Bob Perry recalls the approach Southern Baptist churches used two or three generations ago to making disciples – or at least making more knowledgeable and committed Baptists.
"Baptist Training Union served my generation of young Baptists very well," Churchnet’s congregational health team leader said in an email interview. "It provided a participatory, age-graded learning process."
While Sunday School Òprovided a systematic program of Bible learning, BTU was an informal learning process that involved learners in leading the sessions," Perry explained. "Participants were assigned ‘parts’ to give.
"Children and youth got early experience in speaking in public and leading a group for a few minutes on Sunday evenings," he said. "Some would just read their ‘part,’ but others learned to highlight, summarize and present the material in a more natural way."
The subjects usually had to do with discipleship issues related to daily life, he said. "All of the things that Christians needed to learn that might not be covered in a Bible study were possible subject matter," he added. "We learned about Baptist beliefs and church history, church polity, Christian disciplines and life lessons."
For all the good it did, Church Training gradually ceased to exist.
"I believe CT was effective in its time," Perry said. "But times change, the availability of people for a Sunday evening learning experience changed, and the church is still struggling to find effective ways of accomplishing discipleship in this new world.
"I think that what is missing in many churches these days is the systematic discipleship of believers," he said. "When Sunday night Training Union died out, it was not replaced with much of anything."
One of Perry’s fellow Churchnet team leaders, Jeanie McGowan of the leadership development team, says discipleship is an area that she finds many churches only seem to address through their Bible teaching, "and even then it is often not seen as coaching for being a better disciple, but rather as gaining Bible knowledge for personal satisfaction.
"Consequently, there are those sitting in our pews who still don’t connect the dots between what happens on Sunday morning with their life the rest of the week," she said.
Hard questions that affect attitudes and "walking the walk" are often never discussed. "While there is no quick fix for this, there are some great resources for developing a better discipleship for a church," she added.
Churchnet recommends various resources for helping churches improve their leadership and discipleship efforts, among them free online webinars. Interested participants need only register online to receive instructions for connecting to the live presentation.
In addition, Churchnet maintains lists of effective resources that anyone can recommend, along with reviews submitted by users of those resources, all available to anyone who accesses the website.
McGowan said the organization also encourages congregations to take advantage of on-site consultation and training. Churchnet also provides scholarships for the Willowcreek’s Global Leadership Summit each August at various locations across Missouri.
Congregations do not have to already have a relationship with Churchnet; any church can request assistance at no charge, she said.
"If contacted by a church, we respond quickly and are very willing to assist in any way they might need – onsite training or workshops, coaching help by phone and/or email, or information about upcoming training events," she said.
"If a request is specific enough to require individual coaching/mentoring, we will set that up," she said. "If a workshop is requested, we encourage the church to invite other churches in the area that might be interested in having the training also."
Members of the Churchnet staff or other qualified leaders may lead training. "We have done specific age-group training for preschool/children and also for adults in Bible teaching and training," McGowan explained.
To inquire about assistance, visit www.churchnet.org or contact McGowan directly at email@example.com or 573-353-6663.
Perry believes one challenge congregations have to address in the 21st century is consistency in discipleship training.
"Some churches have tried short-term seminars, small group book studies and other approaches to these kinds of learning experiences, but most have had a hard time maintaining an organized and consistent approach to discipleship," he said.
"We cannot expect the church to fully fulfill its commission without effective ways of helping people learn and grow in their faith," Perry said. "After we convert and baptize people, we are to ‘teach them to observe all the things that Christ commanded.’ That requires instruction in spiritual disciplines and the challenge to grow in one’s relationship with Christ and the church.
"We try to network resources, help churches find curriculum resources and offer training for leaders of local churches," Perry said of Churchnet’s approach.