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The New Methodists, Part Five

The fifth blog of The New Methodists, a six part series exploring the challenges that face the SBC today.

By Dr. Chuck Kelley

Since 1983 I have been saying 70 percent of our churches are plateaued or declining.

If we apply the traditional measurement of growth to the 2007 SBC church statistics, the number of growing churches is about the same as it has been for a long time, the number of plateaued churches is smaller, and the number of declining churches is larger. But the most recent news is more sobering than that.

In that year, growing churches numbered 8,765. There were 13,323 plateaued churches. By 2011, we had more declining churches (9,174) than growing churches for the first time.

The bottom line: On the whole, our Great Commission momentum as a convention has disappeared.

The bottom line: On the whole, our Great Commission momentum as a convention has disappeared.

To quote a different ancient Hebrew expression: Uh Oh! What is happening? What I have come to realize is that also included in our evangelistic process in our days of greatest growth was a very aggressive discipleship process.

Here is a snapshot of some of the elements of discipleship training that were found in the typical Southern Baptist church of any size and location. A Sunday night program included small group discipleship training for all ages of the church and an evening service. Each January there was a four to six day Bible conference teaching one book of the Bible to all ages. At least once and often more frequently, there were special events called “study courses” to train every age group in some aspect of Baptist and church life. In addition, there was a weekly missions training program for young boys and girls, along with youth camp and children’s camp in the summer. Plus more.

Though often criticized for overemphasizing conversion, in reality the opposite is true. In the era of our greatest evangelistic growth, typical SBC churches had more discipleship activities than evangelistic activities. Aggressive evangelism was matched by aggressive discipleship. We were “disciplistic.” That is another one of my words.

By that I mean an evangelistic discipleship that continually seeks to incorporate both evangelism and discipleship at the same time. When did this emphasis on aggressive discipleship began to fade? During the late 1960s. When did our evangelistic fruitfulness began to fade? During the 1970s. When our baptismal numbers started to weaken, we intensified our focus on evangelistic strategies and methods, but we did not reinvent or replace our discipleship process. Hear this from one who is an evangelist by calling: We should have paid more attention to our discipleship process.

Apparently the biblical worldview that unconsciously inspired doing church like a farm in SBC life is like the baton for the USA Men’s relay team in the Bejing Olympics. The U.S. men’s relay team members in Beijing in 2008 were some of the fastest sprinters the U.S. ever produced, but all their speed and talent meant nothing when they dropped the baton.

Earlier, Southern Baptists did not devise an intentional plan as a convention on how to do church evangelistically in order to reach people. Our churches worked out an evangelistic discipleship that wove the process of sowing and reaping into the ordinary process of church life.

As time went by and the world changed, that biblical worldview inspiring evangelistic discipleship dropped between SBC generations like the baton in a relay. The heart for evangelism remained strong, but the concern for discipleship was significantly weakened. When we did make an SBC plan for evangelism, we planned to improve the harvest component of our Baptist farm, not the integrated process.

As time has gone by, we neither maintained nor reinvented the process that made us so fruitful in earlier days. Time had its impact. It always does. Now others may be running the race, but we are still trying to get a fresh grip on the baton of a “disciplistic” worldview. That is another one of my words. By “disciplistic” I mean an evangelical discipleship that continually seeks to incorporate both evangelism and discipleship at the same time.

To put it another way, how we do church matters! While we increased the emphasis on how our way of doing church affected the lost, we failed to notice how it was affecting the saved.

Changes and innovations were added to make the church more welcoming to the lost and unchurched in many of our churches, but little was done to improve the way we inspire evangelistic discipleship and make it more desirable for believers in most of our churches to look like Jesus.


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