Discipleship – do Missouri Baptists need it?
Editor’s note: This is the third and final of a series of columns written by Dr. Bernard Holmes focusing on discipleship.
Billy Graham observed a long time ago that “decision is five percent; following up the decision is 95 percent.” We spend far too much on the start of the walk and very little on the day-by-day walk of the Christian life. We are on hand when people walk down the aisle to be saved, and we are there as spectators to their baptism and their presentation to the church for membership. But are we there when they take their first step of spiritual growth, when they utter their first words of prayer or when they first try to share their faith? In most cases not, unless they were in a discipleship relationship with a disciple maker who had been trained and commissioned by the church.
In his book, Life’s Ultimate Privilege, DeVern Fromke, speaking of one’s personal salvation, maintains, “All who have been rescued have actually just reached the starting point of our race. Our rescue is wonderful for we have been forgiven, set free from our past and have been placed in God’s family. But being a Christian involves more than a rescue operation. There is a race to run, a life-purpose to be fulfilled. For our new life to have meaning, value and direction, we must do more than look back at our rescue, we must look forward to life’s purpose.” Fromke then poses this question: “Why is man so rescued-centered? There is a race to run” (p. 5).
We should be alarmed by facts concerning contemporary Christianity in North America, which includes Missouri. Baptisms continue to decrease, only three percent of church members tithe, and our teenagers leave the church in droves when they go to college and into the workplace.
In the Nov. 27 issue of The Pathway, Bob Burney wrote a piece entitled “Willow Creek makes a shocking confession.” What caught this reader’s eye was the closing paragraph which read, “What we should find encouraging, at least, in this ‘confession’ coming from the highest ranks of the Willow Creek Association is that they are coming to realize that their existing ‘model’ does not help people grow into mature followers of Jesus Christ. Given the massive influence this organization has on the American church today, let us pray that God would be pleased to put structures in place at Willow Creek that foster not mere numeric growth, but growth in grace.”
Now before we are tempted to say, out of professional jealously, “I told you so,” let us take a long look at ourselves and see how well we are doing. It is not my intention to excoriate my readers. That would accomplish nothing at all. Most pastors are doing their very best, working hard at preaching, teaching, praying, as well as reaching out, often with little or no help. Furthermore, pastors have committee and deacons meetings to attend, and the sick to visit. Many pastors are on the verge of burnout and see very little for their dedication and effort.
So, it is time to ask the question, “What would Jesus do as we begin 2008?” Would my answer surprise you when I propose that He would seek out 12 ordinary men and train them to be disciple-makers? That was Jesus’ method in the first century, and the church has not come up with a better strategy than His after 20 centuries of trying. Think of it, after the disciples failed their biggest test when they forsook the Master in Gethsemane, it was to this group of failing, faithless men that Jesus gave the Great Commission, saying, “Go and take the world!” Honestly, how many of you reading this final article really think that you can come up with a better strategy than the Lord of the Harvest did?
Jesus did not spend the same amount of time with each disciple. Three of His followers, namely, Peter, James and John, were given more than the others, and of the three, Peter was instructed and trained more than his two companions. Why was that? Jesus invested His maximum time equipping those who would bear maximum spiritual authority in the future life of the church. Peter was destined to be the leader of the team after Jesus ascended to heaven.
Furthermore, Jesus commissioned Peter to set the example of nurturing and equipping the new believers following Pentecost. After the post-resurrection breakfast on the beach of the Sea of Galilee, our Lord questioned Peter three times as to the depth of his love and loyalty to Him. Although Peter could not match the depth of devotion Jesus asked for, he did express a deep love for his Lord. The Lord instructed Peter to feed His sheep (new members) and His lambs (babes in Christ.)
After many years of service, and as his life was nearing its end, Peter exhorted the persecuted church when he wrote, “But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Spiritual growth was uppermost in his ministry.
What would Paul do if he were living today? He would still practice Col. 1:28-29, which says, “We proclaim Him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, also that we may present everyone perfect (mature, complete, full grown) in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works in me.” In these two verses Paul states his philosophy of preaching and discipling.
If Paul were fortunate enough to be invited at our annual evangelism conference, he might preach a message from Eph. 4:12-14a. Addressing the church leadership, he might maintain that “One of your responsibilities is to equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children.”
One day a well-known Texas pastor shocked his congregation by informing them, “I am not the minister of the church, so do not call me ‘the minister.’ You can call me the pastor, reverend or doctor, but not the minister. I am not the minister; rather I am the equipper of the ministers!” Well spoken, pastor. Will you as a Missouri pastor add “equipper of the membership” to your personal mission statement?
In his anthology, Discipleship, Billie Hanks exhorts us to “take strategic steps in our churches, colleges and seminaries to ensure that Christians of this generation receive instruction in how to have a quality ministry of spiritual multiplication. Herschel H. Hobbs has wisely said, ‘The work of evangelism is never complete until the evangelized becomes the evangelizer.’” Amplifying this statement, Hanks writes, “If the process of making disciples is to be complete, all new Christians should be trained to be active in evangelism themselves. The full circle apprentice process requires time, love, discipline and personal instruction. The added work of discipleship is well worth the investment because the fruit remains and multiplies” (p. 24).
The task of each church today is not only the salvation of souls, but also the maturing of believers into Christ-like living. Waylon Moore, who over several generations has discipled new believers, suggests three imperatives for effective discipleship and follow-up in the local church. They are as follows: One, every believer must be helped to feed daily on the Word of God and apply it constantly to his or her daily life. Two, the pastor must re-emphasize in his own ministry the need of spending time with individuals “discipling men.” Three, the membership must learn that spiritually qualified persons rather than organizations win and develop individual disciples. (New Testament Follow-up, p. 12.)
With great candor, Moore insists that although “Discipleship has no prestige rating, no denominational category; but the results are consistently better than anything I have experienced in 30 years of working with people.” Furthermore, in maintaining that discipleship is a workable method in the local church, Moore makes these five claims: One, discipling is one of the most strategic ways to have an unlimited personal ministry. Two, discipling is the most flexible of ministries. It can be done anytime, by anyone, anywhere, and among any age group. Three, discipling is the fastest and surest way to mobilize the whole body of Christ for evangelism. Four, discipling has more long-range potential for fruit than any other ministry. It needs to be done by someone rather than something. And five, discipling will provide the local church with mature male and female leaders who are Christ-centered and Word-oriented. (Multiplying Disciples, p. 31.)
Several years ago, a Southern Baptist evangelist living in Ft. Worth received a call that a student at California Baptist University showed great promise as a future leader. The evangelist flew out to California and interviewed the student and agreed that this young man indeed did have the qualities to be a great leader. Urged by the Texan, the student applied to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Before he graduated, he spent three years as an intern under the evangelist’s guiding hand and began his ministry well grounded in the basics of a disciplined life. The name of that student was Rick Warren.
Could there be a Rick Warren in your church? Or perhaps a Lottie Moon or a Bill Wallace? Maybe there is an Adrian Rogers, or an Albert Mohler or another Annie Armstrong waiting to be discovered. One thing is certain: there are tens of thousands of laymen and women in our congregations who are still in the baby stage of spiritual growth and who are candidates for one-on-one discipling. As long as we are reluctant to begin a discipling ministry in our churches, we will continue to have churches full of immature Christians. Changing diapers and replacing pacifiers and toys are not parts of an exciting ministry!
So, the question is, do we need Jesus’ strategy of discipleship today? Next time you are on your knees before the Lord of the church, ask Him. If He answers affirmatively, check out www.ieom.org. (Bernard Holmes is retired professor of discipleship, Southwest Baptist University.)