By Aaron Earls
For Samuel Tunnell, discipleship dominates the way he thinks about his church and the conversations he has with other younger pastors. The only problem—no one ever discipled Tunnell himself.
“Millennial pastors came into their own reading David Platt’s Radical and Francis Chan’s Forgotten God. We listened to podcasts from Matt Chandler. We built this ideal of intense, radical Christians that we weren’t seeing in our church contexts,” says Tunnell, the pastor of Red Tree Church in Ballwin, Missouri.
Whether it was actually true or not, Tunnell said he didn’t believe the older Christians in their church were willing or able to disciple his generation of believers. Now Tunnell looks at his church and feels like a lost guide trying to find a path he was never shown. And he’s not alone.
In Facts & Trends’ Future of the Church study, Lifeway Research asked pastors their top concerns. Younger pastors, those 18 to 44 years old, are more likely than any other age group to say discipleship is the chief concern.
“This is the main conversation I have with other pastors in their 20’s and 30’s,” says Tunnell. “This is the main conversation happening at Red Tree right now.”
That resonates with Joe Martin, pastor at The Cross at Clay Baptist Church in Clay, Alabama. Growing up in a small, Southern town, he says Christianity was a cultural label and not a way of life.
“We had events, Sunday school, Bible studies, but there was no discernible process or passion for making disciples who made disciples,” he says.
“Despite being in church virtually my whole life, I can count on one hand the number of spiritual mentors I have in the faith.”
Having not been discipled themselves, these young pastors find themselves shepherding a flock without the experience to lead them down the right path.
“It’s 10 years later and we’re realizing that we’re the pastors and we’re supposed to be doing this for the next generation,” Tunnell says. “A lot of my peers often feel like we’re reinventing the wheel with discipleship.”
In addition to not having discipleship modeled for them, Steve Bang Lee, college and teaching pastor at Living Hope Community Church in Brea, California, says the modern-day information overload has led some young pastors to question themselves and their methods.
“The deluge of content and information has forced younger pastors to go back to the drawing board, not just for their church, but personally,”
So how are these pastors approaching discipleship at their church? In many ways they’re getting back to basics with five aspects of helping believers grow into maturity.
Jordan Rice, lead pastor of Renaissance Church in New York City, says he feels a need to take a step back and do “pre-discipleship” with the young adults to whom he ministers.
“Millennials have significantly less trust in the authority of Scripture and firm beliefs in truth,” he says.
Because of this, he says they have to work to instill the concepts of truth and authority before they can move on to helping people trust the Bible as true and accept it as an authority over their life.
2. Make the Bible central
As the pre-discipleship is established, Rice says they concentrate on getting people into Scripture and small groups because they aren’t sure how long they’ll be around.
“People are more transient and don’t spend as much time in the any city as before,” he says. So, they have constructed their community groups to go through more Scripture together and are planning even smaller groups to meet regularly for even more accountability.
Lee agrees with the emphasis on going through the Bible together. “This may sound simple and basic,” he says, “but I truly believe that faithfully and clearly teaching through books in the Bible is one of the most humble and effective ways to make disciples.”
He says it’s a way to admit, “Honestly, I’m not that smart. I don’t know what great series to go through next, but if I open this book and teach what God is saying, I have a feeling He knows what to say.”
3. Write a “ministry key”
Lee says their college groups’ ministry has developed what they call a “ministry key,” a vision and strategy document that “crystalizes our discipleship purpose, philosophy, and process, while connecting it to the actual ministry structure, calendar, and practices.”
It can be easy to simply add events to the calendar or pick up another new project, he says, but having the ministry key lets you evaluate whether those additions fit the discipleship paradigm you’ve established.
A defining document “forces leadership to put a clear discipleship why and how to whatever element we introduce,” says Lee.
4. Change the culture
Tunnell says their entire staff read Simple Church and are testing a comprehensive discipleship process for the whole church. They’ve also reoriented the role of the other full-time pastor at the church toward discipleship.
“Our current goal is to frame our small groups around the idea of discipleship, with the goal of pushing people into one-one-one or one-on-two discipleship relationships,” he says.
Instead of making a big announcement, Tunnell says they are trying to establish it all “quietly and slowly so that our people grow into discipleship as the primary culture of our church rather than trying to get them all excited and launch a new program.”
5. Empower others
Martin says The Cross at Clay Baptist doesn’t have the manpower to put many programs or ministries into place, so he is concentrating on “life-on-life discipleship with a handful of men.”
For Martin, “the goal is to disciple them and then release them for ministry to replicate our process.”
Lee says he has intentionally cultivated that type of discipleship ministry at Living Hope.
“I’ve realized one of the best ways to address discipleship is by de-centering and de-powering myself to not be the center hub of the church,” he says.
“In other words, training and equipping others in a way where through their combined efforts, my presence becomes unnecessary—training others so that I’m out of a job.”
Discipleship isn’t the only worry on the minds of young pastors. Many are anxious about leading a congregation filled with older Christians. They also say they’re concerned about the impact of the cultural divides on the church.
“We have several dozen believers in their retirement years who have decades of life and faith to share with the younger folks of our church, but there are such fundamental differences in their polarized worldviews that it makes it hard for them to connect across these lines,” Tunnell says.
“When the 30-year-olds and 70-year-olds see others’ Facebook posts, they are in such different places that they don’t necessarily want to connect over coffee to study Colossians.”
Tunnell admits, “I have real concerns for the generations to come together under the unifying banner of Jesus in light of how divided they are elsewhere.”
Martin says the “over-politicization of the church” is a concern for him as well. “I feel it is and it will cause irreparable damage to our witness among non-believers.”
“We’re becoming obsolete in many people’s eyes,” Rice says because young adults aren’t seeing the church addressing what concerns their generation.
Yet most younger pastors remain hopefully and see discipleship as part of the key.
“We didn’t get a good example of it from the generation before us,” says Tunnell, “but if we could figure out that piece [discipleship], our churches would grow,” he says.
And Tunnell says Red Tree is growing.
“People are finding a real community where they can reveal the depths of their hearts and be loved and invited in. People are finding freedom from idols and sin by the power of Jesus and lives are being changed,” he says.
“We had four baptisms just a few weeks ago and two of them were stories of freedom from life-dominating addictions.”
For Lee, there’s hope because of what he sees among other leaders in his generation and who’s ultimately in control.
“I am hopeful for the church in America because I see many faithful younger pastors and leaders; and ultimately because Jesus said He will build His church.”
Aaron is a writer for LifewayResearch.com.