When Jesus gave his disciples their most significant job assignment, he emphasized making disciples of all kinds of people.
When the Southern Baptist Convention meets in Dallas in 2018, a discipleship task force will issue a report recommending ways the denomination’s churches can better fulfill that central task of Christ’s Great Commission, recorded in Matthew 28.
The renewed attention to making disciples comes at a spiritually opportune time: The denomination has been seeking ways to reverse declining baptisms in an increasingly secular culture while holding to its biblical moorings.
If churches can produce New Testament disciples, more baptisms and new disciples should follow, the Southwestern Journal of Theology contended in a 2009 issue that examined Christian discipleship.
Genuine disciple-making provides “a powerful apologetic that enhances the success of the preaching of the gospel,” Benjamin B. Phillips, assistant professor of systematic theology at Southwestern’s Havard School for Theological Studies in Houston, wrote in that issue of the journal.
Jim Shaddix sees the same gospel implications in biblical discipleship. Shaddix, the W.A. Criswell Chair of Expository Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, features prominently in a video introducing Disciples Path, a new adult discipleship series LifeWay Christian Resources has developed to help churches produce disciples who will win and make other disciples.
“Discipleship is the life process of growing into the image of Christ and being trusted with the stewardship of his glorious gospel—knowing it, embracing it, living it and entrusting it to others who will do the same.”
Jim Shaddix, the W.A. Criswell Chair of Expository Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Discipleship is the life process of growing into the image of Christ and being trusted with the stewardship of his glorious gospel—knowing it, embracing it, living it and entrusting it to others who will do the same,” Shaddix told the TEXAN in an email.
Promoting reproducible discipleship
For LifeWay, creating discipleship resources falls under its convention assignment to “assist churches” in their multifaceted ministries.
Among the other 11 SBC entities, the six seminaries see themselves discipling students who will shepherd churches. The North American Mission Board (NAMB), tasked with domestic church planting and evangelism, emphasizes discipleship in its church planter training. The urban planter track, called BLVD, for example, sets reproducible discipleship as a prominent objective for new congregations.
The International Mission Board, for its part, is offering a discipleship resource, called Deepen Discipleship, to the churches that supply it with new missionaries. Like LifeWay’s resource, the IMB’s study aims at making disciples who also make disciples.
The website for LifeWay’s discipleship series offers a video with IMB President David Platt, Tennessee pastor Robby Gallaty and Shaddix talking about the crucial task of discipleship.
The three men have a connection—Shaddix discipled Platt when Platt was his student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Platt joined Shaddix on long jogs and mined the scriptures with him, as they challenged each other to deeper Christian devotion. Their wives spent time together as well, doing many of the same things.
Platt met Gallaty when Gallaty was a new believer seeking someone to help him grow in his faith. Now pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church outside Nashville, Gallaty is known for prioritizing discipleship, having written two books on the subject.
In fact, Gallaty is chairman of the task force on disciple-making that will report to SBC messengers next year. That task force was appointed in 2016 by LifeWay President Thom Rainer and NAMB President Kevin Ezell as a result of a 2014 study on declining baptisms in the SBC.
Turning a denomination with declining baptisms into a disciple-making force could appear daunting, given the variety of cultures in which Southern Baptists minister. But Gallaty sees some irreducible components that apply to making disciples, regardless of culture.
“Our goal is not to promote a curriculum to follow,” Gallaty told the TEXAN. “Our aim is to provide some key principles that could guide churches in their mission of making disciples, which includes both inviting people to Jesus and investing in those we invite. But LifeWay and the IMB have been extremely helpful and instrumental in listening to the task force and providing critical research data to assist our efforts.”
Gallaty said such data is being gathered from as many Southern Baptist ministry contexts as possible.
“We want to know what is happening in rural churches, urban churches, church plants, large churches, etc.,” Gallaty said. “Equipped with this data, we hope to offer recommendations and practical principles that lead to greater disciple-making solutions for churches across the spectrum in the SBC.”
To connect with the SBTC on discipleship tools and strategies, go to sbtexas.com/discipleship or email Lance Crowell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reaching, teaching, replicating
Lance Crowell, discipleship associate at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, agrees that a new emphasis on discipleship is crucial to the health of New Testament churches but says churches must do something they are not doing.
“As I have engaged leaders on discipleship ministry in their churches, they often share about a program or class they provide. There is nothing wrong with great teaching, but this cannot be the focus or main component of making disciples.”
Crowell has identified five indispensable elements present in churches that are effective in disciple making:
- Clear Definition—Church members have a well-defined understanding of what it means to make disciples that make disciples.
- Senior Leadership fully buy into the process—The pastor has to be a disciple-maker and a key part of the process.
- Replication—The key objective is disciples who make disciples.
- Relational—Disciple-making is a people-focused ministry with accountability in small groups or one-on-one.
- Plan—Disciple-making churches use a deliberate process to develop leaders. Once a church begins developing disciples, then it can think about developing leaders.
Crowell also emphasizes identifying people who are ready to take the next step of discipleship.
“I use the acronym RAFT to describe someone who: has a heart for Replicating a next generation of disciples, and is Available, Faithful and Teachable,” he said. “A good mentor will also be a disciple; he or she must model these basic traits.”
Crowell co-authored SBTC’s discipleship manual, Rhythms, with Spencer Plumlee, pastor of Riverview Baptist Church in Osage Beach, Mo. The book describes disciplemaking as the continuation of an “empowered effort” on the part of Jesus’ disciples, which has resulted in millions of believers today. There’s a Great Commission duty to pass along the relationship with God and men that we have seen modeled in those who taught us.
Meanwhile, the IMB’s curriculum, Deepen Discipleship, focuses on three objectives in daily reading and reflections in the New Testament: “Read and Learn,” “Reflect and Grow” and “Go and Do.” The six-month, online curriculum, which is offered free of charge at imb.org, is broken into four sessions in six-week intervals and has the missionary mandate of the church in mind.
“Ultimately,” says an introduction to the material, “the process of daily reading God’s Word should naturally enable God’s people to teach this Word simply and plainly in other contexts; put simply, you can’t teach what you don’t know.”
According to the website, the curriculum is intended to be experienced in community with other believers, with the recommendation to “regularly” meet with at least one and preferably two other people who also are going through it.
Zane Pratt, IMB’s vice president of global training, has drawn parallels between what the IMB calls “life-on-life discipleship” and the best methods in missionary preparation.
“[T]his is how disciples are made—we read God’s Word, which informs our thoughts,” Pratt wrote at imb.org. “Right thinking transforms who we are on the inside, which then leads us to act more like Jesus (and less like our sinful selves!). This pattern applies to training God’s people for mission.”
Pratt told members of the Fellowship of Baptist World Ministries last June that true discipleship happens in the church, but too often discipleship has been seen as conveying information without emphasizing transformation.
“We’re not going to train people unless we disciple, and we’re not going to disciple outside the local church,” Pratt said. “What we need are churches who take the discipleship task seriously.”
As Gallaty told Baptist Press in March: “We want to empower an army of people to go out in the community and share the gospel, and live the gospel, and love like Christ loved.”