Why Isn’t the Church Growing: A Discipleship Dilemma?

A recent study put forth by Barna research discussed the current “State of Discipleship.”[1]

I’m a big discipleship advocate—constantly preaching and teaching about the Great Commission, mission, and disciple-making. Not only do I preach and teach it—I disciple and invest into others. I love relational community.

But, the Western church is hemorrhaging. I believe the number one reason is a lack of disciple-making. Barna reveals, “only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity.”

In the research, Christians were asked which term or phrase best described a spiritual growth process. Ironically, but very illuminating, “discipleship” ranked fourth on the list—being selected by fewer than one in five Christians (18%).[2] That’s disturbing. Only one in five Christians equated the term discipleship with spiritual growth. It seems that something is amiss within the contemporary church.

Spiritual Growth is Great?

Barna’s numbers seem contradictory. Only 25 percent of the polled respondents stated discipleship was very relevant. The research indicated “The implication is that while spiritual growth is very important to tens of millions, the language and terminology surrounding discipleship seems to be undergoing a change, with other phrases coming to be used more frequently than the term ‘discipleship’ itself.” So, the dilemma within discipleship is the fact that a majority of Christians do not equate themselves with disciples.

I found it ironic that 52 percent who attended church in the past six months, asserted that their church “definitely does a good job helping people grow spiritually,” while 73 percent believed their church places “a lot” of emphasis on spiritual growth. How can that many believers think their church is doing a good job at growing spiritually, and yet the church is not making disciples?

The problem is the perceived definition of spiritual growth and its relationship to disciple-making. It seems that a majority of Christians view spiritual growth as an individual construct—as if discipleship can be divorced from Christianity—it’s in a vacuum. Nearly two out of five of all Christian adults consider their spiritual growth to be “entirely private.”

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The Real News

Disciple-making is about reproducing—making other disciples. If 73% of the polled believers stated that their church places a major emphasis on spiritual growth—why is the church not making disciples?

Why is the church severely declining—with 80 to 85 percent of all Western churches in decline or stagnating?

I believe it has to do with perception. In the article, Barna stated that only 1% of church leaders believed their churches were discipling very well. That’s only 1%—one—uno—eine—en—no matter what language— just 1% believe their church is discipling very well. Opposite of doing well—60 percent (60%) of pastors state the church is not discipling well, at all!

Why would that be? Don’t three out of four Christians believe their church places a major emphasis on spiritual growth? Why the disparity?

As a pastor, I believe it’s because we (pastors) correlate discipleship with relational communion—life together. Barna’s poll revealed that 91% of pastors considered “a comprehensive discipleship curriculum” as the least-important element of effective discipleship. Yet, when polling Christians, a perception of discipleship, or spiritual growth is related to curriculum, class, and study—not relational connectivity and with-ness.

Barna notes “Only 17 percent say they meet with a spiritual mentor as part of their discipleship efforts.” That’s it! This is why the church is not growing and this is why the church is failing at making disciples. The majority of Christians do not see relational communion with others as important. And discipleship pertains to personalized spiritual disciplines.

How Did This Happen?

There’s a logical explanation—but not a quick one.

Perhaps due to infant baptism, from the fifth-century, and continuing into the Reformation period, discipleship progressed toward individual spiritual discipline more than communal interactive relationships concerning the daily rhythms of Christian life.

While catechesis still existed for new converts, the continued practice of infant baptism shifted discipleship away from the convert catechumenate (waiting three years prior to baptism, but partaking in communal life) to spiritual disciplines and devotions of individualized believers.[3] Perhaps the most notable reformer, Martin Luther, believed that discipleship guided the believer into deeper devotions toward Christ.[4] For Luther, discipleship referred to Christ’s inner working power and “not our attempts to imitate” the deeds of Christ.[5]

The early church had communal gatherings for fellowship, teaching, and life-on-life. But, due to ongoing heretical views—the church began to focus more on the individual development of personal character and devotion, along with theological and doctrinal polity. Albeit, Luther’s discipleship consisted of a deeper commitment to the spiritual devotions of prayer, fasting, and the Word of God, it was not communal.

John Calvin described discipleship as an automatic title for the regenerated believer, an identity by grace in Christ.[6] Calvin, a paedobaptist, considered all believers disciples (and I agree), but not in the same aspect of the communal spiritual nourishment, as that of the early church. For Calvin, baptism became the sign and ratified seal of a “professed” disciple (I find an infant professing anything as odd).[7] However, Calvin focused more on knowledge transference, with believers hearing the preached Word, than a day-to-day activity with believers who practiced fellowship-style catechesis and breaking of the bread (Acts 2:42–46).[8] But to his credit, Calvin believed that all Christians should carry out the commission of God within their lives.[9]

So, the problem was an eventual drifting from the early church communal relationship instruction and fellowship to a more individualized spiritual discipline-type formation. So then, you can see, for the contemporary Christian, discipleship is perceived as curriculum, not as much associated with communal spiritual growth. Discipleship became divorced from collective spiritual maturity, because it became divorced from the communal gathering and growth with others.

The solution calls for reverting back to the origin of Christ-following and being a relational disciple-maker of Christ. Disciples make disciples. Discipleship is not merely spiritual growth, but helping others, relationally, to develop into mature disciples, who make disciples, etc.


[1] State of Discipleship, Barna.org, https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/

[2] State of Discipleship, Barna.org, https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/

[3] Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), xviii.

[4] Allan Rudy-Froese, “Learning from Luther on Christian discipleship.” Vision (Winnipeg, Man.) 13, no. 2 (September 2012): 55–63.; Reformation period (c. 1517–1648), Martin Luther (c. 1483–1546).

[5] Ibid., 57.

[6] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries XVII, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 385.; John Calvin (c. 1509–1564).

[7] Ibid., 385.

[8] Thomas A. Bloomer, “Calvin and Geneva: Nation-Building Missions,” biblicalworldview.com, 2008, http://www.biblicalworldview.com/Calvin_and_Geneva_Bloomer.pdf.

[9] “The Cost of Discipleship,” www.ligonier.org, 2017,

http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/cost-discipleship/.

Re-Plant or Re-Vitalize, Part III

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Part 3 of the three part series, (part I and part II)

Should Dying Churches Replant or Revitalize?

Aubrey Malphurs has extensively researched the characteristics and attributes of what it takes to revitalize a church—I’m not going in that direction. I agree with him—it takes an apostolically gifted individual, someone charismatic, a self-starter, self-motivator, and magnetic personality, gifted by God, to revitalize a church.[1] All that stated, we don’t have a lack of pastors, we have a lack of gifting and understanding of the gargantuan task at hand.

Revitalization is extremely difficult—yes, I’m showing my cards, now, looking at the diagram again (below), once a church has moved from the downward turn (not to a downward turn, which ambiguously can be a myriad of factors: pastoral change, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc.) and drifts toward dying—the closer that church body gets to dying, the less of a chance it has of revitalization. This is not an opinion, and assuredly, there are exceptions, but seems to be the rule. The church I serve may be one of those exceptions—possibly—only time will tell.

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In nearly all of the cases that I’ve looked at (and I haven’t seen them all, I’m not declaring I have), replanting is better suited. Why? For a congregation of people affected by culture and demographics—all churches will be—but now facing a constant downward spiral—they become more concerned with keeping it alive than in flourishing and making disciples. This is a natural inward digression, but it’s a church killer. The reality of keeping the doors open can be correlated to when my 13-year-old Lab had cancer—I know Labradors are bigger dogs and have an approximate 8–12-year window of life. My wife and I decided it was better to love and lose than not to love at all. But when the veterinarian stated that our beloved companion had cancer, refusing to eat, we knew the answer—we had to put her down. To keep her alive was to not face reality— (1) motivated by selfishness; keeping her alive for us, (2) the inevitable was still going to take place—death, and (3) we would not be good stewards of God’s creation. There comes a time when “putting the church down” is the better way.

I know you’re asking…What constitutes a downward turn?

Remember, I stated, from a downward turn—meaning, the church is not facing a sudden decrease, but have progressed into a continual unhealthy downward spiral and now face the inevitable—cancer.

For a church to revitalize, it usually needs to substantially alter its missiological (and at times, orthodoxical) DNA. The DNA is culturally created to match that of, and for, the reaching, serving, and making disciples among the community. Often the building is emphasized more than the people, who make up the church. The dying church no longer views itself as living, breathing, and untethered to material possessions, to serve out the mission of God.

Replanting on the other hand is a new beginning—which seeks to begin the process all over again. Usually replanting includes renaming, selling property, revisiting the mission and vision, for the purpose of seeking a vibrant passionate gospel calling back into the community. If a dying church assesses that close to 75% of the members are not living within the community—my advice—shut the doors—offer the building (if it’s paid for) to a church planter for the kingdom, or sell the building and proceed with a replant somewhere else—but make no mistake—either a replant or revitalize will take a new “leader” and equipping of the five-fold ministry gifting (Eph 4:11–12).

I’m not saying that a revitalize cannot work—surely, God can do all things. But the likelihood of it happening for any length and sustaining time period is unlikely. There’s so much more to this conversation—but I pray it leads you and others into that conversation and if you want me to join in with you, feel free to contact me at matt@newbreednetwork.org

[1] Aubrey Malphurs and Gordon Penfold, Re: Vision: The Key to Transforming Your Church, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 30.

Re-Plant or Re-Vitalize Part II

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This is Part II of the series, Re-Plant or Re-Vitalize, click here for part I

I was at my usual coffee hangout with a church planting strategist from a major Baptist association, he asked about revitalization and replanting. I revealed to him what I am about to reveal to you. This is not theoretical jargon, but applied praxis and observations, coupled by research. We agreed that each church has a beginning, and for the most part, each church has an ending—a shelf life— so to speak. Before I give my conclusion and answer the question if we should replant or revitalize (don’t just scroll to the bottom), let me provide much needed insight. Why do all churches have a life span—lifespan occurs for several reasons (not exhaustive): (1) culture, (2) demographic changes, and (3) apathy.

Culture

Culture is always changing and evolving, generation by generation. Lesslie Newbigin describes culture as “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.”[1] Whether we like it or not, geographical landscapes look different than they did years ago, views of acceptance, tolerance, and even orthopraxy—change. What once was is no longer.

When I was young, the church congregation dressed the part—little boys in ties, little girls in dresses—now, boys and girls are not even genders, but subjective thinking. However, not argue genders—the point—culture has changed in the way that people dress for gathering in worship, and so much so, men may dress up as women—the pendulum has swung. What effect does that have on church? Most churches adhering to dress codes as a form of holiness, are on the outside looking in—they’re either dying or already dead. This isn’t a cause and effect—this is an observation concerning culture. What was once unacceptable is now acceptable and the churches which did not move with the cultural change, died or are dying (most, not all). Dress codes are just one example, there are numerous others regarding culture—I could have chosen a myriad.

Demographics

This is a big observation: demographics are not the cause but the observations of research regarding population data and particular people groups. But, within our context, we’re going to assume that you’ve done your homework, and know about how demographics plays a role in contextualizing the gospel and exegeting communities (if not, see my article: Why Demographics Matter). The specific “why” question regarding churches having a life span, relates to demographic observations. Obviously, demographics cannot cause anything, I am utilizing the term demographics because of the things which demographics expose.

With modern technology and transportation, people can now access areas in which they once could not. Back in 1900, a church was planted to meet the needs of the community of people residing within walking distances. However, now most new-comers scour the Internet for churches they align, get in the car, and perhaps make a visit. Likewise, older congregations have members moving further away from the church building, and driving longer distances (e.g. it is hard to reach a community when no one lives there!).

Demographics shoes that urban areas have been affected by gentrification, immigration, and globalization, causing city dwellers to move to the suburbs. Urban areas not effected by any of the three are in decline and dying themselves. Some rural areas show stagnant job growth and a lack of stability for growing families—usually when this occurs, the rural church declines with only the older generation left to shut the inevitable door.

Suburban areas can vary with geography and tend to fluctuate, but suburbia is a new concept, so because of wandering populations of people groups within Western society, each generation may swing—this means that generational homes are rarely made. For example, it is rare that parents stay in the same home in which they grew up, even though the “mover rate” is the lowest recorded rate since 1948.[2] The average person in the United States moves 11.4 times within their lifespan.[3] So, what do demographics shows us about the reality of church life spans? We’re living in a transient society—people come, and people go—if the church is not reaching new converts—it dies.

Apathy

Lastly (but not exhaustive), the NT writers continually exhorted their readers to avoid spiritual complacency and a lack of gathering together (Heb 10:25). As well, Jesus warned six of the seven churches in Asia minor about apathy (Rev. 1:11–3:22). So, we shouldn’t be surprised that if the early admonished churches closed their doors due to apathy (or possible persecution), why do we think we’re invulnerable. As the writer of Proverbs asserts, “For lack of wood the fire goes out…” (26:20).

I would also contend that for a lack of discipleship intentionality a church dies out—that is clearly an apathy issue. With many Christians inactive in discipleship, a necessity for intentional participatory gospel-centered community becomes essential. The Barna Group reported, “Only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity.”[4] Twenty. Percent. Think about that for a second—let that sink in—that means that 80 percent are NOT engaged in disciple-making—at all! Dare we even evaluate what the 20 percent label as discipleship? Needless to say, apathy is a church killer.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 5.

[2] “Mover Rate Reaches Record Low, Census Bureau Reports,” Census.gov. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/mobility_of_the_population/cb11-193.html

[3] Mona Chalabi, “How Many Times Does the Average Person Move?,” fivethirtyeight.com, January 29, 2015, https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/how-many-times-the-average-person-moves/.

[4] David Kinnaman, “New Research On the State of Discipleship,” http://www.barna.org, https://www.barna.org/research/leaders-pastors/research-release/new-research-state-of-descipleship#.VqDcJFJQmDU.

Church Re-Planting or Re-Vitalization?

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Western Christianity is hemorrhaging. With 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline, an urgent appeal for revitalization and church planting exists.[1] To keep up with the current pace of population growth, Western churches would need to plant approximately 3,000 new churches each year.[2] As well, church planting remains as one of the most effective means of following the Great Commission in multiplicative disciple-making.[3] Likewise, since the West has a devastating amount of churches in decline and plateauing, the call for revitalization has been trumpeted throughout evangelical circles.

For the record, I have been a church planter and a revitalization pastor. I am now in my fifth year as a revitalization pastor. I’m the director of operations for New Breed Church Planting Network and nearing the completion of my doctorate in developing a reproducible disciple-making strategy for church planters. In my doctoral research, I’ve studied other church planting organizations, examined revitalization, unreached people groups, discipleship, and in over two years, probably read every book about church planting and discipleship that exists. I add that information only because I believe I understand this issue.

So, let’s explore the question, should dying churches revitalize or replant?

I want you to understand what I just wrote, “should dying churches … ”

Here’s the kicker—what constitutes a dying a church and when will that church know? I’m not going to address that—there’s much written about it—however, I will add to the conversation that a breaking point exists. A church simply cannot continue to do things as they always have—some churches see change occurring and attempt to adjust and some do not—thereby, dying. At launch, a vibrant gospel-centered gathering of individuals make up the body of Christ—a church. These gathering believers reach new converts, serve, and disciple their new community. Over time, the church body grows and becomes a healthy living organism. But after a few generations (or less), the church body encounter factors that cause a downward turn. Somewhere in between the downward turn and dying (see figure below) revitalization tends to take place—what I believe to be true, may have you thinking differently. I am also fully aware of what is at stake.

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I was at my usual coffee hangout with a church planting strategist from a major Baptist association, he asked about revitalization and replanting. I revealed to him what I am about to reveal to you. This is not theoretical jargon, but applied praxis and observations, coupled by research.

…to be continued. This is a three part series. 

 

[1] Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 200.

[2] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 181.

[3] Craig Ott and Gene Wilson, Global Church Planting: Biblical Principles and Best Practices for Multiplication (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 20.