This crisis is on two fronts.
1 – Failing to Mature Existing Disciples:
How does a disciple mature? How do they go from milk to solid food (1 Cor 3:1-2)? I believe our assumptions of what creates a mature disciple are faulty and left untested, therefore, they perpetuate without question.
If you think attendance and involvement in church ministries should or would mature a disciple, you are (on the average) wrong. The Willow Creek Reveal Study demonstrated this reality. They found that increased attendance and involvement in church programs did not lead to more mature disciples. This group was actually having the hardest time growing as disciples! The programs churches are running are not effectively maturing disciples. Disciples cannot be matured simply through classroom instruction nor can they be matured through volunteering for church programs. If they could then we would have seen Jesus create programs. He didn’t.
The proof is in the fruit. There are undboutedly mature disciples in our churches. There is no denying that. But the assumption that because you have been a Christian a long time or because you attend regularly or even volunteer means you have demonstrated maturity is false. Even in churches of 400, it can be hard to find more than a handful of small group leaders, evangelistic people, etc.
2 – Failing to make new disciples:
According to a national study (link below) done by Discipleship.org and Exponential less than 5% of American churches are making disciples in any significant or discernible way. Obviously that means 95% aren’t.
That is unacceptable when it is what Jesus told us to do. It really is disobedience.
Another number from the study, when asked how much of their time is spent discipling people the average pastor in America clocked in at 9%. That sounds high to me.
Lifeway did a study a few years ago that studied growing churches…not all churches…growing churches (link below). They found that 6% of growing churches are growing from new converts. 94% of churches on the rise are growing from transfer growth, shuffling Christians from this congregation to that one. This means that non-Christians are largely going completely unaddressed, unreached…with little attempt to do so.
What can we do about this?
We have to learn how to evangelize/make disciples and then go out and do it. There are many approaches out there that we can point to. Pick an approach that is simple/reproducible and based on how Jesus made disciples. I will be creating a list of links and annotations to the approaches. There are tools on this site that are developed and being developed to make this simple.
We must be intentional about maturing disciples from pre-conversion through death. That means training people, sending people to minister/study with people, walk alongside people, serve in the community, prayer walk, etc. We need to expect people will do this rather than think it is just for the super mature among us. If you don’t have people to ask because they aren’t ready, then spend time getting them ready.
But the biggest thing we need to look at is how we are operating from the top-down. Do we operate from a posture of total surrender and submission to King Jesus from the elders to the babies? Does God have a say in our decision making processes and vision/direction of the congregation? Do we have shepherds to lead us or managers? We have to examine our operating system and make sure that God is in control and we are not. Once we make that move, to submit everything to God and then follow God’s lead, the rest will fall into place.
This crisis can be averted but we have to wake up and we have to move to action. Ideally it would start with church leadership and work its way down through casting new (biblical) vision for the church moving from a program model to a discipleship model but it doesn’t have to. You can decide to start on your own and be faithful to God even if not a single additional soul cares to join you. The group doesn’t have to decide on your faithfulness.
Time to wake up, move to action, and follow God’s lead on this. He will lead us to those who need him most every time if we are willing to follow!
Discipleship.org & Exponential study – National Study on Disciple Making in USA Churches
Lifeway study – 5 Realities of Churches in North America