This article is part of a three-part series. In PART 2, I talk to you about two common responses to this crisis and why they haven’t been as successful. In PART 3, I talk about new modes of doing the old work of discipleship.
It’s bad and getting worse. What am I talking about?
I am privileged that my role at Fuller Seminary takes me all over the country to interact with thousands of church and mission leaders working hard to form their people into the image of God. The more I listen, the more convinced I am that today’s church is facing a growing crisis in adult discipleship.
I am not even talking about the challenging state of the church in America. We are a deeply bifurcated community of faith: divided about race, politics, theology, and culture. All of these are mere symptoms of a discipleship crisis that has been brewing for decades. I am speaking more to the realities of what church and mission leaders face every week. In 2016 researchers alerted us to the fact that committed members of our churches attend a little less than twice per month and they come for one hour. (Pew puts it at 1.9 times per month, and Barna reported 1.4). A large local church in my community surveyed the people who give financially to their church and found their average attendance was 1.2 times per month. Middle and lower income singles and families often need to work weekends. It is not their choice, but life’s realities make it a necessity. People with greater means are taking advantage of the opportunity to travel or find themselves absorbed in their kids’ activities. Soccer and baseball games, volleyball tournaments, dance and music recitals consume the weekend.
Gone are the days of weekly church attendance that included time for a Sunday school or equipping classes and growing relationships. There are exceptions here and there, but they are often legacy ministries at large churches serving older populations that have continued their engagement. Like my parents, their Sunday school class serves as a primary community of friends. They wouldn’t miss it, but they are a rare minority.
So, even committed followers of Jesus attend church about twice per month. This leaves the average pastor 25 sermons a year to fully form a life to take its place in the mission of God. It is not working. It could never work. To be formed into the image of God––who is a relationship––requires deep and meaningful relationships. Worshiping together can form a basis of relationship and meaningful connection, but it is not, by itself, enough. We need more.