Evangelistic discipleship


Recently I heard Dr. Chuck Kelly, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, speak to leaders in evangelism from across the United States. He took us on a journey back in Southern Baptist time. We went back to 1955 when Southern Baptists baptized close to 450,000 people, almost double the number baptized 10 years earlier. Then he took us forward to today, sadly noting a number of disturbing trends. Creeping universalism is settling into the pews. More and more Baptists believe or at least behave as if they believe that a personal relationship with Christ is not necessary for one to be right with God. Our behavior, the way we live our lives, is blending more and more with the culture. According to Dr. Kelly, we are moving from growth to plateau to decline in our memberships. Then he asked, “What is happening?” Don’t we all want to know!

Dr. Kelly contends Baptists held to a biblical worldview that lead to an unconscious methodology of doing church like a farm — sowing, cultivating, and reaping. We have dropped that baton. Dr. Kelly is talking about a time in Baptist life when we approached evangelistic discipleship making much like the integrated process of farming. He is talking about the Sunday School (small group, cell group, doesn’t matter what you call it), which was the seed bed where the powerful gospel was taught and lived out with the lost invited and involved. At the risk of spelling this wrong, Dr. Kelly calls this Bible-ation, the intertwining of Bible study and relationships. How archaic can you get? A small group of people, lost and saved, studying the Bible together. What good could ever come from that? The Millenials call it “Doing life together.”

What if we picked up the baton that was dropped years ago and went back to farming for the lost? The gospel is just as powerful today as it has ever been! Jesus said, “A sower went out to sow his seed….” (Luke 8:5). Resources are available. Just the other day a church leader who attended an ENGAGE conference said to me, “I got so much out of Phil Miller’s breakout session on making the small group/Sunday School evangelistic.” Sunday School is still a great evangelistic discipleship tool. Rico Tice, a Brit, has written an excellent resource entitled “Christianity Explored” CE is small group study designed for  believers and the lost to do life together through the gospel of Mark. CE is a great evangelistic discipleship tool.

Jesus said, “A sower went out to sow his seed….” (Luke 8:5). Been farmin’ lately?

Scott Willingham

P.S. You can listen to Dr. Kelly’s preaching of this sermon to NOBTS by clicking here. The message starts after about ten minutes of music.`

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One Response to “Evangelistic discipleship”

  1. David Troublefield Says:


    1. Number saved/baptized within 1 year if in attendance in churches’ worship services AND also enrolled in Sunday School/small groups: 1 out of 4 people;

    2. Number saved/baptized during same timeframe if in attendance in churches’ worship services but NOT also enrolled in Sunday School/small groups: 1 person out of each 400 (of course, relatively few SBC/BGCT churches have 400 or more people attending their worship services so few, if any, baptisms take place in those congregations’ auditoriums).

    I’d love for someone to disprove the thought that the numbers above do NOT apply to today’s society or church. I really believe that it couldn’t be shown. The baptisms Dr. Kelly indicated the SBC saw during 1955 were a DIRECT RESULT of the “Million More in ’54” Sunday School enrollment campaign taking place intentionally/prayerfully among us at that time (and led by some of the “Sunday School greats” among us then), when intentional evangelistic outreach was done by thousands of SBCers AND Sunday School classes were made healthy enough as small Bible study organizations to keep those reached.

    Why would so many salvation experiences and baptisms result in 1954 AND today?–Because of what Sunday School ministry IS and what it ALWAYS has stood for (most senior pastors seem either to have lost sight of this OR never knew about it to start with; cf. the ACP reports of SBC/BGCT churches, which are led by senior pastors, not by ministers of education!): (1) Reaching people for Bible study (same people AND new people, all the time intentionally/relationally/relevantly); (2) Teaching people the Bible (not the quarterly, but God’s Written Word, the Holy Bible); (3) WITNESSING TO PEOPLE ABOUT CHRIST, AND LEADING PEOPLE TO CHURCH MEMBERSHIP (in the SBC, the Sunday School ministry ALWAYS has been THE evangelistic arm of the church–with evangelism being the PRIMARY task); (4) Ministering to people in need; (5) Leading people to worship; (6) Supporting/undergirding the work of the church/denomination.

    No other “program” area of the typical Southern Baptist church is assigned the same six tasks–so that, if the ministry of Sunday School does not accomplish its tasks, the tasks won’t be accomplished by any other ministry area either AND baptisms will remain at today’s rates or lower. What has amounted to “artificial means” for doing evangelism by other groups within church bodies have been attempted over the years (e.g., training the deacons to lead-out in soul-winning), but those means have been short-lived and inefficient. Wise church leaders would not want to fail to include any one of the six tasks typically assigned to their churches’ Sunday School ministries in their ministry efforts weekly.

    Christendom in the U.S. today–and congregations of the SBC/BGCT, to be sure!–stand in desperate need of a Christian evangelist AND a Christian educator: the evangelist to call God’s people back to the spiritual health found in our personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, and the educator (who is well-informed about Sunday School miistry!) to show believers what to do with that spiritual health–lest the services of the evangelist be needed again in about 3 weeks.

    In my opinion, if BGCT/SBC churches ever are to see increased baptisms ON A SUSTAINED BASIS as increasing numbers of people come in faith to Christ as Savior, it will NOT be apart from the ministry of their Sunday Schools NOR without Sunday School leading the way. “Evangelism” will have to cease being “only talk” (though it really isn’t even spoken of much any more in many churches, and even fewer regularly participate in the organized evangelism times than are talking about it) and become reality. Evangelists and educators will have to partner to strengthen the Sunday School (hopefully, senior pastors will get on-board). Bible study leaders on convention and association levels will need to get the message out better than they are today. The entire thing will need to be bathed in prayer–and have human feet put to it (as in the days when Stephen Paxson, a 19th century Sunday School missionary, traveled 100,000 miles via horseback starting Sunday Schools anywhere he could find a group of people living in the U.S. Midwest–resulting in over 1300 Sunday Schools with more than 83,000 members).

    The Sunday Schools of 99% of SBC churches aren’t going away anytime soon; why not train/use those Bible study groups as originally designed and do the evangelism through them that they easily can do? In a day of economic crisis–like today–the message of preachers should be “Sunday School,” not “stewardship” as Sunday School enrollment/attendance DIRECTLY impacts the financial health of churches. And in a day of lower-than-desired baptisms, the message of Baptist leaders among us must be “Sunday School,” not only/primarily “evangelism” for the sound reasons mentioned above. Who among us doesn’t understand that?

    Let’s get busy about Sunday School, folks!

    David Troublefield
    Wichita Falls, TX

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