When Winfield Bevins planted Church of the Outer Banks in Nags Head, N.C., a creative beach community on the North Carolina coast, discipleship quickly became one of the biggest challenges facing the new, rapidly growing church. Out of his efforts to address the problem came what Bevins calls an “organic discipleship process for the 21st century–the focus of his free eBook, Grow: Reproducing Through Organic Discipleship, Bevins says that organic discipleship rests on four essentials. In this interview, he breaks down these four areas, sharing practical ways his church carries them out and ultimately has implemented a discipleship process that has the 7-year-old church growing both deeper and wider, spiritually and numerically.
When did you realize you had a discipleship problem?
We parachuted into the community, didn’t know anyone, literally started with five people meeting in a home. Within a short time, we grew to several hundred people. Discipleship quickly became one of the biggest challenges facing our new church because we were growing so fast and needed to raise up leaders, which we weren’t doing very well. I began to see that numbers don’t necessarily equate to good spiritual health. So we made the decision to focus on growing from the inside by developing disciples instead of just growing our church numerically. We realized that for us to be healthy and survive, we would need to develop a discipleship process that would 1) encourage new believers and 2) develop them into fully devoted disciples of Jesus. Out of that beginning and some of the books I was reading, these nuggets began to come out of the trial and error and the grit we were experiencing as we planted and built the church. That’s how the organic discipleship process originated.
How would you define organic discipleship? How do you distinguish it from other discipleship processes?
Organic discipleship is about learning the natural rhythms of discipleship within your church context and developing a discipleship process unique to your own setting. It’s not a program or curriculum.
When I started to study what Scripture says about discipling others, I realized just how much the Bible uses organic metaphors to describe spiritual growth: sowing and reaping, planting and watering, growing, bearing fruit. That resonated with me, and I began to think about the differences in “programming” discipleship vs. natural, organic growth that happens over time. We’re on an island and what might work in New York city or a larger city was not going to work for us. So we really tried to get back to the basic essentials of the Christian faith and focus on getting people to grow in their faith by getting them in the Scriptures. The simpler the process, the easier it was to make disciples. I’m not against programs per se. But programs end up kind of replacing the natural development of essential disciplines like reading Scripture and prayer. Programs are our manmade efforts to do what.
The Holy Spirit does what only God can do. That’s actually kind of one of the exciting things about discipleship. You never know what God’s doing in someone’s life in that time. When we first moved to the Outer Banks, I took a busload of people to a baseball game. I was the designated driver, and 10 of the people out of the 15-passenger bus eventually became Christians. One of them became our youth pastor. I led him to Christ about six months after that trip. The Lord, if we’re sensitive to His leading, will actually lead us to people whom he’s already working on. And so it becomes not us trying to save people and make something happen. Instead, it’s really us partnering with God in what He’s already doing in people’s lives, which if you think about it, is really exciting because God’s already at work around us.
So the organic approach is getting people back to just the simplicity of the Gospel, getting them back to the simplicity of just getting in the Bible and growing through the Word of God and fellowship.
Take us through the four essentials you say are integral to developing an organic discipleship process.
1) Gospel-centered. Being “Gospel-centered” means we are “grace-centered.” It means loving the people Jesus loves and reaching out to those rejected. A Gospel-centered church not only preaches the Gospel, but the Gospel must saturate every part of our church’s life. Each stage of our discipleship process should also be Gospel-centered. From assimilation to preaching and teaching, to counseling, to leadership development, the Gospel must be central. Even our worship should be Gospel-centered. Being Gospel-centered means that we focus on the simplicity of the message of Christ, keeping Him the center of all we do.
Without the Gospel, discipleship will become works-based and will eventually dry up and die. Church leaders can use church growth principles to add people to the church, but only the Gospel can grow people into disciples of Jesus Christ.
2) Mission. Mission is the outreach impulse of making disciples in community. Without it, discipleship would be inward-focused. Our mission begins with understanding that God is a sending God, with a desire to see humankind and creation reconciled, redeemed and healed.
Many Christians and churches teach and preach that missions are something we support or do, such as sending or supporting missionaries in other countries. This was the case 30 years ago. However in the 21st century, the mission field has come to us. We live in a post-Christian world where people simply don’t know the Gospel anymore. We are all called to be missional and share in the mission of God.
How does your church carry out the value of mission?
Our church has taught me the powerful meaning of being a missional community. In seven years, our church still doesn’t own a building. We are very much a community-oriented church. Keeping our members on mission is just a vital way to keep people growing and moving forward and sharing their faith.We’re currently involved in several community outreaches to reach unchurched people. We’ve adopted beach accesses that we clean once a month to show the community we care about the beaches. We began an art mentoring program that has reached hundreds of at-risk youth in our community and in South America. We’ve also hosted quarterly art shows that infuse art, music and coffee, and we opened an art gallery that hosts art shows and concerts to build bridges between the church and community.
3) Connectivity. The third element of the organic discipleship process is to develop pathways for people to build authentic Christ-centered community. The church community is the organic context in which disciples grow. Our role as leaders is to help facilitate connectivity and make sure it happens. As the church grows, it needs to shift from one to two leaders doing the ministry, but rather ministry should happen in community groups as people gather where they’re able to pray for each other and care for one another. If we’re going to make disciples for Christ in the 21st century, we have to discover, or rediscover, the power of biblical community.
4) Reproduction. There is no happier time than when a family is getting ready to have a baby. Likewise, churches are full of excitement and energy whenever they’re reproducing because they’re fulfilling their God-given purpose for existence. Reproduction is the ultimate goal of discipleship. We are called to select, train, and send missional disciples of Christ out in the world who will be able to repeat the process of discipleship.
Experts say that church planting is the No. 1 way to reach unchurched people and make new disciples for Jesus Christ. Church planters are modern-day missionaries to North America.
Are there other ways churches can get involved with planting aside from daughtering a church?
One of the ways we’ve been able to reproduce as a church is to encourage and sponsor and help coach other church planters as they’re planting churches. Planting a church can be a lonely business. Nearly 80 percent of all church plants fail within their first year. One of the primary reasons is a lack of emotional support. Meet with a church planter, pray with him and take him to lunch or coffee.
You also can help financially support a church plant. You can help pay a church planter’s salary for a year or partner with other churches in your region or community to plant a new church. You can also join a church planting network and get involved there.
If you’re really brave, you can encourage people in your church to be part of a new planter’s launch team or part of the core group when the church launches—basically releasing people on mission. Finally, you can get involved through replanting or church revitalization. Very few churches have the honesty and humility to admit that it’s over and even less have the courage to do what it takes to replant. I tell leaders to pray and ask God if He may be leading you and your church to help a church replant.
You say that one of the contributing factors to the lack of authentic, Gospel-centered discipleship in North America is evangelism at the expense of discipleship. What do you mean by that?
With the rise of the North American modern evangelical movement in the 20th century came an over-emphasis on evangelism at the expense of discipleship. The goal of evangelism is disciple making. When Jesus said, “Make disciples,” the disciples understood it to mean more than simply getting someone to believe in Jesus and they interpreted it to mean that they should make out of others what Jesus made out of them.
We need to bring evangelism and discipleship together. They’re really two sides of the same coin. We absolutely have to share our fatih with people but as we do, we’re discipling the people we’re winning to Christ. Christians have viewed discipleship as something they do on one hand and evangelism on the other. I think that’s another helpful discussion: When does discipleship actually take place? The discipleship process actually begins even before someone comes to Christ because you’re establishing and building relationships with people–many times, long before they even come to church. We need to rediscover the integration of evangelism and discipleship to fulfill the Great Commission and make 21st century disciples of Christ.
The second edition of Grow: Reproducing Through Organic Discipleship, features study guides and a new section on discipleship in the home. To download it and other free discipleship titles from national leaders, click here.
Lindy Lowry serves as Exponential’s editor and communications director. To submit ideas for articles and news coverage in Exponential’s weekly enewsletter, Church Planter Weekly, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.