The Bottom Line: Make Disciples!
By Carlton L. Coon, Sr.
As General Director of Home Missions, my first meeting with the Home Missions Administrative Committee included a bit of history. History is important it is the shaping influence of the present. In 1992, our family moved to Springfield, Missouri, to assume a pastorate. The church’s average attendance for the prior Sundays had been eighty-five. Morale was low. Faithful people were weary, disenfranchised, and somewhat frustrated.
Visit that same church next week, and you’d discover vibrant evangelism. Sunday attendance is 400. So far, two autonomous daughter churches have been launched and several Christian workers sent into either evangelistic or pastoral ministry.
Truth Tab’s growth was interesting. It was “revival in a plain brown wrapper!” We didn’t break any records. For years, nobody paid much attention. Our early years’ focus was to heal and resurrect hope. Hopeless saints cannot effectively minister to the community around them.
My first numerical goal: let’s baptize an average of one per month. Not much faith there you say, but… well it sort of depends on where you are coming from. About the second year in, we accomplished the goal.
Immediately, there was a new target, “We’ve come this little distance, could we baptize an average of one per week?” It happened! Not suddenly, for several years we kept inching toward the goal. Finally we made it. Again, the target changed, “Suppose we could baptize an average of two per week?” It happened the same year we laid out the challenge that year 105 were baptized in Jesus name.
It makes a good testimony. Now, you need to hear how it happened. In the process of tripling and now quadrupling, the church never had a “100 soul revival.” The most we ever baptized in one night was eight. You may say, “That sure doesn’t measure up to some of the things I hear about.” No argument there. We accomplished far too little. Others had much more notable happenings–events to be lauded and celebrated.
Now back to the discussion of disciple-making. During the same years, a friend’s pastorate had over three hundred receive the Holy Ghost in one revival. Interesting– in the particular situation, a year later no more people were attending church or serving God than before the revival.
Making disciples, or the lack thereof, is personal. Evangelist Samuel Chadwick blamed himself for letting some new converts get into a church which was cold and apathetic about caring for them. Chadwick’s self-indictment: “It was like putting a new baby in the arms of a corpse.” John Wesley stormed at his preachers in training, “How dare you lead people to Christ without providing opportunity for growth and nurture! Anything less than growth and nurture is simply begetting children for the murderer.”
Some years ago a church had a phenomenal ingathering. Nine-hundred received the Holy Ghost. A year later the passionate pastor had those stand who had received the Holy Ghost in that series of meetings. One person stood… ONE! One! You read it right… ONE! With obvious dismay at the break down in accomplishing the commission of the Lord Jesus Christ, that pastor led his church to adjust its focus to put as much effort into the process of discipling converts as they had into birthing those converts.
News reports in October 2007 announced pop star Britney Spears losing her parental rights. What behavior causes one to lose such rights? Might there be a spiritual analogy between Ms. Spears’ parental care (or the lack thereof) and the church’s care of a convert? Does God ever revoke a church’s rights to be spiritual parents?
In former Home Missions Director Jack Cunningham’s book Planting Daughter Churches he noted, “A great foreign missionary once told me that church growth is nothing more or less than retention! You can have many people come through the doors of the church, but if you are not learned in the art of disciple-making, you will lose as many out the back door as come through the front door.”
Why Discipleship Fails
1 We diminish the significance of the baby we have, in pursuit of the many yet unborn. We see the opportunities of the many en masse, rather than to see the possibility that exists in a single life. Our thinking becomes, “If only God would send us a dozen or a hundred in a revival, we’d really do something to care for them.” Question: What are you doing to take care of the one or two converts God already gave you? The Lord Jesus Christ never provides salvation wholesale. It is always retail the full price of redemption being paid and the necessary resources for an individual’s development being provided. Those who make disciples understand what Sam Shoemaker was saying, “Men are not hewn out of the mediocre mass wholesale, but one by one.” Just as parenting happens one child at a time, disciples are made one person at a time.
2 The grand is more attractive than the consistent. Our back yard has a wonderful pear tree. It is at its most beautiful when covered with blooms. Yet, blooms don’t sell — fruit does. At the end of harvest it’s the mature fruit that counts. An abundant harvest not brought into the barn gives little satisfaction and no revenue. Is it possible to expend time, money, and energy on a grand thing that is of little lasting impact? Do some of our staged events attract Apostolics but do little to attract or connect with the unsaved? A year later, does any fruit remain?
3 Disciple-making is hard work. For most, it is much easier to preach a sermon, sing a solo, host a special meeting, build a new building, or plan and carry out a “Friend Day” than to plan, establish, and consistently do the behind the scenes work of disciple-making. Discipleship is roll up your sleeves hard work.
Now a return to the brief history. If there was not an epoch-making event or series of events, how did we grow? God led us to focus on an intense effort to keep alive and growing those we saw born again. Our growth pattern was not the hullabaloo of an event, but the consistent hard work of effectively operating a spiritual nursery. The result was steady “disciple-able” growth. When consistently with each breath the church is exhaling disciples, it will also consistently inhale new converts. God has called us to help people get to heaven.
When we came to Springfield, God spoke, “If you want spiritual babies, build a spiritual nursery. I’m not going to send you babies till you do.” From it was birthed a philosophy one I later discovered was inherent in the New Testament. Disciple-making is the bottom line of the work of a church. If you are going to invest in an event or into a process of making disciples, choose to invest in making disciples.
I remember sitting around a folding table with a little think-tank. Some of those involved included Diane Rose, Bob and Jeri Burk, Lee and Debbie Suttles. In our meeting we talked about what a new convert needs when they come to God. What are their challenges? What are their issues? What are the things they will struggle with?
That first brainstorming session only led to more questions
* How do we respond to those challenges, issues, and struggles? To know an infant needs special care is not the same thing as responding to a baby’s need.
* What specific actions can we take to make sure spiritual babies are being taken care of?
* What processes do we need to establish to make sure this effort is not “hit and miss?”
* What difference will our specific actions make?
Let me stir you to thought. This is not a zero-sum matter, but which would you choose if you could have only one of the following two things happen:
Option #1 In the next twelve months you could have a great harvest. Two hundred fifty receive the Holy Ghost. It is heralded. Publications discuss the revival. Others come to observe. Awards are presented. One year later five of those people are attending church and growing in Christian maturity.
Option #2 In the coming year twenty-five receive the Holy Ghost. Nobody outside the local church pays much attention. What has happened does not remotely rival the Day of Pentecost. Yet, it is the best year the church has ever had. No articles are written… no awards presented. One year later seven of those people are attending church and continuing to grow in Christ.
Already, I can sense the discomfort the options present. It causes me discomfort to include them. Which of those two experiences comes the closest to Jesus’ purpose of getting people to heaven? What is the real point? In every church, disciple-making should happen whether many or few are receiving the Holy Ghost.
Faithful men and women can become disillusioned when their revival does not look like someone else’s. Do we frustrate ourselves? In spite of the race not being to the swift, the accolades still go to the swift. Yet in reality, many disciple-making churches and pastors never get much applause or credit. God has called us to make disciples, not converts. Conversion is the first wonderful step of development.
For Further Contemplation
Consider all of this a bit more . . .
* How many were born again in your church last year?
* How many of them are serving God today?
* Were those babies given the same care a baby in the natural received?
* There is a nursery for the saint’s kids; do you have a spiritual nursery outfitted for the born again?
* Is it possible for a baby to starve in the presence of good healthy food? Would you feed a two week old a steak? Would you feed a two week old spiritual baby a ninety minute Bible study on the silver sockets in the tabernacle in the wilderness? Would they understand it and be built up? Did the newcomer get any more spiritual nutrition from last week’s Bible study or sermon than the two week old would get from the steak?
Again, I sense and share in your discomfort.
What can you do about what you just diagnosed? Over the next few months let’s work on this business of discipleship. Today, think of three practical steps you could take to care and build up the newest members of your church.
Are you willing to invest as much effort into discipleship as you have put into converting them? Hospitals are expensive and the pain of delivery intense, but the greater cost of time, money, and (in many instances) parental effort, comes after birth rather than before. This is the normal. Conversion is five percent; following up on the decision to repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Ghost is ninety-five percent. Bro. Cunningham’s missionary friend had it right you can’t grow His kingdom or the local church if you do not close the back door!”
This article The Bottom Line: Make Disciples! written by Carlton L. Coon, Sr. is excerpted from Director’s Communique a November/December 2007 edition.