How One Church Is Revitalizing Discipleship
By Ron Hunter, Jr. Ph.D.
The following is an interview with leaders from a strong, healthy church, which has impeccable leadership from the pastor to teachers and volunteers. Pastor Jeff Manning and his staff are in the middle of leading a change toward more focused family ministry. Change is hard enough for ministry leaders and typically does not occur until it is too late, or until one has few resources to support it. This is not the case with Unity Free Will Baptist Church.
Jeff and his staff are working to include a generational discipleship approach to make Unity even healthier. Listen in on the following honest conversation about why, what, and how to learn from this church, including their mistakes.
JEFF MANNING — SENIOR PASTOR
How does family ministry and generational discipleship align with Scripture and your ideology of ministry?
As a staff, we jointly concluded generational discipleship is exactly what the Scriptures prescribe (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Proverbs 1:8, 6:20; Ephesians 6:1-2; Malachi 2:15), including the importance of the teaching and instruction from both father and mother. The church’s ministry, then, must be complementary, not primary. Family ministry must empower, encourage, and equip families to disciple in the home, 24/7/365, not just a few hours a week at church. We provide reinforcement, offer resources, and make recommendations, but we also remind families discipleship starts at home, not the church.
Why are you making a change to place an emphasis on family ministry or generational discipleship?
We must not let moms and dads and grandparents think “the buck stops” at the church or the youth group. No, it stops with them. If parents truly love Jesus and take their discipleship responsibility seriously, no children’s worker, teen sponsor, or student pastor can match a parent’s influence. Nor should they try.
How have the older people (empty nesters) responded to a renewed family emphasis? Do
they feel marginalized or guilty they may have missed the mark in discipleship when their kids were young?
I don’t think they feel marginalized necessarily, but I do think some of them deal with guilt and regret. When I have an opportunity, I remind them of what Leroy Forlines used to tell us at Welch College: “Not even God can change history.” Although history can’t be altered, I urge and encourage them to plead with Christ to help them make a difference in the lives of their grandkids and great-grandchildren, and, where necessary, ask their children for forgiveness for previous parental failures.
What could this shift toward family ministry mean to your church a generation from now?
The church will have better equipped and deeply discipled a band of brothers and sisters who take their responsibility to love Christ seriously and keep training the next generation of Christ-followers. If that happens, I believe we’ll also see decreased divorces and prodigal children while at the same time having increased Kingdom workers.
BEN CRABTREE — PASTOR OF OUTREACH & DISCIPLEHIP
With so many branches or emphases in ministry, you purposefully focused on family ministry. Why have you spent recent years moving in this direction?
My research on outreach and discipleship reinforced what Dr. Richard Ross said, “Strong churches do not make strong families; strong families make strong churches.” If our families share and make disciples at home then it is a huge win for the equipping of the church.
What are the merits of a church focusing age-specific ministries on family ministry?
Research shows if a child is not a Christ-follower by age eight, it is highly unlikely he or she will ever follow Christ. If the church focuses on children at church and in the home, in ten years, these new teens and young adults will be more than church attenders, they will be world changers. What if each year our denomination sent out two or three thousand disciple-making graduates into the workplace or universities who were willing to give it all for Christ? What kind of impact could we make on the Kingdom? How many missionaries, pastors, evangelists, Christian teachers, Christian doctors, Christian lawyers, etc. could we send out into the world? The results would speak for themselves, but it starts early in our homes.
What would you say to someone who suggests discipleship is just “about learning Scripture” and less about outreach, or what happens beyond the church?
Matthew 28:18 says all authority has been given...
Notice the Scripture says, all the authority in Heaven and earth. Out of every priority in our churches, Christ says, we have been given all authority and therefore...make disciples. All the authority in heaven and earth is given by the Father, to the Son, and to us to go and make disciples! Because the disciples followed this command, used Christ’s authority given by Christ to make disciples, there was unity among the believers, prayer among the belivers, and growth (more disciples added).
How does a church get started in family ministry? What are your recommended steps?
Pray. If your team is not praying, or if you are not praying, then it will not happen.
Prepare. I would read Disciple Shift by Putman and Harrington and The DNA of D6 by Ron Hunter. Take a military planning approach by examining the goal and asking what steps will help you get there. Don’t just look at the current situation. Read up on tomorrow’s generation, or you will be behind the times and fighting an uphill battle. Books like The Millennials by Thom S. Rainer, Future Cast and Generation Z by George Barna are three examples.
Be patient (our mistake). I think we assume everyone “gets it” like we have, but we have to be reminded they have not been to conferences, listened to sermons, or read the same material. What I did (and was paid to do) will take volunteers hours of research and study on their own time.
Persevere (where we are). Push through and accomplish the objective. Part of leadership is looking at the shepherd’s staff. David Platt says, “It is not to comfort the sheep but to hook and guide them.” As leaders, we must keep pushing in the direction we believe the Spirit is leading and pray the Spirit leads them as well.
Proper placement. Many churches have people in positions for which they are not ready, people who fit better in another area.
Professional speakers. We have invited three guest speakers to explore family ministry and discipleship. Sometimes a different voice saying the same thing will be heard in a different way.
Praise. Celebrate success. What you celebrate you will replicate.
JAKE MANNING — PASTOR OF STUDENTS
Imagine your church has been doing family ministry for ten-plus years, which means teenagers coming into your youth group have biblically involved parents as intentional about discipleship at home as church. What does your youth group look like, and how will that affect how you minister?
Parents would no longer rely on the church (or the student pastor specifically) to teach and train their teenagers in one-to-three hours a week. The youth group would no longer serve as a parent-substitute center but as a thriving community-accountability center. The overall spiritual maturity level would rise, which would allow me to challenge students harder and dive deeper into teaching.
As a student minister, not every teenager has involved parents. How do you help students from broken homes or students whose parents attend church but are spiritually absent?
I have a few students who fall into this category. Two keys have helped these students: 1) Small groups. We divide small groups by gender and age. This is helpful for these students, giving them a community of believers to guide them and keep them accountable; 2) Mentorships. Youth leaders offer support by meeting regularly with students (many times in our home). They often ask for advice or simply need encouragement.
KEVIN JUSTICE — PASTOR OF WORSHIP & ADMINISTRATION
Do you think ministry leaders have elevated
expectations for parents to be intentional with faith talks (discussing life through the lens of Scripture), praying with their kids other than at meal time, and using the Bible to counsel ethical, relational, and moral decisions?
In the past, I would say yes. It is easy to forget everyone hasn’t studied at a Bible college or immersed himself in reading material about the Bible and church leadership. Early on, I assumed parents could pass along spiritual matters to their kids with relative ease. Over time, I came to realize that many people struggle with confidence in their ability to talk with their kids about their faith.
You are a parent; you minister to parents and grandparents. Does it concern you that other parents may not feel confident to tackle such conversations in the home? How is your church remedying this sentiment?
Many parents have told me, “It’s easier for you; you’re a pastor,” when talking about family devotions or incorporating scriptural wisdom during teachable moments. First, I want them to realize I am human and have the same parenting struggles they face. Second, I think it underscores the need for the church to be intentional in equipping parents to disciple their kids, no matter what they perceive regarding their own ability to talk about spiritual matters. I use personal illustrations about teachable moments in my own family. Our Sunday morning life group leaders are encouraged to explain how the spiritual truths they are teaching apply to our kids (crucial). Reminding them that family devotions don’t have to be an hour-long discourse from a Bible commentary, but may simply include reading a verse and picking a truth that speaks to you—and then praying about family needs—makes a huge impact.
I know you strive for excellence at church, but how does your team spend time helping the hours spent at church become the “starting point” for everyone to take worship and teachable moments home throughout the week?
We are still attempting to implement this. For quite some time, we have been using the “attractional” model of ministry. Oversimplified, we put on a well-planned program that helps people have a fresh encounter with God, expect people to come, and then do it again the following week. We are exploring ways to encourage people to carry this experience with them through the week. Our pastor ends each service with an encouragement to “go and tell.” We also have small group meetings in homes on Sunday evenings and throughout the week, during which they discuss everyday life application questions from the pastor’s morning sermon. We are also discussing with church leadership about taking our mission to the community.
What have you observed as wins during this shift to a renewed biblical focus on family ministry or generational discipleship?
We heard a five-year-old at daycare talking with children from another culture and religion. He asked, “Do you know who Jesus is?” Repeating what he heard from church and his parents, he continued, “Do you know He died and rose on the third day?” He is being taught Christ at church and at home and is already sharing it. Three parents have told me specifically how much they enjoy being reminded and taught how to talk to their children about their faith.
A big win for me has been assisting parents with discipling their children. I have been going about this in several ways:
Sending weekly emails/texts with calendar updates, take-home notes, and questions from my teaching;
Keeping them in the loop regarding the latest cultural trends, apps, etc;
Providing opportunities for parents to serve alongside their teens; and
Bringing in speakers who specialize in bringing the family together.
The biggest win I have observed are “family-focused” ministry activities where parents are immersed in activity alongside their kids. We had a family kickball night; families played together for a little over an hour, and I didn’t observe a single person looking at his or her phone. Also, we are doing one Sunday per quarter where we don’t offer children’s worship, but families worship together instead. It is a blessing to observe kids standing next to mom and dad, singing together, and opening their Bibles together during the sermon.
I am excited about the increased number of intentional gospel conversations taking place over Sunday lunch, in particular, and throughout the week in general.
Change is hard, but leaders see the long-term benefits—and in this case the scriptural mandate to tackle generational discipleship—in ways most churches do not think about. Today, members of the Unity Church staff do fewer ministries alone while helping more people do ministry together, both in church and at home.
For more strategies forchurch and home discipleship, visit www.randallhouse.com.