Cityteam: When Discipleship Explodes

Cityteam's discipleship program has helped to plant more than 29,000 churches in 55 countries in slightly more than 12 years. (Facebook)

After two decades as a missionary and missions-minded pastor, Jerry Trousdale felt thoroughly discouraged about the prospect of seeing the Great Commission fulfilled in his lifetime. So for a while, he stepped away from ministry to work in Christian publishing. But even after returning to the pulpit, his vision didn’t come alive until church-planter David Watson spoke at Trousdale’s church in Tennessee.

Watson knew a thing or two about discouragement concerning the Great Commission’s fulfillment too. But after struggling mightily to make inroads with an unreached people group in Africa, Watson’s team finally saw breakthroughs, thanks to a “discovery Bible study” approach to discipleship that empowers normal folks to reach people in their community through a meaningful engagement with the Scriptures.

A Simple Force

The essence of this method is utilizing laypersons to reach the lost and then discipling them by using select Scripture passages. After meeting in small groups to discuss the Bible, facilitators ask questions like, “What is this saying? What will you do as a result?” The goal of such groups is to start other similar groups and plant churches and communities of believers who emphasize obedience to God’s Word.

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To the Western church, this may sound too simple. Yet disciple-making models have led to countless conversions of Muslims, Hindus and others—so many that the 67-year-old Trousdale is more excited than ever as he travels 160,000 miles a year, including several visits annually to Africa.

In addition to countless conversions, the former missionary has seen significant life changes. One example is Muslims in numerous African villages who, prior to conversion, decide to stop beating their wives after reading the Bible.

“It’s letting the Word of God change your life and family, which often begins to happens in five or six weeks,” Trousdale says. “The reason these things are going viral is people want what they see.”

A Model That Multiplies

A miracle story in itself, Cityteam originated as an inner-city mission in 1957 and gradually expanded its outreach to four other urban areas. In 1989, it established a disaster relief ministry in the San Francisco Bay Area that eventually expanded internationally.

However, its shift toward playing a major role in the discipleship movement started in 2002 after key leaders acknowledged that despite thousands of conversions and food boxes distributed annually, they were failing to make disciples.

Soon after, the ministry tried an experiment in one San Jose neighborhood. A leader moved into the area, and instead of tutoring children, he discipled 12 men to work with the students.

That created community transformation. A church of 160 people sparked to life. Nineteen couples who had been living together got married. One dealer stopped selling drugs, complaining that Cityteam had ruined his market.

A couple years later, Cityteam’s president, Patrick Robertson, met Watson and Trousdale, and the pair eventually joined Cityteam’s staff, Watson as vice president of global church planting and Trousdale as Cityteam’s director of international ministries. With an international staff of only 11 people, Cityteam has worked through a far-flung network that includes church planters working for little more than reimbursements for travel and Bible purchases.

Since 2005, the ministry has expanded into more than 50 nations and planted nearly 29,000 churches. Those congregations include nearly 1 million converts, 35 percent of which are Muslims.

Robertson recognizes such numbers prompt considerable skepticism. After an internal audit in 2011, Cityteam purged 5,000 churches from its rolls after discovering many had moved, merged or disbanded.

Nor does “church” necessarily mean a Western-style building where believers gather every Sunday. While most of Cityteam’s churches start in homes or marketplace settings, Robertson says the ministry’s insistence that converts go through believers’ baptism means they still fit the classic definition.

However, he recognizes cultural differences mean the discipleship model that works so well in African villages faces a more formidable challenge when it comes to persuading Western ministers to adapt to this approach.

“I wouldn’t call it resistance as much as significant unfamiliarity,” says Robertson, a graduate of a Bible college in western Canada. “It’s a paradigm shift and a completely new way of thinking about evangelism and disciple-making.”

A Hybrid Solution

Nondenominational Shoal Creek Community Church in Kansas City typically hosts 1,000 people each Sunday at seeker-friendly services fashioned after Willow Creek’s model. Yet a second group of members and visitors rarely see its four walls. That’s because they gather in small groups throughout the week to read the Bible, discuss it and share its lessons with their relational networks.

Roy Moran, senior pastor of the church, incorporated the disciple-making model into Shoal Creek’s church life in 2008, after searching three years for a way to expand the church’s outreach that didn’t involve more buildings or additional services.

“Having planted the church from six people in my living room, I was sure that I only had one of those [Shoal Creek churches] in me,” Moran writes in an essay called “Hybrid Church” that shares his church’s story.

After reviewing everything from multisites to missional communities to video venues, Shoal Creek settled on a discipling model because of its easily reproducible nature.

Over the past six years, Moran estimates the church has started 150 small groups in the community, with about 80 of them still active. Although tough to track conversion numbers, Moran knows nearly all of the church’s 30 baptisms annually are converts from these small groups.

Still, of the 100 pastors who have contacted him in recent years to learn more about his church’s approach to disciple-making, Moran estimates only 20 have acted on the concept. He thinks many find the idea of taking the Good News beyond their building too scary.

For leaders who are open to unconventional methods, though, Moran says these kinds of models can help churches practice the fundamental belief that God empowers every person to make disciples.

“This begins to put the average person with an extraordinary God into play,” the Shoal Creek pastor says. “This gives a pastor something to execute at a street level and a church to have an outreach. If a church can have this kind of mindset, its influence in the community can be profound.”

A Handful of Challenges

This doesn’t mean success is a given. Tony Williams discovered that truth three years ago when he tried to start a few groups in the trailer parks across the street from his church, Maranatha Christian Center.

Despite serving on Cityteam’s board for more than 20 years, Williams didn’t see its discipleship model bear any fruit just east of downtown San Jose. For one, he used veteran members of his church as leaders, which may have handicapped the process.

“The Western church is not used to this,” Williams says. “We’re better at giving answers instead of letting people discover them for themselves. We have to be careful to not present discovery Bible studies as a cure-all or the only way to reach people.”

A lot of people want a “sticks and bricks” representation of God, he says. While some will respond to a grass-roots Bible study, many see the church building not only as the primary worship center, but also as a community center. When people need a lawyer, psychologist, doctor or financial adviser, they come to the pastor first, Williams explains. He says that makes it challenging for a Bible study leader to make inroads with this new model, given he or she lacks the resources available to a pastor.

The obstacles Williams encountered is one reason he plans to attend Cityteam’s iDisciple conference, to be hosted at Shoal Creek Community Church from April 2-5—to hear what has worked for others and learn how he can adapt that to an urban environment.

“I saw it myself on the continent of Africa,” Williams says. “I want to see how it works at a local church.”

In addition to cultural obstacles, pastors should be aware others may question the reliance on untrained—sometimes even unsaved—small group leaders. They may also object to the principles or theological assumptions of the approach, especially the place of preaching in missions work.

One missions official, who asked to remain anonymous because he works in a sensitive region of the world, says critics of the discovery model cite its encouragement of nonbelievers discovering the gospel. Since an unregenerate person can’t have the Holy Spirit or apply proper hermeneutics, detractors believe they must be “told” the gospel by a pastor or missionary, he says.

“The interesting thing about this argument is most of the discovery groups are done in closed countries, where preaching is a moot issue,” the official said. “No one can preach. So in many ways, the argument is academic and limited to a Western paradigm.”

A Movement in the U.S.

While Cityteam has seen more success overseas, it is starting to see breakthroughs in the United States. Robertson and Dave Hunt, vice president of North American church planting, who wrote his 2009 doctoral thesis on church multiplication in Africa, recently met with leaders of a major denomination concerning Cityteam’s discipleship model.

Robertson says they’re also seeing movement in the Latino community, a Filipino church, a Native American tribe and a corner of academia. The latter is evidenced by the leader of a network of eight groups led by various university scholars attending a regional conference last November in Philadelphia.

Several megachurches have also held trainings. Among the results is what happened at Long Hollow Baptist Church in suburban Nashville, Tenn. Although only 20 people in the 9,000-member church attended a three-month discipleship training session last spring, Long Hollow’s staff decided to utilize discovery groups to take converts through eight key faith topics. They later expanded the invitation to others who sensed a need for spiritual renewal.

“Within six months, they had 2,000 people doing discovery Bible studies,” Robertson says. “They’re a strong, outreach-oriented church baptizing 1,000 people a year. They’re going outside of the church, too, which is ultimately what it needs to do. [They are] in the middle of an explosion.”

Jan Winters, pastor of discipleship at Calvary Church in Los Gatos, Calif., also offers an enthusiastic endorsement. In recent years, the 1,200-member church had tried Alpha courses and another small-group approach. However, after starting a dozen small groups and seeing several conversions, Winters struggled to increase group numbers. When she added one, another would fizzle.

Last summer, Winters met with Cityteam to learn how to organize groups that would develop disciples. Cityteam’s emphasis on prayer impressed Winters, who found herself praying more and listening for God’s direction. When the elders embraced these studies without any prompting, she recognized God’s movement in it.

Winters led her first discovery study on marriage with a couple seeking marital advice after an affair left the husband emotionally distant and the wife hurt and isolated. The couple reconciled, and new biblical insights helped them avoid a financial disaster.

“I have found the process thrilling,” Winters says. “It has deepened my spiritual life, as God has been directing me. We have a large team embracing this model. People are coming to me, asking what I am doing rather than me pushing any initiative.”

Trousdale recalls hearing similar comments in many other quarters of the world.

“The Word of God and the drawing of the Holy Spirit are enough,” he says. “Too often people think they must have a church to understand and obey the Word. Our goal is to see discipleship happening outside the local church.” 

 A freelance writer from Huntington, W. Va., Ken Walker has written regularly for Ministry Today and Charisma for 20 years.

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