Qualitative Research on Discipleship in the SPD

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Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. – Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)

As Jesus ascended into Heaven, having wrapped up His work on earth, His final words were ones of not only comfort but also of instruction. He commanded His followers to make disciples. And extraordinarily, Jesus’ final words still impact us today. For had it not been for the early believers following His instructions, none of us would ever have heard the good news of salvation.

Jesus’s direction to make disciples is still important for us today, as discipleship remains an integral part of the Christian experience. There are still many who have not heard the name of Jesus, and have not been given the chance to accept the gift of salvation He offers (see a previous blog to learn more.) But how effective are Adventists when it comes to making new disciples? Not to baptizing, which is only a subsidiary part of the Great Commission, but to making disciples which is at its heart?

In 2014, the South Pacific Division (SPD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church commissioned a research team from Avondale College of Higher Education to investigate the nature of discipleship. The aim of the research project was twofold: to provide an objective description of a Seventh-day Adventist disciple of Jesus, and to provide criteria by which the attainment of discipleship may be measured and shared in the context of the Church’s mission. Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected as part of this project. The qualitative methodology included individual interviews.

These interviews were conducted over telephone calls with international church leaders across Divisions and Unions. The interviewees were asked a series of four questions pertaining to discipleship:

  • Does your Division/administrative context have a working definition of a Seventh-day Adventist disciple of Jesus?
  • How do you measure discipleship in your Division/administrative context?
  • Does your Division/administrative context currently use discipleship resources? If so, what are they? If not, do you have plans for this area?
  • Do you have any other comments you would like to add about discipleship in your Division/administrative context?

Interestingly, although the mission statement of the Adventist church explicitly declares that discipleship is the main focus and priority of the Church, approximately half of the leaders interviewed indicated that they were not aware of a working definition of “discipleship” despite acknowledging that discipleship is something they are “involved in” as church leaders, and that gaining new disciples is their “priority in working for the church.”

Also, while many of the leaders were able to articulate a personal definition of discipleship, they were unable to define what this might look like corporately – specifically in relation to the church. This finding reveals that the transference of personal conviction into the professional domain should not be assumed; it is something on which Adventist church leaders may need more coaching.

Many times, church membership numbers and baptisms have been used as tools for measuring discipleship, and in many parts of the world, the number of people baptized is going up. However, leaders revealed in their interviews that there is no sophisticated method for tracking how many of these members are “active,” or whether newly baptized members maintained their membership past the first year in the Church. In this context, a theme that came to light frequently was the concern over “true conversion” – one that results in a real, lasting relationship with Jesus Christ.

The interviews also revealed that many leaders are not familiar with Adventist resources available to aid the discipleship process; or, if they are aware, they are unsure of how to access them. Many of the leaders said that they had created their own resources, or had obtained them from the Internet. While these may have value, it means there is a lack of consistency at the corporate level, revealing the need for a direct, targeted approach to discipleship across the worldwide Church.

After global interview, the research team followed up with a qualitative study across the SPD interviewing presidents, SPD departmental directors, and pastors. Twenty-eight participants out of 76 contacted took part in the study. They provided their personal definition of discipleship, and 24 of them shared eight corporate measurement tools they use for discipleship.

Key needs that emerged from the SPD qualitative study included: accurate active church membership data; communication across church entities on definition on discipleship and measurement tools; leaders linking personal discipleship to their church employment and role; a collective, whole-Church approach; and the retention of church members, especially the recently baptized.

 While it is clear that Adventist leadership worldwide and in the SPD are eager to follow Christ’s instructions on discipleship, it is also evident that there are deficiencies in the implementation process. Many of the findings from this qualitative study reveal that a clear directive – as well as targeted resources – from a corporate level would be helpful to leaders at every level.

As stated before, a second phase of this study was completed using a quantitative survey tool; this tool examined factors that impact personal discipleship. How did the findings of this survey correlate with the qualitative findings? Our next blog will take a look at just that!


Created in collaboration with the Institute of Church Ministry.