Book Review – Healthy Christians make a Healthy Church (John Oak)

This book is essentially a call for pastors to set up discipleship training programs in their churches. But before we consider the message of the book, there are some issues with its format. First, despite the slick graphic design on the front cover of this book, once you open the cover you notice that the type setting is far from professional with unevenly spaced letters. Secondly, despite managing to secure Rick Warren to write the preface, the book appears to be lacking a good editor. John Oak is Korean, and although is quite competent in English, there are a number of awkward sentences and odd turns of phrase. What’s more, at 350 pages, the book becomes quite repetitive after a while, and would probably have been better trimmed down to about 200 or less pages.

John Oak’s credentials are impressive. He has built a church of over 30,000 members in Korea, from just a handful of members. His passion is to see the laity equipped for service and growing to maturity though discipleship training. It is in his view the first and most important task of the pastor, and the key to a church growing, not just numerically, but in quality as well. He cautions that churches that focus only on witness will not be able to grow as fast or produce mature converts as their own laity are ineffective and immature. Similarly, churches that focus on Sunday worship can actually obstruct the creation of true worshippers. He argues that the passion in the New Testament is for creating disciples, and that the task of witness and calling of worship will flow naturally out of this. He sees Jesus as the ultimate example of someone who performed discipleship training.

So what does he mean by discipleship training? It is not Bible studies, or theological college. Nor is it simply small groups. Basically the pastor takes applications from up to 10 people who want to seriously commit themselves for a period of time (about a year). They meet on a weekly basis for prayer, studying the word and being accountable to one another. The regime is quite intense, and calls for great openness, willingness to be corrected and serious commitment to attendance. It is no wonder that he notes that some people drop out of the program and even find it oppressive, although they are in the minority. After completing discipleship training, they become lay leaders, and there are further similar programs for them to attend. No one in his church may serve if they are not willing to humble themselves to take this training, a fact which has kept many “business class” types away. The program is given high profile in the church, with special enrollment and graduation ceremonies as part of the Sunday meetings.

Despite the size of his church, John Oak sees the primary burden of this training as falling upon himself as the pastor. He spends a good deal of time setting out how a program of discipleship training should be introduced, starting with the leaders, and then openning it wider. The church as a whole should realise that this is vital to who they are. In the groups themselves, they use an “inductive” method of study, teaching people to learn for themselves and teach each other, rather than the trainer doing all the teaching. Through a discipleship training program, his church are at the place of having 10 percent as lay leaders. He says that though other churches may have a similar percentage of lay leaders, in most churches, those 10 percent have not all had much training.

He mentions almost in passing that those who are trained are able to step right into ministry opportunities waiting for them. They can do this, because they know how many people will be trained, and find the contexts in which they can serve. This is perhaps lesson worth learning for churches. I myself have been on a number of training programs lasting many months that culminated merely in a certificate of attendance, with no opportunity whatsoever to put the training into action.

If you have a bit of time to spare and are interested in how we can effectively bring more members of the church to maturity, this is a book worth a read. It is a little quirky in places, such as the candidates for training solemnly swearing not to get ill or die during their training! In many ways, churches that have embraced a “cell” model are already experiencing some of the benefits of his program. But reading it did make me ask whether there should be more avenues for a more intensive program of discipleship, where those who desire to become more spiritually mature devote themselves over a period of time to seeing real growth and progress. I dare say that if churches were to offer such a discipleship training program, they would find a good number of people wanting to do it.

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