In my first blog I noted the need for a discipleship movement to help believers grow to spiritual maturity. Earlier this month, Barna Research Group released its latest survey data, conducted as part of an annual survey going back twenty years, and the trends identified make it even clearer than before that we need a renewed focus on discipleship. You can read the Barna findings and the commentary here:
http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/504-barna-examines-trends-in-14-religious-factors-over-20-years-1991-to-2011. You can also read additional commentary from George Barna at www.georgebarna.com.
Barna’s research confirms what many of us have seen firsthand in our churches. His research shows significant declines in church attendance, Sunday School attendance, Bible reading, trust in the accuracy of the Bible, and a dramatic rise in the number of those “unchurched.” But, strangely, at the same time, there has been an increase (5%) in the number of people who profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now, one would think amid the drop in almost every other statistic, we would see a drop in this one as well. What is going on? Well, Barna has a theory, and I think he’s on track:
“I think part of the explanation for why we are seeing increases in being born again has to do with how we market salvation… The research indicates that almost all of the people who are accepting Christ as their savior do so without being truly broken of their sins. They say the prayer to ask for forgiveness, but not with a heart that is shattered by the reality of their sin in the context of their relationship with God. We have a lot more people who think they’re born again, based on following prescribed procedures, than we have people who experience true grief and sorrow for their sins and shift to total dependence upon Christ. They have acknowledged and confessed their sins but are not turning their life over to God or seeking His guidance in all matters. They understand salvation intellectually but they don’t allow a deeper and more complete transformation to occur.” George Barna, August 2 commentary on his website.
I think this gets to the heart of how we can see many churches growing in number but still not see the transformational change we expect to see in people who follow Christ and accept him as their Lord and Savior. As a church, we are reaching people and witnessing to them, but we are doing very little to help them grow into spiritual maturity. This, I believe, is the great crisis facing the church today.
Barna would seem to agree. In his article on his new book Maximum Faith, he writes:
“If you were to objectively evaluate all the data, as I have tried to do, I believe you would reach the same conclusion that I have: astoundingly few Americans who identify themselves as Christians – and even a minority of those who might be deemed to be “born again” by traditional measures – appear to be serious about letting God transform them into the person He desires them to be. “
Even when it comes to “born again” believers, Barna, also in this article, sees the same problem:
“Even if we narrow the scope of our focus to born-again Christians, the picture is not flattering. In essence, the born-again community has invited God to reside in our hearts, accepting the special gift of love and forgiveness that He offered, along with His promise of eternal salvation. Sadly, once we felt certain that we had His gift securely in hand, we abandoned Him and have continued to operate by the standards and values of the world, searching for earthly treasures and pleasures. That is why the research has consistently shown over the past two decades that the lives of born-again Christians are essentially indistinguishable from those of people who do not claim Jesus Christ as their savior. We may be “religious” but we are not truly transformed by our faith in and relationship with God. Only a tiny proportion of born again adults get beyond their profession of faith to experience the more robust and significant life that is available through Christ to His followers.”
In our discipleship programs, we have noticed a dramatic difference in people once they get to the point of “absolute surrender” to Christ. Once they turn everything over to God, the Holy Spirit begins to truly transform that person. We have neglected this teaching in the church today. Paul writes, “…In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1) Too often, our churches focus on things that are easily measured, but we neglect the harder, perhaps more significant, challenge of helping people in their walk to spiritual maturity. I am not suggesting we pull back in the mission of evangelism, but each of us individually and the church as a whole needs to confront the broader mission of making disciples and recognizing that evangelism and discipleship are two sides of the same coin. An article by Regis Nicoll in the upcoming Fall issue of Knowing & Doing gives some helpful guidance to churches who want to focus more on discipleship.
If the disturbing trends from Barna’s research continue, we will be left with churches that are hollow at the core, and with an even more shallow understanding of what it means to walk with Christ and be transformed.
One bit of good news in the findings is that much of the statistical drop took place in the decade from 1991-2001, and the trends leveled off after that. I pray that we have hit bottom and are beginning the long climb back.
Please pray that God will raise up a new generation of leaders with an anointing for discipleship, and that pastors, other church leaders, and ministry leaders will begin to focus on discipleship alongside evangelism. I continue to pray that the Holy Spirit will spark a discipleship movement in this nation and beyond that will build the church back up to be even stronger than before. Please join me in that prayer.