Thompson, W. Oscar Jr.Concentric Circles of Concern: Seven Stages for Making Disciples. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1999.
W. Oscar Thompson Jr. was a professor Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth Texas (Thompson, 5) who dearly loved the Lord, his family and his students. Often throughout the pages of his book, he makes mention of his daughter, Damaris, and his love for her is evident. Before publishing his book, Concentric Circles of Concern: Seven Stages for Making Disciples, Thompson got cancer and died. His wife, Carolyn, saw that his work made it to publication in 1980, and Claude V. King, a great admirer of Thompson’s book and method, got permission to revise and expand the book in 1999.
Like a pebble sending ripples in a pond, Christ sent his disciple out into the world with the message of the cross and His resurrection. He did so, intending for them to move outward from themselves, outward into what W. Oscar Thompson Jr. calls “concentric circles of concern.” He bases this theory and practice off the commission Christ gave in Acts 1, just before He ascended into heaven. In verse 8, Christ informs and commands His faithful followers that they would be witnesses for Him “in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” The ripples of ministry were moving out towards the rest of the world, but for the disciples, they all started at home.
This idea of outward-moving circles sets the basis of Thompson’s book. In it, he offers seven distinct relational circles that each person owns. Then he offers seven stages each Christian can go through to be sure he does his utmost to reach all the people hidden within his circles.
The seven circles in Thompson’s plan start at an internal relationship, move through personal relationships at home and continue outward towards the rest of the people with whom we come in contact. However, even before this begins, Thompson encourages the reader to begin stage number one of his evangelism plan: to ensure that his relationship with God is in order. Only then can he move into the concentric circles. In the first circle, a person is to deal with himself (Thompson, 57-67), making sure that his life is bringing forth fruit (Thompson, 71-86) and preparing him for a ministry where his relationships with other people are also in order (89-93).
Once all of this self-evaluation and correction of stage one is complete, the person is ready for stage two, to survey all of the people in his life (Thompson, 95-95), categorizing them into the remaining six circles: circles two and three, the more personal relationships of family and relatives (Thompson, 97-101); four, “close friends” (Thompson, 106); five, “neighbors and associates” (Thompson, 107-108); six, “acquaintances” (Thompson, 108-109); and seven, “Person X” (Thompson, 109-111).
The remaining stages deal with getting close to the people in one’s concentric circles and evangelizing them. Stage three involves prayer for the specific people in one’s circles (Thompson, 115-130). Stage four concerns building personal and relational bridges to the unbelievers in one’s circles (Thompson, 133-146). Stage five encourage the person to display love towards the unsaved by way of “meeting needs” (Thompson, 149-175). Stage six is perhaps one of the most important, as it describes how to deal with a person after they accept Christ into their lives: discipleship (Thompson, 189-196). And stage seven encourages the believer that, once he has seen an unbeliever accept Christ, and he is in the process of discipleship, to start all over again—both by evangelizing himself and by teaching his new disciple to evangelize as well (Thompson, 199-200).
I would like to comment on five particular aspects of Thompson’s book and then discuss several problems or disagreements I found while reading through his work.
First of all, I appreciated the various tips on the process of evangelism that Thompson offered throughout his book. For example, in his use of a personal survey, Thompson brings out a very useful approach to discovering just how many people with whom I really do come in contact (Thompson, 31). I have seen family trees which start out at the bottom of a regular 8½ x 11 inch piece of paper and quickly grow through a few generations into something that can barely fit across a wall. This is how my peripheral relationships become when I start writing down in detail the people I know. And seeing such a mass of people ought to make me question my desires to go out into the world and preach the gospel, since there are so many lost people I would leave behind (Thompson, 98). I also appreciated what Thompson wrote on the importance of remembering names: how in failing to do so, I show that I really do not care (Thompson, 98, 108).
Secondly, I enjoyed the various “how to”s Thompson offered throughout his book. For example, he gives some very practical advice on how I can meet my own needs: by meeting the various needs of the people around me (Thompson, 11, 58). He suggests how I can achieve balance in my life, by following Paul’s example of dying to myself and clinging to Christ (Thompson, 65-66). He advises in how I can come to bear fruit in my life, through reconciliation and bridge-building with a lost and dying world (Thompson, 74). He suggests how I might build these bridges by finding or creating various “points of contact” with unbelievers (Thompson, 136), referencing Paul’s example in I Corinthians 9:19-22. And finally, I especially enjoyed Thompson’s explanation of how I can love God practically—by loving others (Thompson, 153), as seen in Matthew 25:35-40.
Thirdly, I would like to mention some of Thompson’s discussions on personalizing these methods. Of course, at the end of every chapter, Thompson offers several practical suggestions for how to personalize the principles he laid out in said-chapter, and then he also gives suggestion for how small groups who might be studying the book together can use these methods in their own experiences and relationships. He suggests these personalization tactics based off the words found in Proverbs 16:3, “Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established” (Thompson, 3).
Here are some of the personalization ideas Thompson offers that I found most useful. He tells me of my purpose, to bear fruit (Thompson, 72), and how I can approach the uniqueness of my own personal Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria by saying, “Your Judea is not like anyone else’s Judea” (Thompson, 29), meaning I cannot compare my ministry to anyone else’s, because no one else’s is like mine. He tells how the different parts of me—my body, mind and spirit—help me view the world in different ways, making me sensitive to all sorts needs around me (Thompson, 38). He informs me of the responsibility I take on when I create such a survey as he describes, for I have now become responsible for every person within my circles (Thompson, 51), just as Romans 13:8 says (Thompson, 158), no matter how they might respond (Thompson, 124). My responsibility does not end when I pray for the lost around me, for in doing so I spiritually commit myself to searching for ways to reach them with the gospel (Thompson, 122). He reminds me not to forget about the needs of my family (Thompson, 98) and close friends (Thompson, 106) in light of trying to reach everyone else with the gospel, because as he says, “If you are not loving those in your Circle 2, you are surely not going to love those in your Circle 7” (Thompson, 164).
Fourthly, Thompson writes an excellent section on prayer that I found extremely helpful. I tend to fail miserably when it comes to faithfulness in prayer, so whenever I see writing on this topic, I generally eat them up. The prayer section in this book was no different. He suggests that the reason I ought to pray (even though God already knows what I am going to ask before I even ask for it, Matthew 6:8) is so that God can answer my prayer (Thompson, 75; James 4:2) and so that I know that God is the one who answered my prayer (Thompson, 32). He suggests the importance of praying “in specifics,” personalizing rather than generalizing my requests concerning the people in my concentric circles (Thompson, 123), and then he encourages me to actually act upon my requests rather than just staying put, absently expecting God to do all the work (Thompson, 122). He clarifies the importance of both intercessory (Thompson, 120) and preventative prayer (121), and later offers up a specific example of how personal prayer for one lost sheep once ended up unifying a large group of non-social individuals in a church (Thompson, 128).
Finally, Thompson writes a great deal on the importance of personal relationships, namely marriage and family relationships. As pertaining to marriage, Thompson discusses the various levels of intimacy (Thompson, 139) and the utmost importance of social monogamy (Thompson, 168)—as in, because I am married, my spouse alone is my best friend. He shares the various kinds of love (Thompson, 154), informing me that “Feelings fluctuate; love is stable” (Thompson, 156) and that “love is meeting needs” (Thompson, 33, 173). Now, while I am now married, my wife and I do not yet have any children. However, I found much of his parent-children relationship information extremely useful. He discusses the responsibility of parents to exemplify right relationships (Thompson, 9), the importance of recognizing when you are raising them incorrectly (Thompson, 189) and the joys of raising them successfully (Thompson, 168).
Now that I have reviewed the five major aspects of Concentric Circles of Concern that I found most helpful, I would like to mention one major concept that I did not find appealing. I had trouble relating Thompson’s major theme of “relationships” (Thompson, and William Fay’s major theme of “obedience”. How could two men come to two very separate conclusions regarding the very same issue of evangelism? Mainly, I found Thompson’s language in his first two chapters hard to swallow. For example, as I read his initial conversation with Jim in Chapter 1 where he asks, “Jim, do you really think you can be right with God and have ruptured relationships with your parents?” I could not help but think of how much this contradicts Fay’s own remarks: “When you surrender your life to Christ, it may cost you every relationship you have. You truly have to die to yourself, follow Christ, and leave your loves ones behind.” So how can these two be reconciled? I believe that only with a slight change to Thompson’s words can these two authors come to any agreement. I take this sentence from page 24 of Thompson’s book, adding my own words in bold: “Jesus taught us to confess wrong relationships and make them right before coming to worship the Father. We must try to be reconciled with others to be right with God.” I do understand Thompson’s underlying reason for saying this about our personal relationships, for he later clarifies himself (Thompson, 20), but I do not think that he was very clear in the beginning.
I felt, too, that Thompson’s plans was a bit more sterile than William Fay’s plan. Whereas Fay’s plan seemed a bit more lively, ready-to-pounce, Thompson’s was so formulaic that it just seemed stilted and too well-laid-out. I understand, now, that this could be the result of the differences between a modern (1980) and a more post-modern (1999) approach, and my feelings may derive from my own outlook on life in 2010, but nevertheless, I appreciated William Fay’s methods a bit more than Thompson’s.
© 2010 E.T.