There have been a lot of great discussions around here about the GCR and a lot of good things written. A lot of my experience in SBC life has shown that we are good at focusing on and developing strategies for evangelism and winning people for Christ. The GCR seems to be the latest push, alongside GPS (can we get some acronym love around here?) for bringing people into the Kingdom of God through soul-winning efforts and more church choices. I don’t think that our problem comes from not being able to share our faith when it comes to soul-winning. We have so many methods for sharing our testimony and doing evangelism that one could drown in them all. What we need to learn to do, in my humble opinion, is learn how to “share our faith” as a way of life, i.e. discipleship. Let me explain what I mean.
When I was a kid growing up in a smaller Baptist church in rural Arkansas, we had this thing called Discipleship Training every Sunday night. Admittedly, I didn’t really start going to it until I was 11 or 12 maybe. I honestly don’t remember for sure, but what I do remember primarily from DT was the Bible drills. For all I know, it may have been the only thing we did each week. I know this too. I can find a Bible verse faster than just about anyone. I was never quite able to piece together how this made me a better disciple, but that didn’t matter at the time. I was a kid who had made a profession of faith and been baptized, but who had not a clue what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ beyond being highly proficient at looking up verses without needing to consult the table of contents.
For reasons that I now better understand, this utterly failed to be of any benefit to me whatsoever as I drifted through years of junior high and high school life with a vague picture of not being a “bad kid,” yet with little understanding of what it meant to be like Christ. When you factor in the group of people that I spent the bulk of my time with in those years, it is a wonder that I didn’t end up in some other place. It is a testament to the grace of God and His plan that I found myself yielding my will to His Will during the summer after I graduated high school. I still had no idea where to start, other than reading my Bible every day, which is certainly a good thing; but I didn’t have anyone else to turn to it seemed.
Cut to my freshman year of college and a couple of guys in my dorm who were committed to living for Christ. We made a pact to get together before class several days a week to spend time praying together and sharing what God was showing us as we read His Word. As I look back now, it was this time and these guys that were instrumental in helping me to grow as a believer for the first time in my life. As I surrendered to God’s call to the ministry and began to work with teenagers myself as a youth pastor, I had a strong desire to see these kids learn what it really means to be a disciple. I again found myself struggling to communicate this process. I encouraged these kids to read the Bible daily, after all that was what I knew to do and it had worked for me. But it didn’t seem to be the end all, be all answer. I looked for programs that might be of some help (after all, we all love a good program), but nothing seemed to work. In my own life, there was some periods of growth and some of stagnation. I resigned myself to assuming that this is just how it is, at least in part, but I have carried a strong desire to make disciples (not just converts). It has been a rallying cry for me for years. I spent a great deal of time with a pastor who developed a one-to-one discipleship method and I was so excited at how much impact it had on me personally and on those I saw who participated it in. So much so that I had him teach the principles of it to folks in our church here during my first year as pastor. It never got off the ground in the same way that it had worked in our old church in Arkansas. I discipled a couple of people for a while, but that was really it.
About a year and a half ago, our area missionary sent me an email asking if I would like to go to a conference with him out in Missoula, MT. It was a church planting/rural church growth theme and he told me that the keynote speaker was someone he thought I would really enjoy and learn from. It was in November of 2009 when we traveled out there, but I still remember the whole thing like it was yesterday. We drove the whole way (over 1000 miles one way) and it was worth every mile and hour. I had preached that Sunday morning about making disciples and apparently God was trying to get my attention.
I had been struck by a simple equation that compared the difference between how many people one man could lead to the Lord if he faithfully shared and found just one person who accepted Christ as Lord and Savior every day for 70 years, with a man who spent an entire year of his life training one other person to be a disciple that could do the same thing the next year and so on until he was 70, but who didn’t start doing so until he was 40 years old. The results of the ministry of these two men is staggeringly different. The first man, who sees someone converted to belief everyday for 70 years bears 25,550 new people as fruit of his ministry (if we want to talk in those terms). The second man, patiently disciples one person for a year at a time in the course of his own ministry; yet because those he disciples go and do the same for each and every year as well, the multiplying effect adds up to 1,073,000 people who are now faithful disciples at the end of 30 years time. It is a staggering difference and I challenged our church to think about what it would mean if we got serious about making disciples as the Great Commission calls us to do.
Which circles me back around to the conference in Missoula. The event was hosted by a new SBC church plant in town and put together by the Montana Baptist Convention, but this speaker was not an SBC pastor. Rather he is the pastor of a church up the road in Post Falls, ID. I had never heard of him before, but as he started to speak in the first main session, I heard point after point from the sermon I had just preached on that Sunday right down to my own conclusion: we must be about making disciples rather than converts. I got more excited as I listened to his story about how their church had taken this idea and run with it. They have made it their mission as a church to be intentional and focused on making disciples, and they have succeeded. I don’t mean on a numbers level either, even though that church has certainly grown numerically. The exciting thing I heard that week is that they have, at that time, 90 small group leaders (those who oversee the small group ministry that is the engine of their discipleship making ministry) and all but two of those people are people that had been discipled through that very ministry. There have been seven churches planted and nearly all of their pastors and leaders have come up through these same discipleship groups. This is disciples making disciples that are capable of making more disciples. It is what our Master intended the church to be and to do. Some of you already may recognize or know who I am talking about. The speaker at that conference was Jim Putman and the church is Real Life Ministries.
I learned something that week. A light bulb might have actually appeared over my head for all I know, but a light certainly came on for me. I learned the key thing that had been right before me for so long regarding why I grew as a disciple at some times and not at other times. I was able to reflect this back through my life and see it play out over and over and over again. I invite you to consider the same thing I learned. Discipleship isn’t about a program we can put together or a class we can take. It isn’t even about going to Bible study or devoting more time to Bible study or prayer or other spiritual disciplines on your own (even though all of those things are good things). Discipleship is about living life like Jesus would live it. More importantly, it is about living that life together in community.
Our church is currently undergoing a slow, gradual transformation with the goal of being more intentional about making disciples through community and relationships in small groups. I know that there are other churches around the country that are doing the same thing, as I met some folks from other SBC churches and entities out in Idaho a few months ago at an Immersion I conference at Real Life Ministries. This is the heart of the Great Commission after all. Make disciples.