By Ken Braddy
I recently became acquainted with a pastor of a normative-sized church in my area. His church had about 75 people who gathered weekly for worship and Bible study. He told me of the decline the church had seen in attendance and how the church could no longer staff kids’ classes.
Today, almost one year later, church membership has dwindled to about 40 people. The pastor (now former pastor) became disillusioned with the state of the church and determined it was time to retire.
Do you know any churches in a similar condition—that have potential but are motionless?
In a recent Lifeway survey, 1,000 pastors revealed the issues most concerning to them about their churches. Underlying many of these challenges is the issue of discipleship. Could discipleship be both a foundational issue and the solution that solves some of the current needs churches face today? If yes, what would a disciple-making process look like?
Greatest Needs of Pastors Today
Many of pastors’ top ministry difficulties are connected to the issue of discipleship and disciple making. Pastors identified these top four concerns as ministry difficulties in their congregations they are needing to give specific attention to or invest in at this time:
- Developing leaders and volunteers (77%)
- Fostering relationships with unchurched people (76%)
- Training current leaders and volunteers (68%)
- Challenging people where they lack obedience (55%)
As people grow and mature as disciples of Jesus, many of the issues that are top-of-mind for our pastors will diminish.
A Process and Plan for Making DisciplesDiscipleship is best viewed as a long-term, planned process, and that plan must be communicated and championed with consistency. — @KenBraddy Click To Tweet
Discipleship is best viewed as a long-term, planned process, and that plan must be communicated and championed with consistency. The church cannot assume people know where they are on the discipleship pathway. Nor should church leaders assume people always know what their next step should be. The chart below may help illustrate what a process could look like as it relates to the ministries a church offers.
Remember, if we want to make disciples, not only should we (the leaders) know the process, but the members of our churches must know it too. If people don’t know the next step to take, they’ll stall out in their discipleship process, and pastors will continue to struggle with many of the top concerns discovered in the latest research.
Step 1: The Large Group Gathering (Worship/COME)
The book of Acts helps us develop a philosophy of groups. First, we see large-group gatherings. Acts 1:15 says, “In those days Peter stood up among the brothers and sisters—the number of people who were together was about a hundred and twenty…” (CSB).
Later, Acts 2:41 tells us, “So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added to them,” (CSB). The believers came together in the temple courts (plural) and experienced worship and teaching led by the apostles.
Worship is a significant weekly act that has taken place since the first century. A church’s weekly worship service is open to all, and pastors encourage the flock to obey the Chief Shepherd.
Step 2: Fellowship (Sunday School/CONNECT)
Moving people out of rows (worship) and into circles (groups) is mission-critical for the church today. The Transformational Church research project demonstrated that people in groups pray more, serve more, give more, confess sin more, are more relational to outsiders, and “stick” more than people who are not members of a group (meaning if people are connected to a group, they’re more likely to still be around five years after joining the church). It also demonstrated that transformational churches used small group gatherings to further disciple people.Moving people out of rows (worship) and into circles (groups) is mission-critical for the church today. — @KenBraddy Click To Tweet
A secondary evaluation of transformational churches proved that 88% of churches used Sunday School groups (or the functional equivalent by another name) as a foundational part of their discipleship strategy. Acts 2:46 says, “Every day they…broke bread from house to house,” and Acts 5:42 tells us of the powerful one-two punch of large and small group gatherings when it says, “Every day in the temple, and in various homes, they continued teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah,” (CSB).
Discipleship requires proximity—you don’t make disciples from a distance. Jesus’s primary method for making disciples was not large mega-gatherings like the Sermon on the Mount. His typical day was spent walking the dusty roads of Judea with his disciples, doing life together, serving together, and learning together.
For disciple making to continue in small groups of people, the leader must accept responsibility for helping the pastor as the lead disciple maker in the church. How is this accomplished? The small group leader must lead the group to do four key things that will help people grow as disciples.
First, the group leader helps his or her people learn and obey God’s Word. Second, the people are encouraged and taught to invite other people to become disciples. This requires the group members to know how to articulate their story (testimony) and how to share a gospel presentation. Third, group members must form deeper relationships. They’ll do this with members of the group but should also focus on “eating with sinners and tax collectors” who might never attend a church service or Bible study group. This keeps the group focused on people who need Jesus. Fourth and finally, people must engage in acts of service. Group members must be encouraged to leave their groups to serve within the church, but the entire group should have focused time when they serve people outside the church walls. Serving others takes place on and off the church campus.Discipleship requires proximity—you don’t make disciples from a distance. — @KenBraddy Click To Tweet
Did you happen to notice that the first letters of the bold phrases above spell the word LIFE? That’s not by accident. Groups should prepare God’s people for life in this world—to live out their faith daily in front of family, friends, and acquaintances. Discipleship is a lifelong commitment to grow and become more like Jesus daily.
Step 3: Discipleship (D-Groups/Discipleship University/GROW)
Sunday School/LIFE Groups provide foundational discipleship for people of all ages, but disciples should be encouraged to participate in even more challenging studies with an even smaller group of fellow disciples. In his book Growing Up, Robby Gallaty says, “Preaching to make disciples is like going to the nursery and spraying crying babies with milk and saying you just fed the kids. … Discipleship involves more than preaching and listening.”“Preaching to make disciples is like going to the nursery and spraying crying babies with milk and saying you just fed the kids. … Discipleship involves more than preaching and listening.” — @Rgallaty Click To Tweet
Robby is a proponent of D-groups (short for Discipleship Groups) that have two to four same-gender people who willingly come together to grow in their knowledge of the Word of God, pray, and hold one another accountable for living as disciples of Jesus. This is an essential step for making disciples. Sometimes D-groups meet during the week or on a weeknight, but there’s an expectation of more in-depth study and higher accountability.
Step 4: Ministry (Ministry Teams/SERVE)
A fourth step in the disciple-making process takes place when people continue to move into smaller groups that serve. A person might join a worship team, a security team, or become part of the church’s VBS crew. People might align with a ministry project team that serves people in the community. A church can train members to provide counseling at the local women’s shelter or crisis pregnancy center. All disciples should serve.
Consistently reminding church members and guests about the kinds of teams they could serve on is a significant part of their growth as disciples. Also, don’t forget to celebrate the work of these teams that serve. Celebrating their service for the Lord, especially in a worship service, calls attention to the way God grows his people as they serve. It encourages others who have not served to consider the joys and benefits of helping others.
Remember, people need to know how to move along the discipleship pathway, and as they are exposed to more and more opportunities for study and service, some of pastors’ top concerns about developing and training leaders and volunteers are addressed.
Step 5: Missions (Missions Teams/GO)
Rounding out the discipleship pathway is missions. Pastors’ top four ministry difficulties are addressed in this final part of the discipleship process. As people volunteer to go on mission, they experience training and development, they intentionally choose to serve and interact with the unchurched, and they are challenged to live in obedience to Christ. How many people in the pews hear about missions, but never step out in faith as a missionary, even across the street? To grow disciples and address the top concerns of pastors, we must remind people of the opportunities to participate in missions and encourage them to go.To grow disciples and address the top concerns of pastors, we must remind people of the opportunities to participate in missions and encourage them to go. — @KenBraddy Click To Tweet
Is it possible that the concerns of pastors in the Lifeway Research survey could be diminished if the disciple-making pathway in their churches were clearly articulated, with every member and guest being able to identify where they are along the pathway? I believe the answer is yes.
Ken is Lifeway’s director of Sunday School. He is the author of 11 books on group ministry, including Breakthrough: Creating a New Scorecard for Group Ministry Success. He also hosts a group ministry podcast, Disciple-making in Community. Follow his group ministry blog at kenbraddy.com.