The Michigan Conference Training Center Church Committee released an excellen new book in 2015 called the Discipleship Handbook. Fulcrum7's Gerry Wagoner interviews Jim Howard, Personal Ministries Director for the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists about the book.
Hi Jim. Thanks for giving us this interview.
I see you are in Michigan. Have you always lived there?
No, I lived in Missouri for 10 years, but I’m originally from Ohio and most of my family still lives there. That’s also where I met you and Nancy. We’ve been good friends ever since!
I got a copy of your Discipleship Handbook at the 2015 GC session. I must say, it is very good. Who wrote it?
I chair an ad hoc committee of the Michigan Conference called the Training Center Church (TCC) Committee, and this book is a product of that committee. I wrote most of the original manuscript, but also received help from my brother Mark Howard, Kameron DeVasher, and Staci Schefka. The four of us, as well as committee members Justin Ringstaff, Jeff Akenberger, Gene Hall, and Tom Hubbard, went over each chapter together and discussed suggestions for improvement. Then I would re-work the chapters and bring them back for final edits and approval. It took us a little while, since everyone on the committee is busy serving as a conference leader, pastor, or Bible worker, but we’re happy with how it turned out!
What were your motivations for writing this book?
It was written to address two problems:
- Members leaving the church through the proverbial back door—either from not being integrated into the fellowship of the church or from not being grounded in the mission and message of the church, and
- Members becoming complacent—attending church but not being involved in the life and ministry of the church or not maintaining spiritual habits of personal devotion or witness. Discipleship is such a huge need in the church. We looked into different resources, but couldn’t find what we were looking for. We wanted something comprehensive and yet straightforward and easy for church members to use. So, we decided to create what we were envisioning.
The Discipleship Handbook comes with a companion Mentor’s Guide. How do these resources work?
The Discipleship Handbook has 26 chapters, which correspond to 6 months of weekly meetings between a mentor and new member. The weekly meetings are a natural continuation of the weekly Bible studies or baptismal preparation classes that generally occur before baptism. The Mentor’s Guide is a short booklet that contains 26 one-page outlines telling the mentor what to do in each meeting with the new member. In addition to reading through one chapter of the Discipleship Handbook in each meeting, the Mentor’s Guide instructs the mentor how to carry out simple tasks that integrate the new member into the fellowship and mission of the church.
For instance, you can invite people to Sabbath lunch, sundown worship, witnessing activities, and church socials; develop prayer and interest lists, introduce Bible & Spirit of Prophecy reading plans, and provide witnessing resources; give them a copy of Church Manual, local church officer list, and local church directory etc.).
What kind of topics does the Discipleship Handbook address?
The 26 chapters are broken down into six sections:
(1) The first section only contains one chapter, which is on Discipleship.
(2) The second section deals with the Devotional Life, and includes chapters on Bible study, the Spirit of Prophecy, meaningful prayer, character development, and family worship.
(3) The third section is on Personal Witnessing, and includes two chapters—one on the rise and identity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and its end-time mission, and a second chapter on how every disciple is called to personal soul-winning.
(4) The fourth section is called Church Life, and it includes a chapter on the importance of attending the sacred assemblies of the church—Sabbath worship, Sabbath School, and prayer meeting or mid-week Bible study. There is a chapter on the ceremonies and ordinances of the church—baptism, communion, child dedication, ordination, anointing of the sick, funerals, and weddings. There is a chapter on church organization that gives the biblical reason for it and shows how the Adventist Church is organized. There is a chapter on Adventist Church history that explains how we developed our doctrinal foundation, and a chapter on the far-reaching missionary activity of the worldwide church, including publishing work, health work, community service, humanitarian aid, foreign missions, and media ministries.
(5) The fifth section is called Christian Lifestyle, and after an overview chapter it includes chapters on Sabbath observance, reverence, financial stewardship, health, modesty, media and entertainment, and marriage and family.
(6) The sixth and last section is called The Cycle of Evangelism, and it has practical chapters that explain how to engage in each phase of the evangelistic process. We go from preparing the soil of the heart with friendship and service, to planting seeds with spiritual conversations and truth-filled literature. We share how to get & give Bible studies to cultivate spiritual interest and how to harvest decisions to follow Christ. This section concludes by talking about the discipleship of new members, encouraging new members to mentor someone else now that they’ve gone through the process themselves.
In your opinion, what is Adventist evangelism doing right?
Evangelism is a process rather than an event. It involves preparing the soil of the heart, planting the seed of God’s Word, cultivating spiritual interests, harvesting decisions for Christ, and preserving the harvest with ongoing discipleship. Every church is different, but most focus a lot on soil preparation (community service, health events, VBS, etc.) and maybe some planting (literature distribution) and harvesting (public evangelistic meetings). Some do more than others, but most churches are fairly active in these areas—which is good.
What areas do we need to work on?
The weakest areas in our evangelism tend to be cultivation (giving Bible studies) and preservation (discipleship/training). These are the longest phases of the evangelistic process and they require a lot of personal effort. Many church members have a corporate evangelism mentality. They help with group events such as cooking schools, vacation Bible schools, evangelistic meetings, etc., but very few members give personal Bible studies. And because of this, they don’t disciple new members to do it either. We need a reformation in these areas.
Ellen White said that the plan of giving Bible readings, which is the old name for Bible studies, was a “heaven-born idea.” She saw a mighty reformation in vision, in which hundreds and thousands of Adventists were seen giving Bible studies. Simple as it sounds, perhaps our greatest potential for growth in the church is to increase the personal Bible studies being given by pastors and laypeople. This is really the heart of evangelism. Not everyone goes to a cooking school, or a VBS, or a church social before being baptized, but everyone needs Bible studies. This is where the heart is gripped with the message and decisions are made for Christ and the truth. Suffice it to say, we need to breathe new life into this old method!
But let me also address a popular trend here. Much of what has been emphasized in recent years has been innovation in evangelism. For instance, many have said goodbye to an emphasis on Bible studies or public evangelism and replaced these with random acts of kindness or some sort of social justice. But this way of thinking is flawed.
You can’t replace a cultivation or harvest activity (Bible studies or public evangelism) with a soil preparation activity (compassionate service) and expect to succeed in evangelism. We need every phase! I’m afraid that in many places, sharing the message is being downplayed and even removed from our evangelism at a time when it is needed the most. Ellen White wrote that by presenting the three angels’ messages, we “shall be able to stir the people.” We can’t afford to become so absorbed with humanitarian and social causes—as well-intended as these might be—that we fail to actively share the message entrusted to us.
“In a special sense, Seventh-day Adventists have been set in the world as watchmen and light-bearers. To them has been entrusted the last warning for a perishing world. On them is shining wonderful light from the Word of God. They have been given a work of the most solemn import,—the proclamation of the first, second, and third angels’ messages. There is no other work of so great importance. They are to allow nothing else to absorb their attention” (Evangelism, p. 119).
How can the Discipleship Handbook help new Adventists?
One of the primary goals of the Discipleship Handbook is to establish spiritual habits. Some of these positive habits are: daily personal prayer, Bible study, and family worship; weekly attendance at Sabbath school, church, and prayer meeting or small group Bible study. In short, we encourage regular involvement in personal and church ministries.
In addition to the Discipleship Handbook emphasizing each of these areas, and the Mentor’s Guide instructing the mentor to encourage these areas, the Discipleship Handbook also contains a Bible and Spirit of Prophecy reading plan that the new member is asked to use for daily devotions. Each daily reading is 15-20 minutes, which when combined with 15 minutes of prayer, is a 30-35 minute daily devotional life commitment. When followed, the reading plan and other spiritual activities assigned in these resources can build spiritual habits that will keep new members on fire for the Lord!
How can it help existing members?
Many churches have used the Discipleship Handbook in prayer meetings, Sabbath schools, men’s and women’s ministry meetings, and other settings. I have had many existing members tell me of the blessing that the book has been to them personally. There are too many things that we assume church members will just learn by osmosis after they’re baptized.
When I explain what’s in the Discipleship Handbook, I always have church members tell me that they want one because they were never given clear explanations of all those areas when they became Adventists. This resource has been a tool for personal spiritual revival among many of our existing church members. Furthermore, we ask our church members to go through it so that they’ll be prepared to serve as mentors for new members in the future.
What kind of responses have you been receiving from readers?
Well for starters, we had some well-known leaders go through the resources. We received recommendations from Elders Ted Wilson, Mark Finley, John Bradshaw, and Jerry Page—those can be found in the beginning of the Handbook.
As we were preparing the Spanish translation, we received more recommendations. Here’s one example from Elder Mario Veloso, a former Field Secretary of the General Conference:
“I have never read anything better on discipleship than this Discipleship Handbook. Its organization, completeness, faithfulness to the Bible, and clarity are remarkable. But its best jewel is its content. Nothing important to be a good Seventh-day Adventist disciple is missing. Every Adventist should read and practice its content. Personal spiritual growth and the growth of the church in membership would be a permanent reality. God will bless everyone who practices its teachings.”
In addition to those giving recommendations, we’ve had numerous pastors and church members give us positive responses. Here’s a sampling:
- “The Discipleship Handbook has been the most useful ministry tool I have ever used. It is a great reference book that is readable. It discretely brings up topics of importance in a winsome way.”
- “I feel like I am sitting at the feet of Jesus each time I read the Discipleship Handbook. It is life changing!”
- “The more we go through this Discipleship Handbook the more convinced we are that God had his hand directing this project. The topics and explanations are essential, succinct, and clear enough for any to understand.”
In our present culture, it is common to downplay doctrine as divisive. Does this book address that trend?
In the overview chapter on Christian lifestyle, it addresses some common misconceptions. But by and large, the book simply presents the truth in a straightforward, non-confrontational way. You generally don’t have to convince new Adventists that doctrine is not divisive—after all, they’ve just experienced the doctrines of the Bible as life-changing truths that brought them closer to Christ!
How many copies of this book are out there?
At this point we’ve sold approximately 11,000 sets—the Discipleship Handbook and Mentor’s Guide are always sold together. We’re almost ready to send a Spanish version to print, and translations into German, Russian, and Korean are underway.
How can people get a copy of this excellent manual?
Soon there will be a website—www.discipleshiphandbook.com—but until then, the primary source is the Lansing, Michigan Adventist Book Center at 517-316-1502. They are very inexpensively priced for a high-quality hardback because we want them to be widely used and distributed. A few other ABCs and supporting ministries also carry the books.
Do you have any plans for another book?
Yes. The Training Center Church Committee is actively developing resources. We have a small baptismal preparation guide—Fundamentals of Faith—that is almost complete. We also have a substantial book that we’re working on called the Bible Study Handbook. It will be a resource to aid church members in giving Bible studies and will be about twice the size of the Discipleship Handbook. We hope to have it completed by the end of 2017. We also have plans for a Leadership Handbook that will be an indispensable resource for pastors and local church leaders.
God bless you!
Pastor Jim Howard is the Personal Ministries Director & Evangelism Coordinator for the
Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.