Crabtree Issues Discipleship Challenge
Retiring Assistant General Superintendent Charles T. Crabtree Thursday night told General Council attendees they must take discipleship more seriously if the Assemblies of God is going to be viable in the future.
Citing the current abysmal retention rate of new Christians in churches, a vibrant Crabtree cautioned those gathered to retool methods if current models aren’t working.
At Conseco Fieldhouse, Crabtree made an impassioned plea for listeners to apply a sevenfold discipleship strategy that he outlined.
For the past 14 years, Crabtree, 69, has been second in command to General Superintendent Thomas E. Trask. Crabtree came into the assistant post after serving six years as director of the Decade of Harvest, an aggressive evangelism effort by the Assemblies of God in which five million people made decisions to accept Christ as Savior.
Yet statistics are a two-edged sword, Crabtree noted with grief. While the U.S. Assemblies of God recorded 5,339,144 salvation decisions in the decade ending in 2005, Sunday morning attendance during the same period grew only 221,790. That spells a new convert retention rate of just 4.2 percent, not counting transfers from other bodies and natural population growth. Such low numbers are a failure in fulfilling the Great Commission, according to Crabtree. “No one can say with integrity that we keep more than one in a hundred,” Crabtree somberly said. “That’s not acceptable. It must not continue. We’re doing something wrong. Decisions being made are not authentic.”
Crabtree stressed that pastors and lay leaders must explain to individuals making a salvation decision that it should make a life-changing difference. Those who fail to be integrated into the life of the body will perish spiritually, he said. Too often Christianity in American culture results in no-cost discipleship, a deceptive faith and lip service to a God of convenience, he said.
Established Christians should want to train Christ-like, Spirit-empowered disciples who are not ashamed of the gospel and love God more than the world or anything in it, Crabtree said. Pentecostal leaders need look no further than the New Testament church to find a cutting-edge prototype.
The New Testament church model resolves ethnic problems, meets social needs with compassion ministries, resolves high budget costs, provides for Holy Spirit-anointed ministries and equips the church with every kind of gift needed to make up for human inability, Crabtree said.
As in the New Testament, ministry needs to happen more than in a building on a Sunday morning, according to Crabtree. Church shouldn’t just be left to a pastor behind a pulpit, but must involve laity ministering to fellow believers throughout the week, he said.
“We have pretty much placed Jesus under house arrest in a time capsule on Sunday morning,” Crabtree asserted.
Laity cannot be idle spectators while pastors burn themselves out, Crabtree stressed. Nurturing new believers must be a priority in churches, many of which have no follow-up program once someone has raised that hand or walked that aisle, he said.
The assistant general superintendent related a sad account involving a member of a committee he recently chaired. The committee member told about how his brother had accepted Christ as Savior. The committee member called seven congregations in the city where his brother lived in another state, even identifying himself as a pastor. Two churches didn’t return his phone calls. Three responded that they had no discipleship program in place and had no plans to start one. The other two had a class for new believers, but suggested it would be up to the new Christian to make the first move; they didn’t want to be bothered making such an investment of time.
Crabtree explained that the committee member’s brother isn’t in church today. He became distrustful of church because none seemed interested at his point of spiritual hunger.
Crabtree chastised churches for bragging about salvation decisions when there is no effort to mentor the new believers. Pastors cannot love crowds and hate individuals, he said.
“Anyone who thinks a new Christian can survive in a hostile spiritual culture without tender, loving care is entertaining a fantasy,” Crabtree said.
He asked out of the five million people who made decisions for Christ in Assemblies of God settings in a decade how many are lost to the Kingdom because of a lack of care. “We do not need expensive programs, we need a new love,” he said.
Crabtree commented that 70 percent of those who are filled with the Holy Spirit don’t do anything about it afterwards. Pentecostals shouldn’t be so enamored with the initial physical evidence that they ignore the importance of being guided daily by the Holy Spirit.
Young people are understandably cynical of speaking in tongues if it is only a dead-end experience that qualifies someone for office, Crabtree declared. If they see people being healed by the power of the Holy Spirit, it will change their outlook, he said.
Retaining Christians means not letting them slip through the cracks at important transitional phases in life according to Crabtree, who, as assistant general superintendent, has overseen the Division of Church Ministries, which includes all adult, youth and children outreaches of the Fellowship.
The loss of disciples between high school and college and between college and career is staggering, he said. Crabtree commended the evangelism and discipleship role that Chi Alpha plays at secular colleges and universities, but noted that the outreach is available at only 250 of the more than 4,000 campuses in the country.
Sunday School remains one of the best discipleship forums in the Assemblies of God, Crabtree declared. More than 1 million attend an Assemblies of God Sunday School on a weekly basis—up 1.2 percent in the past decade. However, Sunday School enrollment no longer rivals church attendance as in past decades. Simply using flannel boards and dryly reciting a lesson from a quarterly without feedback may not be enough to teach these days.
Just because the traditional Sunday School has worked effectively in the past is no guarantee it will work in the future unless new approaches are incorporated to meet contemporary needs, said Crabtree, whose new book is Transformational Discipleship. Effective Sunday Schools in the 21st Century will need well-trained, anointed teachers who are able to use technology.
Traditionally, according to Crabtree, Sunday School hasn’t been relational enough, either inside or outside the church, to provide mentoring. The days of simply attending a class to listen to a lecture with no interaction, discussion and opportunities for wholesome fellowship are in the past, Crabtree stated.
While the fundamentals of the faith don’t change, new methods should be incorporated to speak to a changing culture, Crabtree suggested.
Christians shouldn’t be so set in their ways that they refuse to believe that God can reach a younger generation with different methods, Crabtree said. For instance, while he prefers pipe organs and robed choirs, he understands that avenue of worship isn’t thrilling to many younger people—and that he can set aside preconceived notions of what entails genuine faith. Crabtree appealed to the Fellowship to show respect for different approaches and creative methods.
Crabtree said he is appalled at the lack of respect of supposedly Spirit-filled believers who denigrate worship styles and new innovative ministries or programs. “It is time to stop worrying about the non-essentials,” he said. “It’s time to loose this church.”
This isn’t the time to dwell on past mistakes of failing to integrate new converts into the body of Christ, Crabtree said. The statistics of the Assemblies of God can’t be readjusted.
But it is the right time for repentance, and to get real about discipleship that is motivated by love rather than recording numbers, according to Crabtree.
In leading the assembled who came forward for an altar call, Crabtree asked God through the Holy Spirit to truly make Jesus the Lord of the Fellowship. “A sea of change must take place in the Assemblies of God beginning tonight,” he said.
In introductory remarks, General Superintendent Thomas E. Trask commended Crabtree for a legacy that will last many years.
“It’s been a wonderful run,” Crabtree said. “You’re a great bunch of brothers and sisters.”