By Scott Ball
Churches are great at filling their calendars. Most churches have no shortage of programs, events, and fellowships. Yet most churches somehow struggle to do the one thing Jesus commissioned believers to do: make disciples.
Declining churches assume that providing a variety of opportunities for growth is all that is necessary for growth to happen. While this feels right, it almost always fails.
People don’t need more Bible study choices. They need a discipleship pathway.
Many of the people in declining churches have heads full of Bible knowledge but have no way to use it. In the absence of a discipleship pathway, the people in your church will bottleneck in the place that feels most comfortable.
In a real-world sense, this looks like people showing up for Sunday morning worship but never stepping out of their comfort zone and joining a smaller community for Bible study and prayer. Or it looks like people attending three Bible studies but never stepping up to serve as a deacon or even an usher. Inevitably, it looks like a lot of people who know a lot about the Bible but rarely share their faith.
When your church focuses on filling the calendar with programs over creating a streamlined discipleship pathway, the people in your church will never be held accountable to grow.
So how do you begin to build a discipleship pathway in your church?
- Determine what a disciple looks like. What are the key characteristics of a disciple? Try to keep the list to six to ten markers of maturity. At The Malphurs Group, we begin with Acts 2 and observe the characteristics of the growing church in Jerusalem—not as prescriptive but as a descriptive way of understanding discipleship. If you want to make disciples in your church, you need to clarify what a disciple looks like.
- Define discipleship steps. What are the key actions a person must take to be a disciple? This is the central component of the discipleship pathway. Every church will have its own interpretation, but this is typically three to five actions you believe everyone in your church must take. For example, you may decide that growing disciples must worship, take ownership of spiritual growth, use their giftedness to serve the church, and share their faith. You might summarize this as Worship, Grow, Serve, and Share.
- Streamline your ministries. You will need to readjust your programming to align with this pathway. Each step on that pathway should have a primary ministry (something you expect everyone to do), but each can also have secondary ministries (something people can choose to do). If a program or ministry doesn’t fit into your pathway, it may need to be cut. If it fits but isn’t effective, you might need to reenvision it. If you have a step that has no primary ministry, it may be time to innovate.
The process of developing a discipleship pathway is simple in principle but difficult in practice because it’s emotional. Saying goodbye to failing ministries is hard. Yet at the end of the day, churches must remember that Jesus gave one clear mission: make disciples. Everything else is secondary.
It’s time for your church to take greater ownership of that mission and begin to generate disciple-making momentum.
Scott Ball is director of services at The Malphurs Group.