Unsticking the point of paralysis in the Australian Church

Dale Stephenson shares practical tools on sharing our faith and building discipleship

Pastor Dale Stephenson’s passion for building a culture of discipleship has been fortified over the decades, with many Christian leaders referring to him as ‘the discipleship guy’. He serves as senior pastor to Australia’s largest Baptist multi-campus church, Crossway Baptist, which has seven campuses in Victoria, and one new campus in New South Wales.

“I’m Victorian-born, from a multi-generational, secular Australian family. I was high achieving in some ways and quite broken in other ways. I also had this growing anti-Christian atheism,” says Stephenson.

Everything changed in year 12 when a sincere Christian friend encouraged Stephenson to start reading the Bible and attending church, which ultimately led to a profound conversion experience.  Stephenson became a believer and then a Christian apologist, travelling overseas and preaching and ministering in the streets and youth hostels. He attended Bible school in the north of England, where he met his wife, Edi, with whom he has been in Christian ministry for 38 years, including a season of serving as missionaries in Israel.

A passion for discipleship culture

In 2009, the Crossway leadership team took “a fresh look at how Jesus made disciples, at how disciple-making movements around the world did it,” says Stephenson. The church embarked on a transformative journey of changing its language and practices which led to a notable increase in the number of people making first-time salvation decisions.

His key point is that discipleship is not only post-conversion but should include discipling people to salvation.

“It takes 100 worshipping Christians showing up on a weekend for a full year to see one person put their trust in Jesus for the first time. That’s why we’re in a seventh decade of decline.”

At Crossway, there is a laser-like focus on discipling people to faith and a life of faith.“For 14 years, we’ve had about 10 per cent of people attending Crossway services would put their trust in Jesus for the very first time. Last year it was around 13-14 per cent.”

Stephenson believes that while a healthy annual rate of church growth might be 5 per cent rate, Australian churches as a whole are growing at only 1 per cent.

“It takes 100 worshipping Christians showing up on a weekend for a full year to see one person put their trust in Jesus for the first time. That’s why we’re in a seventh decade of decline,” he says.

The five Vs of culture curation

For a church to be fruitful, Stephenson believes its leaders need to take responsibility for curating a noble culture. He compares this to the work of a greenskeeper at a golf course, who tends it by removing weeds, raking the bunkers, mowing the grass, looking after the trees, and so on. Similarly, church leaders must actively refine and nurture their congregation’s culture.

At Crossway, they describe five Vs of culture curation. “These are your Vision, Values, ministry Vehicles (how you do ministry, your programs), Vocabulary (developing specific language related to discipleship and disciple-making), and what you eValuate,” explains Stephenson.

These tools help craft an aspirational culture that inspires people. “Cultural statements are always aspirational, not dissimilar to vision. You don’t just describe your current reality; you start to form something that’s noble and beautiful,” he says.

“We commit in one direction and we retain that commitment for a long time. It’s not a destination, it’s a mindset.”

Leaders must be willing to gently correct behaviours that go against culture, not harshly but in love.

Cultural change is slow, he points out. It requires commitment and consistency, or it will drift. “We commit in one direction and we retain that commitment for a long time. It’s not a destination; it’s a mindset.”

Everyone gets to play

One of Stephenson’s core beliefs is that the mission of God is in the hands of ordinary people. He takes that language from Acts 4:13, where Peter and John were brought up before the Sanhedrin. The religious leaders realised that they were ‘unschooled and ordinary men’, but they could tell that they’d been with Jesus. The Greek words for “unschooled”, “ordinary” are agrammatos idiōtēs – literally, unlettered or unlearned.

“It concerns me when Western Christianity reduces the average Christians’ participation in the mission of God back to just being able to invite someone to something,” says Stephenson.

Crossway provides training for people who want to disciple a friend to faith by reading the Bible with them. “We call it ‘Discovery Bible method’. No books involved except the Bible and you discover things together,” he explains, stressing that making disciples should be so simple that anyone, anywhere, anytime, can do it.

Our modern Goliath

And yet, says Stephenson, Australian Christianity is stuck when it comes to leading others to faith. “We are closer to paralysed than stuck … it is the trauma that has infected the vast majority of Australian Christians. They have tried and failed and their self-narrative has become, ‘I can’t’ because they don’t know how to.”

“It is a real revolution for Christians when they discover that they can disciple others to faith, and it is very simple.”

Dumping the gospel on an unsuspecting passerby and asking for a response spontaneously rarely works, which leads to an internal narrative of “I can’t share my faith.” Like Goliath with David, we taunt and discourage ourselves.”It is a real revolution for Christians when they discover that they can disciple others to faith, and it is very simple,” says Stephenson.

Discovery Bible method: look for a person of peace

Discipleship through reading the bible together

Crossway’s “Discovery Bible method” involves first identifying a “person of peace” in one’s social circle or community. “Jesus used this language when he sent out the 12 and the 72 in Luke’s Gospel. “When you go into a village, when you speak the blessing of the kingdom, there will be a person of peace. They will show you hospitality,” says Stephenson. “They’ve got their head tilted. They’re asking questions. We could summarise it as they like you.”

Look for the hallmarks of where God is already active, and then join God in the work he is already doing by inviting that person of peace to read the Bible with you. “You could say, ‘I’m looking for someone to read the Bible with. I don’t know whether you’d be interested?’ It’s not a deal breaker if they say no. If they’re a person of peace, they will respond and say, I would love to do that with you,” says Stephenson. You read a short passage, preferably a narrative passage, a couple of times out loud. Then you retell the passage from memory collectively and ask, ‘What stands out for you?’

The challenge for Christians at this point is not to demonstrate their knowledge. “If we go into teaching mode, our friend will be impressed, but they’ll say to themselves, I could never do that.” Instead, we should do only what they can do. “Level the playing ground so that you’re both discovering at the same rate. Then the person will say to themselves, ‘This is easy; this is enjoyable. I really like doing this,” says Stephenson.

This approach resembles an apprenticeship, where the more experienced believer models reading the Bible and prayer and the ‘apprentice’ practises the skills in a safe and judgment-free space. Stephenson emphasises the importance of keeping your discussions and prayers simple to build the confidence of the pre-Christian person. It’s also important to provide an appropriately calibrated challenge such as, ‘What could we do differently in our lives with what we’ve discovered today?’

Crossway congregation members have enjoyed great engagement in reading the Bible with friends and colleagues. Some have started small groups with pre-Christian people, who have brought along their friends, partners and family to read the Bible together. “The benefit of doing it as a group is that people feel safe. The pre-Christian person feels secure because they’re in the majority,” says Stephenson.

If a person decides to follow Jesus through this process, they will already know how to do this with someone else.

Renewal at a church level

Crossway church provides discipleship resources and training to churches across Australia in the belief that no Christian flourishes in isolation.

Stephenson leads three initiatives to support and equip around 165 churches across 14 denominations. The Coach initiative focuses on community mentoring, Empowered Faith Communities focuses on making disciples among marginalised and disadvantaged people and Building a Discipling Culture focuses on building a discipling culture in churches.

“Once this approach to discipleship gets into the culture of a church and into the fabric of an individual, it’s like scales fall off your eyes and there’s no going back,” he encourages.