Tell me about yourself: Where you’re from, where you live now, where you went to school, some of your favorite things to do when not at work, etc.
Ahh, the dreaded where you’re from… most pastors pause on this one, take a deep breath, and then go through the litany of all the places we have been from, because to leave one out is like leaving out family. So I will do the same: born in Stillwater, OK; moved to Benton, AR at 13 and graduated high school there; moved to Fayetteville for college (BA in English and French, MA in Comparative Literature); then Rogers where I got my call to ministry, which took me to Dallas to attend SMU (MDiv and Ph.D. in Religious Studies, emphasis New Testament); then served churches in West Memphis and Fort Smith before my current appointment in Little Rock, which I commute to from Hot Springs Village when I am in the office. When I am not at work, I spend time with family, write, and I love to listen to music – all genres, but mainly pop.
You have a new book coming out next year called Gospel Discipleship: 4 Pathways for Christian Disciples. Where did the idea for this book come from and what is it about?
The book idea came from the Holy Spirit as I struggled to come up with a way to help churches figure out their intentional paths of discipleship. My struggle was that I knew there needed to be a way to teach about such a pathway in a broad sense, something Bishop Mueller pushed me in a helpful way to recognize, but I also know that churches have their own unique personalities and exist in their own unique mission fields. I came to the Conference Offices from a two-point charge. My Fort Smith churches – Wesley and Cavanaugh – were 2.5 miles apart from each other, made up of the same demographics of people, and were formed within a year of each other, but I could not do the same thing successfully at both churches. There had to be a way to take a useful system to the churches, and to God’s people, and still take into account their uniqueness. Thus, Gospel Discipleship was born. People take the Discipleship Type Assessment to determine if they are Markan (Holy Spirit inspired), Matthean (action driven), Lukan (relationship focused), or Johannine (mentor-apprentice nurtured) disciples. Once someone understands their type, there are four distinct, but readily customized, pathways for them to grow in their faith.
The book revolves around four types of disciples: Markan, Matthean, Lukan, and Johannine — named after the four Gospels that are at the start of the New Testament. It’s interesting to me that these people are different enough to construct four distinct personality types from studying their words. Did that surprise you as well?
I wasn’t surprised about the distinctness of the Gospels, but I had never thought about the Gospels giving rise to distinct understandings of discipleship. I remember our final exam in New Testament I in seminary required us to identify which quotes came from which Gospels, and once you have studied the Gospels and their unique characteristics, that is actually a pretty easy exercise to do. Each of the Gospel writers has particular phrases and particular emphases, because they were writing to particular communities. They narrowed the huge story of Jesus (of which we have only a minuscule amount) in a way that would resonate with the people in their community that they were trying to reach. That consequently also built Christian communities that had distinct personalities. What surprised me was that today, even though we have all four Gospels available to us, these stories still resonate with us in particular ways, drawing us to some stories and understandings over others. We are drawn to the stories that make sense in light of our own life experiences.
I noticed the particular discipleship traits of each Gospel as I worked with about 20 churches from around the state on their intentional discipleship pathways. I offered an online Bible study on the last words Jesus proclaimed in each of the Gospels, because it seemed to me that the last words Jesus spoke to us before he ascended were probably our parting instructions for how we live as his followers from here on out. Each of those last words is different. No Gospel recounts exactly the same words. Each of them, though, defines a particular way of approaching discipleship. Once I noticed that trait, I looked through each of the Gospels and found that such a thread carries through the whole story as told by each of the Gospel writers. So these stories, that reflected particular communities who had distinct understandings of what it means to follow Jesus, are still creating such distinctions.
Most people are familiar with personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the enneagram. How is finding out your discipleship type similar to these tests and how is it different?
Like those other assessments, the Gospel Discipleship Type Assessment aids in self-awareness. It helps to name things about us that allow us to grow and learn. What is distinct is that this assessment is geared around and grows out of Scripture, and is aimed specifically at helping us grow in our faith journey. Probably the most familiar similar type tool would be a Spiritual Gifts test. However, while a Spiritual Gifts test reveals particular skills you bring to the table as a disciple, this assessment reveals how you live out that discipleship. You will use your spiritual gifts in that journey, and to some extent your spiritual gifts are probably shaping which type you are drawn to, but this assessment helps you map out what the journey looks like. It helps you take the next step, and the next step, and the next step toward Jesus.
Your book has two guides, one for individuals and one for congregations. What is the purpose of having two guides? How would an individual’s result differ from a congregation’s result?
Everyone who takes the assessment would do well to pick up an Individual Guide. That book not only tracks each of these types through Scripture so people better understand how the story is shaping them, but it also explains each of the types in depth. It covers not only typical characteristics but likely spiritual crises. Then it shows how each type can grow their discipleship in four realms: spiritual formation, worship, service, and evangelism. The congregation guide is really meant for a group to understand their whole identity. This can be small groups, or it can be an entire congregation. That guide helps a group understand how to lean into their dominant type identity, but also what role people who do not share that dominant type play in the health of the group. Congregations have personalities just like individuals do. This assessment helps us admit that reality.
Once an individual or congregation discern their particular discipleship type, how can that knowledge help them in their lives or the health of their congregation?
Let’s be honest about something that’s difficult for us to admit: we talk a lot about discipleship in the church, but we don’t really know what that means. For too long now we have assumed if we just say, “Be a disciple!” everyone will know what that means and how to do it. Maybe we have quit explaining because we take it for granted that people know. Maybe we’ve quit explaining because we don’t know either.
I want to answer this question with some specific examples, and I want to start with myself. For months now I have been going around sharing how this process can help people grow in their faith, that knowing your type lays out a pretty clear path of discipleship. But about a month ago, confronting my own faith struggle, I realized I had not actually been practicing what I preach. I know that I am Markan, and I know a Markan path centers around identifying your top spiritual gift or gifts, and then planning for how to use that gift intentionally in the realms of discipleship mentioned above. So, I put a plan in place. It is pushing me out of my comfort zone, but in a way that is authentic to who I am. As part of this journey, I am not only practicing regular centering prayer now, but also sharing original poems with theological bents at Wednesday Night Poetry in downtown Hot Springs. I would not have tried either if I didn’t understand this was the next step I could take in my faith journey, not because it is the latest trend, but because it is who I am and who God is calling me to be next.
As for congregations, I have to say that has been the most exciting part of watching this whole process unfold. I am infinitely grateful to the churches who have agreed to be pilot churches in this process. The learning that has taken place has sharpened Gospel Discipleship for everyone who follows. But I am also excited that they have received something through this process as well. Many of them are still discerning the specifics of their particular discipleship pathways, but here are some of the immediate benefits they have seen: congregations better understand the leadership style of their pastors, and pastors better understand how to lead their churches; congregations now understand why there has been significant conflict, particularly in churches with two dominant discipleship types; and churches understand now why some programs work for them and some fail spectacularly (and they should be able to better predict what will work). And those are the big things. Practically, two churches are using these results to influence their small group development, one church successfully rearranged their worship seating with minimal resistance (and that same church is now integrating discipleship understanding into discussions around design of a new sanctuary space), one church is now taking a hard look at their practices of hospitality and welcome, and one church has used results in their nominations process. In short, there have been a number of surprising side effects, but they are helping churches shake loose from being stuck in their discipleship in the ways that they need.
Do you see this subject as something that attracts more younger or older individuals, or do you see it being relevant across a spectrum of age groups?
People of all ages have taken this assessment now, and it has resonated across the spectrum. It has been incredible when I have the chance to sit with someone individually and go over their results, and watch them nod in astonishment at how much it reveals about them. Just a couple weeks ago, I visited with a woman who tested Markan, and when I mentioned that Markans are okay with messy, she grabbed me and said, “That’s my house! But why would I waste time cleaning my house when I have stuff to do for God?!” She was a Baby Boomer, recently retired, and she suddenly had some clarity about what the priorities for her life should be.
If there is a generation that really resonates with it consistently, however, it would be Millennials. Every training I have done with Millennials present, they constantly nod, and they quickly come up with applications in discussion. That generation actively cultivates self-awareness. They see the value in seeking understanding of yourself and others, and learning how to navigate a diverse world. Also, I am sure it doesn’t hurt that they have been raised in a world of social media quizzes like “What ‘80s sitcom matches your life?” They love understanding what kind of disciple they are, and consequently imagining what that means for their life going forward.
Where can people purchase or find more information on your book?
According to the current timeframe, the books don’t actually come out until April 2020! There has been energy to make them available at least for pre-order ahead of their release, though. I encourage folks to go to Cokesbury to pre-order, as Cokesbury contributes to our denomination, but you can also find them on Amazon. Just search for Gospel Discipleship, Michelle J. Morris, and it should pull up. You can also find links to purchase them from the website gospeldiscipleship.net. You can sign up for the Gospel Discipleship newsletter at that site, and I will provide updates on the release there, as well as add supplementary material (the two books cannot contain all that I have already discerned, and presumably more is coming).
If you have questions about the books or the process, I also encourage people to reach out to me by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to help as many people and churches as possible figure out their authentic and particular paths for following Jesus!