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Keys to discipleship, leadership underscored for today’s church

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)–God is “calling us to a marathon –– a long-distance run” in discipleship and leadership, Daniel Akin said during Discipleship/Leadership Week at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center.

The secret to staying in the race -– while avoiding the urge to be an earthly “winner” -– is not to carry excess baggage, said Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

Such baggage, he noted, leads people to think they need something more than God to get them to the finish line.

More than 500 church leaders and members gathered at LifeWay’s conference center in the Blue Ridge Mountains for a week of worship and study that examined issues such as church growth, team building and conflict resolution.

Referencing statistics from his new book, “Breakout Churches,” Thom Rainer said nearly half of all pastors across America shared their faith zero times in the course of six months.

Along with such lackluster discipleship from church leaders, 80 percent of the nearly 400,000 churches in the United States are either declining or at a plateau, according to Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Low expectations for church membership may be partly to blame for the malaise, Rainer said.

“I’ve been in civic organizations that have higher expectations than the local church,” he said. “We’re bringing people in without giving them any information or any expectations.”

Rainer, who noted that the Book of Acts illustrates that membership should equal commitment, observed that the churches he studied for his book that went from stagnation to phenomenal growth all had what he called “breakout leaders” and were operating with a legacy in mind, just as disciples did in Acts 6 and 7.

Kenneth Hemphill, national strategist and author of “Empowering Kingdom Growth,” said an “infectious passion” is needed among lay leaders and pastors to grow the church.

“The church in North America is in serious trouble,” said Hemphill, citing statistics on the stagnation in the number of baptisms across the Southern Baptist Convention over the past 20 years.

“Billy Graham made a lot of people angry a few years ago because he said 80 percent of the people in the church are lost,” Hemphill said. But, he said, Rainer’s research would indicate the figure is at least 50 percent.

“Many in the church think the church was designed to keep them comfortable until Jesus comes,” Hemphill said. “The church never was designed to make you comfortable.”

Yet, he said, people become proprietary about the church. “It’s a spiritual problem, so it demands a biblical cure,” he said.

Mark Marshall, LifeWay’s director of leadership training and enrichment events, said church leaders need to move away from risk management toward what he termed “risk engagement” in order for extraordinary changes to happen in the church.

“Why do we not risk?” Marshall asked rhetorically. “Fear of failure. We want to save face at all costs.”

That’s not like such biblical role models as Joshua and Caleb, he said. In fact, he said, playing it safe with our faith is not the way to grow the Kingdom.

In a practical sense, fostering spiritual maturity is the way to overcome the worldliness that can be a source of problems, for example, in a deacon ministry, said John Temple, who led workshops on resolving challenges that can undermine a deacon ministry.

Temple, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Madison, Miss., said power struggles, poor examples, too few workers and attrition all call for scripturally based on-the-job training for deacons.

“If you’re a leader, you’re a disciple. Every church that has inadequate discipleship has inadequate workers,” Temple said. With multiplication of the church as the goal, church hierarchy and deacon-led ministries need to “cut the secret handshakes and closed doors.”

From morning prayerwalks to practical primers on team building within the church, the conference encouraged bold leadership and perseverance.

Ed Stetzer, director of research for the North American Mission Board, said the cultural shift into a postmodern mentality presents unique challenges to Christians.

“I call it the Oprah-ization of our culture,” he said. “We have embraced as a culture a secular spirituality that is devoid of Scripture,” which has led to the isolation and nominalization of true evangelism.

“We cannot then relate to the existing current culture,” Stetzer said. “The ‘emperor’ of today is tolerance,” he noted, adding that somehow the church has to pay homage to it without compromising biblical truth. It also means people will tolerate Christianity as long as Christians keep it to themselves.

“The problem is we have a missionary faith,” Stetzer said.

Participant Dan Garland, team leader for church development and evangelism for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said a survey at the University of Louisville asked students why they left the church and what it would take to bring them back.

Garland said authenticity, understanding (listening and not just converting), relevancy and relationships were the four most important reasons cited.

“Screaming at the culture hasn’t changed it,” Garland said. “It takes time.”
LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention sponsored Discipleship/Leadership Week June 27-July 1 at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center near Asheville, N.C.

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  • Andrea Higgins