New Convert Care: The State of Discipleship
It matters because Jesus modeled it and commanded it.
It matters because discipleship is necessary for the church to become healthy and productive.
It matters because we cannot reach our potential without spiritual growth.
And it matters because we cannot influence the world unless we can demonstrate faith-based transformation.
How are we doing in the realm of spiritual growth? Are we fulfilling God’s expectations of us? Are we avidly striving to fulfill our spiritual potential on earth?
To get a grip on this matter, let’s explore a couple of crucial areas. First, let’s look at the present attitudes and involvement of born-again Christians in relation to personal spiritual growth.’ Then let’s explore the role currently played by the local church in motivating and supporting believers in their quest for spiritual development.
The Place of Spiritual Growth
Our research discovered an interesting condition. On the one hand, when you ask born-again adults about their goals in life and ask them to rank a series of possibilities, personal spiritual development emerges as one of their top priorities. For instance, four out of five believers said that having a deep, personal commitment to the Christian faith is a top priority for their future. On the other hand, when you ask believers to identify the single most important thing they hope to accomplish in life without suggesting any particular possibilities, only a small minority (20 percent) mentions anything directly related to spiritual outcomes. In other words, most believers say their faith matters, but few are investing much energy in the pursuit of spiritual growth.
How can these seeming contradictions be reconciled? In short, most born-again adults acknowledge that spiritual development is a primary responsibility of a follower of Christ and may be a helpful endeavor, but it is not a pressing need because they believe they have largely mastered the principles and nuances of the Christian faith.
Three of every five adult Christians we surveyed told us they want to have a deep commitment to the Christian faith, but they are not involved in any intentional effort to grow spiritually. They view their challenge as one of spiritual maintenance rather than spiritual development. They contend that because they have embraced Jesus, learned the core lessons from Scripture, and implemented those lessons, all they need to do in the future is continue doing what they’re already doing. The one out of five believers who are actively engaged in some type of personal spiritual development activity, besides attending church services, are involved in concerted efforts to learn new insights, live in a more obedient manner, and apply their newfound wisdom in unique and expanding ways.
How do people pursue spiritual development? The most common approaches used by those currently involved in some type of spiritual nurturing process include the following:
* two out of three (68 percent) are involved in a small group or cell group designed to facilitate spiritual growth
* out of four (24 percent) participates in a Sunday school class that motivates them to grow
* one out of every seven (15 percent) is being spiritually mentored by someone
* one out of every nine (11 percent) attends a special class for the purpose of becoming more spiritually mature
The typical individual who allocates some energy to personal spiritual growth spends an average of four hours per week on these endeavors. Most of these people are quite regular in their commitment to spiritual growth: Two-thirds invest time and energy in such matters every week, while more than four out of five growth-oriented believers engage in such activities at least monthly.
What is ‘Successful Discipleship’?
Our research also points out that most born-again adults are limited in their ability to grow spiritually because they have failed to set any goals for their spiritual development, failed to develop standards against which to measure their growth, or failed to establish procedures for being held accountable for their growth. Only four out of every ten churched believers responded that they had set personal spiritual growth goals for themselves.
Six out of ten believers have no sense of what they want to achieve or become.
Even that figure is inflated, though, since many of the “goals” are not measurable (that is, “to become a better Christian” or “to grow spiritually”), not spiritual (that is, “to be a better person”), or not much of a stretch (that is, “to attend church services”). If we recalculate the statistics on the basis of people’s personal spiritual expectations, we find that six out of ten believers have no sense of what they want to achieve or become, and roughly two out of ten have only the vaguest idea of what they might like to achieve or become. That leaves only two out of ten believers who are serious about their spiritual development and have defined rather specific goals.
It is intriguing that when Christians were asked to identify their spiritual goals (see Table 3.1), few believers mentioned more than one goal. For some people that seemed to be a strategic choice’having selected only one goal made it snore feasible that
they would satisfy their goal or that they would not become frustrated by having too many unreachable outcomes to achieve. However, for a larger share of the goal-setters, it seemed that the paucity of personal goals reflected the absence of reflection and commitment to growth.
These goals are further challenged by the fact that three out of ten born-again adults admitted that they did not have any plan or process by which they intended to fulfill their spiritual goals. You’ve probably encountered this before: people who say they have set goals for their development but who have no idea how they will go about making those goals a reality. The result is talk without action, sentiment without substance. (These types of self-deceptions lead some nonbelievers to label Christians “hypocrites.”) The unrealistic expectations of believers’that is, if they have good intentions those intentions will somehow come to fruition’often lead them to wander from their faith, feeling as if God has let them down or that they are not capable of spiritual growth.
In fact, when we asked a national sample of believers to describe what they would most like to accomplish in life, both positive and negative signs emerged. The data in Table 3.2 show us that there are some born-again adults who center their lives around their spiritual condition. Unfortunately, those believers are few and far between.
Eight out of every ten believers are more likely to court dimensions of life other than spirituality as the springboard to success and meaning. Elements such as family, career development, and financial achievement are among the emphases most likely to divert people’s attention from their spiritual growth. None of these outcomes is necessarily bad or indefensible; however, the infrequent adoption of spiritual maturity as the driving focus of life suggests that to most believers, their faith is a “bonus” or an add-on dimension of their life rather than the priority around which everything in their life revolves.
Half of the two out of ten who cited some type of spiritual outcome as their crowning achievement in life identified rather basic spiritual realities, such as knowing that they are saved or maintaining faith in God, as their supreme life goal. Is that all we can hope for? Is there no more to the Christian faith than accepting a free ticket to heaven or remaining convinced that God exists? Perhaps this is why half of all born-again adults, and more than two-thirds of born-again teenagers, say they are searching for meaning and purpose in life’in spite of having made a lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ!
The information outlined in Table 3.3 regarding believers’ definitions of spiritual success provides another revealing glimpse into the minds and hearts of believers. The good news is that Christians possess a diversity, of ideas regarding spiritual success; there is no mindless recitation of one simplistic notion of success embraced by the masses. Clearly, many believers have thought about what makes them successful in God’s eyes. Some of the conclusions drawn by the individuals we interviewed evidenced considerable reflection and wisdom.
The disturbing outcomes discernible in Table 3.3, though, are how few Christians seem to possess a “big picture” of spirituality and that very few believers (less than one out of five) describe spiritual success in terms broader than a single aspect of personal maturity. Most born-again adults have a very narrow view of what they are striving to become as Christians, what spiritual maturity might look like in their lives, and what it would take for them to maximize their potential as followers of Christ. The dilemma is not that believers deny the importance of spiritual growth or have failed to consider the challenges it raises, but that they seem to have settled for a very limited understanding of the Christian faith and their potential in Christ.
The dilemma is not that believers deny the importance of spiritual growth or have failed to consider the challenges it raises, but that they seem to have settled for a very limited understanding of the Christian faith and their potential in Christ.
Obstacles to Maturity
Do you get the sense that Christians are honestly trying to grow spiritually, but they’re not trying very hard? To verify that intuition, we asked believers about the intensity of their commitment to personal spiritual growth. Not quite 18 percent (one out of every five) said that their effort to grow spiritually is the single most intense commitment in their life today. Half of the believers said that even though they work at spiritual growth consistently, they have not reached the level of maturity or commitment to maturity that they would like. One out of every five said they occasionally delve into spiritual development, but they are not consistent about those efforts. The remaining one out of ten believers admitted they are neither involved nor interested in spiritual development.
All of them underscore one problem: a lack of passion to be godly.
You can probably guess the reasons why believers are not more zealous about discipleship. Two-thirds told us they were just too busy to give the process the time it requires. One-quarter cited a general lack of interest or motivation to grow. One-tenth said they suffered from personal limitations such as emotional or financial problems. One-tenth cited health problems as their barrier.
Does anything strike you about that list of obstacles? Essentially, all of them underscore one problem: a lack of passion to be godly. Such a deficiency raises questions as to how sincere people are about their faith, how real their relationship is with Christ, or how they understand the values of heaven as opposed to those of earth. One thing I have learned about people: If you want something to get done, ask the busiest person associated with your cause. They are busy because they have goals, they prioritize, and they are committed to accomplishing their goals. But what happens within the church? We’re all busy when Jesus comes along and asks us to get serious about spiritual growth. What’s our response? We may give intellectual assent to the idea, but when push comes to shove, our schedules are already bloated with other, more important tasks, opportunities, and responsibilities. We have passion, but it is not a passion for the matters of God.
Somehow, in spite of having heard the sermons and small-group lessons time and time again, we have missed the point. Can you imagine the early church choosing a different course of action when the problem erupted pertaining to the unfair distribution of food among church widows? Instead of choosing seven disciples to focus on the distribution of food and freeing the other apostles to preach, heal, and evangelize, James might have stood up and said, “Okay, men, that’s it. This has gotten too big too fast. Let’s get some perspective’things are just out of control. I’m outta here. Who’s coming with me? Let’s go back to our families, our businesses, and the simple life we knew before this church thing took off”
Or what about Peter, who was jailed in Jerusalem for preaching in public and released at night by the angel of the Lord with the instruction to return to preaching in the public square? It’s not likely that Peter, after regaining his freedom, would have taken the fastest horse he could find and galloped that beast as far away as possible from the scene of his persecution, knowing that obedience to the angel’s command would have won him further confrontation and hardship.
And I strongly doubt that the apostle Paul ever would have written a note to Timothy telling his young prot6ge: Don’t bug me anymore. You’re on your own from here on. I’ve got so many other things to do’cashing in on my international network of contacts, searching for a wife, getting to the Mediterranean for the summer, designing the new line of tents for the fall’I just don’t have time for you and all your whining, backbiting congregants.
If you have a problem deal with it!
Paul endured more than you or I can even dream of because he was a zealous follower of Jesus Christ. If ever anyone had a great excuse to leave the church behind, it was Paul. Consider what he wrote to the believers in Corinth:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food;
I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)
Paul’s consistent response to the hardships of following Christ was simple: His lifestyle and ministry reflected the essence of who he was, therefore he would never give up. He would stay committed to obeying his calling and way of life regardless of the earthly circumstances or consequences. When human logic dictated a severe change of course, Paul persevered for one reason: his passion for God. He believed there was no way he could ever outsmart God, out give Christ, or outmaneuver the Holy Spirit. When you read his story you realize there isn’t anything that guy would not have done for his Lord.
The Role of the Church
Our research shows that churches have a tremendous opportunity to facilitate deeper commitment among believers. Most born-again adults (95 percent) acknowledge that their church encourages spiritual growth. But only half of the believers we interviewed felt that discipleship is one of the two or three highest ministry priorities of their church; the other half said it is just one of many ministries or programs at their church.
Relatively small numbers of born-again adults reported that their church helps them develop specific paths to follow to foster spiritual growth. Slightly less than half told us that their church had identified any spiritual goals, standards, or expectations for the congregation during the past year. (For many people such goals and expectations were mostly limited to exhortations at the end of sermons to go forth and live in accordance with the points in the sermon. There was no personalization or other, more detailed guidance provided.) Only one out of every five believers stated that their church has some means of facilitating an evaluation of the spiritual maturity or commitment to maturity of congregants. Clearly, the spiritual growth of millions of Christians is being hindered by the lack of detailed assistance and guidance from their churches.
Churches have a tremendous opportunity to facilitate deeper commitment among believers.
While many Christians were more than a bit cautious about the possibility, nine out of ten said that if their church helped them to identify specific spiritual-growth goals to pursue, they would at least listen to the advice and follow parts, if not all, of it. Very few people (5 percent) said they would flat-out ignore the advice. Only one out of every one hundred believers said they would leave the church if it tried to deliver such an analysis. (Let me emphasize that this relates to congregant-specific advice for spiritual growth, not general, congregation-wide exhortations or pronouncements.)
A majority (55 percent) of the adults who indicated their interest in advice on how to improve their spiritual life also said that if the church matched them with a spiritual mentor or coach, they would be more likely to pursue the changes suggested to them.
Only 7 percent indicated that a mentor or coach would make them less likely to pursue the growth suggestions. As noted in the previous chapter, discipleship is not a solo adventure; it is interpersonal by its very nature. And, like it or not, people are more likely to grow spiritually when their church is intensely and unswervingly focused on bringing people to maturity in Christ. Such an outcome is not easy to achieve’but it is paramount for the spiritual advancement and health of the individual and of the body of Christ.
Believers are open to a variety of approaches for helping them grow. We asked born-again adults to rate their likelihood of participating in each of eleven different formats of personalized training. The data in Table 3.4 show that of the eleven options, there is no “big winner”‘ even the most popular option was attractive to only one-third of the believers surveyed. However, there is substantial interest among Christians in doing something that will take them to the next level spiritually. More than four out of five born-again adults chose at least one of the eleven alternatives and said that they would definitely take advantage of that possibility if it were available at their church.
One of the intriguing findings is that the most appealing options were those that are the least intrusive emotionally and personally. For example, the top six options all required very little personal revelation: a devotional guide, a weekly prayer meeting, a self-guided topical study, a group service project, a worship event, and a classroom event. The high-intensity options’such as mentors, accountability partners, and online chats’were farther down the list in their personal appeal. The implication is that many individuals in the church may be scared by the possibility of opening up their lives to others. Building trust is undoubtedly one of the keys to developing a viable discipleship strategy.
Coaching the Saints
One very promising but underutilized tactic for spiritual growth in churches is that of coaching. Coaching, or mentoring, has been quite popular in business and educational circles for the past few years. In fact, half of all born-again adults told us that they had received some mentoring through their church; four out of ten had received mentoring in connection with their job; and three out of ten had benefited from a mentoring process at a school.
Mentoring has influenced the lives of more than forty million adult believers; a majority of all born-again adults claim to have been mentored or coached in something other than sports during their adult life:
* 82 percent’professional or job-related skills
* 68 percent’religious beliefs and Bible knowledge
* 66 percent’how to integrate your faith into your lifestyle
* 65 percent’personal character traits
The State of Discipleship
* 61 percent’relational skills
* 50 percent’parenting skills and perspectives
* 41 percent’personal finances
To some people, mentoring may be a scary proposition. It implies personal openness to evaluation, willingness to consistently work on areas of weakness, and submission to the guidance of someone else. However, an overwhelming proportion of the believers who have been mentored as adults have positive feelings about their experience. Three out of ten said the coaching they received was “life changing.” Six out of ten said it had been “very helpful.” One out of ten were less enthusiastic, citing it as having been “of some value.” Only 1 percent of adult believers who had been mentored said it was not helpful to them.
Mentoring has influenced the lives of more than forty million adult believers.
Our research revealed another important insight: Past positive experiences in mentoring do not automatically produce believers who are anxious to be mentored in the future. Even though nine out of ten believers assigned high ratings to the value of their past experience when mentored, only one out of every seven adults said they are very interested in being mentored now or in the near future. Another one-quarter were somewhat interested in the possibility.
Why the apparent change of heart? First, most churched adults are busy, and being mentored is a time-consuming, energy-depleting commitment. More people are looking to simplify their lives than are seeking to add more time pressures. Second, participation in coaching requires an admission of incompleteness or immaturity, and people do not lightly admit to such deficiencies. Third, effective coaching requires that the student accept the expertise, motives, and style of the coach’all elements of trust.
The research also highlighted another valuable insight. The types of people most open to being mentored were believers in their twenties, African-American, residents of the West, and upscale individuals. Why these groups? The twenty-somethings typically feel that they lack adequate parenting and that they have been widely rejected by authority figures and older adults. Mentoring represents an opportunity for them to receive the support they feel they were never given. African-Americans generally have a multi-generational, community-based culture in which passing on information, skills, perspectives, and encouragement is part of their heritage. People living in the West are notoriously open to the current fads and trends’of which mentoring is certainly one. Upscale individuals tend to have greater occupational responsibility and challenges than other people, and they are thus open to learning things that will enhance their professional capacity and status. In the business world, mentoring staged a comeback in the United States during the past decade as more and more corporate executives discovered the value of having an expert stand alongside them and help accelerate the speed and depth of their learning curve.
Unfortunately, the bulk of people’s interest in being mentored does not relate to spiritual development. The biggest category of interest was religion: 12 percent said they wanted to be coached to grow spiritually, and another 27 percent mentioned wanting to have some type of religious or spiritual mentoring occur.2 The most popular alternative categories of interest to people included finances (15 percent), job or career development (12 percent), educational achievement (8 percent), parenting (8 percent), self-improvement (7 percent), and relationship building (6 percent).
Would church people entertain the idea of being mentored by someone they trust for the purposes of spiritual development? Yes. Three-quarters of the born-again adults we surveyed said that if they had that opportunity it would be very valuable; two-thirds claimed it would be exciting. Half of the believers said it would be an answer to prayer. Intriguingly, half also said being mentored spiritually would be a risk but one worth taking. Small numbers said such an activity they had that opportunity it would be very valuable; two-thirds claimed it would be exciting. Half of the believers said it would be an answer to prayer. Intriguingly, half also said being mentored spiritually would be a risk but one worth taking. Small numbers said such an activity would be too time consuming (26 percent), not worth the effort (18 percent), uncomfortable (17 percent), and threatening (6 percent).
What does it All Mean?
The chief barrier to effective discipleship is not that people do not have the ability to become spiritually mature, but they lack the passion, perspective, priorities, and perseverance to develop their spiritual lives. Most Christians know that spiritual growth is important, personally beneficial, and expected, but few attend churches that push them to grow or provide the resources necessary to facilitate that growth. Few believers have relationships that hold them accountable for spiritual development. In the end, it boils down to personal priorities. For most of us, regardless of our intellectual assent to the importance of Christian growth, our passions lie else-where and our schedule and energy follow those passions.
Most believers, it turns out, are satisfied to engage in a process without regard for the product. A majority of those who say they are involved in some type of discipleship activity, for instance, contend that because they are involved in a small group, they are on track. Unfortunately, our research shows that most small groups do well with fellowship but falter when it comes to facilitating transformation. Even the teaching delivered in most small groups has little enduring influence in the lives of group participants. Few believers, regardless of the route they select to generate growth, have goals and most of the goals that have been set are either vague or elementary.
Churches have done a good job of promoting the importance of spiritual maturity, but they have mostly failed to provide an environment in which spiritual growth is a lifestyle. Instead of becoming a natural extension of one’s spiritual journey, steady spiritual growth has become the exception to the rule, the domain of the spiritual superstars and fanatics. This is partially attributable to our focus on providing programs rather than relationships that support growth. Although there is openness to the use of spiritual coaching, relatively few people are currently engaged in a mentoring relationship. Our interviews with churches indicate that few churches are intentionally raising up mentors and strategically matching them with congregants.
There is a tremendous need for a more intentional focus on the discipleship process and for the definition of our desired outcomes of such a process. Given the proper motivation, it seems that most believers would be willing to commit to a more demanding regimen of spiritual development.
The above article, ‘New Convert Care: The State of Discipleship’ was written by George Barna. The article was excerpted from book Growing True Disciples.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, ‘Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.’