How Do You Know How Your Church Stacks Up?
Like eating healthy or flossing our teeth, we all talk about it, we all know it’s important, but are we really effective in making disciples? | by Carey Nieuwhof
One of the ways you know you’re making progress is that you stop having the same discussion over and over again. If you’re discussing the same issues on your team or at home year after year, you’re probably stuck.
When it comes to much of the discussion around discipleship, I believe we’re getting it wrong in the church. We’re stuck.
What if the popular understanding of discipleship is producing some of the ill-health and even stagnation and decline we see all around us in the church? And what if you could do something about it by rethinking what you mean by discipleship?
Different Day, Same Conversation
From my earliest days in ministry, I’ve had a conversation about discipleship that repeats itself again and again.
It goes something like this:
People need to reach out more and focus more of their time, energy and resources on evangelism.
That’s a great idea but what we really need to focus on is discipleship. There’s such an immaturity in Christians today that we need to focus on growing the ones we have first. And besides, evangelical churches are known for producing shallow, immature Christians.
Pretty compelling logic. Unless, of course, it’s wrong.
I agree that often Christians in the West are immature. I agree our walk doesn’t always match our talk.
But I also think the average North American Christian is about 3000 Bible verses overweight. The way many leaders approach maturity is to assume that knowledge produces maturity. Since when?
The goal is not to know, but to do something with what you know.
7 Truths About Authentic Discipleship
Here are seven things I believe are true about biblical discipleship which church leaders today should reclaim:
- Jesus Commanded Usto Make Disciples, Not Be Disciples.
The way many Christians talk, you’d think Jesus told us to be disciples. He commanded us to make disciples. The great commission is, at its heart, an outward movement.
Could it be that in the act of making disciples, we actually become more of who Christ designed us to be? It was in the act of sharing faith that thousands of early Christians were transformed into new creations.
I know personally I grow most and learn most when I am helping others. It gives me a place to apply what I’m learning and to take the focus off myself and place it on Christ and others, where it belongs.
- Discipleship Is Simply Linked to Evangelism
The thrust of all first century discipleship was to share Christ with the world he loves and died for (yes, Jesus really does love the world).
You can’t be a disciple without being an evangelist.
And for sure, the opposite is true. You can’t be an evangelist without being a disciple. But somehow many people would rather be disciples without being evangelists.
- A Mark of an Authentic Disciple Includes Getting It Wrong.
A common criticism of churches that draw in large numbers of outsiders and newer believers is that these new followers of Christ get it wrong as often as they get it right. They might not realize that reincarnation isn’t biblical or they might struggle to understand the faith they’re stepping into.
What if that’s a sign that their discipleship is authentic?
After all, Peter didn’t get it right most of the time when he was around Jesus. Many leaders in the early church needed correction. And even Paul would later confront Peter about his unwillingness to eat with Gentiles. And yet Christ chose to build the early church on Peter and Paul. Imagine that.
- A Morally Messy Church Is…Inevitable
One stinging criticism of churches that are reaching people is that many of their attenders don’t bear much resemblance to Jesus. These new, immature Christians can
- be swayed by powerful personalities.
- still be sexually active outside of marriage.
- have questionable business practices.
- end up in broken families.
- be too swayed by the culture.
- not know how to conduct themselves in worship.
- doubt core doctrines like the resurrection.
If these issues remind you of why you so dislike growing churches or megachurches, just realize that I pulled every one of those problems out of 1 Corinthians. The church in Corinth struggled with every problem listed above and (I think) every problem growing churches today struggle with.
And last time I checked, the church in Corinth was an authentic church Christ loved.
The fact that you have these problems may actually be a sign you’re making progress with the unchurched. You don’t want to leave them there, but when people really start engaging with Christ, tidy categories are hard to come by.
In fact, the most morally “pure” people of the first century (the Pharisees) were the very ones Jesus most often condemned. Go figure.
- Maturity Takes Time and Is Not Linear
It would be great if there was instant maturity in faith and in life. But it never works that way. You can’t expect a three-year-old to have the maturity of a thirteen-year-old or expect a 23-year-old to have the maturity of a 43-year-old. When you place expectations on people that they are just not able to bear, you crush or confuse them.
And yet we do that in the church all the time. People grow and mature over time. And our progress isn’t always as linear as a 101, 201, 301 progression would make it. In fact, I know some 23-year-olds who are more mature than some 43-year-olds.
Expose new Christians to the love of God and community, to great teaching, great relationships, and solid accountability and over time, many will grow into very different people than they were when they first came to Christ. They may grow at different rates and in different measures, but I believe Jesus talked about that. Just don’t judge them after a few months or even a few years.
- Christian Maturity Was Never About You Anyway
Christian maturity has never been about you anyway. It is certainly not about how awesome you are compared to others, how smart you are, how righteous you are, or how holy you are.
It is about Jesus. And it is about others.
It was never about you anyway.
- Love Compels Us
If you love the world, how can you ignore it? Jesus said the authentic mark of his followers is love. He defined the primary relationship between God and humanity as one of love. The truth he ushered in is inseparable from love.
The primary motivation for evangelism and discipleship is the same. It is love. That should characterize both the discussion about evangelism and discipleship and also the way we go about both.
This isn’t an exhaustive treatment of discipleship and evangelism, but in the time it takes to sip a coffee, I hope it helps to in some way advance the conversation about evangelism and discipleship in your church.
And if we advanced our understanding of discipleship in the church, maybe the church and our culture would be transformed.
Why We Need a Different Kind of “Maturity” in the Church
You’ve had it happen before: people tell you they are leaving your church because “they’re not growing” or they’re looking for “deeper teaching.” They claim they need a place where they can grow and mature more spiritually.
I totally understand that people leave churches for legitimate reasons (I left a denomination at one point). Over time I’ve begun to sense a trend. While everyone might have one or two lifetime changes in them, the kind of “this isn’t doing it for me” movement that characterizes church today alarms me.
I’ve noticed that the people who often claim to be the most spiritually “mature” (or at least on that quest) are often people who are
- Somewhat judgmental.
- Generally disinterested in reaching their unchurched friends.
- Serially dissatisfied.
- Often unwilling to actually commit long-term to any local church.
Question: are these really the characteristics of maturity?
Maybe what poses as “maturity” isn’t always maturity. Here are three points of confusion I’ve noticed in the maturity discussion in the church today:
1. Depth of knowledge is seen as the goal of maturity. It’s wonderful that people understand what they believe, but knowledge in and of itself is not a hallmark of Christian maturity. As Paul says, knowledge puffs up. Love, by contrast, builds up. And some of the most biblically literate people in Jesus’ day got by-passed as disciples.
2. Clarity is mistaken for superficiality. Sometimes I think people assume a teaching is “deep” because they can’t understand it. They walk out of church and you ask them what they learned. They say, “I’m not sure, but wow, it was deep.” How helpful is that?
Preachers need to be clear, but often, there’s a pressure on us “to go deeper” by offering information that’s confusing or even irrelevant in the name of “being deep.”
I always shoot for clear, even though that’s sometimes more work. It’s easier to be confusing than it is to be clear. And I still shoot for clear even though I know my inbox will get messages from people who can’t understand why we’re not “deeper.” But if you want to reach unchurched people and truly help even Christians mature, you need to be clear (Paul, by the way, seems to agree).
Many Christians also appreciate clarity because, unlike complexity, clarity is helpful. If you really want to grow, clarity is of tremendous value.
3. People think the church is responsible for their spiritual growth. People leave churches because they’re not growing. But whose responsibility is growth? Theirs. Yours. Mine. Why is it that people who say they are most passionate about maturity blame others for their lack of maturity? I just don’t get that. Isn’t responsibility a sign of maturity?
For sure, the church can help. In the same way a gym can help you get fit, a friend can help you through a tough time. But you are responsible for getting in shape, for getting better and even for your personal and spiritual growth.
So, what are some marks of a different kind of “maturity” in the church today? I have another list we’ll get to, but for now, here are five:
- A passion for application. Biblical knowledge is ultimately designed for application. The kind of maturity that I think honorsGod most deeply is knowledge applied in love. Our lives should be different. Our marriages should be different. Our parenting should be different. Our love for our neighbors and community should be different. Our confession and repentance should be deep and authentic. Our transparency should be authentic. And we should be radically committed to living out our faith.
- Humility. True Christian maturity has always been marked by humility.
- A servant’s heart. True maturity comes in many things (including faith) when your quest becomes about others, not yourself. Mature Christians live for Christ and live for others.
- A love for unchurched people. If you consider the Apostle Paul to be a mature Christian, consider his obsession with unchurched people. Eventually it got him killed. Real maturity is not a life lived in pursuit of self or even the ‘found’ – it’s a life lived pursuing others and the lost.
- A deep investment. I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I do think one of the marks of mature faith is a deep investment in the Kingdom of God. Sometimes I wonder if youwould check the giving records of people who complain most about being fed, will you see scant evidence of a sacrificial investment in the Kingdom of God. Conversely, you will see many people deeply committed to quietly serving others who have a deep investment in the Kingdom. Think about that for a while.
What do you think the future of the church would look like if we pursued application, humility, service, love for the unchurched and a deep investment in the Kingdom?
How to Tell if Your Church is Actually Producing Disciples
One of the frequent criticisms I hear of churches that are trying to reach people who don’t attend church is that they fail to produce “disciples.”
Honestly, this is a criticism that, off and on, has been levied at our ministry for years. And it bothers me. I know it’s a criticism that has likely followed you as well.
So…how do you engage it? Better yet, how do you respond to it? For a while I wasn’t sure how to answer detractors.
Over the years we’ve worked hard on our discipleship process, engaging people in groups, serving, giving and inviting non-Christians to explore Christianity. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better all the time.
And yet any process begs the question: how do you know if you’re producing spiritually mature disciples or not? How do you measure?
Finally, a few years ago I stumbled on a test that for me, at least, answers the question as well as I’ve heard it answered. I’m hoping it clarifies things for you and your team as well.
First, Some False Tests
Let’s circle back to the idea that knowledge equals maturity. The more you know, the more mature you are. Scripture suggests that’s a false test. After all, as Paul points out, knowledge puffs up; love builds up.
Knowledge is not spiritual maturity. Knowledge makes you arrogant. Love transforms you.
This sheds light on one of the greatest puzzles of the church today: why is it that the Christians who claim to be the most spiritually mature are often the most
- And even angry?
When did an arrogant and judgmental heart become evidence of Christian maturity? It’s not. And it never was. In fact, many things Christians think are signs of spiritual maturity actually aren’t.
The irony I see (and I have to be careful how I say this), is that often the people who slam churches for not producing disciples are the people who display the fewest fruits of the Holy Spirit. In fact, their accusations are often characterized by anger, hostility, pride and sometimes jealousy (their criticism often targets growing churches). At a minimum, you don’t get the sense that their question is motivated by love.
You see the incongruity, right?
A Much Better Way to Tell
So how do you know whether your discipleship strategy is effective—whether it’s producing followers of Jesus who are maturing?
Enter Jesus. He summed up the proof of discipleship as succinctly as anyone.
I was reading through Matthew 7:16 again a few years ago and finally realized Jesus gave us the test that defines discipleship exceptionally well. He simply said, “By their fruit you’ll recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?”
In other words, look at someone’s life for the evidence. What evidence? Evidence that the Holy Spirit is transforming someone, or as the ancients used to say, evidence that someone is being sanctified.
That sounds great but what does that look like? Back to Paul. He actually defines in Galatians chapter 5 what it’s like to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. He begins by listing the fruit of people who are NOT being transformed by the Holy Spirit.
Paul says people who are not under the direction of the Holy Spirit have lives characterized by, among other things,
- Sexual immorality
- Impurity and debauchery
- Fits of rage
Look at the people who are following Christ in your church and ask yourself: is this what their lives look like? If so, you have some work to do on your discipleship strategy because it’s not producing what the Holy Spirit produces in people’s lives when he’s at work.
What does the Holy Spirit do in people’s lives? When the Holy Spirit gets a hold of someone, he produces
So, (here’s the test again) look at people who follow Jesus in your church and ask, “Is this what characterizes their lives more than it did a few years ago?”
If the answer is yes, you have an effective discipleship strategy. If the answer is no, you have some work to do.
You can’t set perfection as your standard because we live on this side of heaven. Will everyone who claims to be following Jesus “be there”? No. Will everyone stick around? Nope, you’ll lose a few. (If you have no back door, you’re either running a cult where no one is allowed to leave or you’re really not growing.)
But people should be more like Christ than they were. And that’s the point.
Their character and heart are being reshaped by the Holy Spirit. That’s effective discipleship.
As the ancients knew, sanctification (the process of being made holy) is a life-long process. God isn’t done shaping you until you’re dead. And even then, he has plans for you.
Is someone being discipled? Just look at their lives for the evidence. Sanctification is a life-long process. God isn’t done shaping you till you’re dead.
Bringing This Home
The more I thought about Jesus’ teaching (by their fruit you’ll know them) and Paul’s definition of fruit, the more I realized that maybe despite the critics’ claims, we actually have an effective discipleship strategy.
Why could I say this? I looked at the people we baptized three to five years ago and asked where they are now and what they’re like now.
First, most of them are still around. They’re still following Jesus. AND, when I see where they’re at in their lives, they actually are more loving, more patient, more kind. They’re exercising more self-control (sometimes remarkably so) and many would tell you they have far more peace.
They also display less immorality, less envy, less divisiveness, better control of their temper and greater humility.
Guess what? The scripture tells us that that’s the Holy Spirit at work. They’re being discipled. They’re becoming mature.
Remember, the people who claim to be the most spiritually mature often fail the biblical definition of maturity.
And the people who don’t claim to be spiritually mature often pass it.