One of the things that emerges from even a cursory study of the Great Commission is that Christ intended churches to be discipling communities. Yet almost two years ago, when I was interviewing for this position, I told your Committee that one of the crises facing the Church in America was failed discipleship. In other words, we are failing in our fundamental task. I have not changed my mind.
This failure is not something that happened in 1995. We are reaping the harvest of something that has been going on for a long time. That is a strange assertion from someone who grew up in the heyday of Sunday School, in a denomination (Southern Baptist) renowned for its educational system. But it is not an accusation. It is a confession that I have become convinced that what I did in the 70’s as a Christian Education leader was not effective in producing disciples.
I look to the past, not in order to place blame, but so that we might be better informed for future choices.
One of the mistakes we made was to make “evangelism” and “discipleship” separate activities and responsibilities. This division was reflected in denominational and congregational structures as well as curriculum materials.
“Separate but equal” rarely works in the long run. This separation was no exception. Well-meaning leaders convinced us that the real purpose of the church was evangelism—winning souls. Baptists were especially susceptible to this, and it led to the caricature that was just true enough to make us angry: We dip ‘em and drop ‘em.
Evangelism does not exist as a separate activity in the New Testament. The real purpose of the church is to be a discipling community. Evangelism—inviting people to become disciples—is an essential, unavoidable task. But it is a task which is part of the discipleship process. This concludes only when we reach the maturity of Christ. Evangelism which is not part of that continuous activity of discipleship is not biblical.
A second mistake we made was over-reliance on Sunday School as the Christian Education activity in the Church.
Don’t misunderstand me, I have deep affection for Sunday School. However, it has proven to be inadequate for the discipling task of the Church. “Classic” Sunday School was highly structured, occurred in a fixed time and place, and was based on transferring information.
Surely I exaggerate! Well, maybe a little, but look at the Sunday School leadership resources from the 70’s. According to one SBC training book the two concluding concepts of teaching are: teaching is the proper use of curriculum materials, and teaching is getting across certain truths to the members.
Sunday School was structured to “get across certain truths.” (an emphasis on cognitive learning) But that is only part of discipling. When we expected Sunday School to do the discipling task of the Church, we made discipleship into a mind game, where we just got deeper and deeper in our understanding. Students may or may not have been following Jesus and growing in Christian maturity.
The point is: Effective discipling programs need more than Sunday School.
As your own Church moves toward the next millennium, it might be a good time to check its health as a discipling community. Physicians are taught to ask questions as they diagnose the health of a patient. These are some questions you might ask yourself (and you can probably think of better ones for your own setting):
What “seekers” are part of the life of this Church today that were not here last year?
Who began the life of Christian discipleship last year?
Who is involved in serious study: biblical, doctrinal, historical, and ethical? How many different settings for study are provided?
Who, this year, has made significant advances in their own discipleship? What were those advances? What enabled them?
Whose prayer life is more vital this year than last?
Who has discovered gifts this year, and found a place of ministry?
Who has responded to the call for full-time Christian service or mission work?
Whose stewardship of time, talent, and treasure has grown this year?
Who has accepted the task of being a mentor to a younger Christian?
Who has invited others to Christian discipleship?
Just how is your Church health when it comes to growing disciples? How can you be healthier this time next year?
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of the Great Rivers Region
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