By Robby Gallaty, Senior Pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, TN
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote an article entitled, “The Great Commission: Where Are We Now?” In the article, Dr. Kelley makes a passionate plea for a return to biblical disciple-making by charting the decline of baptisms in our Convention over the past 15 years. He writes,
“The blue line [see Figure 1], which indicates the total number of SBC churches, is generally positive with a sustained, clearly upward trend over a very long period of time. Next, note the red line which indicates total SBC baptisms. An explosive growth in baptisms, outstripping the growth in number of churches began around 1930. As you move through the years, the two lines crossed about the year 2000. An ever-widening gap between the number of churches and the number of baptisms began and continues to this day. WOW! We are about 15 years into the longest decline in baptisms in SBC history. We have more and more churches, but they are reaching fewer and fewer people.”
Statistics like these are neither new nor surprising. We’ve heard them for years. Throughout my time in seminary one phrase was burned into my mind: “85% of our SBC churches are plateaued or declining.” Can anything be done to course correct the path we’re on? What’s the cause of and the solution to the exodus of members leaving our churches? What’s the culprit for the lowest baptism numbers in 15 years?
Desperate Times Call for Disciple-Making Measures
The answer to our evangelism dilemma is a return to biblical disciple-making.
Over the years, our understanding of discipleship has changed—and not always in a good direction. Our ideas about what discipleship is have shifted from an ongoing process over the course of one’s life to a class you sign up for and complete. When older members of our denomination hear the word discipleship, it brings back memories of the “training union” of the late 1960s. These were set up because “the normal Baptist formation tools were finding it difficult to succeed,” comments Molly T. Marshall. “Sunday School, Training Union, and the missionary organizations were all scrambling for their existence and seeking new ways of forming disciples.” (Molly T. Marshall, “The Powering Face of Baptist Discipleship,” Review and Expositor vol. 101 (2004), 70.)
As a result, discipleship has been confined to a 40-day home group, a 12-week study, Sunday School attendance, or a seminar you show up for. Each of the above named programs contributes to disciple-making, but in and of themselves, they fall short. Discipleship is not a class you take; it’s the course of your life. Biblical disciple-making includes both inviting to Christ (evangelism) and investing in believers (discipleship). Intentional evangelism is needed more now than ever before being coupled with a process for spiritual growth.
What’s the Problem?
One of the reasons people are not sharing their faith is because they are ministering from a dry well. The church I pastored before coming to Long Hollow offered Evangelism Explosion (you may offer something similar) as an outreach tool. Whether you agree with it or not, those involved in the training are passionate about it. Unfortunately, participation numbers waned over time. One man, when asked about his lack of involvement, admitted that his favorite visit was when someone wasn’t home. He felt like he was bothering people with his canned spiel and memorized verses. Instead of speaking out of the overflow of his heart, evangelism had been reduced to a scripted duty, not sold-out devotion.
You’ve heard the definition of insanity as when we do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. I wonder what we would call it when we know the poor results but still do it anyway? The reason for our Convention’s decline is that we are inviting people into a fragmented system. When people don’t know what to do, they don’t do anything. They suffer from analysis paralysis. Since there is not a clear pathway for making disciples, believers sit on the sidelines out of inexperience or uncertainty of what to do.
Evangelism alone will not finish the great commission. We must invest in those who crossed the threshold of faith as believers in Christ. Baptism is not the finish line, it’s the starting line. That’s where the work begins.
The goal of biblical disciple-making is to conform people into the image of Christ through prayer, accountability, transparency, Scripture reading, Scripture journaling, Scripture memorization, and replication. The goal is to get people into the Word until the Word gets into them. When a person falls in love with God and his Word, they can’t help but talk about him. They can’t stop sharing him with others. They will raise a holy hand in worship, serve in the church, and will be more generous with their time, talents, and treasures.
What goes in the mind comes out of the mouth.
The greatest evangelistic tool we have is discipleship. We have every resource we need to finish the Great Commission in our lifetime: the scores of undiscipled men and women who occupy our pews and padded seats every Sunday. By failing to equip the saints to do the ministry, we have perpetuated the Holy Man myth which says, “Pastors and clergy somehow have a more direct line to God. This cripples a church because it overburdens pastors and underutilizes the gifts and anointing of everyone else. It mistakenly equates leadership gifts with superior spirituality.” (Larry Osborne, Sticky Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 49.)
When you invite men and women to participate in their God-given ability to make disciples, you empower them to take ownership of their faith, some for the first time (Ephesians 4:11-13). Success in churches should not be measured just by how well-paid staff carry out the ministry, but by how well the leadership empowers the members to shoulder the ministry of the church.
Remember, when Jesus determines the health of your church, he doesn’t count the Christians within, he weighs them.
If we want to reverse the downward trend in our Convention, we must create and adopt a disciple-making model that is simple, contextual, and reproducible for any and every church context, regardless of size or setting. Discipleship must move from being a ministry in our churches to the ministry of our churches.