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FIRST-PERSON: Salad bar discipleship

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Americans love eating out. Apparently entrepreneurs have noticed as the United States has more than 935,000 restaurants. Sales in full-service restaurants exceeds $150 billion annually.

Years ago while eating out I began noticing a difference between men and women’s attitudes about the dining experience. For men, eating out is mostly a function. Feed me, anything. But for women, eating out is an event. That’s why I prefer not to get behind women at a salad bar. Instead of just piling it on and getting down to business, I’ve noticed that most women want to decorate their plate. Mercy, can’t we just eat?

For men and women, salad bars — particularly the all-you-can-eat ones — offer us choices, and that’s something Americans like. So in the brave new buffet world, we get just what we want the way we want it.

Compare that to when you were in the school lunch line. About the only option was whether to eat or not eat what was put on your tray. It was a balanced meal, planned by a trained dietitian who worked in the background. There was purpose to the servings whether you liked green peas or not. I’m thinking that most of us didn’t.

So which approach is better? Eating according to your taste buds and hunger pangs or eating according to a well-designed plan?

There are spiritual applications to this question. Today in Southern Baptist life, dated curriculum — non-repeating monthly or weekly teaching plans for Sunday School, discipleship and missions education — are each trending down. In some instances it’s being replaced by nothing – “we just don’t do that anymore” — or off-the-shelf, module-type studies. Most of those studies are outstanding and engage learners well. However, instead of having a “dietitian” in the background putting together an informed long-range plan, the driving strategy seems to be whatever feels right at the time.

Southern Baptists create dated curriculum with desired outcomes backed by learning cycles for each age group in the church. While any lesson can stand on its own, they aren’t random. Over time, the purpose is to take learners through teaching cycles designed to help them become fully devoted followers of Christ. The point is that there is a plan.

Many of the options we have today to facilitate personal Christian growth are excellent. However, it’s hard to see the plan or long-term outcome. Most Southern Baptists have lost sight of the harsh reality that discipleship is hard work. Perhaps the unwillingness of Southern Baptists and other denominations to accept this contributes to nearly half of Americans leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing. To know the content of Scripture, to articulate beliefs and to know the biblical basis of missions takes time and commitment. For most of us, it takes a lifetime of learning to “accurately handle the word of truth.”

Before getting to the grade-school lunch line, I had to sit through a math lesson. That wasn’t fun for me, and I’m eternally grateful that on the first day of first grade the teacher didn’t hand me a calculus problem. That would have been futile for the teacher and me. Instead, we started with the basics of addition and subtraction. Over the years, my teachers worked a plan to prepare me for the business calculus class required in my college major. I barely passed and could hardly be called a fully devoted follower of calculus. But I was able to solve some problems. Perhaps I should have studied harder and worried less about lunch.

For most of the past 10 years, I’ve attended adult Sunday School classes where the teacher randomly picked a topic or book of the Bible and presented a lesson. Some have been excellent. On any given Sunday, it has been informative and challenging. However, what does a strategy of “whatever” gain us? Do we really know why we are Christ-followers and why we express our faith through the Baptist tradition?

What is your church’s plan for making disciples? How is your church creating missions-learning environments? I encourage churches to take a hard look at how they make disciples. Using the many non-dated studies available today could be a good option. But what study should you choose, and how will it fit into a plan to disciple the learner? As ministers called to equip the saints, shouldn’t there be a master plan that honors the Master?

Meanwhile, could you speed it up here at the salad bar? I’m hungry.
Jim Burton is the mission education team leader for the North American Mission Board in Alpharetta, Ga. For more information on missions education programs and resources offered by Woman’s Missionary Union, visit www.wmu.com. For more information on Royal Ambassadors, Challengers, Baptist Men on Mission and other missions-learning resources from the North American Mission Board, visit www.sbcmissioneducation.com.

    About the Author

  • Jim Burton