question-mark-blinds-300-241x300Last year, I wrote an article (“Are You and ‘Evangelism’ or ‘Discipleship’ Church?”) on the tension that I experience between having a very evangelistic heart and seeing the need to disciple people. As a pastor, I am increasingly burdened that we don’t do a good enough job discipling our people. So I identified the problem: People need to be discipled. But I didn’t know the solution until very recently. At least I think I’ve discovered the solution. Bear with me as I share what I’ve found to be true.

At my church (and in many others), we say discipleship happens best in small groups. We push our LifeGroups very hard and encourage people to be a part of them. Nothing wrong with that, but is it the answer?  We also believe we grow through our weekly teaching of the Word, even though we know that’s just one way people grow.

However, research and history seem to indicate something else. The book Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal about Spiritual Growth by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, shares some startling lessons from Willow Creek’s REVEAL study and research of over 1,000 churches:

  • The most effective strategy for moving people forward in their journey of faith is biblical engagement. The authors note that biblical engagement is “not just getting people into the Bible when they’re in church … but helping them engage the Bible on their own outside of church.”
  • Serving experiences appear to be even more significant to spiritual development than organized small groups. Why is that? I have a theory I’ll come back to.
  • We don’t challenge people to reflect on Scripture. This is huge. The REVEAL research reveals that if leaders could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, “they would inspire, encourage and equip their people to read the Bible.”
  • Though many churches believe small groups are the solution to spiritual formation, Movereveals, “there is no evidence that getting 100 percent of a congregation into a small group is an effective spiritual formation strategy.”

As I thought about this important research and these insights, I finally started to grasp what they mean to us as church leaders desperately wanting to see our people grow into spiritually mature disciples: We must stop pointing people to a program and start pointing them to a person, specifically Jesus Christ.

When I interviewed at my current church and they asked me about discipleship, I said that it happens in a number of ways. I told them that I love mentoring and one-on-one discipleship, as well as small groups. This is still true, but in hindsight I missed the key to the whole thing. Let me explain.

You Can’t Delegate Prayer

On a regular basis, I see a counselor and I love how I grow personally through therapy. I meet with a mentor and have always been passionate about mentoring, but this just fills me with more knowledge and sharpens me as a leader. I do a lot of one-on-one discipleship, but the truth is that on a quantitative level I barely make a dent in my congregation. I can handle maybe three to five (tops) one-on-one relationships with men in my church, and that’s out of a congregation of 500-plus. Like you, I don’t have enough hours in my day or week to meet with everyone individually. Plus, I see nothing in Scripture that teaches our role as leaders is one-on-one discipleship with multitudes of people. And in fact Move authors Hawthorne and Parkinson point out that, “Taking too much responsibility for others’ spiritual growth fostered an unhealthy dependence of congregants on the church staff.”

What I do see happening in Scripture is Paul writing to a church and encouraging them to read his letter (the Word of God). I also see Jesus often getting away alone to pray. Just last week, God showed me my desperate need for more prayer in my life and that I need to spend more and more quality time with Him—not just read about Him in one of my books or talk about Him with a friend, counselor, mentor or small group. All of those things are wonderful, but repeatedly Scripture shows us that there is no replacement for my personal relationship with Christ.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Dallas Willard in The Great Omission: “The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples—students, apprentices, practitioners—of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from Him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”

I remember years ago hearing my friend Chris Hodges speak to a group of pastors. He said, “You can’t delegate prayer.”

If you get nothing else from reading this post, my plea and prayer is that you’ll grasp this: We need Jesus. We need to be in constant communion with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

No Substitute

Is it a good thing to do life together with others in a small group? Sure. I love my LifeGroup. They remind me that I’m not alone, that and we’re in this life together. But I know that the ultimate way I and the people in our church will grow is through prayer and reading Scripture daily.

You might be thinking this sounds too basic, too simple. Maybe it is. But as church leaders, I think we need to get back to the basics. We’ve been so big on programs for years—whether it be a discipleship program, Bible study, mission groups, Bible Study Fellowship, AWANA, small groups—you name it. We like to keep our people busy with church activities and rarely, if ever, do we point our people to Christ and encourage them to spend personal, quality time with Him daily.

This new revelation is causing me to rethink how I approach discipleship and spiritual formation at my own church. How often do we teach on spiritual disciplines and our devotional life, as opposed to how many times have I stood up front and pumped up our small group ministry?

Please hear me, I’m not abandoning small groups. I want our people to do life together in community. I also want our people to serve together because we are never more like Christ than when we serve. Christ was the greatest servant of all and so we join in a sacred bond with Him when we serve from our hearts.

I remember the first time I read The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Livesby Dallas Willard. My eyes were opened to how the fruit of the Spirit comes about in our lives. It’s not by working on each individual fruit but by spending time with Jesus and allowing myself to become more like Christ.

Someone can sign up for and take every Bible study class available and attend every small group your church offers. But at the end of the day, the reality is he or she won’t truly grow without a healthy, vibrant relationship with Christ. And that relationship will only come through spending daily time with Him in prayer and His Word.

I’m realizing that we’ve got to point our people to a person, not a program and that I have to be head over heels in love with Jesus, championing a devotional life that makes others want to spend more time with Jesus. My friend, Dr. Matthew Smith, once said, “Greatness cannot be achieved without discipline.” I couldn’t agree more. We have to run back to the simple discipline of daily quiet times with Christ. I guess you could say we need our “daily bread.”

This is how you and I and anyone in our church grows and matures. This is how we disciple. It’s always been about Jesus, and it always will be. No program and no movement will change that.

 

Greg Atkinson

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