Busy Church People Aren’t Necessarily Becoming Disciples
I read this quote years ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
“Unfortunately, churches often make things harder by obscuring the goal—to become more like Christ—with a complicated assortment of activities… When the church incessantly promotes all the things people should do, it’s very easy for them to lose sight of the real goal—which is who they should become.”Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth
by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson
This stood out to me because the research in this book confirmed my experience in working with churches. Program-based churches often have no intentional discipleship strategy. People are really busy, but there’s little in the way of spiritual growth happening.
The articles I’ve written on this topic in the past have been among the most read and shared. I included a few of them in the Links and Resources section below.
Amy and I dug a little deeper in this week’s podcast episode. Helping churches navigate this conversation is a big part of the Unstuck Process, and she and I both had some new observations to share.
In this conversation, we discussed:
- The program mentality, how you know your church has it and how we know it doesn’t really work
- Why more church activity ≠ people becoming more like Christ
- 5 challenges a program-approach creates for the church (both for the leadership and for the congregation
- What it means when you feel like you need more volunteers but you actually already engage a very high percentage
- Practical next steps to consider if you’re leading an over-programmed church
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson
- Programs, Paths and Healthy Church Growth
- Complexity: Why Do Churches Become Over-Programmed?
- Complexity: What Ministry Programs Do We Stop?
- Our latest data on Average % Volunteer Engagement can be found in The Unstuck Church Report: Benchmarks & Trends in U.S. Churches
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Sean: 00:02 Welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast, where each week our team’s having a conversation about getting churches unstuck. For churches our mission is clear to go into all the world and make disciples, but here at The Unstuck Group we hear often from church leaders that this is one of their greatest struggles. So this week on the podcast, Tony and Amy share a conversation about what’s working and what’s not when it comes to helping people grow as disciples. You might find it helpful as you listen to use the show notes and download our leader guide to work through this content together with your team. You can find those at theunstuckgroup.com/episode 85. Also, you can now subscribe to get the show notes in your inbox every single week. You’ll get links to all the resources that we mentioned during the show, so you don’t have to write those down. You’ll get bonus resources that we don’t mention during the show to help you go a little deeper on the topic and you’ll also get the leader conversation guide. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. So let’s join the conversation with Tony and Amy.
Amy: 00:58 Well, Tony, one of the conversations we have almost every week with churches is how they can help more people grow as disciples. And specifically how can they be more effective in helping people take those spiritual next steps? And that’s the question that seems to be a struggle for many of the pastors and leaders we work with. Why do you think that is?
Tony: 01:17 Yeah, that’s a great question, Amy. I think one of the primary issues here is that when churches think about discipleship, many times how they encourage people to take next steps toward Christ has just by keeping them busy in church activities. And that really doesn’t work. And you know it’s not the goal either. The goal ought to be equipping God’s people to be more like Christ. But what we’re seeing is all that activity in churches is really making it difficult for people to live out their purpose within the body of Christ.
Amy: 01:51 Say a little bit more about that busyness or what we often call the program mentality. How do we know that that program approach doesn’t work?
Tony: 02:00 Okay. Amy it’s probably not going to surprise you in my response here, but let’s look at the data. Let’s look at the data. So what does the data say? This is one of those areas I just don’t want to go based on our gut. I actually want to see when we’ve looked at how people take their next steps toward Christ, what can we learn from data? And so the good news here is many years ago, Willow Creek started the reveal survey and that survey has been used to collect data now for well over half a million Christ followers in over 2,000 churches. And I really think if you dive into this data, it does give us a great picture of how people take their next steps toward Christ and what the results reveal to us is that more involvement in programs, in other words more church activity, doesn’t equal becoming more like Christ. In fact, one of our good friends, Greg Hawkins and Kelly Parkinson, his teammate at Willow at the time wrote a book about the findings of the reveal research. The book is called Move. And within the book there’s this quote, “Unfortunately, churches often make things harder by obscuring the goal, which is to become more like Christ with a complicated assortment of activities. When the church incessantly promotes all the things people should do, it’s very easy for them to lose sight of the real goal, which is who they should become.” So in other words, the research is confirming my experience. I know this is your experience, Amy, as well. Working with many churches, program based churches often have no intentional discipleship strategy.
Amy: 03:51 Yeah. And we know by working with these churches each week, Tony, that there’s a lot of challenges that come along with program based approaches.
Tony: 03:59 Yeah, that’s right. So let me give you some indicators of where the challenges of being a program based church begin to pop-up in the churches we’re engaging with. One example of this is when you are in a program based church, it actually creates competition between ministries. In other words, they’re competing for the time and attention of people that are connected to the church. Another indicator, it actually fuels the consumer mindset that we’re trying to actually free people from in our culture. Where churches promote programs and events for people to attend rather than equipping people to do God’s work. It also creates complexity within the churches and complexity, Amy as you know, is one of the primary indicators of the churches that we find that are stuck. When there are too many options for people as well, especially for those newer to the church, it can get overwhelming for people to understand what their next steps need to look like.
Tony: 05:06 And then finally I would offer, there’s often in churches that are heavily program driven, there’s often a shortage of volunteers because they are trying to do way too much there are way too many programs and events and it’s actually it’s kind of, I don’t want to say funny, but telling I guess when we engage with a church, we’ll see their volunteer numbers, their volunteer engagement is through the roof. I mean if you were just to look at that indicator of volunteer engagement, you would think this church is thriving and yet, and then you hear from the leaders in the church and they’re actually complaining that they don’t have enough volunteers. And the reality is they have plenty of volunteers. They have high volunteer engagement. They’re just trying to do too much and because they’re trying to do too much, they don’t have enough volunteers to cover all of that, those programming and event opportunities that the church is offering.
Amy: 06:09 That’s so true. I was thinking the exact same thing as you started to say that cause at our staffing and structure review, we look at those indicators all the time. And I was just with a church recently where they had those high engagement numbers and then I said, well, could it be that we have too many things we’re trying to get people involved in? And that was a key learning for them. Right. So, Tony if the leaders listening right now are thinking through their churches maybe menu of discipleship options and maybe realizing it might be overwhelming and lack a clear strategy, what would you advise them to do, what’s their next step if they get a sense they’re over programmed.
Tony: 06:45 Yeah. So I always like to encourage churches to first begin by identifying what really is the end goal. And in this conversation, the big question we need to ask, I think is this it’s pretty simple, what does a disciple of Jesus look like? And you know, I’ve challenged teams, if I were you, I would grab your ministry leaders, get into a room, open your bibles, and just begin to brainstorm a list of what are those attributes of a disciple of Jesus that we’re looking for so that we have a clear understanding of where we want to encourage people to end up through whatever that discipleship process looks like. Then once you have that clarity, I think it really is important to, as a church, identify the core steps. And here I think it’s three, four, no more than five. What are those core steps that you want to help people take so that they can learn what it is to live out their faith in Jesus and really equip them to be empowered to live out the mission God’s called them to within the body of Christ? The solution in other words, is to move from programs to a clear path, a path of next steps. The path may be different from church to church by the way, but those steps, those clear next steps need to be defined and this will help you begin to make a shift that’s also necessary where you’re less focused on attendance at programs and you’re more focused on the movement that people are taking, the movement, the next steps that they’re taking on that path.
Amy: 08:29 That’s really good. Let me ask you this. How do churches begin that transition of moving to a path? What does a path look like?
Tony: 08:35 Yeah, so here Amy I think it’s always good just to step back and look at our own personal journeys. In fact, I just had this conversation with a church I was at this past week, because for years they have had conversations about what would a discipleship, what should the discipleship looked like at the church? But they’ve kind of struggled to identify those clear next steps, that path that they’re trying to identify. I just encourage them to think back through their spiritual journey from the time they accepted Christ to where they are today and what are some of the key things that God’s used in their lives to shape who they are as a Christ-follower and really form their faith. And you know, for me personally, I look back and I’ve shared this with you and many others. A person comes to mind as an example, Charlie.
Tony: 09:32 Charlie, when I was new to the faith and actually even pre-faith, asking questions about who is Jesus, what did Jesus do for me? How do I have assurance of my salvation and eventually eternity in Heaven. Charlie met with me every Saturday for several months and opened the Scriptures with me for the very first time and shared who Jesus was. And it was through those early conversations within that relationship, that key relationship with Charlie that I took some huge next steps in my early faith journey. I also think back personally about those instances before I was on staff at a church, when pastors and leaders invited me to actually engage in ministry as a volunteer in the church. And those took on different forms based on my giftedness. But it really is amazing when I took a step into ministry and serving and using the gifts God has given me how much that formed my faith as well.
Tony: 10:35 And those are examples of some common responses we hear. It was key relationships that shaped my faith. It was using the gifts that God gave me to serve others that shaped my faith. It was a teaching that I heard along the way that really transformed how I thought about my relationship with Christ. And you know, Amy too life experiences both positive and negative, and also for me personally just leaning into biblical engaging with the Scripture and other spiritual disciplines. These are all the things that we hear when we hear from leaders when we just step back and ask them what was your journey like? And that’s my encouragement for other churches too. As you’re identifying these key next steps that you want people in your church to take, think back to your spiritual journey and what really helped you take your next steps toward Christ.
Tony: 11:35 And of those things that I just mentioned about my personal spiritual journey, I think for churches where they really need to lean in is biblical teaching, which for churches obviously that commonly happens on the weekend, on a Sunday morning service. Relationships, how are we encouraging people to develop small groups of people that they’re connected to where key relationships can develop. And then also serving how can we encourage people to use the gifts God’s given them to engage in the ministry. And so for a lot of churches, I think their spiritual path that we’re talking about really could just be three steps. Go to a weekend service. Yeah. Engage in a relationship, whether that’s through a small group or a serving team. Yeah. And then use your gifts to serve other people. It’s going to look different in different churches. But that’s kind of the process, the conversation. I would encourage church leaders to have to better define their discipleship strategies.
Amy: 12:40 Right. And then, you know, just a quick word on the strategy. I think churches need to figure out what do we expect from any gatherings that we have? And measure the effectiveness of that strategy. So for instance, if you’re hoping to get people into groups and so you hold a marriage event or some other event that you hope people will kick the tires on a small group, you actually should measure that. And if no one’s funneling into groups, you really just had a gathering, you really didn’t move people along the path.
Tony: 13:07 Yeah. But here’s the good news in all of this conversation, Amy, we have actually included some helpful next steps for churches. If you’re at that place and many churches are, where you just have never gone through these necessary tough conversations to clarify what that discipleship pathway looks like in your church, we offer some exercises in our online course on leading an unstuck church to help you with this process. And so if you’re interested in learning more about the course, you can go to theunstuckgroup.com and select the online course. In fact, if you register for this course in this month, in March 2019, you will get our complete resource bundle also included with the course, and that includes all the ebooks that I’ve written through the years. It includes our full set of job descriptions for churches that our team has developed. It includes all our white papers and there are many team exercises in that bundle as well. Normally we would charge you $99 for this, but if you participate in the online course where you can take some next steps related to your discipleship pathway and you engage in March, we’ll give you that for free as well.
Amy: 14:26 Tony, I think the next logical question, if we have time for one more, is what do we do with all those programs once we start moving towards a path? That’s probably a big topic for another day, but any words there?
Tony: 14:36 Yeah, it’s actually a biblical concept. We call it pruning, but you’re right, that’s a big one. Let’s save that for a future podcast though, Amy, because there’s a lot involved in that.
Amy: 14:49 All right, we will do that. Any final thoughts then on this topic?
Tony: 14:51 I really want to encourage you to take the time to identify the things that God used to grow your faith. I talked a lot about my personal faith journey earlier in this conversation, but I want to encourage you to do that as well for yourself. Just ask yourself, does our current ministry strategy create the environments for people to experience the same opportunities for spiritual formation that I experienced as well? And if not, that’s an indication that your discipleship strategy at your church needs to change. And the reason why is this is our mission as the church.
Sean: 15:31 Well thanks for joining us today for this conversation. As Tony mentioned, during the month of March, any leader who joins the Leading an Unstuck Church online course, will get our additional resource bundle completely free. You can find more information and join the course at theunstuckgroup.com/course. If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider leaving us a review on your favorite podcasting platform. And if you have any questions about this topic or any of our episodes, use the #unstuckchurch and post them on your favorite social media channel. As always, if you’d like to learn more about how we’re helping churches get unstuck, you can visit us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.