How grateful I am for the church that gathered around me when I first became a believer.  I was young (13 years old), biblically illiterate (I did not own a Bible), and anxious (I did not know the “church lingo” or the Sunday school answers)—but I was certain that God had worked a miracle in my life.  I did not know enough to use the word “calling,” but I also knew that God was somehow calling me to give my life for Him.  The believers that made up that church invited me into that Christian family, loved me, prayed for me, and gave me opportunities for ministry.

What they did not do was systematically teach me so I would be a disciple of Jesus.  To be sure, my pastor preached the inerrant Word, and my Sunday school teachers taught the scriptures. They challenged me continually to tell others about Jesus. I would not be where I am today had that congregation not grounded me in the truth of the Word.

Nevertheless, they had no plan in place to lead me intentionally through Christian discipleship so I would know how to study the Word, fight temptation, evangelize non-believers, and reproduce Christian faith in others. I was a baby believer receiving too little food for growth.

What my church did wrongly was view evangelism and discipleship as separate components of the Great Commission. Surely, evangelism and discipleship are not the same, but nor are they so distinct that one can exist without the other in a healthy church.  We are to baptize and teach new believers (Matt. 28:18-20). To do only one of these tasks is to attempt to fly a plane with a missing wing. My church had the evangelism wing in place, but not the discipleship wing.

Like so many other congregations, my church assumed my faithful attendance would automatically result in Christian growth. Instead, what resulted was a struggling young believer who wanted to grow, but who was too embarrassed to admit his struggles.  I longed for someone to guide me, but I did not know where to turn.  “I’m the only one struggling,” I thought, and I chose not to bother other believers who seemingly had their act together.

To make matters worse, the church too soon gave me a leadership position teaching a Sunday school class.  Frankly, I was leading before I was ready to lead. I was a baby teaching babies.

Multiply that story by millions of believers, and you have the state of the church in North America: believers who are undiscipled . . . followers of Jesus who have not learned how to follow . . . Christians who fail more often than not . . . church leaders who are not spiritually ready to lead . . . members who are susceptible to every wind of doctrine, but who still claim spiritual superiority.  We are multiplying mediocrity rather than life-giving, self-sacrificing Christians.

Now, multiply that story by millions of believers around the world, and you sense the state of much of the global church.  Without question, many churches around the world are rightly focused on the entirety of the Great Commission task, and I praise God for those congregations.  At the same time, though, there are other churches that lack the depth of discipleship necessary for lasting reproduction.  The result is congregations that quickly depart from biblical moorings to follow the current fad or the latest “teacher” with the most money to give.

This blog, though, is not intended to be pessimistic.  In fact, I see signs of a shifting emphasis that can result in healthier churches in the long run.

First, the young generation rising to leadership in our churches is well aware of the problem, and they intend to move the church in the right direction.  As church planters through the North American Mission Board or young pastors leading established churches, they are committed to leading life-transforming churches. They want to correct the errors of my generation.

In fact, if I have a concern about this young generation, it is that they will so focus on fixing the discipleship problem that they will lose focus on evangelizing the lost. To  “fix” the church before we evangelize is to guarantee a lack of evangelism.  On the other hand, healthy discipleship must necessarily result in passionate evangelists; if not, “discipleship” is nothing more than imparting information, and the church is nothing more than a classroom.  It is again to fly the plane with one wing missing.

Nevertheless, I trust these young leaders will learn the necessity of both wings of the plane.

Second, I hear missionaries echoing the cry for discipleship that follows evangelism.  I have been meeting recently with International Mission Board leaders around the world who are developing strong discipleship strategies. They are teaching basic doctrine, calling new believers to holiness, and grounding believers in the Word of God, even while maintaining an uncompromised commitment to reaching the unreached through church planting.

I have seen missionary-produced discipleship strategies that are more intense, more developed, and more deeply biblical than anything I have seen in the States.  These missionaries are striving to get it right as they engage the darkness of a lost world. God is using them to produce healthy believers who are determined to lead healthy churches. Not all missions strategies lead in that direction, of course, but I am seeing incredible signs of hope around the world.

So, must we multiply believers through evangelism? Without question.  If we do not evangelize, the world dies lost.

Must we multiply churches through church planting?  Absolutely.  We will never reach North America and the world unless we plant more healthy churches – many of them.

Must we multiply the right way, holding together Great Commission evangelism and discipleship?  We must, lest we produce baby believers who do not grow and young churches that do not last.

Being Church in a Self-Service World

The article is now more than five years old, but I remember it well. Time magazine’s March 24, 2008, cover article, “10 Ideas That Are Changing the World,” showed that we live in a world where self-service technology trumps the need for customer service.

The article first caught my attention because I was writing about how much had changed in my lifetime. I remember not that long ago when self-service gas stations didn’t exist. We never dreamed we would scan our own grocery items (that is, at least not before the Antichrist would enforce the mark of the Beast!). Few people thought we would deposit and withdraw money from the bank without entering the building and dealing with a teller. Who knew we would communicate with people around the world without going through a mailman or a telephone operator?

Listen to these words from the 2008 article, even more true today than then:

Consider the last time you rang up your own purchase at Wal-Mart, checked into a hotel at a kiosk or bought a ticket from a machine in the lobby of a movie theater. Companies love self-service for the money it saves, and with consumers finally playing along, the need to interact with human beings is quickly disappearing.[1]

It is that last phrase that most alarms me: “the need to interact with human beings is quickly disappearing.” Think about it again—we really can carry out our business at the store, the ATM, the gas station, the movie theater, the hotel, and the airport without direct contact with another human being. The Internet also makes it possible to shop for Christmas, take a class, sell a car, and visit a library—again, without interaction with other people.

Now, I fear this trend is influencing the church.

I tread somewhat softly here because I am not one who is generally opposed to innovation in the church. I think screens and videos and PowerPoint presentations can be utilized well in the service of the church. I am comfortable with using instruments other than a piano and organ in a worship service, and I enjoy praise choruses. I strongly affirm Sunday school, but I also see the value of off-campus small groups. I am not opposed to most multi-site approaches, and I do not believe that increased size is automatically a hindrance to being a New Testament church.

What I fear, though, is that we have forgotten the importance of each other in the process of fighting for relevance in a changing world. We promote anonymity so that guests are not intimidated (and I do not disagree entirely with this thinking), but we too often allow anonymity to continue into church membership. What usually begins with a public commitment to a local congregation is seldom united with intentional discipleship and deliberate relationship building. Small groups are available, but attendance is optional.   Many prayer concerns are more an unrecognized name on a prayer list than the name of a Christian brother or sister for whom we care. Accountability among the body of Christ is assumed to be judging at best, and invasive at worst. Fellowship is reduced to a perfunctory “Hi!” when the pastor encourages greetings during a set time in the worship service. The result may still be a gathering of people – but it is a gathering I can join without really interacting with other human beings.

Maybe this trend alarms me because I recognize my own tendency to be a loner. I am, in the words of my favorite country music star Reba McEntire (who is, by the way, the most talented country singer out there), “a survivor.” I learned early how to take care of myself, and it is easy for me to rely on my training and abilities to reach my goals. “I can do this on my own” and “I don’t need anybody else” are common mottos for those of us who rely too heavily on self. Interaction with other people only slows the process, consumes our energy, and risks vulnerability.

How grateful I am that God continues to show me differently! I did not realize it then, but I needed that uneducated deacon in my first church to show me how to really love God. The Sunday school director who gave me a love for teaching God’s Word changed my life. The young preacher who saw me as his pastoral role model challenged me to walk holy in all areas of my life. Accountability partners have pushed me in my spiritual disciplines. Even the angry church member who not so gently (in fact, not so “Christianly”) confronted me over a disagreement taught me something about communicating better.

Today, pastors challenge me with the Word, my students stretch me with their willingness to follow God anywhere, and missionaries confront my ease with their radical obedience. I learn every day that God graciously intersects my life with people whose influence I need—believers who love me enough to correct me, check my arrogance, teach me, and push me to join them in the work of the Great Commission.

Simply stated, participation in a church cannot be optional. It is in the local church—regardless of the size of the congregation or the number of the gathering locations—that we build relationships, apply the Word, share concerns, and develop accountability. Through healthy evangelistic churches, we learn to see non-believers as sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36) and thus invite them into a relationship with Jesus. That relationship is not only with the incarnate Head of the church, however; it is also with his people who make up his Body. Take away this interaction with other human beings, and the local church is somehow no longer the church.

Indeed, a “self-service” church is a contradiction in terms.




[1]“10 Ideas That Are Changing the World,” Time, March 24, 2008, 42.

The Future of the Cooperative Program

I love the Cooperative Program because I have seen it at work. My first paycheck as a Southern Baptist pastor consisted of combined funds from my church, the local Baptist association, the state convention, and the Home Mission Board (now NAMB). Cooperative Program funds made it financially possible for me to earn three degrees at a Baptist university and seminary. As an employee of two Southern Baptist seminaries and the International Mission Board, I have seen the Cooperative Program at work every day. Students and missionaries are engaging lostness around the world, and the Cooperative Program makes that possible.

Like many others, though, I am concerned about the future of the Cooperative Program. Here are the thoughts of one loyal Southern Baptist.

First, something must change. I’m sure that statement sounds simplistic, but even those of us who love the Cooperative Program must admit the direction we have been heading is not a positive one. I see glimmers of hope, but glimmers will not suffice when churches are still plateaued, cities are still unreached, and 1.7 billion people still have little access to the gospel.

Second, all Southern Baptists, beginning with me, must make sure we are wise stewards of the dollars God gives us. I must budget well and spend wisely in my home, prioritizing funds for God’s work. So must my local church, the local Baptist association, and my state convention. So, too, must the Southern Baptist organizations for which I work. None of us should be threatened by an honest call to prioritize the Great Commission in our spending.

Third, we must admit what approaches to promoting the Cooperative Program will not suffice; that is, we must recognize that some approaches by themselves will not fix the problem. Seminary classes—and I write as a seminary dean—will not by themselves produce Cooperative Program advocates. Denominational programs by themselves will not work. State convention and associational promotions by themselves will not accomplish the task. Frankly, many of those who need to hear the call to Cooperative Program support have already tuned out denominational voices.

I make no claim that this proposal is the answer, but I do believe it is one answer: we who have been have seen the Cooperative Program at work must intentionally teach others about its value. I am not talking about pastors “preaching” the CP to a congregation, or state convention leaders promoting the Program to convention attendees. I am speaking of individuals who strategically invest in other individuals, guiding them to see the value of the CP and challenging them to get on board—a type of “Great Commission mentoring,” if you will.

And, there are many of us who could take on this challenge. Every Southern Baptist educated at a Southern Baptist seminary has been the recipient of Cooperative Program funds. Those of us who have volunteered alongside International Mission Board missionaries have seen the value of cooperative giving. Many state convention employees, associational directors of mission, and church planters have received Cooperative Program funds through the North American Mission Board. If you have met a young leader who is investing his life in a major city to plant a church, you have likely seen those funds at work. Many of us—like me—would not have had a livable wage as a young pastor were it not for Southern Baptists giving through the CP. Even now, the young people in our churches can receive an education and fulfill their ministries because of the Cooperative Program.

We have an obligation to share with others the gift we have received. The needs of the nations demand our attention. You may have your own plan, but here is mine:

  1. I will take some responsibility for a lack of commitment to the Cooperative Program. As a pastor, I assumed too much—that everyone would automatically know about and support the CP simply because the CP was a portion of our budget.
  2. I will choose five young church leaders and invest the time and energy necessary to introduce them strategically to the Cooperative Program. My plan is to begin with three seminary students and two local pastors.
  3. I will tell them how much the CP has contributed to my life. I am privileged to do what I do because Southern Baptists have given through the years.
  4. I will connect them with Convention leaders, state leaders, associational leaders, missionaries, church planters, and pastors who receive CP support. I want these five young leaders to see the CP as faces and ministries—not as a program.
  5. I will willingly hear and respond to any concerns and questions these young leaders may have. The Cooperative Program is not perfect, and young minds can help us strengthen it.
  6. I will not be defensive, but I will challenge these leaders to support the CP even while we work together to make it stronger.
  7. I will pray weekly for our Convention and state leaders responsible for promoting the Cooperative Program, as well as for the young leaders I am teaching.
  8. I will expect these leaders then to tell others about the Cooperative Program.

This proposal will not fix everything, but it is a starting point. It is something I can do to encourage support for the Cooperative Program. One to one. Person to person. Pastor to pastor. Face to face. Changed life to changed life, for the sake of those who have not heard the gospel.