Mailbag #14: Discipling without “Picking Favorites”; Tricky Baptism Situation; Churches and Name Changes; Numerical Growth v. Spiritual Growth


Discipling without “Picking Favorites” »
Tricky Baptism Situation »
Churches and Name Changes »
Numerical Growth v. Spiritual Growth »

Dear 9Marks,

Recently we have been teaching a lot on discipleship, especially intergenerational discipling friendships. By God’s grace, we have seen a spark ignite into a flame among our congregation. However, a snag we are experiencing is this: as we have charged our older men and women to reach out to younger men and women, we have seen a pattern of “picking favorites.” Those with favorable or noteworthy reputations in the church get first-string attention and those who don’t get left out entirely. The problem that results is twofold: How does one go about declining an invitation to discipling friendships simply because they are already meeting with five different people? And, how do they redirect these older men/women to reach out to others in light of a passage like 1 Timothy 5:1? Thanks for you time.

—Timothy, Missouri


What a good problem to have! It sounds like your church is growing in grace and maturity. Of course there is farther to go. But stop and praise God for the maturity he has given. Several more thoughts:

First, continue as you have begun: praying and teaching. Maturity comes slowly. The older folk are reaching out to “favorites.” Again, I’m just encouraged to hear they are reaching out. Think of them like first-graders who just learned how to add and subtract. Maybe they’ll get to double digits next year. And multiplication will follow in a couple years. Your job is to continue teaching and praying. Don’t think you can force it. Growth happens little by little. This first point is the most important: you continuing to teach how the gospel forms new relationships and a new community week after week, and praying for this.

Second, affirm and encourage the older folk for what they are presently doing. So old man Joe reaches out to young man Jim, who is already meeting with four people because he’s popular in Sunday School. I would say to Joe, “Joe, I am so encouraged to see you reaching out to Jim. It’s evidence of God’s work of grace in your life.”

Third, encourage the “second-string” or “benchers” to invite older people into their life. People might use the excuse that they are not “extroverts” and feel reluctant to do that. Well, they sought out a job, didn’t they? Isn’t finding older saints at least as important?

Fourth, find people in your church who can help facilitate these kinds of relationships. Maybe it’s a staff member. Maybe it’s a deacon. Maybe it’s just someone you trust to jump in and make phone calls and have a few lunches devoted to helping connect others. And encourage them to help those who feel “shy” about doing it for themselves.

Fifth, model how to say “no” and how to redirect. I have had younger people ask me to disciple them when I did not have the capacity. I said no and then directed them to others. I think it works the other way, too.

Sixth, the elders or pastors should continually model what it looks like to reach out to a variety of people, especially the stragglers—the ones who wanders off from the 99. When our elders are considering whether or not to nominate a man an elder, we will often ask ourselves the question, “Does he seem to reach out to different kinds of people?” If he’s mid-thirties, married, and has two young children, and all his friends fall into that same demographic, that gives us pause. We like to see that a man is reaching out to people of different ages, ethnicity, and vocational achievement. As the elders set this pattern over time, the example begins to trickle down.

There’s more I could say, but hopefully that’s a start. Remember, preaching and praying is the most important.

Dear 9Marks,

There is a high school student in my church (10th grade) who would like to be baptized. From the interaction my wife and I have had with her, we feel that she has indeed given her life to Christ. My plan is to meet with her over a period of time to help her understand what is salvation, what is baptism, and what it means to become a member of a local church. 

My issue is, her parents used to go to our church before I started working here, but they left because they felt that they were getting more out of the messages at this other church. Their daughter wants to be baptized at our church because she feels more at home with our church than this other church. Her mom feels that she can make the decisions on her own because she doesn’t want to “force” spiritual decisions upon her daughter.

Should I proceed with leading her through the baptism class? I don’t want to fault the daughter for the parents’ mistake, but at the same time I want the daughter to be with her parents on Sundays. I’m really torn about this and need advice. Thanks!

—Samuel, North Carolina

Dear Samuel,

I tend to think of teenagers as emerging adults. The “adult” in them is beginning to form, but it is not fully formed. So I appreciate the mother’s instinct to want her daughter to make her own decision, and I appreciate your instinct to want her to be with her parents. Both are right instincts. And depending on the circumstances, I think it would be formally acceptable for her to attend either your church or her parent’s church. Neither solution is necessarily sinful, but both may be the “better” solution. It depends.

If you have the time, you and your wife should shepherd her through the process of discerning what’s best (see Phil. 1:9-11). So, yes, you want to help her understand salvation, baptism, and church membership, but beyond that, you want to help her understand how those glorious doctrines will affect her daily life and the kinds of decisions she makes.

For instance, I want her to understand not just a doctrinally precise articulation of the gospel, I want her to understand what that doctrine means for how she relates to, loves, and honors her parents. I want her to understand the meaning of membership, but that meaning involves deferring to the preferences of others. Are there any selfish preferences she’s holding onto?

In short, I’d want to dig and to teach. I’d want to dig into why she wants to stay at your church. You say she feels “more at home” in your church. But what does that mean? You have the opportunity to help her value the right things by teaching her. Along these lines, I’d ask her to attend her parents’ church for at least a month and attend everything at that church she can. Then I would probably ask her to either write a report or at least jot down some notes on everything that’s good about that church—from a biblical standpoint. I’d specifically encourage her to pay close attention to the church’s teaching. What are they teaching? How do they teach? How seriously do they take doctrine? Do they take their statement of faith seriously? Who can be a member? What’s required for membership? Then I’d ask her to spend another few weeks answering these same questions for your church. Throughout the process, ask her to read, What Is a Healthy Church? so she has a better idea of what she’s looking for. And maybe suggest using the nine marks (as detailed in this book) to organize her observations.

Maybe this will seem like a lot to her. But I’d present all of this to her in the framework of “My goal is to help you make the best decision, because there are two sides to this. And I want you to make sure you see both sides, and I want to help you negotiate the two sides of this.” Beyond that, I’d say this is very much a test of repentance in her life. No, I don’t think we should ordinarily test adults like this when they come to join our churches. But, remember, she’s an emerging adult. And so you do well to lengthen the process. This will help both you and her to see what she’s really made of (spiritually speaking). Remember all of what Jesus required of the rich young ruler.

I pray this is useful.

Dear 9Marks,

Our church has been thinking about a name change. Do you think we should include the word “church” in the name of our church? Why are so many new churches avoiding the word “church” in the name of their church?

—Jonathan, Arizona

Dear Jonathan,

The Bible does not require a church to use the word “church” in its name, or even to have a name! Names in our contemporary context serve the purposes of state recognition, publicity, and market differentiation. When all you have is the one church in Ephesus or Corinth, neither of which is looking for tax-exempt status from the Roman Empire, you don’t call it “First Ephesus Church” or “Grace Corinth.” I spent a month in a “closed” Muslim central Asian country, and the house church there certainly had no name to speak of. Insofar as a church can accomplish these Western commercial purposes without including the word “church” in its name, I think that’s fine.

Yet in the contemporary Western context, here are three reasons I prefer using the word “church.” First, it’s honest and clear. It tells people exactly what it is. Second, by the same token, it feels less cult-like to me. Third, it feels unembarrassed. Confidence in what we are as Christians is evangelistically attractive. When we work hard to mimic the world stylistically, we insinuate that our confidence is in the power of advertising agencies and branding, not the power of our message.

Hope this is helpful.

Dear 9Marks,

I have been a part of an age integrated, elder led, covenantal fellowship for over 10 years. The preaching is expositional. The fellowship is genuine. The people are solid and serious about their faith and homes. And they help others practically and monetarily in different ways. Though some of the faces have changed over time, the congregation’s size has stayed about the same over the years. There aren’t many programs, especially those targeted at specific ages, which I know would draw people, and so numerical growth may not be what it is at many other churches. My question is this: Is very little numerical growth okay if spiritual growth is taking place, or should this lack of numeric growth be a concern? In other words, what is the proper and biblical expectation for numeric growth? 

I’d prefer to remain anonymous for this question.

Dear Anonymous,

As with the topic of evangelism, it’s important to think about numeric church growth both in terms of God’s revealed will and God’s hidden will. Downplaying one or the other leads to bad thinking and bad practices. If you overemphasize God’s sovereign and hidden will (Deut. 29:29) at the expense of his revealed will (the Bible), you may fail to diligently search the Scriptures for ways in which you might grow as a church. You might content yourself with the knowledge that “God is sovereign” and yet continue to neglect some biblical lesson lying in wait for you. If you overemphasize God’s revealed will at the expense of his hidden will, you might convince yourself that of course there must be something further you could do to manufacture growth since, after all, God tells us we can move mountains with enough faith. And so you will participate in the Second Great Awakening tradition of sawdust trails, mourners’ benches, and everything that today we call “reverse engineering.” You’ll start to mimic market methods and produce a church filled with consumers and nominal Christians.

In short, I want to answer your question with two hands. On the one hand, I think it’s biblically legitimate to expect numeric growth when we participate in the ordinary means of grace: preaching, praying, distributing the ordinances, evangelizing, showing hospitality, caring for one another, and so forth. The churches in the New Testament grew, and living things grow. Plus we’re commanded to make disciples, which suggests that God means for us to multiply.

On the other hand, God has different plans for different times, places, and ministries. Now he raises one up, now he brings another to an end. Just ask Jeremiah. Or the churches in eighth century North Africa, or thirteenth century central Asia. Sometimes God intends for his churches to remain the same size, or even to decrease in number. To assume that God must mean for your church to grow numerically tells me you think more like an American businessman than a biblically-minded Christian.

Bottom line, go back to the Scriptures. Are there ways you’re failing to be faithful to them? Perhaps you don’t evangelize? Pray? Love? Show hospitality? Preaching gospel-centered sermons? Remove stumbling blocks? Be a Jew to Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles? Of course I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that, if we are being faithful to his Word and revealed will, we can trust him, whether or not our church is getting bigger or smaller. You must hold onto this confidence. To assume that we must grow numerically, finally, is a form of the prosperity gospel. To assume our numeric growth is a matter of indifference, however, may be a lack of love toward outsiders or faithfulness to his Word.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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