By Scott McConnell
As leaders we know there are many areas where we need to grow in our walk with Christ. Sometimes, as we multiply similar needs across a congregation, it can be hard to know where to start. What area of discipleship should we emphasize? Where can teaching, exhortation, and a congregational focus make the most difference?
For over a decade, Lifeway Research has researched the discipleship journeys of Protestant churchgoers, and we have asked this question more than once.
In our recent research for the Discipleship Pathway Assessment we discovered some of the things that best predict improvement in growing in Christlikeness have shifted. We suspect much of the shift is tied to us removing some questions that were easy for churchgoers to achieve. In other words, the new indicators better reveal what we honestly struggle with as a church.
Statistically, many things are predictive of improving spiritual maturity, but I want to focus on the top items. The Christian life is not about getting one thing right. But we also don’t want to suggest so many that none of us even start. As you consider these five indicators, pick one to intentionally seek to grow closer to Christ.
Praying for gospel opportunities
Out of more than 100 questions we asked in the study, the one practice that most predicts higher spiritual maturity is praying more often for opportunities to tell others about Jesus Christ.
Think about it for a moment. This matters more than church attendance, Bible reading, giving, having a mentor, and many more.The one practice that most predicts higher spiritual maturity is praying more often for opportunities to tell others about Jesus Christ, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
This statement gets at two important things where we as the church today need to step toward Christ.
First, it reveals whether our heart is primarily focused on the kingdom of God. As Matthew 6:33 says if we seek first the kingdom of God, all these things (both physical and spiritual) will be added as God meets our needs. The opportunity to share the gospel with an individual is one of the greatest gifts God can give us.
Our spiritual desires cannot be focused on constructing buildings, increasing numbers, or making friends. Our primary desire should be for people who are far from God to hear that the loving Father wants to have a relationship with them and has already gone to the grave and back to make that possible.
Second, it shows that we realize outreach must involve God. The signpost of sharing Christ is the aspect of discipleship that most believers and churches struggle with. Religious conversations feel increasingly unnatural in our culture today, but this was never something God wanted us to do on our own. We need to join Him where He is working. We need to ask Him for the opportunity to share.
Praying for not-yet followers of Christ
The second most predictive indicator of spiritual growth is how often we pray for the spiritual status of people we know who are not professing Christians. As we increasingly pray for people by name who don’t walk with Christ, we are involved in God’s mission. None of us were able to turn to Christ on our own. The Holy Spirit first had to move in our lives.As we increasingly pray for people by name who don’t walk with Christ, we are involved in God’s mission. — @smcconn Click To Tweet
God wants us to ask Him to turn hearts to Him. He wants us to ask Him to send believers into this harvest as a witness to what He has done. Jesus instructed us to “keep asking, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). Our Father in heaven gives good things to those who ask Him. What better thing could we ask than for people we know to bend their knees before Jesus as their Lord?
Reading the Bible
Increasing how often we personally read the Bible points to real spiritual growth. In the first national study we conducted, Dr. Brad Waggoner summarized in The Shape of Faith to Come that this was the most predictive element of increased maturity found in that study. Even as we improved the assessment in 2011, this study of 2,930 Protestant churchgoers in North America showed that Bible reading was again most predictive of spiritual growth.
The importance of Bible reading has not changed. It matters, because God’s truth transforms us. But knowing it can transform is not enough. We have to engage with it regularly.
As the assessment continued to be improved, the areas in which we are further from Christ are better revealed. The larger gaps tend to be less about knowing and understanding God and more about making Him known to others today. Knowing God is as important as ever. As our heart begins to match His for those around us, it will drive us to want to better understand His truth.God’s truth transforms us. But knowing it can transform is not enough. We have to engage with it regularly. — @smcconn Click To Tweet
This practice is specifically about reading the Bible personally. It involves desiring to hear from God and being open to His ways. But, your own church and small group are direct sources of encouragement to actually live this out.
Praying for courage
Another element of prayer is a strong predictor of spiritual growth: Praying for the courage to stand up for Jesus. This question is not in the core assessment or a specific discipleship signpost. This practice tells a broader story.
There is a mental aspect to following Christ that often is more difficult than actions or beliefs themselves. Praying for courage is a request for the desire to say “it is worth it to follow Christ” in every circumstance.
Following Christ is also choosing not to follow the world and the many things it offers as alternatives. There are many good things that can slowly move ahead of Christ in our priorities.Jesus doesn’t need us to defend Him, but He asked us to be “ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Click To Tweet
There is a cost to following Jesus. Sometimes this is a private decision to put Christ first by investing and receiving less of other good things in life. Other times this is a very public choice we must make in a conversation or with an action.
Jesus doesn’t need us to defend Him, but He asked us to be “ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
Spending time praising God
Personally setting aside time for private worship, praise, or thanksgiving to God more often has the fifth most significant impact on spiritual maturity.
We often think about the Bible-reading part of a quiet time with God and listening to Him. But another essential element is to personally praise and thank God for who He is and what He is doing. This is, after all, a relationship. While we do ask Him for things, we also should intentionally enjoy Him and put that into words.
This is the first indicator that specifically mentions time. If there were no limits on our time, there would also be no limit to the good things we could do. But time is limited (and is easily wasted). The phrase, “time is money,” reflects that we understand it as a currency. Therefore, time becomes one of the best indicators of what we value. And it is so easy for us to shortchange this one.
All five of these practices can be started or encouraged at any time. You can effectively do all five of these things regardless of your circumstances.We can only emphasize a limited number of things in one season. Pick something that is directly related to growing in Christ. — @smcconn Click To Tweet
Over time, we should teach each of these practices. However, consider picking one of them to emphasize in your church. That emphasis can include:
- Teaching the importance of the habit through a sermon series or church-wide Bible study
- Celebrating when members of the congregation see fruit (e.g., have the opportunity to share the gospel, see someone they had prayed for trust Christ, hit a milestone in their reading or recognize how it impacted something they were facing, etc.)
- Sharing how members of the congregation have been faithful in this practice
- Asking how members are living out this practice so you have the stories and examples to share above
- Training how to live out this practice
- Offering tools to assist such as prayer points, Bible-reading plans, Daily Discipleship Guides, recommended Bibles, praise points, devotionals, praise music, etc.
- Reminding the congregation of the value of this practice through social media, verses, and personal encouragement
As leaders, we can only emphasize a limited number of things in one season. Why not pick something that is directly related to growing in Christ?
Scott is the executive director of Lifeway Research.