Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” As we work towards growing missional church communities that flourish in our secular age, then it’s evident that making discipleship normative will be critical.
Enter stage-left the second edition of Discipleship Explored, from Christianity Explored Ministries…
Back to Discipleship
I count myself a long-term fan of Christianity Explored Ministries. I realised when writing this that I’ve been involved in leading Christianity Explored (CE) courses for nearly ten years (CE was first developed in the late 1990’s, but is now on its third edition). Indeed, I’ll happily give you 10 reasons why I love it. Off the back of the popularity of CE, and seeing a need for a ‘next step’, CE Ministries launched the first edition of Discipleship Explored back in 2008. The teaching films and Bible-studies focused on Philippians and gave people a grounding in what it meant to go on as a (new) Christian. Completing the ‘Explored Trilogy’, Life Explored came into being in 2016 (and my review is here). It wasn’t so much a replacement or a prequel/sequel to the other two, but more sought to engage people with the gospel who might not be in a place where they’d consider CE, and yet its idolatry lens had a powerful knack of challenging existing believers too. Together the three DVD-based resources have become a main player in the ‘outreach course’ market over the last few years.
So when I heard that Christianity Explored Ministries was re-designing Discipleship Explored, I was keen to explore the new material. Presenter and co-writer Barry Cooper kindly took the time to answer some questions a few months ago about the new-look DE. Of course, at one level video-based resources will inevitably date quickly, so there will always be a pressure to keep ‘re-freshening’ such resources. However, ‘DE 2.0’ has more than just a facelift: all the material has been completely re-written, as well as being re-shot, whilst still retaining its focus on Philippians. Old-timers will recognise many of the same session titles, even if the content is different.
Real World Stories
If you’re familiar with the recent Life Explored, then Discipleship Explored comes with a similar quality of film production. The teaching films are beautifully and professionally shot, with Barry Cooper visiting a different location for each episode. Rwanda, Jordan, Serbia, India, Greece, Peru and the USA each provide the context for eight documentary-style films, giving DE aninherently international feel to it – as well as being visually engaging.
One of the other obvious differences is that the teaching films now include snippets of interviews with Christians from these different locations. Each session’s theme is therefore grounded in the reality of lived experience. Whereas Life Explored introduced a series of thought-provoking but fictional visual stories, intentionally taking the viewer into a ‘different world’, Discipleship Explored now introduces us to ‘real life’ stories capturing the richness, variety and earthiness of Christian faith in the ‘real world’.
Good to Go
The main components of each DE session are fairly straight-forward and, again, there’s no surprises if you’ve used the other Explored resources. Simply put, it’s a case of watching the film (15 mins), before spending a longer chunk of time time (DE recommends 45 mins) going deeper into the week’s passage from Philippians by working through some provided discussion questions. Over the eight sessions participants will read through the whole of Philippians, and each film picks up on a theme from that session’s passage (e.g. Living in Christ, from Philippians 1:1-11, or Righteous in Christ, from Philippians 3:1-9). Hosts are encouraged to introduce the film with a ‘question to keep in mind’, which tees up the issues about to be addressed. The corresponding discussion after the film is effectively a Bible-study on that session’s passage.
As part of the resource package, a Leader’s Handbook provides extensive resources on Philippians, running DE, following-up pastoral issues, as well as a rough ‘script’ to lead each session, e.g. prayers to close the session and introductory sentences. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be tempted to decide you already know what you’re doing and just crack on with running DE before having read the Leader’s Handbook. However, it’s worth pausing and having a gander at the suggestions provided to reap the wisdom ‘in the box’. It’s also recommended that DE participants each have their own Member’s Handbook (one of these is included in the DE kit, and extras can be purchased separately – they work out as just over £2 each, depending on how you buy in bulk). These also provide ‘Follow Up’ daily readings and questions for the following week, picking up on a particular theme from the session (e.g. assurance, the Holy Spirit, meeting with other Christians, contentment) and then taking the participants through various Bible passages to complement what has been discussed in the session. This is commendable because it gently helps someone establish a simple pattern of daily Bible reading, prayer, and, particularly admirably, Scripture memorisation too.
Turning Up the Music
Again, if you’re familiar with the other Explored resources, you’ll know what you’re getting in terms of teaching content. DE doesn’t disappoint. Presenter Barry Cooper (who wrote & presented on the original DE and has worked for CE Ministries for the last 20 years) is engaging, clear, and provides a compelling vision of Christian discipleship that is both solid and fresh; re-assuring and yet unashamed in its call to follow Christ. The metaphor he uses is that we can often think about discipleship as like teaching someone to dance by simply explaining a series of moves. But that’s no use without someone hearing the music. Cooper hopes that the apostle Paul’s vision of Christ and His love would be like turning up the music in our discipleship. And our experience of DE was that even for people who have been Christians for decades there was much that was invigorating and tellingly put.
Occasionally it felt like the teaching was covering so many ‘discipleship’ issues that we were slightly gorged out by the time the film finished. All good stuff and sparklingly illustrated. But as a result, what I felt I needed next was some time and questions to help me process some of the issues raised by the film, rather than a seven-question Bible-study. I wonder if this was because some of the teaching films felt more thematic, interspersed with related snippets of interview, rather than being particularly tied to the passage. Again, nothing wrong with that, but the subsequent Bible-study then felt like ‘something more’, rather than just ‘going deeper’. I’d love to hear how others have found making – or managing – this connection, because I’d want to re-look at this next time we use DE.
A few practical observations:
Perhaps it’s worth noting that one of the inevitable consequences of the new DE ‘global’ feel is the practical reality of accents! Depending on whether participants are used to hearing a range of accents in everyday life, some viewers may struggle slightly with following along. We ended up putting on subtitles for most episodes, which helped us better appreciate these interviews with Christians from around the world. (On that, it’s worth being aware that subtitles are presently only available if you’re playing the DVD, whereas the downloadable files (to which you get an access code within the box) don’t contain subtitle options.)
Most of the episodes also begin with a short, unintroduced burst of these interviews, but we found for some people beginning like this took a bit of getting used to – just a line of explanation to know who this person was and why we were hearing from them would help set the scene. As the weeks went on we ended up supplying this ourselves as part of the introduction (“we’re going to begin the film by hearing from X, who will be sharing about…”).
Those practicalities aside, these interviews undoubtedly strengthen the versatility of the DE package. Whether or not your own context is particularly ‘international’, it’s hugely encouraging to see that all over the world the gospel is indeed bearing fruit, growing disciples, and making sense of life.
Strictly Come Discipleship
The second edition of DE is a strong resource; professional and pleasing in its format, and trust-worthy and compelling in its content. Its evidently suitable for a variety of settings: one-to-one viewing, the traditional group format, or even a summer teaching series. Likewise, I’d say it’s global flavour makes it more deployable, even across the spectrum of culture and class within the UK. So, thank you Barry Cooper, not least for all you’ve given to these three Explored resources. All in all, it’s hard to see how there wouldn’t be some forum within most churches where DE was a welcome and beneficial addition.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of Discipleship Explored for free from the publisher, but I hope this is a fair and honest review!