This article is part of a three-part series. In PART 1, I talk about my journey to discovering the crisis in adult discipleship. Today, I would like to talk to you about two common responses to this crisis and why they haven’t been as successful. In PART 3, I talk new modes of doing the old work of discipleship.
Two Common Responses
Information/Equipping for Transformation
Large churches with significant budgets often address the issue by hiring. That is where the discipleship, formation, and equipping pastors are employed. I get to work with many of these amazing women and men. They are wise, creative, and resourceful. They are doing a lot of good work and I have learned a lot from their ministries. I was one of those leaders for eleven years, as a pastor of spiritual development.
It was one of the hardest jobs I ever had. It took thousands of volunteer hours, a team of four paid staff and a budget of nearly a million dollars. Yet, one of the reasons I left that role was because no matter how great our classes, how excellent our daily devotional material, we were still only able to reach about 30 percent of the congregation.
With a big enough budget, you can produce a lot of material and thousands of hours of content. Pastors become recruiters, sales people, and project managers making it all work. And despite the massive legitimate effort, the care, concern and passion, it fails to produce long-lasting fruit at scale. Don’t get me wrong, I can name a number of people who have become more and more like Jesus in these contexts. But they are the exception, not the rule.
And the reason is that we can never educate people into the image of God. Information does not equal transformation. Certainly, followers of Jesus need some truth and training, but to be conformed to the image of God, who is a relationship, takes deep and long-lasting relationships.
And this is exactly why some churches lean on the ministry of small groups.
Church of Small Groups
I am a big fan of this approach, and I have invested all my life in the ministry of small groups. There has not been a time in my life since I was 18 that I have not been in some kind of small group. But we have a huge problem.
Small groups are consistently being asked to bear way too much weight in the context of their church. We ask the small group to be the solution to almost all the problems. They are to be the primary place of connection, friendship, discipleship, Bible study, prayer support, crisis care, celebration, and practical help. It is an overwhelming job that requires the small group leader to be more competent as a generalist than what is required of any paid staff.
In my last role in the church I had 450+ small group leaders and 20 coaches. Yet the average small group leader got about an hour of training a year. That was as much as I could get to them. We cared, they cared, and there was some remarkable ministry. But it was hard for those leaders to endure. The smart/wise ones learned that their group could manage two or three roles––and they generally did a great job creating places of community or belonging where people felt supported and known. That is huge.
It is not adequate, however, to create disciples who become like Jesus and take their place in the mission of God.
So, what is the solution to the adult discipleship crisis the church faces today? Sign up for our newsletter, where we will outline what we think is a reliable way forward for churches of all sizes––large and small. There are ways that this can happen, and we are delighted to see it take root all over the country.
In the previous two installments of this exploration, we discussed the challenge the church is facing in the effort to disciple its people. Most attend their church a little less than twice per month and for one hour. The opportunity to engage people’s lives in deep and meaningful relationship is simply getting more and more difficult. Valiant effort is spent on equipping, and small group ministry is often asked to bear more weight that the average leader can withstand.