“Let’s Again Make Jesus’ Last Words Our Top Priority”
Summer Celebration 2020, June 30-July 2
by Scott Sager

Where did things go so wrong?

Do you listen to the news and marvel at where we have arrived as a country? Democrat or Republican, the election cycle is wearying—even more it is confusing. The very terms “Democrat” and “Republican” don’t seem to mean much as the current president was once a Democrat, the billionaire Democratic candidate was once a Republican, and the Democratic front-runner evidently claims to be more a socialist than a Democrat himself. Isn’t this at least a little confusing?

And speaking of confusing, as quickly as political affiliations confuse and splinter us, American Christianity is apparently coming apart at the seams as well. The Methodists are organized enough to actually split, but across the Christian spectrum religious affiliations are breaking down. We are splintered, polarized and dividing into camps around issues we once thought unimaginable as disputable issues of faith.

Thankfully (I think), we in Restorationist churches and in Churches of Christ particularly are not organized enough to split. But we are dividing along two camps, with perhaps a middle path emerging as a third trajectory to lead some forward as well. My almost nine years as VP of Church Services at Lipscomb University has shown me up close and personal that our congregations largely fall into two primary categories of churches.

I. Two Primary Categories of Churches

Old Line/Old Guard Churches of Christ- These significant congregations have stayed committed to maintaining a connection to the past in the midst of a rapidly changing culture. These churches have remained committed to the patterns that have guided God’s body for over two centuries, and have maintained a legacy of faith by staying true to the faith structures and tradition handed down to them. I visit in these congregations regularly; love the people and know they have a deep desire to honor God through the way they worship and maintain their obedience.

Sadly, these congregations are dying of old age or irrelevancy—and doors are closing regularly. The Pew Research Center 2014 Report (see chart below) as well as our own internal data at Lipscomb University shows this strategy for church growth is not effective—it is in steep decline. Some may report they know of old guard Churches of Christ still in a growth mode, and I sincerely wish this were true. But what is being termed “growth” is merely one centrally located congregation expanding through the transfer of members from the congregations whose doors are closing. Interestingly, this is further crystallizing the existing churches to “stay true” to a past that is no longer viable. This is a strategy for ultimate extinction.

Mainline Progressivism – These congregations of Churches of Christ are generally urban and highly educated, and committed to much the same agenda as the Disciples of Christ from a generation ago. The strength of this segment of Churches of Christ is a commitment to social justice, fairness for all and a more prominent role for women in leadership and public worship. These churches are thoughtfully engaged in ecumenical discussions and striving to build bridges to other faiths through community initiatives. Much of what is being attempted is laudable, and a desire to treat everyone as a child of God deserves to be strongly affirmed.

The approach to biblical texts is often by a “theological modernism”–which reads scripture through a lens (or trajectory) towards a social justice move or “cause” that might seemingly run counter to the biblical texts themselves (pro-choice, LGBTQ+ affirming, etc.). These churches champion social justice and the virtues of the Christian faith like love, empathy, hospitality and acceptance that become dominant moves in relating to our neighbors. The Pew Research Report of 2014 likewise shows churches moving in a mainline Protestant stream to be in a steep decline as well. These churches across the United States are decreasing in membership and those once their leaders are, with some regularity, abandoning ship as well.

II.Is a Third Category of Churches Re-Emerging?

Discipleship and Disciplemaking Churches- Many leaders in Churches of Christ are looking at the two options above and feeling alone and without a home in Churches of Christ. Neither option is overly appealing, and neither is bearing fruit that will last. Thankfully, existing churches and church plants are returning to the great themes of obedience-based discipleship and to the mandate of the Great Commission to make disciples. This is not a new strategy, but a fresh wave of disciplemaking that has similarities and differences to that which emerged in earlier generations.

The evangelistic explosion of the 1940-50’s among Churches of Christ returning from the Great War came from a commitment to make “evangelism” the central thrust of the church. A generation later, the Crossroads/Boston/International Churches of Christ experienced an incredible flourishing of growth in the 1980’s-2000’s through a focus upon the multiplication of disciples as the best pathway for evangelism. Although the Jewell Miller filmstrips only served a generation, and the Crossroads/Boston Movement was subject to internal abuses it is important to note that in my lifetime the only time the Churches of Christ has experienced significant growth was during these seasons when the church focused upon disciplemaking as the “Great Commission Strategy” of our Master. These churches today are returning to a disciplemaking, church planting strategy that is seeing the blessing of God and sustained (and sometimes amazing) growth around the globe.

III. The Internal DNA of Disciplemaking Churches

Several recent surveys have analyzed the new churches coming out of disciplemaking movements and church planting. Several of these have occurred within Restoration churches while many more have emerged without knowledge of our Restoration principles, but have found in our heritage a friendship and collegiality. The research into these fast growing, deeply formed congregations outlined nine characteristics common to these churches worthy of elaboration here:

1. Vision for Making Disciples. The leaders of these churches have a remarkable sense of “vision.” Vision is a characteristic of the age of the Spirit. This vision is arrived at through prayer, and is bathed in prayer and fasting. Making disciples is top priority.

2. Radical obedience based on vision. The call to make disciples and win lost people is kept before the people, and becomes the directive vision of the church. These churches make high demands of their members and call them to obedience-based discipleship. These churches are clear on what is sin, and preach grace that calls people to repentance and changed lives.

3. Worship. The main emphasis of the church life together is worshipping God and lifting up King Jesus as Lord of all. Therein lies the public demonstration of the power of God. People are being saved and are bearing witness to life-change in every service. There is an air of great expectancy. Many of these churches have no choir and no “organized” music program. Emphasis is placed on praise, teaching, and body life.

4. Prayer and Fasting ministry. Some of these churches have ministers of intercession that not only intercede themselves, but teach others how to pray. Behavioral emphasis is placed on prayer. It is not only taught; it is organized. Church communities pray, fast and seek the Lord for spiritual power and abundant mission.

5. Discipleship groups. The great commission as Jesus’ last words becomes their strategic priority. Followers of Jesus are being mentored into discipleship in models that are reproduceable and model a strategy of multiplication. Leaders of large churches invest heavily in a few people who can then multiply by discipling others.  

6. Training for professional ministry. These churches take seriously the evangelization and training role of the church. Many of these churches have their own Bible college for the training of their own people for professional ministry at all levels, including that of ministers and missionaries. These churches would rather train people themselves—generally in apprenticeship models. These persons are then sent to other locations to plant churches and minister.

7. World-wide, hands-on church-planting. These churches take the Great Commission seriously. Almost all of them send mission teams from their local churches to plant churches across the city and around the globe without any other sending agency. These churches support the mission directly until it is fully matured, then it becomes autonomous and plants other churches as well. The entire congregation believes that it now has a direct part in the Great Commission and can plant a church in their own context.

8. Financial support. Money is never an issue in these churches. It is not an issue in its beginning stages because the leadership has been assured by their own vision regarding the success of the church. The vision is also large enough that people see the significant life and history-changing work of the church, and support its efforts.

9. The leaders have seen the ministry modeled. The leaders who pastor these churches have all been part of other churches in which the congregations have been large and/or have rapidly grown. They have the assured sense that it not only can be done; they have seen it done. Principles of growth and vision can be taught, and prayer powers this ministry model.

IV. Nondenominational Disciplemaking Churches are Growing

In a season when organized religion is in decline across the denominational world, the one hope for American Christianity seems to be coming from the Holy Spirit’s blessing on the nondenominational churches. These churches are kindred cousins of ours, but are the cousin we often have never met. These churches are often young churches planted to make disciples in an urban center, a suburban strip mall or a college campus. At the same time, older churches that have stagnated are finding new growth and energy in a return to the premises of nondenominational Christianity and relational disciplemaking. The data from the Pew Research Center 2014 below shows that nondenominational Christianity is on the rise—growing 2% faster than the population growth and faster than the rest of American Christianity.

Interestingly to note as well from the Pew Research below, “Restorationist” Christianity is holding steady among all Protestant churches in America, while declining slightly compared to the population as a whole. This trend could be the result of the “restorationist” category also including the Independent Christian Church (predominantly found in the north and middle of the country). These ICC churches are a “renewal” group that broke from the Disciples of Christ when the Disciples became a more mainline Protestant group. Based upon a commitment to evangelism as the central mission of the church, these congregations are experiencing sustained growth in many cities and have over 200 churches with 1,000+ in attendance and at least 5 with an attendance near or over 10,000 each week.

A renewed fellowship with leaders from these churches has been good for Churches of Christ and has led to positive collaboration and growth. Over the past few years, Lipscomb University has educated the children of several of the leaders of the Independent Christian Church and collaborative efforts have increased. These churches are excited by what they see in our liberal arts schools like Lipscomb, and hope to see more of their children aligning with our schools in the future. At the same time, we are learning from them about spiritual leadership, evangelism and discipleship as well.

V. Summer Celebration 2020—June 30-July 2, 2020

With all this in mind, I am excited to announce that Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration 2020 (Tuesday, June 30-Thursday, July 2, 2020) will focus upon, “Disciplemaking: The Jesus Who Would be King.” The theme lectures will be based upon David Young’s upcoming book to be released by Zondervan titled, “King Jesus: and the Beauty of Obedience Based Discipleship.” Our goal is to make Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28 our top priority in the years ahead.

Summer Celebration keynotes will include: David Young, Shodankeh Johnson, Buddy Bell, Anthony Walker, Leonard Allen, Dave Clayton, Bobby Harrington and special guests Dave Stone & Matt Reagan.

Summer Celebration will feature over 100 classes and seminars from people including Joseph Shulam, Jeff Walling, Lauren Calvin Cooke, Randy Harris, Ginger Ravella, John Mark Hicks, Rhonda Lowry, Mark Lanier, Uduak Afangideh, Steve Hemphill, Jessica Stern Foster and many more….

The keynote schedule is below and all messages are Live Streamed for those who just simply cannot be with us in person.

June 30 at 6:00 pm “King Jesus: Surrender to His Authority”

  • David Young, “King Jesus: What That Means”
  • Shodankeh Johnson, “King Jesus: Surrender to Him” (leader in Sierra Leonne)

July 1 at 9:00 am “Embrace the Mission of King Jesus”

  • Dave Stone, “Embracing the Mission” (guest from Southeast Christian)
  • Leonard Allen, “The Holy Spirit’s Work in Disciplemaking”

à Resource Class: Bobby Herrington of Renew.Org, “Seven Rhythms of Disciplemaking”

July 1 at 6:00 pm “Immerse Yourself in the Life of King Jesus”

  • Buddy Bell, “Immersed in the Life of King Jesus”
  • Matt Reagan, “Line in the Sand Moments” (guest from Southeast Christian)

July 2 at 9:00 am “Obey the Teachings of King Jesus”

  • TBA soon, “King Jesus Requires Obedience”
  • Anthony Walker, “Obedience to Disciplemaking is Evangelistic”

à Resource Class: Bobby Harrington, Shodankeh Johnson, “Prayer, Fasting and Disciplemaking Movements”

July 2 at 4:30 pm “Behold the Presence of King Jesus”

  • Dave Clayton, “The Powerful Presence of King Jesus”

In Conclusion…

We believe the future growth of the Churches of Christ will be tied to the churches committed to growing by making disciples as Jesus both did, and commanded. Strategically aligning, equipping and supporting the churches (both Churches of Christ and Nondenominational Churches) committed to this task is both an excellent Kingdom investment and also a winning strategy for Summer Celebration. We want the Summer Celebration program to lead churches into the pathways God is blessing so that more vibrant churches might emerge through our efforts and the Lord’s Holy Spirit blessing. This commitment will help churches stay rooted in the best of our past, and will also help schools like Lipscomb stay rooted to the practices and principles of New Testament Christianity which have formed disciples for over 2,000 years.

Please join us for Summer Celebration 2020! Early Bird registration runs through March 31, and we also have group rates for 5 rooms or more being reserved together. To find out more, visit our web site HERE.