DEALING WITH THE DISCIPLING DILEMMA
If members of the churches of Christ had only two alternatives--a discipling
church or a non-evangelistic church--many would regard the discipling church
as the lesser of the two evils. Churches of Christ that oppose the discipling
movement need to face the most powerful and persuasive argument in favor
of that movement and they need to face it head on. That argument is the
pragmatic argument based on a comparison of results. Discipling churches
are growing faster than other churches of Christ. They claim that this proves
that they are right.
The gap between the growth of the discipling churches and other churches
of Christ is significant, but it is not as great as the discipling churches
have claimed. Other discipling churches are not generally growing as fast
as the Boston Church of Christ. They are not generally growing as fast today
as they were a few years ago. Furthermore, figures published by the Boston
Church of Christ indicate that their net growth rate is not as high as they
have claimed. If you count all those they have baptized and subtract those
they have sent to mission fields, the result indicates a retention rate
of only 65 percent, not the 75 percent they now claim or the 95 percent
they used to claim. Some of these, of course, have moved away from the Boston
Boston congregation, however, has not yet demonstrated a good retention
rate among those who are converted in Boston and then move away. Their net
growth rate, therefore, is not as high as they have claimed, but it is still
higher than the growth rate of other churches of Christ.
It is important to notice, however, that other churches of Christ are not
declining rapidly the way the discipling churches claim. It has been a cause
of some concern to me that my own research has been used by the discipling
churches to support their claim that other churches of Christ are declining
rapidly. I have been doing survey research on patterns of growth and decline
among churches of Christ in the United States for almost 20 years. These
surveys probably provide the best available estimates of growth rates among
churches of Christ in this nation. These surveys indicate that the rate
of growth declined from 1965 (the date of the earliest survey) to 1980.
But that was not a decline in total membership. Churches of Christ grew
in this period. It was just the rate of growth that declined. The surveys
indicate that in 1965 the rate of growth may have been as high as five percent
per year. There was an average decline of one third of one percent per year
from 1965 through 1980. If these survey estimates are accurate, growth stopped
in 1980. Between 1980 and 1984, there appears to have been a decline of
around 2.5 percent. In 1984, however, the pattern started to change. In
1985, there was a very small growth of 0.02 percent. In 1986, there was
a more substantial growth of around 0.5 percent. These improvements do not
reflect growth in the discipling churches. They have been studied separately.
Churches of Christ that are not identified with the discipling movement
have started growing again. The gap between the growth in the discipling
churches and the growth in other churches of
Christ, therefore, is not as great as the discipling churches have claimed.
That gap, however, is real. Discipling churches are growing faster than
other churches of Christ and that fact is the most convincing argument in
favor of the discipling movement.
The Problem of Pragmatism
The problem with the pragmatic argument based on a comparison of growth
rates is that it proves too much. The discipling churches do not really
believe that numerical growth is always proof of divine approval. Paul Yosnggi
Cho's Full Gospel Central Church in Seoul, Korea, has over half a million
members. That makes that congregation the largest congregation in Christendom.
Leaders of the discipling movement among churches of Christ do not regard
the growth of Cho's congregation as proof of divine approval. The Jotabeche
Methodist Pentecostal Church in Santiago, Chile, and the Congregacao Christa
in Sao Paulo, Brazil, have experienced amazing growth--but leaders of the
discipling movement among churches of Christ do not regard that growth as
evidence of God's approval.
In the biblical record, some of God's greatest servants had little to show
in the way of visible results. Noah was a preacher of righteousness who
preached for a hundred years while building the ark, but he converted only
his wife, their three sons, and their wives. Jeremiah was a faithful prophet
of God, but he was ignored and persecuted by the people of his generation.
Success from God's perspective cannot always be measured in terms of immediate
numerical church growth.
Christians should not be overly impressed by the pragmatic argument based
on a comparison of growth rates. Church leaders, however need to recognize
that this pragmatic argument is very persuasive to many
people. They need to be prepared, therefore, to explain why the discipling
churches have grown faster than other churches of Christ.
A part of the reason discipling churches are growing faster than other churches
of Christ is that the discipling methods they use get a large number of
members actively involved in evangelism as teachers. Churches that are not
willing to practice gift projection or employ high pressure methods are
not as likely to get that many members involved in this role. It remains
to be seen, however, whether this approach can be sustained over a long
period of time. Denominations where the discipling movement started did
not find that this approach worked for more than about one generation. There
are such tremendous time pressures in this approach that it tends to result
in a major burn-out problem. The discipling movement has no real ministry
to the weak. People either become super Christians at once or they drop
out. In the denominations where the discipling movement started, internal
problems killed or seriously limited the movement within little more than
Characteristics that are unique to the discipling movement do not account
for most of the growth experienced by discipling churches. Among churches
of Christ, discipling churches are not growing primarily because of what
they are doing that other churches of Christ regard as being wrong. They
are growing primarily because of what they are doing that is right.
One of the major reasons for the rapid growth of the Boston Church of Christ
and its daughter churches is that planting new congregations is the most
effective of all church growth strategies. Only five percent of all congregations
grow after they are 25 years old. In the decade of the 1970s, every denomination
in the United States that increased the number of local congregations grew
in total membership and every denomination that reduced the number of local
congregations declined in total membership. In virtually all of these cases,
the increase in the number of congregations came before the increase in
total membership. In the period between 1945 and 1965, churches of Christ
were generally regarded as being one of the fastest-growing religious groups
in the nation. It was in that period that churches of Christ started more
new congregations than ever before. Few new congregations have been planted
since 1965 and the rate of growth has declined since 1965.
Most churches of Christ that are not identified with the discipling movement
are more than 25 years old. That is one of the reasons that they are not
growing today as fast as the discipling churches. Within a generation, of
course, many of the discipling churches will be more than 25 years old.
The rate of growth has already begun to decline in the discipling churches
that grew directly out of the work at Crossroads. The rate of growth has
even started to decline in the Boston Church of Christ.
Another important reason for the rapid growth of the discipling churches
such as the Boston Church of Christ is the staff-to-member ratio. At the
time of my first visit in April of 1985, the Boston congregation had one
full time worker for every 28 members. Many of these were not considered
"staff" by the Boston church. Most were full-time interns preparing
for leadership of a church planting team. But the way these interns were
being trained involved spending less than half their time studying in the
Boston School of World Missions and
the rest of their time they learned by working the system. They were available
for service as disciplers, Bible Talk leaders, House Church leaders, and
what ever else might be needed. Gene Vinzant's survey of discipling churches
in 1987, as reported in the last section of this book, found an average
staff-to-member ratio of one to 40. The team that went into Toronto had
only two who were called "evangelists," but they had more than
two dozen others who spent full time in evangelistic work. They baptized
100 people in the first year, but if you took 25 or 30 young, energetic,
zealous, dedicated, talented Christians and had them work full time in any
major city, they would produce comparable results.
Churches of Christ that are not affIliated with the discipling movement
typically have staff-to-member ratios of around one to 100. In the 1986
church growth survey, I asked how many of the baptisms came from the work
of full-time ministers and how many came from the work of volunteer workers
in the congregation. Results indicate that well over half of all the adult
conversions in 1986 came from the work of full- time ministers.
There is still another factor to consider in explaining why the discipling
churches are growing faster than other churches of Christ. This especially
applies to the Boston congregation. Writers in the church growth field have
suggested for many years that Christians need to experience the church at
three levels: the assembly level, an intermediate group level about the
size of a House Church in Boston or an adult Bible class in another congregation,
and the small group level about the size of a Bible Talk group in Boston
or a friendship circle in another congregation. Church growth re searchers
have found that it works best to bring new members in at the bottom rather
than at the top.
New members can be assimilated much better if their conversion and most
of their teaching takes place at the small group level. It is easy then
to get them into the intermediate and assembly levels.
This is the way the Boston Church of Christ assimilates their new members.
Conversion takes place in the context of a Bible Talk group consisting generally
of no more than 15 people. They may not even know about the Sunday morning
assembly at the Boston Gardens until they are well into the teaching process.
When they go to the Boston Gardens for their first experience with that
large crowd, the people who are sitting around them are their friends from
their Bible Talk group. Around that group are other people whom they have
met at the Wednesday evening House Church meeting in their neighborhood.
They do not feel that they are lost in a big crowd.
Churches of Christ that are not a part of the discipling movement typically
bring people in at the top and try to push them down to the two lower levels.
They may try to convert people at the assembly level. If they convert them
in a one-on-one study, they bring them to the assembly. At the assembly
they learn that they are supposed to attend Bible classes. Some of them
never make it that far. Those who start attending Bible classes may learn
about some small group meetings. Most never make it that far. The few who
take part in small group meetings may learn that they are supposed to get
involved in evangelism. Very few make it that far. It is quite possible,
however, for congregations to get their members involved at all three levels
and bring new
members in at the small group level without ever becoming a part of the
One of the most impressive things about the Boston Church of Christ is what
they are doing with their Bible Talk groups. Writers in the church growth
field have suggested for many years that conversion requires a point of
contact and a pathway. The point of contact is a way of meeting non-members.
The pathway is the orderly sequence of events that can be expected to bring
some of these non-members to the point of conversion. Churches of Christ
that are not identified with the discipling movement used evangelistic meetings
and evangelistic preaching in other church services as the point of contact
a few generations ago. That worked with some people in previous generations.
It does not work with most people today. These congregations did a lot of
personal evangelism in small groups-a family or two of members studying
with a family of non- members. These "cottage meetings," as they
were called, proved to be effective in teaching many people. Sometimes people
taught in this way had to be motivated from the pulpit before they made
the decision to obey the gospel. The home Bible studies and evangelistic
preaching brought many people to Christ a few years ago. In recent years,
however, these methods have been less effective.
The secret of the Bible Talk approach is that it is a non- threatening way
for a non-member to be introduced to the study of the Bible. Bible Talk
lessons are simple, practical, applied studies that do not focus on controversial
doctrinal issues. They provide an opportunity to get people into the Scriptures
and to show them that the Bible is relevant to their lives and that Christ
has answers to their problems. These occasions also provide an opportunity
for several Christians to build relationships with the non-member visitors.
Once the non-members get interested, they are receptive to the evangelistic
study that follows.
The psychological type theory that was discussed in Chapter 2 helps to explain
why the Bible Talk approach is so effective. Psychological type preferences
are related to learning styles. Extraverts learn best through participation
in a group discussion. Introverts learn best through lecture, readIng, or
one-on-one conversation. The Bible Talk approach is ideal for extraverts.
The evangelistic methods other churches of Christ use are ideal for introverts.
Extraverts make up 70 percent of the population and introverts make up only
Sensors learn best when the study begins with practical applications, hands-on
experience, and step- by-step instruction. That is the way Bible Talk lessons
are conducted. Intuitors learn best when the study begins with the background
theory, the big picture, meanings, and implications. Evangelism in other
churches of Christ typically begins with theology. The effort is to change
beliefs first and get people thinking right at the beginning. Then later--perhaps
much later--the study can get around to practical applications. This approach
is ideal for intuitors. Sensors make up 70 percent of the population and
intuitors make up only 30 percent. Those who prefer both extraversion and
sensing make up 49 percent of the population. The Bible Talk approach is
ideal for them. Those who prefer both introversion and intuition make up
nine percent of the population. The kind of evangelism other churches of
Christ typically practice is ideal for them.
Considering this factor alone, discipling churches ought to be baptizing
five times as many people as other churches of Christ. It would be possible,
however, for other churches of Christ to use a similar small group
approach to Bible study at this non-threatening, non-doctrinal level as
a step toward more intense evangelism. They could do this without ever accepting
any of the objectional features of the discipling movement.
Another significant reason for the rapid growth of the Boston Church of
Christ is its emphasis on mission work. They believe that if they take the
best people they have and send them to the mission field, the rest will
get better. Each team they send out takes a tremendous amount of talent
away from that church. But each time thy send out a team, others rise up
to take their place. Churches of Christ that are not affiliated with the
discipling movement have fewer missionaries on the field today than they
did 10 years ago. Many young people who want to do mission work have been
frustrated by the refusal of congregations to support them or even consider
their plea for help. Some of these very talented and dedicated young people
have been attracted to the Boston Church of Christ because of its mission
emphasis. That emphasis has helped the Boston church grow. The lack of mission
emphasis has retarded the growth of other churches of Christ.
Discipling churches place a major emphasis on interpersonal relationships.
As this study has already made clear, I do not believe that they are doing
it in the right way. They are, however, to be commended for at least trying
to get people into relationships that help them grow spiritually. When I
was growing up, we did not have "discipling partners," but we
had friends. A few years ago, members of the churches of Christ in this
nation did not go home from church alone. We either had someone over for
Sunday dinner or we went home with someone else. And it was not just Sunday
Our social life throughout the week was centered around our association
with other Christians. Furthermore, the relationship was not totally secular.
We almost always got the song books out and sang together. We prayed together.
We had some heated arguments about religion that at least had the merit
of being Christ-centered, Bible-based discussions. We talked a lot about
spiritual matters. We were into one another's lives spiritually. If people
got out of line, we tried to correct them. It was spontaneous and unorganized,
but I believe that we practiced the "one another" passages in
Things have changed. Recently I have been doing some research on friendship
patterns in churches of Christ. In this study I use a questionnaire that
asks several things about friendships. All of this research has been done
in churches that do not identify with the discipling movement. What I have
found is that from 10 to 20 percent of the members of these congregations
do not have any close personal friends at all in the congregation where
they are members. From 20 to 30 percent of the members have not actually
visited with a close personal friend in the congregation in the past year--counting
visits in either person's home, going out to do something together, or just
talking to one another regularly on the telephone. In the modern church,
people come together as strangers and leave as strangers and their lives
Another item on this questionnaire asks those who have friends in the church
what they do when they get together with their friends away from the church
building and organized church activities. At least 80 percent report having
only a secular relationship. The
20 percent who pray together, study the Bible together, or engage in any
other religious activity during friend ship time report doing this only
once a month on the average.
Discipling churches, in my opinion, are wrong in the way they are trying
to structure interpersonal relationship--but they are right in their emphasis
on how important these relationships are for spiritual growth. However,
other churches of Christ could encourage healthy, supportive, nurturing,
non-manipulative relationships without any of the errors associated with
the disciplining movement.
Many church growth researchers and writers have noted that in recent years
conservative denominations have generally grown while liberal denominations
have generally declined. Other writers more recently have suggested that
the real difference here is between distinctive churches and non-distinctive
churches. Most conservative denominations are also very distinctive. Everyone
knows who they are and what they stand for. Most liberal denominations are
more ecumenical. They try to be all things to all men and it is harder to
get a clear picture of just who they are and what they believe.
Among churches of Christ, those that appear to be growing the fastest are
those that are clearly distinctive from the world and from other religious
groups. Those that have become much less distinctive in recent years have
stopped growing and are declining gradually. Those that are distinctive
only in terms of internal brotherhood issues are declining rapidly. The
Boston Church of Christ and other discipling churches are clearly in the
category of those who are distinctive from the world and from other religious
These are just a few of the reasons that help to explain why the discipling
churches have been growing faster than other churches of Christ. One important
reason that I should not overlook is the quality of the young
people who have been attracted to this movement. The Boston Church of Christ
has been especially successful in attracting some super people. Some of
the most talented, dedicated, zealous Christians I have ever seen are in
the Boston Church of Christ. I believe that those same people could have
produced similar results without any of the objectionable features of the
One other factor must be mentioned, although it may be unique to Boston.
The Boston Church of Christ has over 60 House Churches. These are organized
to serve relatively small neighborhoods. Boston is somewhat different from
many other major metropolitan areas in that its neighborhoods have a clear
ethnic identity. As a result, the House Churches in Boston are relatively
homogeneous. One is primarily Black. Another is primarily Hispanic. Another
is Chinese. In one House Church, many of the people are of Italian ancestry.
The Bible Talk groups serve even smaller geographic areas and thus are even
There are limits to how heterogeneous an assembly- oriented church can become.
The Boston Church of Christ has managed to become an extremely heterogeneous
church at the assembly level because of its emphasis on two smaller levels
of interaction. That same approach, however, would be possible in other
churches of Christ without any of the abuses associated with the discipling
Which Way the Church?
The title of this section is taken from Bob Hendren's excellent study of
legalism in the discipling movement.1 In that book, the author expresses
his concern over the direction being taken by discipling churches. I share
that concern, but I am also concerned about directions being taken by churches
of Christ that oppose the discipling movement.
Leaders of the discipling movement among churches of Christ believe that
their movement is the wave of the future. They believe that by the early
part of the next century, they will have thousands of congregations and
millions of members throughout the world. They also believe that churches
of Christ that do not identify with the discipling movement will cease to
exist within another generation or two. I do not share that view.
I believe that in its emphasis on control, the discipling movement has the
seeds of its own destruction. Control is manipulative. Control is dehumanizing.
Control is a sick way of relating. Some people say that a benevolent dictatorship
is the most efficient form of government. If that is true, it is true for
only a short period of time. People will not long endure such a system.
Leadership of the discipling movement has already shifted from Crossroads
to Boston, but it is not likely to remain in Boston for more than a few
years. As Boston moves in one direction, other centers of influence are
likely to emerge and move in other directions. The discipling movement among
churches of Christ, in my opinion, is likely to fragment before the end
of this century. Some people who were attracted to this movement a few years
ago have already been disillusioned and have left the movement. There will
likely be many more defections from their ranks in the near future.
The wave of the future, however, is not likely to be found in those churches
of Christ that over-react and go to an opposite extreme. Some congregations,
in their effort to escape from Crossroads or Boston, are running all the
way past Jerusalem and ending up in Babylon. The elders of one congregation
recently told their members, "We forbid any evangelism except the preaching
done at this building where we can make sure that it is doctrinally correct."
They went on to condemn any kind of home Bible study or personal
evangelism as being "the Crossword philosophy." That shows how
little they know about what is going on.
Some people in churches of Christ do not really know what the discipling
movement is all about. They have heard about "Crossroadsism" and
they know that they are against it. Since they do not know what "Crossroadsism"
is, they apply that label to anything they do not like. Some have become
almost paranoid in their negative over-reactions.
Elders of churches of Christ that are not identified with the discipling
movement need to know what to do when they learn that their city has been
targeted and that a discipling church is about to be planted in their area.
The following advice is offered for whatever it may be worth to such elders.
Do not think that you can persuade the leaders of the discipling movement
to stay away just because you ask them to stay away. They honestly believe
that your congregation is unfaithful, spiritually dead, and lost. They believe
that they will be doing your members a favor if they persuade them to leave
your congregation and join their congregation.
Be informed. Do not believe everything you read about the discipling movement.
Investigate for yourself. Learn the facts.
I believe that you should establish leader-to-leader communication, but
I do not believe that it would be wise to provide a platform for the leaders
of the discipling movement to use in teaching their false doctrines, recruiting
your members, and sowing discord among brethren. I do not believe that it
wise to open your pulpit to them or to have them speak at brotherhood-wide
lectureships or workshops.
If your congregation is not active in local evangelism and mission work
throughout the world, you need to recognize that your congregation is ripe
for a hostile takeover. Your members need to know that they can be involved
in local evangelism and mission work without joining a discipling congregation.
Remember also that it is not easy to steal sheep who are well fed.
You need to be ready to reach and restore the many drop-outs who will be
harmed psychologically and spiritually by their participation in this movement.
The time when these problems are most likely to develop is when the young
people in this movement reach mid-life. Falsification of psychological type
produces a serious mid-life crisis. There will be major burn-out problems,
serious depression, and a variety of other psychological and spiritual problems
You should not, in my opinion, make it any more difficult than necessary
for those who have been caught up in this movement to return to the fellowship
of churches of Christ that do not identify with the discipling movement.
In rejecting the errors of the discipling movement, be careful not to throw
out the baby with the bath water. You should test all things and hold fast
to what is good (1 Thess. 5:21). Discipling churches are doing many things
that are good. Do not reject the good when you reject what is bad. Allow
room for diversity in the body of Christ. There are things that might not
congregation that might be both useful and proper in a different congregation.
Help your members get into non-manipulative, nurturing, disciple-building
relationships. I have found the study of psychological type theory to be
useful in this regard. Things that help an extravert grow spiritually might
not be helpful for an introvert. What is useful for a sensing type might
be harmful for an intuitive.type. Thinking types and feeling types need
to be guided in different ways. Judging types and perceiving types follow
different pathways to maturity in Christ. I believe that this, in part,
is what Solomon was talking about in Proverbs 22:6 when he said, "Train
up a child in his own way and even when he is old he will not depart from
it." However, Carl Jung's theory of psychological types is only one
of many systems for classifying individual differences. Much more needs
to be learned and taught concerning the most effective disciple- building
approaches for different kinds of people. Several writers from various religious
groups have already started this effort.2 Much more work is needed to apply
these principles to the task of disciple-making and disciple-building among
the heirs of the Restoration Movement.
In this concluding section, I have taken the liberty of offering some advice
along with some speculations about what may happen in the future. You know,
of course, that I am not a prophet. I do not know what the
future holds. I do know Who holds the future and that is enough.
NOTES FOR CHAPTER 5
1. Bob Hendren, With Way the Church (Nashville, Tennessee: 20th Century
2. :'There are several sources in addition to those already mentioned--that
are useful in this study. The following would provide a good introduction
to the field.
Christopher Bryant, Jung and the Christian Way (Minneapolis, Minnesota:
The Seabury Press, 1983).
Christopher Bryant, Prayer and Different Types of People (Gainesville,
Florida: Center for Applications of Psychological Type, Inc., 1983).
Gary L. Harbaugh, The Faith-Hardy Christian (Minneapolis, Minnesota:
Augsburg Publishing House, 1986).
Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey, Prayer and Temperament
(Charlottesville, Virginia: The Open Door, Inc., 1984). Note: To understand
this book by Michael and Norrisey, one should begin with a study of temperament
theory in David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, Please Understand Me (Del
Mar, California: Prometheus Nemesis Books, 1978).
End of Chapter 5