A look into the dissertation of Ph.D. student Steven Chambers

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By J. Gerald Harris

FAYETTEVILLE – Steven Chambers is the associate pastor of Woolsey Baptist Church in Fayetteville. He is currently working on a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary under the direction of Chuck Lawless. The academic rigor of a Ph.D. is incredibly challenging and brutally demanding. First of all, a student must have an extremely high grade point average to get in a Ph.D. program. On an average it takes twice as long to complete a Ph. D. as it does a bachelor’s degree. The doctoral dissertation is a comprehensive thesis, often consisting of hundreds of pages, requiring extensive research, and must essentially become the magnum opus of the doctoral student and ultimately defended before a committee of professors.

Steven Chambers

Chambers allowed The Christian Index to look into his dissertation entitled “An analysis of the relationship between certain predictor variables and disciple making levels among SBC churches in Georgia.” Since it is a Georgia Baptist-centric study, we thought pastors and lay leaders just might want to get a doctoral student’s view on disciple making. Here is the interview:

The Christian Index: For those who may not be familiar with the requirements necessary to complete a Doctor of Philosophy degree what is a doctoral dissertation?

 Steven Chambers: In some ways, a doctoral dissertation resembles a term paper that a college student may write at the end of the semester. Dissertations cover a wide spectrum of information. At the same time, though, they are like a high school science project that aims to answer one specific question. In this sense, doctoral dissertations attempt to ask and answer specific research questions. After preliminary research, data collection, and analysis, the dissertation should uniquely add to the wide body of knowledge currently available.

The Christian Index: What was the motivation or inspiration that led you to write your dissertation on “An analysis of the relationship between certain predictor variables and disciple making levels among SBC churches in Georgia,” and what did you hope to accomplish through your research and evaluations?

Steven Chambers: On any given Sunday, most Southern Baptist Churches today keep a variety of records such as financial contributions and attendance. Although helpful to know, these numbers seem distant at best from Jesus’ command and the New Testament’s church mission to make disciples. If the primary focus of the church concerns disciple making, leaders in the Christian church need to be thinking critically about which one or ones of the current records are most directly associated with disciple making. This research asked and attempted to answer the question: which measurements relate to disciple making and which ones do not.

The Christian Index: You concluded that there are five characteristics of disciple making churches. What are those characteristics and how did they manifest themselves in disciple making churches? Was one characteristic more dominate in effective disciple making churches than the others?

Steven Chambers: After careful study of the New Testament and scholarly research, five characteristics of disciple making churches emerged. These characteristics include churches being:

  • First, guided by God’s Word – Being guided by God’s Word means that the pastor affirms the exclusivity of Christ, the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, agrees with and preaches in alignment with the Baptist Faith and Message, and exegetes and applies the biblical text in sermons.
  • Second, marked by evangelistic fervency – Being marked by evangelistic fervency entails that the pastor explains the gospel during sermons, regularly presents the gospel to unsaved people and calls them to respond, believes the responsibility lies with the church, rather than para-church organizations, to proclaim the gospel to the unsaved, and trains members to personally evangelize.
  • Third, united by authentic relationships – Being united by authentic relationships demands that relationships with one another in the church inspire spiritual growth and mutual accountability, the pastor prioritizes connecting members with other members in meaningful relationships, members of the church spend time with one another outside regular scheduled events and meeting times, and members meet to pray and talk about the Bible in addition to regularly scheduled events.
  • Fourth, identified by regenerate church membership – Being identified by regenerate church membership stresses that the pastor believes baptism by immersion is requisite for membership, intentionally asks prospective members about their understanding of salvation, invests time in one-on-one relationships with members, seeks to know the people’s spiritual condition within the church, regularly calls the members of the church to repent of sin, and leads the church to practice church discipline when necessary.
  • Fifth, branded by a discipling strategy – Being branded by a discipling strategy implies that the pastor can articulate a disciple-making strategy for the church, believes disciple-making is the responsibility of all Christians, equips the membership for ministry, and invests time discipling specific people in the church.

The research revealed that the Lord has indeed been faithful to Georgia Baptists. Among the sample of the population, Georgia Baptist churches scored very high on their disciple making score. In fact, among these churches, the first characteristic of a disciple making church, being guided by God’s Word, ranked noticeably higher than the other four. Alongside the faithfulness of God, Georgia Baptists and other SBC churches are indebted to former leaders of the Conservative Resurgence. Although distant in the memories of a younger generation, the men and women who stood up for the authority of the Bible in a time of theological liberalism left a lasting impact on the lives of countless Southern Baptists and beyond.

The Christian Index: After having collected the data and analyzing it what were you able to conclude from your research?

Steven Chambers: Georgia Baptist pastors responded to a two-part survey. Part one evaluated the disciple making level of each church. Using a 5-point scale, the survey asked pastors to self-evaluate their agreement or disagreement with various manifestations of the five disciple making characteristics. The responses resulted in a “disciple making score” for each church. Overall, Georgia Baptist churches ranked very high on this disciple making score. Part two asked pastors to record some of the common measurements used in churches.

Over a dozen measurements (or predictor variables) were tested with the purpose of determining whether any significant relationship existed between the disciple making score and these measurements. Going back to the main question, the goal of this research was to determine whether our common measurements in churches tell us about the New Testament vision of disciple making. Some of these measurements the survey asked about are listed below.

  • Number of years that the senior/lead pastor has led the church
  • Presence or absence of a Sunday evening worship service, Sunday school classes, and/or small groups
  • Total membership
  • Average weekly attendance
  • Total baptisms
  • Total mission participants
  • Total number of churches planted

Using advanced statistical software, the research looked for a relationship between the disciple making score and each measurement.

The Christian Index: What was the primary correlation between disciple making churches and the various predictor variables?

Two relationships with statistical significance existed. First, the statistical procedure used to test the data demonstrated a positive relationship between a church’s disciple making score and the total number of baptisms within the past 12 months. Second, a positive relationship existed between a church’s disciple making score and the total number of churches planted. None of the other measurements exhibited significant correlation with a church’s disciple making score.

The Christian Index: How can the average Georgia Baptist church benefit from your dissertation?

Steven Chambers: This research can benefit the average Georgia Baptist church by leading them to: (1) understand disciple making better, (2) avoid majoring on minors, and (3) focus on wholistic disciple making.

First, “discipleship” can be a nebulous term. Yet this research can help any church better understand disciple making in the local church by giving leaders five specific benchmarks to measure the church they serve. Reading, digesting, and contextualizing these five characteristics of being a disciple making church will provide churches and their leaders with handle bars to grasp what disciple making looks like in the local church.

Second, the research can help a church avoid majoring on minors. A physician looks at a patient’s vitals to determine what course of action to take. A battery of other tests can provide additional information. However, a person’s vital signs offer a major assessment of a patient’s health. Similarly, churches need to focus on its vital signs rather than other, minor tests. This research indicates that most of the records we keep are not the most important ones to evaluate disciple making.

Third, the research can help a church to focus on wholistic disciple making, starting with evangelism. Disciple making churches must begin with evangelism, trusting the Lord to give the spiritual fruit of baptism. But disciple making cannot end with baptizing new believers. Paul writes to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2 the following instructions: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In other words, Paul envisions a type of discipleship that passes the baton from one generation to the next. Discipleship must start with evangelism, but it must also end with multiplication. This research can help churches focus on wholistic disciple making.

Chambers plans to defend this dissertation and graduate from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in the spring of 2018. If you would like to know more about doctoral dissertations or Steven Chambers’ dissertation in particular, he welcomes your inquiries and invites you email him at stevenchambers82@gmail.com or give him a call at 404-679-0454.

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