Showing New Believers the Way
By: Rebecca Barnes, Editor
Are the people in your church being transformed? In their best-selling book, “Simple Church,” Eric Geiger and Thom Rainer ask church leaders whether people in their congregations are being changed or just keeping busy. This is a critical question to consider when considering discipleship.
Processes and programs
The perfect strategy for moving new believers and members from worship to more intense discipleship in churches is difficult to pin down. For most churches, discipleship means a smorgasbord of classes, groups, programs, studies, mentoring partners and more. Sam Rainer echoes the call of his father, Thom, to simplify how churches move people from beginning faith to learning more. A vision, mission or purpose statement is a beginning, he writes on his blog, Church Forward. Then all discipleship work should fit under that statement. Without this sort of structure, Sam Rainer says churches have difficulty exploring the Bible in depth, expecting much from members, multiplying and accomplishing their purposes.
“The right structure is not the most important facet of a church, but most churches cannot carry out their most important purposes because they do not have the right structure,” Sam Rainer writes.
Putting in place the pieces of this structure may include both disciple-making processes and programs. According to the Church Health Encyclopedia, “While discipleship is not a program, it can be encouraged through special mentoring relationships and training classes.”
Bottom line: new Christians should be given the opportunity to learn to study the Bible and develop their own prayer life. Mature believers should take opportunities to disciple others. These two things can happen in regular church Bible studies, Sunday school classes, small groups, new member classes, one-on-one mentoring, and training courses. These programs are simply vehicles to grow the faith of new believers. But are these vehicles going anywhere?
Worship attendance numbers are perhaps more familiar to most church leaders hovering as they do somewhere around 45 percent for the United States. What about other church programs? A 2007 Barna Group study showed that about 20 percent of all adults attend Sunday school in a typical week. About 20 percent had participated in a small group for Bible study, prayer and Christian fellowship. In a typical congregation where either Sunday school or small groups would be offered, that means only half of worship attendees also attend another group. Are they too busy? Are the programs irrelevant to them? Or are they growing spiritually on their own?
Barna’s study also revealed that a whopping 85 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the last week. Some 41 percent said they read the Bible outside of worship services. While these numbers are encouraging, other statistics reveal the result of a lack of theological or doctrinal training. While four out of five Americans are praying each week, only 66 percent believe that God is best described as the all-powerful, all-knowing perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today.
Busy work or beneficial?
Beyond the obvious need for passing on faith, an important check on the relevance of discipleship programs and processes in a church is a question about whether they provide only activity without providing productivity toward the deepening of members’ faith. But how do you measure spiritual maturity?
According to Michael Foss, the “Six Marks of Discipleship” are: 1. daily prayer, 2. weekly worship, 3. Bible reading, 4. serving at the church and beyond, 5. being in relationship to encourage spiritual growth in others, and 6. giving time, talents and resources.
To the discipleship list, Donald Whitney author of “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life” adds fasting, silence, solitude, journaling and learning.
Of course, certain disciplines lend themselves more readily to measurement. Worship attendance, volunteer activity, class rosters and offerings easily indicate the spiritual growth of a congregation. Measuring prayer life, Bible reading, service and giving, beyond church, or fasting, are more difficult.
Clarifying discipleship to your church
The nature of discipleship makes it tough to measure through the confines of a class or program. After all, it is Christianity, a way of life. Communicating this to your church means sharing the idea that reading books or completing courses even checking off a list of disciplines is not the end of discipleship. Instead, according to the Church Health Encyclopedia, the church should offer an on-going system of accountability.
Dr. Charlie Bing, founder and president of GraceLife Ministries, advises churches to ask four discipling questions to help clarify for leaders how they are making disciples and, for new believers, the course ahead of them:
1. What does God want me to become? This is a question intended to probe the aspect of transformation. How are people’s lives different because they are followers of Christ?
2. What does God want me to know? This answer includes the doctrine of Christianity and Bible knowledge.
3. What does God want me to do? The behavior altering aspects of becoming a believer are often the first step in discipleship. The life applications of following Jesus are constant.
4. What does God want me to enjoy? The motivation for ongoing discipleship, according to Bing, is an eternal perspective and acting upon an appreciation of God’s grace.
Making disciples stay
Churches that struggle with keeping new people usually struggle with a plan for including these attendees in discipleship processes and programs. New member classes, visitor lunches, opportunities to meet staff, prayer partners, and questionnaires to gather information about newcomers help church leaders track incoming crowds. Then churches must move new members through their strategic process for discipleship. Whether this means classes, mentoring, groups or combinations of these, a church must help new believers mature and learn more about who they are following and how that will look in their life. If the lives of the people in your church look no different from everyone else in your community, the power of the gospel to transform hearts and minds will not be evident. Without this power, what is the point?
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.