’s the end of an era for me, as I move on from Christianity Explored Ministries after twenty odd years. And who knows what the future holds.