Unfortunately, our research shows that true, lasting spiritual transformation is very rare in churches today. Let's look at some of the challenges—and potential solutions. There are at least three factors preventing discipleship from happening as it should.
First, it is by definition hard work. We could describe discipleship as the process of becoming a complete and competent follower of Christ. Throughout thousands of years of history, people have resisted such spiritual change. People have always found it easier to settle for life-as-usual. They get distracted. Spiritual opposition keeps individuals from growing. Things are no different in our sophisticated culture.
Second, most churches have lost touch with how to measure discipleship. They mistakenly assume that indicators such as church attendance, volunteerism and small-group participation reflect transformation. One of the common rationales you hear is this: A growing church is a healthy church. But what's missing here is a more personal, individualized measure of health.
Even if a church is growing numerically, it is possible that many people who attend that church—maybe even most of them—are not being discipled adequately. God isn't concerned if your auditorium is filled, but whether each soul who comes to your church is being consistently and more fully shaped to be like Jesus.
Third, most Christian leaders have unrealistic perceptions that their church is effective at discipleship. I do not doubt that many wonderful testimonies of changed lives emerge from your church's ministry. But, based upon the research, I am willing to bet that the people in your church are less focused on God and His purposes than you imagine.
In a recent survey, most pastors said that 70 percent or more of the members of their congregations would identify their faith in God above all other priorities. But, in our research among active churchgoers, only one-quarter said this was the case!
People who are discipled are distinct—you can't miss the fingerprints of God in their lives. Some of the people we could examine are those with a biblical worldview. (We define a person with a biblical worldview as one possessing a means of experiencing, interpreting and responding to reality in light of the Bible's principles. You can read more about a biblical worldview on our Website and in George Barna's book, Think Like Jesus).
Still, the clincher is this: Only one out of every 11 churchgoers (nine percent) possesses such a holistic biblical perspective! The sobering conclusion is that, despite attending church and engaging in church-related activities year after year, most churchgoers are not transformed by their faith.
The implication is that many of those who are committed to Jesus maintain lifestyles that hold no weight as a witness to Jesus' power to transform. In the vast majority of cases, non-Christians interact with non-discipled believers—individuals who love Jesus but whose expression of the Christian faith is not compellingly different from the culture.
If we could wrap our hearts and minds around the goal of discipleship, we would see remarkable changes in the effectiveness of the church. Lifestyles and values would shift to be more like Christ. Believers would start to take seriously the commands to give and serve selflessly. Their activities, conversations and expenditures would be based upon their conviction that they are agents of God's purposes on earth. In short, their passion would revolutionize their own lives and, in turn, their communities.
How can leaders create an environment conducive to discipleship? There are a number of shifts that most churches need to make, but—like discipleship itself—getting to that point is not easy. Still, here are some of the insights we have learned from the research that you might weave into your efforts:
1. Clearly articulate the goal and process of discipleship. How does a believer really mature spiritually in your church? How does the process work—and how well does it work? Spend time and energy making a plan, putting your best leaders on the job and championing the effort.
2. Create significant indicators of spiritual growth. How will you measure spiritual health? Corporate indicators are fine, but you cannot miss the importance of assessing the growth climate for each individual believer. If your church is too large to pay attention to personalized ministry, it is too large to disciple. Jesus taught the masses, but he discipled just a small cadre of followers.
3. Determine to help people grow in systematic, rather than random ways.Much of the focus of churches is on head knowledge, delivered in weekly helpings. But discipleship happens in daily interactions. Help people unlock the Bible and God's unique purposes for their life through life-on-life mentoring, intentional experiences and genuine accountability.
4. Invest heavily in children and families. Our research consistently shows that most of what people learn spiritually happens by the age of 13. And, related to this, most of the success—or failure—of discipleship springs from what happens in the home. That means your church should focus much of your discipleship efforts on children and on equipping parents to be active and intentional in shaping the spiritual lives of their kids.
5. Continually ask yourself tough questions about discipleship. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that programs—like small groups or Sunday school—automatically facilitate discipleship. Every church has programs; few of those programs, on their own, are hubs of life transformation. Make sure that all of the efforts of the church directly and clearly contribute to the overall vision of lasting spiritual transformation.
Every week, more than 90 million adults attend church in America, but most of them merely "dabble" in Christianity. Sermons can shake people up for a few hours or a few days. More significant than that, your church needs a framework for discipleship that attracts, retains and engages people in becoming more and more like our Lord. Piece of cake, right?