Relational discipleship resurfaces while church programs lose fans

Relational discipleship resurfaces while church programs lose fans

By Grace Thornton

The Alabama Baptist

When you ask Daniel Edmonds about where the Church is headed with discipleship these days, he likes to quote Pastor Ken Adams — “Jesus started the Church the way He wanted it, and now He wants the Church the way He started it.”

It’s to that end, Edmonds said, that churches today are circling back around to the relational type of disciple-making Jesus Himself did — the all-day-every-day, personal-influence kind.

“For a lot of people, it’s scary because they’ve never done it that way before,” said Edmonds, director of the office of Sunday School and discipleship for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. “But we’re getting back to the way Jesus intended for it to be done.”

Jay Robertson, assistant professor in the School of Christian Studies at the University of Mobile, said Jesus divided His time into three types of relationships — relationships with the Father, with other believers and with the unsaved.

Those three, Robertson said, could be described as abiding, connecting and sharing.

But after Jesus’ ascension and the spread of the gospel, as the Church was legalized and accepted by the Roman Empire, “a shift occurred away from personal relationships and the biblical concept of every Jesus follower ministering and serving,” he said.

The divide between clergy and laity “created and encouraged a performance mentality” when people attended church, Robertson said — “leave the worship and ministry to the ‘professionals.’”

Edmonds said as a performance mentality worked its way into recent decades, it turned into a program-oriented approach.

Different times

“It may have worked OK for a little while for discipleship,” he said. “Life looked different back then. It wasn’t a 24/7 society like it is now. For example, there used to be a time when teachers wouldn’t give homework on Wednesday nights and blue laws prevented businesses from operating on Sundays.”

This opened up people’s schedules to make them more available for programs, Edmonds said.

But in recent years, life has definitely changed, he explained. “There’s hardly any program that matches everybody’s lifestyle anymore, so you can’t say that ‘you’re not going to be a disciple unless you come to church at this time, this time and this time.’ That’s kind of where many churches are struggling,” he said.

“To carry on with this kind of discipleship leaves out a huge segment of society.”

So churches have realized more and more in recent years the responsibility to reach the people around them rests on the believers who live among them, Edmonds said. “The beauty in what Jesus did is that it bridges the gap between the culture and the Church. It becomes personal.”

Robertson agreed.

“Thankfully … a renewed interest in the biblical model of discipleship is clearly emerging (among Southern Baptists),” he said.

“There is a renewed focus on relationships. Biblical discipleship runs on the rails of relationships. The emphasis today is not as much on structured programming as it is on the building of relationships with God, with other Jesus followers and sharing the gospel with the unsaved.”

Trends in disciple making are beginning to emphasize more racial and economic diversity in small groups and churches, as well as a desire to disciple the entire family, Robertson said. “There is also a hunger for more ‘meaty’ teaching and the application of biblical truth in daily life shared in small groups conducive to strengthening relationships.”

Edmonds said relationships are vital for people who want to “make disciples who make disciples who make disciples” and get the Church back to what Jesus intended, like Adams said.

Adams, founder and director of Georgia-based Impact Discipleship Ministries, will be one of the speakers at the FlashPoint Conference on discipleship set for Jan. 13–14 at Samford University in Birmingham.

For more information about the upcoming FlashPoint conference, visit