As lamentable as these things are, they are the predictable fruits of decades and generations of non-discipleship Christianity. Although job 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 discipleship is all about. For example: “Discipleship is a life-long process, transforming believers to think, act and love like Jesus which begins, inwardly, with personal response to the gospel and moves outwardly with a passion to advance the Kingdom.”
Corporate statements (mission, vision, values) should elevate discipleship as a foremost church goal. Expectations of membership should include a commitment to the life-long process of intellectual, spiritual, and behavioral transformation. Church leaders should assess, and periodically monitor, the spiritual health of their congregation using appropriate health measures.
In my 30 years in the nuclear industry, one maxim that proved true over and over is “What gets measured is what gets done.” Turning that into a question for the Church: “What must be measured to ensure that discipleship ‘gets done?’”
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 more than they “signed on” for.
“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 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.
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