3 Reasons Why Your Church Isn’t Producing Spiritual Growth – Episode 102 | The Unstuck Church Podcast


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Manage the Tension Between Growing Your Church & Growing People

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This is how I imagine we got here: Some time ago, there must have been a pastor who was just focused on growing attendance, but the pastor was too lazy to do the hard work of encouraging the church to grow spiritually and mature in Christ.

And then on the other side, there must’ve been a pastor who was just focused on helping Christians grow spiritually, but the pastor was too lazy to do the hard work of helping the church fulfill the great commission by reaching people outside the faith with the Gospel.

I’m assuming that’s where this false dichotomy came from: the idea that you can’t both grow a church and help people grow as disciples.

I’m being a little sarcastic, but you get the idea. I’m sure somewhere, someplace those two churches still exist, but I can tell you that after helping nearly 400 churches engage in The Unstuck Process, it’s become very clear that truly healthy, thriving, growing churches are focused on both sides of the equation. They’re effective in their evangelism strategies to reach people outside the church and outside the faith, and they’re effective in their discipleship strategies to help people take their next steps toward Christ.

You can’t sustain health without addressing both.

So, in this episode, Amy and I discussed some reasons we commonly see churches struggling to help people take next steps to become more like Jesus.

  • The false dichotomy of church growth vs. spiritual growth
  • Why we see some churches prioritizing steps on a discipleship path over membership
  • The best practice for effectively making the shift from programs to a path
  • How many churches act like a “helicopter parent” and ultimately raise spiritual children who are unable to own their own spiritual journey
Most churches are still trying to program spiritual growth rather than offering a path. All of those ministries and programs compete with each other: People don’t know how to prioritize the steps they should take. #unstuckchurch… Click to Tweet There's a misconception that spiritual maturity is the church's responsibility: It's not. #unstuckchurch [episode 102] Click To Tweet

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Tony: 00:00 It’s really impossible to disconnect Jesus’ command to love God and to love others. They go hand in hand and spiritual formation begins with loving God, but if it doesn’t lead us to love the people around us, the people that God loves, the people that God puts in our lives, we’re really not fully mature believers.

Sean: 00:23 Welcome to The Unstuck Church podcast where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Many churches struggle with the tension between evangelism and spiritual growth. Some have grown frustrated with the challenge of trying to reach our culture and have chosen to focus on discipleship. Others have seen the current opportunity to lean fully into evangelism with less focus on the next steps. So which strategy is right? In this week’s episode, Tony and Amy take a look at how unstuck churches are managing the tension between the growing attendance and growing spiritually. Make sure before you listen to subscribe, to get the show notes in your inbox each week. You can get links to all of the resources we mentioned, the leader conversation guide for you and your team and bonus resources all conveniently delivered to your email. You can sign up by going to theunnstuckgroup.com/podcast, or you can grab the show notes at theunstuckgroup/102. You can also join the conversation on social media by using the #unstuckchurch when you post. Connect with Tony, Amy, myself, and explore this episode as well as others. And now here’s this week’s conversation with Tony and Amy.

Amy: 01:30 So before we jump into this topic today, forgive me, but I’m a little confused, Tony. I thought you were the church growth guy, but why are we talking about spiritual growth?

Tony: 01:40 Ah, it’s always good to start a podcast with a bit of sarcasm, right? I hear that in your voice, Amy, but I’ll play along. Yes, I’m familiar with this false dichotomy that you’ve referenced that suggests if you’re focused on growing the church by reaching more people for Jesus, you probably aren’t helping people grow spiritually and vice versa. People since the beginning of time maybe have been talking about this, but at least I know in the last 20 years I’ve been in ministry, that’s a common conversation and I’ve always assumed that false dichotomy was started by lazy church leaders who didn’t want to effectively provide spiritual leadership to their congregation. So it’s also good when we start with sarcasm and then I try to attack pastors in the same breath. So there you go.

Amy: 02:30 That’s why we have such a loyal listening group.

Tony: 02:34 So, you know, on one side there must have been a pastor who was just focused on growing attendance, but the pastor was too lazy to do the hard work of encouraging the church to grow spiritually and mature in Christ. And then on the other side, there must’ve been a pastor who was just focused on helping Christians grow spiritually, but the pastor was too lazy to do the hard work of helping the church fulfill the great commission by reaching people outside the faith with the Gospel. I’m assuming that’s where that false dichotomy came from and I’m sure somewhere someplace those two churches still exist. But I can tell you after helping nearly 400 churches engage the unstuck process through the years that unstuck churches, those churches that are truly healthy, thriving, growing – they’re focused on both sides of the equation. They’re effective in their evangelistic strategies to reach people outside the church and outside the faith, and they are effective in their discipleship strategies to help people take their next steps toward Christ. You can’t sustain health without addressing both.

Amy: 03:44 Right? Well, with that as a foundation, we’ve talked in the past about why churches are stuck when it comes to reaching new people through their weekend services. In fact, you recently talked with Jeff Brody at Connexus Church about their turnaround when it comes to reaching first-time guests. By the way, listeners, if you missed that episode, you really need to go back and listen to that interview with Tony and Jeff. I believe it’s episode 97, but today though we’re going to focus on the reasons why churches get stuck with their discipleship or spiritual formation strategies. So let’s dive in. Tony, what’s one reason why churches don’t produce spiritual growth?

Tony: 04:19 Yeah, one reason is churches are still trying to program spiritual growth rather than offering a path for spiritual formation. You know, I included in The Unstuck Church book these two diagrams. One is a picture of a church, and it’s just filled with different individual programs within the church: ministries, programs, events, and then a second church. The picture is of a church that has clarified just here are four steps you can take in your spiritual journey. And what we have seen working with churches through the years is that the churches that shift from programs to a path instead, that’s where more spiritual formation is taking place. In churches that are more program-driven, that first picture that I described. Those, those churches end up with a lot of ministries and a lot of programs. And our initial thought would be, “Well, great, there are just more options for people”

Tony: 05:25 But instead what we see is that all of those ministries in all those programs tend to start competing with each other when there’s not a clarified pathway. And so the pathway is necessary because first it helps people understand what’s my next step and it encourages movement and it encourages engagement. It helps people understand if I’m connecting to the church, if I want to be a part of the church, then I need to engage the pathway. When just have programs, ministries, and they’re good ministries, it’s not a question of whether or not the ministries are providing help to people if they are a part of somebody’s spiritual journey – that’s not the question. The question is, are we encouraging that movement? Are we encouraging those next steps? And when you have many different separate ministries competing with each other for people’s time and attention, we’re not seeing that movement.

Tony: 06:25 We don’t see people take their next steps toward Christ. In fact, in many churches, we’re seeing them begin to prioritize the spiritual pathway, the discipleship pathway over membership itself. And the reason why is when they want people to connect to their church, they don’t want them just to connect in membership, they want them to engage a spiritual formation process that we’re talking about today. So with that, what we’re seeing a best practice in churches that make this shift from programs to a path is they identify one leader that oversees the entire pathway. And you can think about it from the moment someone leaves your Sunday worship service. Every other next step that they take beyond Sunday worship. These churches have one leader over that entire path and one team supporting that path. And so rather than having, as an example, a separate small group ministry, a separate volunteer team ministry, a separate missions ministry, or separate men’s and women’s ministries or whatever, the components are of your discipleship strategy, that they’re all part of one team. And when you have one team like that with one leader, the wind becomes the pathway itself, the wind becomes the next steps people are taking on that pathway and the whole team is pulling together to see that movement on the path.

Amy: 07:57 Tony, you know, I do staffing structure quite a bit and that has been a game-changer for many churches that we’ve worked with. So you still do have a separate groups person. You still do have a separate outreach person, a separate serving person, however, that one leader glues them all together and they make strategic decisions together and it just completely eradicates that competition mindset for volunteers, for resources, for all of those things, and it makes the message crystal clear to the church. Well, I’ve heard church leaders question having a path because some people aren’t linear thinkers. How do you respond to that?

Tony: 08:34 I agree. There are a lot of nonlinear thinkers out there, but again, the wind is moving and let’s just be honest, nonlinear thinkers, they may jump around in the pathway, especially if they’ve been around the church for some time. But that’s still a win and they’re still taking steps just may not be taking the steps in the same order. What I do know is that for new people, especially people that are new to your church or new to the faith, they need clarity around what you’re encouraging them to do next, especially if they’re new to the faith, they needed that clear path of next steps. And even in those cases, if they happen to jump around, who cares. If they’re engaging biblical community and serving others and gaining an appreciation for building relationships with people in their lives so that they can share their story.

Tony: 09:28 That’s a win. That’s discipleship. A good example of this, a couple of weeks ago I was flying with my mother in law. We were flying back together, uh, to her home in Ohio. Amy, you know, I fly almost every week, and so when I go to the airport, I go through the battle of air travel completely different than most people. Rather than going to the arrival area, going to check-in, checking my bags, going through security, jumping straight to the gate, boarding the flight, actually being on the flight to get to my destination. I’ve learned the shortcuts and me kind of work my way around the system. But I can do that because I’ve been on a plane before and in fact, I’m on it often, but for the person that’s brand new to the flying experience, my mother in law does not fly every week, we needed to walk through every step in the process so that she could get to her final destination. And that’s my encouragement; that’s my challenge to you is that as churches, let’s acknowledge, yeah, there’s going to be some nonlinear thinkers, but for new people, they need your help. They need clarity about what the next steps are so that you can help them get to their destination as well.

Amy: 10:45 That’s a great example. Okay. Well, one reason why churches don’t produce spiritual growth is that they haven’t moved from programs to a path. That’s what you just went through. So what’s another reason?

Tony: 10:55 So a second reason is that churches are too focused on keeping people busy. My friend Greg Hawkins and Kelly Parkinson used to be on the staff team at Willow Creek Community Church and they wrote a book several years ago on spiritual growth in churches. That book is called “Move”. And by the way, if you’re concerned that your church is stuck when it comes to spiritual formation or discipleship, I highly recommend that book. Again, it’s called “Move” and you can still find it on Amazon. One of the quotes that caught my attention when I read through the book the first time is this, I want to share this with you. They wrote, “Unfortunately, churches often make things harder still by obscuring the goal, which is to become more like Christ with a complicated assortment of activities. For instance, encouraging people to attend teaching and worship services every week, to frequently in small community and Bible study groups, often requiring followup communications and homework, serving the church a couple times a month, serving those who are under-resourced on a regular basis, inviting friends, co-workers and family to church, special events, support groups, et cetera.”

Speaker 1: 12:12 “When the church incessantly promotes all the things people should do, it’s very easy for them to lose sight of their real goal, which is who they should become.” So I read that and I tell you what personally, it was so convicting because I’m reading that list and I’m thinking I’m a leader in the church and I’m encouraging people to do all those things. And if we’re not careful, and here I’m not just talking to traditional churches, I’m talking to modern churches, I’m talking to every church. If we are just focused on keeping people busy in the church, that doesn’t help them become more like Jesus. In fact, if we’re not careful, we might find ourselves repeating the same mistakes that the Pharisees made by creating our own burdens and expectations for people to follow in order to be a good Christian.

Tony: 13:05 And Jesus didn’t say, my yoke is really difficult and my burden is heavy. But sometimes our ministry calendars and expectations imply that that’s what Jesus said.

Amy: 13:18 I would think some of our pastors, that might be what they’re saying my yoke is really difficult and my burden is really heavy.

Tony: 13:24 Yes. So, that’s the challenge. I think a couple of things provide answers to us on how we can avoid pushing busy-ness on people. One is what we just talked about a little bit by creating a pathway. And you may have a lot of options and opportunities for ministries and programs in your church, but if you can roll that under a clear pathway with maybe three, four or five steps, that will help people understand that it’s not about doing everything, but there are some critical next steps that I need to be taking in my faith. And one example where we do this, where we provide a lot of options and many churches, this is around either Sunday school classes or small groups.

Tony: 14:10 We don’t promote typically individual Sunday school classes on Sunday morning or we don’t promote individual small groups on Sunday morning. Instead what we do is we encourage people to take a step into the biblical community and then once they say, yes, I want to do that, then we begin to reveal all of the options that might be available. So it’s one example where we’re already probably using that concept of a path to not only encourage the next steps but to make it easier for people to this to select from all of the ministries that are available. But on top of that, a second thing that we’ve talked about in the past, and you can go back and listen to our previous podcast is we’ve talked about the biblical concept of pruning. And in many churches, we’ve encountered one of the reasons why people are so busy is because so many ministries, programs, and events are being offered by churches. And so this is where, if we’re going to help people to be on this faith journey, if we want to encourage movement and next steps, part of our responsibilities, make sure we’re not trying to push too much, that we’re not trying to just encourage people to stay busy all the time.

Amy: 15:30 Okay. So we’ve talked about the lack of a clear path and keeping people busy as barriers to spiritual formation. Are there any more?

Tony: 15:37 Yeah, I have many more, but let’s go with this last one today. Another reason why your church isn’t producing spiritual growth is that your church has become a spiritual journey. In other words, when the expectation is that spiritual formation if it’s going to happen, is solely the church’s responsibility, you have a problem. Let me explain a little bit further. Our relationship with Christ is about surrendering our life to Jesus, not to the church. Spiritual formation happens in our journey through life, not in our engagement with the church. It’s the Holy Spirit that convicts, directs, molds us. It’s not our programming. But if we’re not careful, we can mislead people to think that spiritual maturity is the church’s responsibility and it’s not. Yes, we can create environments for people to begin to experience and engage in a personal spiritual journey, but at the same time, we need to encourage them to become spiritually hungry and to begin to take the initiative when it comes to their own faith journey.

Tony: 16:53 So let me give you some practical examples of the shift that may need to take place. Churches, many churches do a great job teaching the Bible, but we need to figure out ways to help people actually engage the Bible themselves beyond specifically Sunday morning. So when a question comes up in their lives, they’re not waiting for Sunday morning for you to give them the answer, they’re diving into scripture to seek the answer. Another example is we encourage people all the time to attend a class or to engage in a small group. And that’s good, but instead for people to really own their faith journey, to own their spiritual journey, we need to encourage them to begin to develop relationships with their neighbors, their coworkers, their family members. We encourage people all the time. You need to serve at your church, and I do, I think that’s part of our responsibility as Christ-followers is do engaged in the mission of the church together as the body of Christ.

Tony: 17:57 But at the same time, we need to challenge people to serve the people around us. There, there are people in our lives that God has us in their lives because they need our help. They need our encouragement. They need us to come alongside them to help them through this current season of life. And then finally, people are coming to us. They’re coming to our churches. This is a good thing seeking advice, but we need to encourage people to learn how to seek Jesus when they have questions. I liken this in many ways to parenting. If we’re not careful in our parenting, we can do everything for our kids. In fact, helicopter parents is one of those phrases. So there’s out there, it’s a description of the parents that’s involved in everything in their kids’ lives and they’re really making all the decisions and really protecting their kids from everything that’s in the world.

Tony: 18:53 But the challenge is if you parent that way, eventually you don’t raise healthy adults, in fact, you’re not encouraging them how to make wise decisions to seek good counsel and, to really move in a healthy way in their lives. The same thing could happen spiritually. If people are constantly looking to the church for spiritual direct direction and we’re not effectively encouraging them to seek first the Kingdom of God, to turn their hearts, to turn their minds to Jesus if we’re not allowing them to understand the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, in the direction that the Holy Spirit offers. If we don’t, if we don’t let them lean on Christ and encourage them to take that, they will be constantly going to the church first for advice, for direction, and for spiritual growth information. And that’s not God’s design for our relationships with Jesus.

Amy: 19:51 So, Tony, um, have you ever thought about becoming a pastor? Kind of got that there on that run.

Tony: 20:00 I don’t think I’m a preacher, but sometimes I get riled up enough that maybe I am. I don’t know.

Amy: 20:05 You do. Any final thoughts? Anything you want to add before we close out?

Tony: 20:09 Yes. So let me circle back to where we began this conversation. I just want to confirm. It’s really impossible to disconnect Jesus’ command to love God and to love others. They go hand in hand and spiritual formation begins with loving God. But if it doesn’t lead us to love the people around us, the people that God loves, the people that God puts in our lives, we’re really not fully mature believers. In other words as Christ’s followers, we must embrace both spiritual formation and loving others. Evangelism is part of our spiritual formation and spiritual formation is part of evangelism. And if we try to separate the two, not only will it give, but will also it gravely impact the overall health of our ministries. It will certainly impact whether or not people in our churches fully surrender their lives to Jesus.

Sean: 21:09 Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast at The Unstuck Group, we’re working every day with church leaders to help them build healthy churches by guiding them through specifically designed experiences that focus on vision, strategy, and action. In fact, one of the key conversations we lead teams through is defining your discipleship pathway. If that’s a need in your church, let’s talk. You can start a conversation by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. If you like what you’re hearing on this podcast, help us get the content out by subscribing, giving us a review and telling your friends. Next week we’re back with another brand new episode. Have a great week.

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