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DownLine: Discipleship with Depth

by Randall Murphree
January 26, 2006
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(AgapePress) - - Youth, optimism, calling and passion ooze out of Kennon Vaughan, founder of DownLine Ministries in Memphis, Tennessee. Vaughan is humbled, and not a little overwhelmed, that God has called him to a ministry with widespread implications for the Body of Christ.

DownLine is a discipleship program that will train Christian men to disciple younger believers, men from age 23 to 37. At this stage in its infancy, DownLine is a story of both the ministry and the man God has tapped to lead it.

Vaughan displays not only zeal, but also patience and wisdom that belie his 27 years. His eyes sparkle with excitement and his voice rises with optimism. But it is his focus and the depth of his insight that make him an impressive voice for the new ministry. However, as a struggling young believer, Vaughan didn't always have such focus.

Kennon Vaughn
"I grew up in a home with somewhat of a Christian influence, but definitely not your standard Bible-belt, Southern Christian household," he said. "My mother was raised Jewish. My father's side of the family was not religious." When they could not find a rabbi to perform their marriage, they found a local pastor who developed a relationship with them and was able to share the Gospel with Vaughan's mother.

Vaughan's mother eventually became a Christian and took the young Kennon and his two sisters to church at Christ United Methodist in Memphis. Vaughan was confirmed in that church. A major element in his relationship to his dad was sports -- both were avid athletes.

At age 13, he went to Kanakuk Kamp, a Christian sports camp. "All these college athletes were our counselors," he said. "Chris Creighton, a quarterback in the Central Football League at the time, shared the Gospel very clearly. It was the first time I understood what sin was. I prayed with Chris that night [to receive Christ]." But hardly any follow-up occurred and Vaughan grew very little.

His dad's death when Vaughan was in high school motivated him to search for meaning in his faith. He began to attend church youth groups and retreats and study the Bible for the first time.

God would also use Vaughan's passion and gifting in athletics to mold him into the leader he is today. He tried to put together a baseball career at Auburn University, and when things didn't work out, he transferred to Vanderbilt, where he played briefly as a Commodore. Though his college career did not develop as he hoped, baseball gave Kennon the opportunity to travel one summer with Athletes in Action, a U.S.-based ministry that takes sports -- and the Gospel -- around the world.

He remembers one game in Africa: "I think it was a defining moment in my life, when things started to make sense for me spiritually. One night, our chaplain reminded me it was my turn to share the Gospel after the game. I didn't feel like I was one of those who should be out there sharing."

He knew that his teammates were much better prepared than he was to share Christ, but God used his short and simple testimony to bring a number of people to Christ that night. In that moment, Kennon resolved never again to be a "casual" Christian. For his senior year of college, he transferred back to Auburn motivated by a deep desire to return and establish a stronger witness for Christ.

Genesis of a Vision
Growing up, Vaughan knew that he needed more than was available to him as a Christian teenager and young college student. After he graduated from Auburn in 2000, that void in the church grew even more evident when he became youth minister at Liberty Christian Fellowship in Liberty, Missouri, just north of Kansas City.

"I absolutely love working with the student generation," he said. "At Liberty, there was a real influx of students. My desire was to see each one of them trained individually in the Word. All of a sudden, there was not near enough of me and a lot more of them! I'd never been discipled myself, but I started recruiting guys -- college students, young adults -- that we could plug into training these students." Eventually, he had 26 college and young adults trained and about 300 youth in the discipleship program.

After speaking at a Disciple Now youth retreat in The Woodlands, Texas, in February 2002, Vaughan left the event wondering what would happen to the hundreds of students who had just made decisions for Christ. Based on his own experience, he wondered if they would be discipled and encouraged and challenged. Or would they be left to struggle with their faith alone?

"I felt an emptiness in the pit of my stomach," he said. "Just a few hours earlier, I was offering a final challenge to a hungry crowd of students, ready to take the world for Christ. Now, I wondered if those newly birthed dreams would ever become a reality."

Increasing opportunities as a youth evangelist fed his passion for giving students solid teaching on the Christian walk. "I was having serious conviction," he said. "We'd have a retreat and hundreds of kids would make a decision for Christ. You've got three youth workers and they don't have a clue what to do with them. I thought it was quite dangerous to the Kingdom to be just producing backsliders."

By 2004, Vaughan had returned to Memphis and was youth minister at Christ United Methodist. In the spring of that year, he founded DownLine.

Getting a Vehicle
Because of the far-reaching potential of DownLine, Vaughan is confident that the ministry is from God's heart and not from men. Indeed, it appears to be a vehicle which could take discipleship around the world.

The first DownLine Institute, the ministry's premiere event, will kick off August 14, 2006, more than two years after the ministry was born. The Institute will take laymen in their 20s and 30s who show leadership potential and train them to disciple younger men. The goal is for these young leaders to reproduce their faith in others who will then follow the same pattern to disciple still more young men.

The debut event is in Memphis, but Vaughan believes it will be replicated in other cities. The program is built on the pattern established by Jesus in teaching and leading His twelve disciples. DownLine looks also at Paul's admonition in 2 Timothy 22: "The things that you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others."

DownLine will select 40-50 participants for a rigorous 10-month Bible study regimen, the heart of the Institute. Participants will include mostly men from the Memphis area plus a few from across the nation and five from other countries. Minority representation comparable to that in Memphis is also built into the program.

The men will meet from 5:45 to 7:45 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for nine months. The first hour will focus on Bible study led by outstanding Bible teachers, many of them local leaders who are offering their services to DownLine. The second hour will be devoted to training the men to make disciples. Joe White of Kanakuk Kamps and Tom Nelson, pastor of Denton Bible Church, are among the leaders who will come in to teach in such areas as worldview and apologetics.

"We have an application process for the local and national students," Vaughan said. "We already have 60 Memphis applicants for the first year and about 15 national applicants. We have identified the five international students we will take." For the first class, international students are from the Philippines, Kenya, India, Nigeria and Nicaragua.

That latter demographic is where DownLine's global potential comes in. The hand-picked international students make a commitment to receive the training in Memphis, then go back and train 10-50 men to be disciplers in their nations. DownLine will provide continued training by sending discipleship teams to the nations where alumni are in ministry.

Gauging the Value
Vaughan has been blessed by the encouragement of a number of key Christian leaders in Memphis, among them Rev. Herb Hodges and Roy "Soup" Campbell. Over the past four decades, Hodges has made more than 160 trips around the world training pastors through his Spiritual Life Ministries. His input is critical in selecting DownLine's international students and his training materials are the foundation for the curriculum.

Hodges believes Vaughan's passion for authentic discipleship will have immeasurable value for the Body of Christ. He says the Church is made up of a "95% sitting army" in the pews and we need to reverse that so the 95% are in the marching army. After pastoring Baptist churches several years, Hodges founded Spiritual Life. "We had great churches," he said, "but as far as impact was concerned, it was all implosive impact instead of explosive impact."

Campbell has traveled with Hodges on more than 30 of his trips to train indigenous pastors. "I truly believe DownLine is a ministry of Jesus Christ and is meant to be productive and multiply," Campbell said. "And I believe Kennon is the right one to pull it off."

Anything of great value comes with a price. For its inaugural year, DownLine must raise $200,000. Russ Griffith, the second staff member at DownLine, is on board helping Vaughan strengthen their network and raise funds. Griffith and Vaughan met at the Denton Bible Church's discipleship program a couple of years back. The two men quickly discovered their common passion for discipleship.

Griffith said that, during his high school years, he benefited from the leadership of a mature youth volunteer discipler at Reston (Virginia) Bible Church. "It was something I saw work so well in my life," Griffith said. "And my favorite part of doing ministry as a student at James Madison University was the guys I got to disciple."

The diverse list of churches coming alongside the ministry include Christ United Methodist, 2nd Presbyterian, Germantown Baptist and Fellowship Bible. "We want DownLine to be a blessing to the local church," Vaughan said. "We are all about strengthening lay leadership in the church. The eight churches involved in Memphis may each select a man from their church to attend DownLine."

Griffith said most of the contributions to this point have come from individuals who believe in the vision of DownLine. "We've got a great board of directors who are helping us get of the ground financially."

Both Griffith and Vaughan are keenly aware of, but not worried about, the financial requirements they face. But being men of great faith, they look forward to seeing how God will provide for the ministry He has ordained. And they can hardly wait for DownLine Institute 2006.

Randall Murphree, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is editor of AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article, reprinted with permission, appears in the February 2006 issue. DownLine is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization; donations are tax deductible. More information is available at the ministry's website or by contacting DownLine at: DownLine Ministries, 8808 Featherleigh Lane, Germantown, TN 38138 (telephone: 901-283-3437).

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