The rapid growth of their numbers and the peculiar quality of their community captured the attention of skeptics and curiosity-seekers alike. In an early second-century letter to “Diognetus” -- a well-placed pagan desiring to learn about the Christian faith -- the author shares: “Christians are distinguished from other men . . . [by] their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” The author goes on to describe, at some length, the attitudes and behaviors of a community that exhibited a moral standard that was odd and unfamiliar, yet winsome.
Fast-forward nearly nineteen hundred years.
In 2007 George Barna found that born-again Christians were “statistically indistinguishable” from their non-Christian neighbors in 15 moral behaviors (including lying, gossiping, substance abuse and extramarital sex). Two years later, Barna observed that 66 percent of American adults are what he terms “Casual Christians.”
Casuals are self-identified Christians who “do not view matters of faith as central to one’s purpose or success in life.” Casuals want a low-demand faith, one that helps them feel religious and be better people, without having to take a stand on moral issues. Barna calls it “faith in moderation.” I think “lukewarm” was how Jesus put it.
By contrast, “Captive Christians” are believers whose lives “are defined by their faith.” They have a high commitment to “serving Christ and carrying out His commands and principles.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, theirs is a faith of costly grace established on the cross of salvation and the yoke of discipleship. Sadly, Barna reports that Captives are only 16 percent of adults. Sixteen percent!
The United States is the most Christianized nation on the planet in terms of per capita churches, clergy, religious education, and educational resources. It has the most Christians -- nearly twice as many as the next highest country, Brazil -- and yet, only 16 percent could be considered followers of Jesus Christ.
Are we surprised, then, that there is little difference in the moral behaviors of Christians and non-Christians? Are we shocked when yet another denomination adopts heterodox theology or endorses unbiblical practices? Are we stunned that mainline churches are in decline and that youth are heading for the exits at record levels? Are we dismayed that the Church has lost its moral voice in an increasingly secular culture? If we are, we shouldn’t be.
As lamentable as these things are, they are the predictable fruits of decades and generations of non-discipleship Christianity. Although mission one of the Church is (and always has been) to make disciples, most churches have not made discipleship a priority. Dallas Willard calls this our “Great Omission.”
Few churches give their congregations any compelling vision of discipleship. Fewer put discipleship expectations on their members beyond regular attendance and giving. And fewer still have a discipleship process that includes spiritual health assessments and monitoring; personal spiritual growth plans; needs-related resources for spiritual development; and teaching, preaching, and programs structured around discipleship outcomes.
If the Church is to reverse its course and reclaim its calling as a culture-shaper, it must get intentional about discipleship. And that starts by defining what a disciple is. For example: “A disciple is a person who is learning to be more like Jesus by following Him and teaching others to do likewise.”
Corporate statements (mission, vision, values) should elevate discipleship as a foremost church goal. Expectations of membership should include a commitment to the lifelong process of intellectual, spiritual, and behavioral transformation. Church leaders should assess, and periodically monitor, the spiritual health of their congregation using appropriate health measures.
Assessing church health
Nearly all churches determine their health through some combination of church attendance, baptisms, and giving. If those numbers are up, the church is in peak shape; if they are flat, the church is stable and holding; and if they are trending down, it's time for a transfusion. Yet, those "business school" indicators are not reliable measures of church health.
High attendance could mean we’re playing to the crowd, entertaining the audience, telling people what their itching ears want to hear. Low attendance could mean that we’re actually preaching the cross and the yoke, a message that many people find too much for their activity-filled lives.
“Giving” is strongly influenced by the economic conditions of the times and church demographics. It does not tell us whether people are tithing (i.e., 10 percent) or giving sacrificially. It is merely a number that defines the church budget. A church that cannot make budget could be a church whose members have lost jobs or taken pay cuts, or one that is overly leveraged in paid staff, facilities, equipment, and programs. On the other hand, a church with a fat budget may be the beneficiary of some wealthy members whose contributions are large, but far less than a tithe.
Yet, even if those measures reliably tracked spiritual health, they suffer from being lagging, rather than leading, indicators. That’s because they are symptoms of underlying spiritual causes (ignorance of biblical teaching, lack of spiritual disciplines, sinful attitudes or behaviors). Thus, once a negative trend is established, many a church has found itself in a fight for survival.
Instead of relying on Wall Street methods, churches should use measures tied to discipleship outcomes. For instance,
|Discipleship Outcome||Church Health Indicator: What percentage of your congregation…|
|Salvation||Have received Jesus as Lord and Savior?|
|Maturity||Are pursuing spiritual formation through: regular corporate worship (at least 3 times per month)? small group study? spiritual disciplines? Are involved in an accountability relationship? Are mentoring another person? Know their spiritual gift(s)? Tithe (i.e., 10 percent)?|
|Inreach||Are using their giftedness within the church?|
|Outreach||Are using their gift(s) in the workplace and community?|
|Evangelism||Are intentional in forging relationships with the unchurched? Are intentional in sharing their faith with non-believers?|
Ideally, small group leaders would collect these data and return them to church staff for compilation. The results would be used to identify “areas of improvement” and help staff set church priorities for the coming year.
For example, if most indicators range between 20 and 50 percent, but evangelism comes in at 5 percent, it would mean that evangelism needs increased emphasis in teaching, programs, and small group curricula.
For congregations without comprehensive small groups, a one-page survey could be developed for members to complete anonymously and turn into the church office.
Assessing member health
While assessing church health is essential for establishing corporate priorities, assessing member health is necessary for addressing needs at the individual level.
Individual assessment begins with eacho member taking stock of their spiritual condition and identifying their own areas for improvement. For example, a member might consider the following items, ranking each from 1 (least need) to 4 (greatest need):
To grow spiritually, I need to. . .
Members would select two or three of their greatest needs (ranked 4) for improvement. They would then develop a spiritual growth plan with a least one other person to provide mutual guidance, support, and accountability. Each should help the other identify goals that are appropriate, achievable, and measurable.
For instance, if "Prayer" is selected as an area for improvement, “Experience a richer prayer life,” while appropriate, is not measurable. Instead, goals might include the following: 1) read Richard Foster’s book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, 2) attend a prayer seminar or conference, 3) pray "X" minutes every day, 4) enlist a prayer partner, 5) become an intercessor, 5) join a prayer group.
Throughout the year -- say, once every 3 months -- members should re-evaluate their spiritual needs, and revise their growth plan accordingly.
A matter of faith
Admittedly, what I have just outlined places demands on people far beyond what some -- maybe many -- will be willing to accept.
Pastors will look at the suggestions for revised mission statements, new health indicators, corporate assessments, individual assessments, monitoring, and small group formation and feel overwhelmed at the upfront “cost” of promotion, development and implementation, not to mention dealing with push-back from the pews. They may fear that the initiative could lead to a mass exodus. For a church heavily invested in buildings, facilities and salaried staff, that is a valid concern. But, as Jesus warned, “Many are called but few are chosen.”
And yet the long-term returns are inestimable. Disciples are people transitioning from ministry consumers to ministry providers. Every person who is discipled helps free up pastors to devote more of their energies to the spiritual vision and direction of the church, and the selection and the development of leaders.
Getting intentional about discipleship, in the end, is a matter of faith. We can put our faith in the status quo, doing what we’ve always done and getting what we’ve always gotten -- undiscipled Christians in churches dying by attrition; or we can put our faith in God, correcting our Great Omission and trusting that the branches that wither away and die or that are cut off, will be replaced by new growth that will multiply ten, twenty, a hundred fold.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.