“The criteria on which a church should measure its success is not how many new names are added to the roll nor how much the budget is increased, but rather how many Christians are actively winning souls and training them to win the multitudes.” —Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism
“Our biggest need right now is not more money.”
I’m not sure I’d ever heard that phrase from the leader of a missions agency before, but this was what Dr. Kevin Ezell, the president of the North American Mission Board (NAMB), the largest church-planting organization in the United States, said to me and our missions pastor over dinner.
“Great,” I said, “then you’re picking up dinner,” as I reached for the dessert menu.
“We’ll always take your money, of course,” he continued, “but our greatest need is for qualified planters. We just don’t have enough qualified church planters to invest in.”
NAMB is an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, which boasts sixteen million adherents in forty-two thousand churches across the U.S.—and we have a problem finding five hundred qualified planters each year? That’s only one planter for every 840 churches, or one out of every 320,000 Southern Baptist members.
Other evangelical tribes do not seem to fare much better, for what it’s worth. I once heard the leader of a successful church-planting network—the one known for the lowest failure rate among their plants—explain that they were looking for ways to attract qualified planters from outside their network to plant churches through their network.
Dare we ask why one of the most effective church-planting networks has to recruit from the outside and is not raising up enough leaders from within its churches?
If we’re all looking to commandeer one another’s leaders, who is raising up new ones?
And if our church plants are not effective at raising up leaders, who is?
“The reason for this shortage, I believe,” Dr. Ezell continued, “is that so few of our churches have intentional pipelines for leadership development. If we got good at disciple making again, church planting would take care of itself.”
I’m beginning to think he’s right.
Our failure to raise up church-planting leaders is symptomatic of our failure to raise up disciples in our churches. It seems that few of our people are engaged in, much less skilled at, making disciple-making disciples. Back in 2015, I was speaking at an event with Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Mohler said,
The vast majority of the people who’ve ever been baptized by our people (the SBC) are our own offspring. We’ve never been very evangelistic in terms of people to whom we haven’t given birth.
We’re only evangelistically effective with our own children?
Keep in mind this is about the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination in America probably most known for its evangelistic focus. (If someone shows up on your door asking if you are prepared to meet God tonight, it’s most likely a Jehovah’s Witness or a Southern Baptist.) And these words come not from a critical cynic, but from Albert Mohler, a beloved patriarch within the movement.
Everything we do in ministry should flow from or lead toward making disciples.
Many skills make for effective ministry. Great leadership. Great vision. Entrepreneurial grit. Disciplined execution. But all of those skills mean nothing if we aren’t making disciples, one by one. Apart from that, all the money we raise, buildings we build, ministries we organize, sermons we preach, and songs we write don’t move the mission forward. Without that mission we’re wasting our time.
Thus, everything we do in ministry should flow from or lead toward making disciples. Disciple making is, after all, the key component of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20), and it ought to be the standard by which we judge every ministry in the church.
J. D. Greear, Above All: The Gospel Is the Source of the Church’s Renewal (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2019).
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