Mission Lab

Sunnyvale church emphasizes ‘bottom-up’ approach to discipleship

June 5th, 2017 / By: Jane Rodgers | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

SUNNYVALE Pastor Adam Dooley once thought of discipleship as simply teaching the Bible in a “top-down approach.” Then his son Carson’s battle with leukemia coincided with “a difficult season of ministry” in another church, and Dooley’s notions of discipleship changed from “top-down” to “bottom-up.”

Dooley still believes in the primacy of preaching and the systematic study of Scripture, but for his church, Sunnyvale First Baptist, discipleship is now linked with accountability and small groups.

“I think discipleship is less today about learning more biblical truth and more about living out the biblical truths we do know,” Dooley said. “I wouldn’t go back to doing it the way I did before.”

More than 300 Sunnyvale members meet in small groups each week to pray, discuss Christian books, memorize Scripture and hold one another accountable to the disciplines of the faith, including evangelism. Groups meet both on and off the church campus. 

“We are seeing a lot of people come alive in their faith for the first time as a result,” Dooley said.

In its third year of the discipleship emphasis, Sunnyvale has more than half its adult population involved in groups.

“Our goal is to fully saturate the congregation with small groups,” Dooley said.

The goal is multiplication of ministry. Group leaders are charged with forming new groups each year. After a year together, group members recruit other to begin new groups.

While the small groups are “organic” in that leaders choose members, they also are highly organized with lists of recommended books to read and Scriptures to memorize.

Small group leaders are chosen, a practice that started during Dooley’s first year at the church. He first taught his staff the discipleship process, then staff members led the first groups from which the next generation of leaders emerged. Dooley now meets weekly with four other men who have covenanted to be in his group.

“We’re really not trying to teach people new things. We are just trying to engage them with what they know or have known, in some cases, for years.”

—Adam Dooley, pastor, Sunnyvale First Baptist

A disciple is “someone who makes other disciples,” Dooley said. “When they are clearly growing in their faith, we really try to push them out of the nest and encourage them to begin investing in other people.”

Discipleship groups typically last 12 months, with occasional interruptions. After a group ends, members disperse and form new groups. The church launched new groups in January, but the process is ongoing, with groups constantly ending and new groups beginning. 

The church’s discipleship model is based on Robby Gallaty’s books Growing Up: How To Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples and Rediscovering Discipleship: Making Jesus’ Final Words Our First Work, Dooley said, adding that small groups read books on prayer, church membership and Bible study in addition to learning to journal and to have quiet times.

“All of that is based on the idea that people are educated beyond their obedience,” Dooley explained. “We’re really not trying to teach people new things. We are just trying to engage them with what they know or have known, in some cases, for years.”

“I once believed that if I taught the Bible correctly, people would just naturally become disciples,” Dooley said. “The Holy Spirit can do that, but the Holy Spirit also works through accountable relationships with other believers. We see that pattern in Scripture.” 

In prior years, discipleship might have been a class offered at the church, Dooley said, but this has changed. 

“We really think it’s a way of life. You should always be looking for someone to invest in you. And you should always be looking to invest in other people. If you are constantly doing that, you are growing and the other people around you are growing. That is what we are trying to create around here.”