Can large, long-established churches move to a disciple-making core focus? What steps need to be taken? I recently caught up with Bart Shaw, Campus Pastor and Lead Discipleship Pastor at Traders Point Christian Church, a fast-growing, multisite, nearly 200-year-old church in the Indianapolis area. In this conversation, Bart describes many of the steps Traders Point is taking and some of the fruit they are seeing from this shift.
Q. Most church leaders would look at Traders Point Christian Church and be impressed by the number of attendees, number of campuses, etc. However, in your view, what are the metrics that matter most?
Yes, it is a big place for sure. We know we have many people coming in from bad church experiences, no church experience, and a variety of other places along that spectrum. While we do certainly look at a number of metrics to evaluate effectiveness, the large attendance numbers are just one small piece. More importantly to us are engagement metrics such as those baptized, connected in disciple-making environments, taking part in a variety of serving teams, and contributing through generosity.
In my seat, I serve as a Pastor over one of our campuses as well as our Lead Discipleship Pastor, overseeing disciple-making efforts for Traders Point at large. In that discipleship space, we also look at metrics regarding reproduction. For example, how many of our Rooted groups transition into ongoing small groups and stay together, as well as how many small groups and micro groups multiply into new groups?
We are also considering new metrics that might help tell us a more comprehensive story, such as tracking how many people are being baptized by non-staff, which can help us better gauge how we are empowering others and giving ministry away.
“More importantly to us are engagement metrics such as those baptized, connected in disciple-making environments, taking part in a variety of serving teams, and contributing through generosity.”
Q. How have you been able to align your leaders around a disciple-making focus?
As you know, it has to start with us! My primary objective has been to live it out myself first. I want to be about the work of disciple making. So I am constantly discipling others on staff and in the church body.
To support that endeavor, we have implemented a smaller micro group space (4-5 people) that is much higher accountability and is marked by obedience to Scripture. These groups have a clear objective of equipping and sending out participants to start new groups of their own in 6-8 months.
Another helpful change I’ve been able to make is to update the mission that our Discipleship and Groups ministry is aiming to fulfill: “to develop and deploy disciple makers.” It provides for us a target that is much more clear and helpful for our leaders in our 3 group spaces. We are working to better train and evaluate according to that mission. Still a ways to go, but those are the tracks we are now running on. If your mission is vague, then your execution will be as well. We are working to avoid that common pitfall.
“My primary objective has been to live it out myself first.”
Q. What strengths already within the DNA of Traders Point have made it easier to move toward a disciple-making focus?
There are many! Traders Point has a long history spanning nearly 190 years, and you don’t get that far without learning how to pass things on, reproduce yourself, and keep the main thing the main thing. So I am very aware that we are certainly standing on the shoulders of those who went before us and I am very grateful for that.
Another piece of that DNA is the focus on the centrality of God’s Word. God’s Word doesn’t change, therefore, it’s easier to follow and harder to ignore! Certainly, we are bound to miss the mark somewhere along the line, but our intention and goal is to be faithful and obedient to what He’s asked us to do. In doing so, there’s no way you can avoid the Great Commission, nor would we want to. So it has always been a part of who we are and what we do. The challenge lies in figuring out the best ways to contextualize it.
Lastly, I would say our leadership. We have great leaders here that care a lot about the lost and making disciples. While shifting more toward a disciple-making paradigm takes time and is difficult, progress is not stifled due to unwillingness or resistance from our leaders. From our Elders to Lead Pastor and down the line, our leaders don’t just care about the idea of making disciples, but more and more are becoming intentional with actually making them themselves! This is where the real work will be done, and fruit will be born as we continue to instill disciple-making DNA.
“Traders Point has a long history spanning nearly 190 years, and you don’t get that far without learning how to pass things on, reproduce yourself, and keep the main thing the main thing.”
Q. Are there any limitations within large churches that tend to make a disciple-making shift more difficult?
Absolutely. There are limitations in every church moving toward a disciple-making focus! Large or small, I think the vast majority of issues are the same. The way I see it, there are at least three primary challenges we all face.
- If everything is discipleship, often nothing is. I’ve seen and experienced this over the 20 years I’ve been in ministry. Churches that tend to call everything they do discipleship also tend to make the fewest disciples. There just isn’t enough clarity as to what they are making. There is no clear target or measure of success so they just kind of flounder in disciple-making efforts as they throw most things into one big bucket. It’s worth noting that it’s also possible to go to the other extreme, so therein lies a tension we as leaders need to navigate.
- You can’t do everything, but you also can’t do nothing. Many churches I’ve seen tend to fall into one of those extremes. When it comes to systems, tools, and resources, there is no shortage. Similar to the first point, if you create a buffet, it can be more confusing than helpful in your disciple-making efforts. While it’s great to have a variety of tools for a variety of churches, it can also be overwhelming and lead to a level of “analysis paralysis” for church leaders, resulting in them doing too many things, switching tools too quickly, or simply doing nothing with clarity or intentionality. In my view, churches ought to prayerfully adopt or build something that is intentional, clear, and multiplicative by design. And be sure to give it the time it needs to take hold.
“Churches ought to prayerfully adopt or build something that is intentional, clear, and multiplicative by design.”
- Disciple making must be a passion not a program. Let’s face it: making disciples is slow, often messy, and hard. Of course, there is fruit and joy to be had, but if making disciples is not a personal passion and conviction, then you’ll run out of gas pretty quickly. Any church that gets the order wrong will soon find that momentum will stall. Passion must precede program. Let’s also not fool ourselves: if we don’t live it and believe it, our people will know. You will ultimately replicate yourself. So start praying as a church/leadership for the conviction and passion to make disciples. This is your most important step; don’t neglect it!
While those 3 points apply to all churches, I would also say that in a very large context it simply takes more to change course. It’s much harder to change the direction of a cruise ship compared to a speedboat. So large churches need to be more focused on building momentum across teams. It simply requires more energy, collaboration, coordination, and often more time. But once it changes direction, it’s hard to stop!
Q. At what point did you start experiencing traction in the disciple-making shift?
To be honest, we are still beginning that shift. We’ve always cared about it, but we are getting clearer and more intentional. Much of what we are doing now is working to get our staff and leaders bought in with the conviction and mandate to go and make disciples by teaching them to obey Jesus. It’s just easier to say than it is to do, and as I mentioned previously, it takes time.
We are seeing the fruit of disciple making: people coming to faith, sharing their faith with others, taking steps of obedience, and disciples that are making more disciples. It’s just never quite as fast as we want. We do, however, hear more stories than we have previously heard. We see leaders prioritizing their time to invest in others to help them replicate. Most importantly, the more we pray about disciple making, the more it lives within us.
Q. Is there a point along the way where you and other leaders were tempted to say, “I miss the old the way of doing church”? How did you get past that?
We certainly haven’t thrown the baby out with the bathwater. I know of a couple churches that have, and it’s been a difficult and even devastating choice. We are really working to try and figure out how we contextualize and blend the best of what we currently do that is effective with the tried-and-true principles of disciple making from around the world. This is where the tension lies. It’s difficult and at times destructive to simply plug and play.
You need to know your church, people, culture, and context to make tools and strategies work. This is the hard work of a leader. We have always had, and will always have, people who want to go back to the “old way of doing church”, whether they are staff, leaders, or regular attenders. It’s our job as leaders to lead them to where they need to go, so I would say most of that challenge is on us as leaders to help pastor others through.
“We are really working to try and figure out how we contextualize and blend the best of what we currently do that is effective with the tried-and-true principles of disciple making from around the world.”
Resistance to change is a challenge that we constantly face in disciple-making efforts and otherwise. Resistance comes with the territory, but it is also a privilege to know that God called us to help His church navigate through it at this juncture in time. At the end of the day, what guides me most is the conviction that this is what we are called to do, and that is enough for me!