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Task force report: Baptism must lead to discipleship

DALLAS (BP) — “Could it be that we have considered baptism to be the finish line and not the starting line?” Robby Gallaty asked messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas.

“Could it be that we have spent a lot of our time teaching people what they’re saved from, and we haven’t spent time teaching people what they’re saved for?”

Gallaty set forth the recommendations of a Disciple-making Task Force during the June 13 report of the North American Mission Board at the SBC annual meeting. Gallaty is a Tennessee pastor who has chaired the task force since it was commissioned two years ago by NAMB and LifeWay Christian Resources.

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At the beginning of the report, NAMB President Kevin Ezell stated, “Southern Baptist Convention, we do have an evangelism issue that we need to address,” yet it is “symptomatic of an even deeper problem that we have when it comes to discipleship — to make disciples that make disciples that make disciples.

“Thom Rainer and LifeWay combined with the North American Mission Board and myself two years ago appointed a discipleship task force to study where we are in the Southern Baptist Convention when it comes to discipleship because we do believe that it is key to turning around evangelism in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Ezell said.

The task force made three recommendations to churches: increase efforts toward Bible engagement; examine the connection between salvation decisions and group involvement; and examine the number of groups that multiply on a regular basis.

Gallaty said Southern Baptist churches have baptized 7.1 million people over the past 20 years — yet overall weekly church attendance has declined over that same period.

While Southern Baptists have been seeking ways to stem the downturn in baptisms and church attendance, the task force’s research indicated that if churches had simply retained those they had baptized, then the SBC’s membership figures would be doubled.

The task force discovered a disconnect between tracking baptisms and incorporating those new converts into an active life of discipleship and service within the local church. While Gallaty painted a troubling picture, he also outlined solutions.

LifeWay Research conducted a study which demonstrated that the top spiritual discipline any believer can participate in is Bible engagement, but the study found that only 45 percent of Christians engage with the Bible on a weekly basis.

“Bible engagement is more than just reading the Word,” said Gallaty, senior pastor of Longhollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn. “It is allowing the Word of God and God Himself to lead us and change our direction, our actions and our thinking.” When people engage the Bible, he pointed out, they give more, serve more, go more and evangelize more.

In the task force’s findings, Southern Baptists would have to baptize 7.1 million people in order to avoid losing anyone by the year 2038 if current trends continue.

“I want to challenge us to begin to think differently,” Gallaty said. “Brothers and sisters, I submit that we continue calling for evangelism, but let’s not do it without a plan for biblically discipling believers. Why? Because we will see the same results that we have seen for two decades.”

Gallaty encouraged churches to participate in an “80 by 20” challenge so that by the end of the year 2020, the percentage of believers who engage the Bible would increase from 45 percent to 80 percent. Resources are available at 80by20.org [2], including links to articles, Bible reading plans and apps for smartphones or tablets.

The resources at the 80 by 20 website, many of them free, also will help churches adhere to the recommendations made by the task force.

Pastors and church leaders need to work to connect those they baptize with a small group who will help those new believers practice and learn how to engage the Bible. Every pastor should examine how their church helps new believers transition into a discipleship group.

Every church also needs to understand the importance of encouraging their small groups to become multiplying groups. A small group’s failure to grow and multiply is a good indicator that the group may not be serving the purpose of making disciples. A disciple should be making disciples, regularly bringing new believers into the fold through evangelism.

“We can’t go back and make it up to the 7.1 million we lost over the past 20 years,” Gallaty concluded, “but we can and should prepare for the next 7.1 million to come.”

Gallaty chaired the Disciple-making Task Force. Members included Johnny Hunt, First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga.; Adam Dooley, Sunnyvale First Baptist Church, Sunnyvale, Texas; Eric Geiger, senior vice president, LifeWay Christian Resources; Paul Jimenez, Taylors First Baptist Church, Taylors, S.C.; Mark Marshall, The Glade Church, Mt. Juliet, Tenn.; Kevin Smith, Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware; and Pavel Urruchi, Erlanger Baptist Church, Erlanger, Ky.