The American church is off-mission.
That may seem like a ridiculous statement considering the number of growing megachurches and multisite churches around the country. How could the church be off-mission with record crowds? Well, let’s go back and look at the church’s mission statement:
Jesus said: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV).
Regardless of how churches can rephrase and reframe their mission statements, this is the mission: to go and make disciples. The church is not called to make converts. In fact, to lead people in a prayer without offering them a pathway and companions for the journey is irresponsible. The church is not called to make leaders. In Jesus’ view, the first would be the least. This doesn’t sound like western leadership. It sounds like discipleship. The church is not called to make volunteers to staff the weekend services. In fact, to reduce the ministry of the church body to guest service roles is an affront to the New Testament church. The church is not called to draw crowds. The church is not called to build buildings. The church is not called to make money. We are called to make disciples.
But, how can megachurches or any church for that matter make disciples?
Disciples Aren’t Processed. They’re crafted.
Many churches attempt to convert their crowd into some form of discipleship through an assimilation process. Take this class. Make this commitment. Sign this card. Yet an assembly line process doesn’t work with people. They aren’t raw materials. They don’t all start from the same place.
Who are you the most like? What is your default? While we would all like to say, “Jesus,” the reality is that you and I are more like our parents than any other people on the planet. We think like them. We talk like them. We parent like them. We relate like them. Our habits are like them. Their example is ingrained in us. Some of us had great parents. Some of us had loving parents who did their best. Some of us had parents who were complete nightmares. Regardless of what type of parents we had, what’s ingrained in us is difficult to overcome. Even the example of the best parents can be improved upon. No one’s parents are perfect.
Then, in addition to parents, we can add experiences, tragedies, pain, addictions, suffering, career paths, relationships, and so many other things that shape our lives. Discipleship is not making widgets on an assembly line. Widgets are made from pure, raw materials. Disciples are made from broken and sinful people who long for transformation. But, it doesn’t disappear all at once. As Pete Scazzero says, “Jesus may be in our hearts, but grandpa is in our bones.”
Processes are inadequate to make disciples, yet how many churches have an assimilation process, department, or even pastor of assimilation for that exact purpose? In college I had a double major in biblical studies and missions. What I learned in cross-cultural communication and anthropology is that assimilation is the process of helping people adapt to a new culture. They take on the language, the customs, the mannerism, and the wardrobe of their adopted culture. Once they look like, talk like, and act like the new culture, they are regarded as being assimilated. So if we are assimilating non-church people into becoming part of the church, we are teaching them how to look like, talk like, and act like people who belong to the church. What is lacking is actual life transformation. Mimicking actions, language, and appearance does not make a disciple. It makes a cultural Christian and that’s a lot to live up to. Disciples make disciples, but not in mass quantity.
And while we’re at it, stop using the V word: volunteer. Churches should not have volunteers. The church, meaning the people or the body of Christ, have been equipped with spiritual gifts, abilities, and passions to fulfill a divine calling. By reducing the focus to serving and helps, a church is effectively ignoring about 20 other spiritual gifts. The “real” ministry is reserved for paid staff members. This flies in the face of what Paul taught the Corinthians, the Romans, and the Ephesians about the nature and use of spiritual gifts. Paul admonishes the church that no one part of the body can say to the other “I do not need you,” but that’s exactly what the American church is saying today. The attractional movement told people to sit back, relax, and leave the driving to us. That was Greyhound’s slogan. When was the last time you took the bus?
People are reluctant to get involved because the opportunities churches offer them are beneath them. That doesn’t mean that they’re too good to serve. It just means that the only opportunities most churches offer to their people are menial tasks that feed the demands of the weekend service. When CEOs are handing out bulletins and entrepreneurs are parking cars, this is a great misuse of their gifts and talents. They have so much more to offer.
Processes are inadequate for making disciples. Any mass approach to discipleship is a failure. Assimilation doesn’t make disciples. Worship services don’t make disciples. Sermons don’t make disciples. As Mike Breen says, “People learn by imitation, not instruction.” Yet, most churches attempt a programmatic process of making disciples that does little to help people overcome the powerful models they’ve come to imitate. People can be very inspired by sermons, yet within a day they resort to their default behavior. The only way to help people change and grow is to provide personal encouragement and accountability, and of course, all of this is built on the expectation that every member should apply God’s Word to his or her life. If the expectation is for people to come back next Sunday, then we’ve missed an opportunity and are relying on the weekend service to have a greater impact than it possibly can.
Disciples are crafted, not processed. After all, it takes a disciple to make a disciple.
Big Hairy Audacious Goals
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great among other titles, coined this term for when success organizations set out to achieve ridiculous levels of growth. They didn’t settle for being stalled or accepting mediocre, incremental growth. They went for it.
Jesus spent three and a half years of His life pouring into 12 men. The impact of these disciples is still felt 2,000 years later around the globe and involves over 2 billion people. Jesus set the BHAG in Acts 1:8. Propelled more by persecution than ambition (Acts 8:1), the disciples spread a movement worldwide to transform lives.
How can you activate your disciples when most are intimidated by the thought of evangelism and distracted by the busyness of life? Groups could be the answer. You could argue that many people don’t have the time or the desire to lead a group. Some don’t even believe they can. I think we’re going at this all wrong.
Jesus didn’t call us to make leaders. Jesus called us to make disciples. And, disciples make disciples. Do you get it? You don’t need to recruit leaders to lead groups to make disciples. You could, but you don’t have to. You need to equip disciples to make disciples. Who in your church couldn’t be a disciple?
Often in the church today, we embrace the definition of disciple as “follower” or “student” when in reality we’re just working hard to increase the size of the crowd. The crowd are not disciples, if they were, they would be making disciples. In Jesus’ ministry, He spent 73% of his time with His disciples. Jesus could have easily built a megachurch, but He spent very little time with the crowd. The modern American church has flipped Jesus’ ministry on its head. Most churches choose to rapidly add people rather than invest in multiplication. This has a diminishing return.
A Disciple-Making Moonshot
So now that I’ve poked at the church and pointed out what’s broken, let’s fix it. Rather than putting our energy into mass efforts of corralling the most people we possibly can at the fastest rate, let’s focus on the 1/3 of your congregation who has enough of a spiritual basis they could each disciple two other people. Who would be on that list? Church members? Leaders? Long-time members? Then, with the church’s guidance, curriculum, and coaching, you could equip these disciples to make disciples. If the church can get 1/3 of its people to disciple the other 2/3, then you’re making some significant progress. You don’t need to do this all at once, but you certainly could. And, it’s doesn’t need to be just groups of three. You could use church-wide campaigns and host homes to get them started, but don’t leave them there. Or challenge people to get together with their friends and do a study. The bottom line is to stop intimidating people with the thoughts of leadership and evangelism and challenge them to offer what God has given them in community with other believers. What they lack, they can learn from a coach, a resource, or relevant training.
We measure what is important. When you think about the metrics used by most churches, they count nickels and noses. Maybe they count the number of groups or the number of people in groups. Maybe they count the number of people who are serving. But what if churches focused on a new metric? This metric would dynamically impact all of the other metrics. What if the measurement of success became the number of people actively discipling other people? It could be a person discipling two other people as I described above. Or it could be a person discipling eight other people. And of course the intention of all of this discipling is to produce more disciples who make disciples.
What Kind of Church is Yours?
Not all pastors and churches are doing a bad job at making disciples. But, not very many are doing a good job either. Pastors and churches fit into one of four categories when it comes to making disciples:
Content: These pastors and churches are happy with what they have. Often discipleship and small group pastors in these churches are content with the groups and discipleship efforts they have because they have met the expectations of their leadership. They are satisfied with a good job that’s keeping them from achieving a great job at discipleship.
Confused: These churches and pastors believe they are making a greater impact with discipleship than they actually are. Often these churches are led by brilliant teachers who can captivate an audience. The thought is if the pastor gives the people more of the truth, then they will learn and become more like Christ. This is a result of the Enlightenment. Knowledge is king. But, we must remember that “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV). How many people know a great deal of God’s Word, yet it’s not reflected in their actions and attitudes? Great teaching alone won’t overcome the average person’s default which was established by imitating their parents and other role models. They need the support and accountability of others to apply God’s Word to their lives. One service or series won’t dramatically change someone’s daily habits. In fact, a call to change without the means to change will lead to tremendous frustration.
Frustrated: These pastors are trying to make disciples in a church that doesn’t support their efforts. Make disciples anyway. These churches have a spiritual growth/discipleship/assimilation/small groups department for the minimum purpose of preventing members from complaining about a lack of discipleship. When someone asks what the church is doing to help people grow or to go deeper, these pastors and churches just need to point to the department. If you are a pastor who’s discipleship efforts or small group ministry as been relegated to a complaint department for unchallenged members, you have my sympathy. In your church, the weekend service is king. But, in your circumstance, you can still make disciples who make disciples despite the limitations.
Disciple-making: These pastors and churches are making disciples who make disciples. They use worship services and sermons to catalyze commitments that lead to next steps in discipleship groups, support groups, or whatever next steps people need in their spiritual walk. In every worship service, every event, every church initiative, these churches provide an opportunity for people to take the next step of working through issues, applying God’s Word to their lives, finding their unique calling as part of the body of Christ, overcoming sin and addiction, and so many other things. A worship service alone will not resolve these things, but it can motivate people to take their next step. People need someone to disciple them. Disciples make disciples.
Which church are you? Isn’t it time to stop striving to become the megachurch you will never be? Isn’t it time to come to grips with the fact that bigger is only better as long as the church stays on-mission to make disciples? The alternative is wearing yourself out trying to raise money, build buildings, market strategically, and recruit volunteers to maintain a large weekend gathering that doesn’t make disciples in and of itself. Then you wonder why you don’t have any energy to fulfill the church’s calling to make disciples. If your church’s focus is not on making disciples, then what are you making?
This is why I am calling churches to the 100 Groups Challenge in 2020. We have got to make up for this deficit of discipleship in our churches. We need to give 100% effort to either connecting 100% of the weekend attendance into groups, reaching 100 total groups in your church, or starting 100 new groups in 2020.
If you are ready to go for it and join the 100 Groups Challenge, you can find out more here. There is no cost. My goal is to help 100 churches start 100 groups in 2020 and effectively disciple 100,000 people. Over the last eight years, I’ve helped churches to start over 16,000 groups and connect over 125,000 people into groups. My BHAG is to do the same in 1 year! Will you join me?
Church-wide campaigns are great sprints toward connecting a lot of people in a hurry. But, disciple-making is a marathon, not a sprint. The ultimate goal of groups is to make disciples. Disciples are not the end result of a process. Disciples are crafted. Eventually, the church will want video-based-curriculum-dependent newbies to be able to rightly divide the Word of Truth and facilitate a discussion leading toward on-going life change. You can’t grow disciples in fits and starts. As Eugene Peterson once titled a book, it’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Campaigns can help you or hurt you. Just like hot sauce, you’ve got to know how much to use and when. Otherwise, you’ll numb your taste buds for campaigns. Is it time to start a church-wide campaign? Or, is it time to stop?
In Jesus’ work with His disciples, there are three distinct phases: “Come and Follow” (Matthew 4:19), “Come and Die” (Luke 9:23), and “Go and Make” (Matthew 28:18-20). While some churches attempt to start “serious” discipleship groups with “come and die,” it’s much easier to start groups with “come and follow,” and then lead them into maturity to reach “come and die.”
The purpose of the “Come and follow” stage is connection. Whether the church is trying to connect their worship attendance, the neighborhood, or both, this connection purpose can largely be achieved by offering a felt needs topic with an alignment series, as described in Exponential Groups. This low commitment, short-term approach allows potential leaders and their groups to test drive a group and begin the habit of meeting together. While the primary purpose is connection, other purposes including leadership development and spiritual growth can certainly take place at the “Come and follow” stage.
The danger in connection groups is in seeing them as an end in themselves. They should be viewed as the starting point for discipleship which will increase the maturity of the group members and group leaders. Some pastors embrace the notion that things must be kept easy and low commitment in order to produce maximum results. After working with churches in their alignments series for nearly 20 years now, the reality is the low commitment and low requirement approach eventually produces low maturity. What’s worse is that as the church continues into a minority Christian culture, the lack of challenge is off-putting to those who seek depth and genuine relationship with God and others. In the 21st century, people are looking for answers. They desire a cause to live for. Once they are engaged in groups, they need more. They need the challenge to “Come and Die.”
The purpose of the “Come and Die” phase is growth and spiritual maturity. Please don’t read those words as “deeper” teaching and more Bible facts. While the intellect is important (after all God gave humans a book and a brain), there is so much more to discipling the whole person. This is more than an academic exercise. A well-rounded approach to discipleship must take into consideration every aspect of a person’s life and being – physical, emotional, relational, financial, intellectual, and other areas. This topic is too large to explore here. There is a future book in the works.
The mission of the church in making disciples is to baptize them and teach them to obey what Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Obedience and surrender are best evidenced in a person’s attitude and actions. Rather than using all of the clichés about “walking your talk” and so forth, the point is the end product of discipleship is someone who resembles Jesus Christ. They have died to themselves and their ways of dealing with things and replaced their ways with those of Jesus. The self is sacrificed to produce genuine transformation.
The church can turn up the temperature on discipleship in their groups through the curriculum and leadership training offered. Again, this is not an invitation to teach groups to parse Greek verbs. Curriculum should be a balance of personal time with God, a group discussion of the Bible, assignments to turn words into action, and accountability to check progress.
Curriculum is not just a course of study, but an action plan for integrating the teaching of the Bible into daily life. This is not merely an ascent to a belief statement, but how believers live and breathe in their daily lives. Study formats like Rooted , The Neighboring Life by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, Emotionally-Healthy Discipleship by Pete Scazzero, D-Life by Dr. Bill Wilks and Dr. John Herring, or D-Groups by Robby Gallaty help to turn up the temperature of discipleship. Even a format like the Discovery Bible Study Method which uses the same nine questions for every passage of Scripture helps group members to apply God’s Word and live it out. The expectation here is the power of God resident in every believer (Ephesians 1:18-20) accompanied by studying the Bible and interacting with other believers will produce transformed lives.
A few years ago, I was working with a small group director who had moved from another country to the United States. In his country of origin, there was a high expectation of believers learning, doing, and sharing what they’ve learned from the very beginning of their relationship with God. He was a little beside himself when he came to the U.S. and discovered many believers learned biblical truth without much intention of practicing what they learned or sharing it with others. When he challenged people in his church to high commitment approaches to discipleship, he found resistance. I asked him if he had ever heard the analogy of the frog and the kettle. He had not.
I explained this common story about placing frogs in hot water caused them to jump out. Yet, by placing frogs in cold water, then gradually turning up the temperature, the frogs remained in the hot water because the change was gradual. I told him he was putting his disciples in hot water. That’s why they were resisting. (If you’re shaking your head at this point about the reverse implications of this analogy, I apologize. I’ll switch gears before this turns into martyrdom, which is no joking matter).
For average American church members, the move from the worship service to a group is a pretty big step. If the benefit of a group is unproven, they need an opportunity to try out this environment in a short-term, low commitment way. An alignment series or church-wide campaign fits the bill. If they’ve had a positive experience, then the group may agree to continue into a follow up series. Once these two studies have been completed, then it’s more likely that the group will continue on.
Group leaders are given a leadership pathway to develop as disciples and as group leaders. Group members should also be given a pathway. This could be based on the results of the group’s health assessment. The right curriculum can also lead the group into new experiences and even into taking risks as a group. These risks could include things like the three-hour prayer experience in Rooted, the neighborhood map in The Neighboring Life, or the genogram in Emotionally-Healthy Spirituality. The goal of these exercises is to learn to trust God in deeper ways, to hear God, and to learn about oneself.
Curriculum for the sake of curriculum is worthless. Checking off a list of studies doesn’t guarantee growth. But, using curriculum as a vehicle to produce growth and lasting change is worthwhile. What is your curriculum producing? What are your groups producing? Using an assessment to evaluate the progress your people, your groups, and your church is making.
The third phase from Scripture is “Go and Make.” While these phases don’t need to occur in sequential order, the goal is to make disciples who make disciples. After all, that’s how a church knows it’s making disciples. If the people in the church are not making disciples, then they are not disciples. The appropriate term for them would be “the crowd.” In the Gospels, Jesus spent 73 percent of His time with His disciples. He didn’t devote vast amounts of time to serving the crowd. Boy, has the modern American church turned that on its head.
“Go and Make” implies that church members are thinking about others more than about themselves and their own needs. They are become self-feeders. The focus is on servant leadership at various levels. While most people in the church will not have the title of leader, they do have influence over people around them. The goal is to multiply their lives and their abilities. Jesus spent three and a half years investing in 12 disciples, who after His departure, developed others and took the message of the Gospel throughout their known world, establishing churches, and making disciples. If you’re a Christian reading this, it’s because of these 12 who Jesus poured His Life into. Who are your 12?
This is the place where pastors equip the church to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). In the last 30 years, the church has catered to people in order to serve a Christian consumer culture. A growing gap has emerged between staff and volunteers, or clergy and laity, as it was once known. People are asked to volunteer to serve the church and the efforts of the church staff. But, the volunteers are the church!
Members should be challenged to pursue and develop their gifts. Resources like Network by Bruce Bugbee and Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee create the philosophical foundation for gifts-based ministry that is truly satisfying to church members and effective in reaching the neighborhood. After all, ministry is not something pastors do to people. Ministry is the purpose of the church body, not the leaders of the institution. People need to serve in meaningful ways in order to grow spiritually. Meaningless volunteer roles cannot meet this purpose.
Since a church of any size cannot assess and recognize the gifts of every church member, groups play an essential role in helping people discover, develop, and use their gifts. This is more than another assessment. There is an expectation for people to take responsibility for understanding and implementing their gifts to fulfill the mission of the church. There is also a responsibility for the church to release, not just ministry responsibilities, but also the authority to carry them out.
One more step lies beyond identifying and using gifts – members developing other members. Every person in every role in the church, including members, pastors, and church staff, must multiply what they are doing in the lives of others. This is one of the primary purposes of groups – leadership development. The church must embrace Hero-making as articulated by Dave Ferguson and Dr. Warren Bird. The pastor is not the hero in the church. The staff are not the heroes. The members are not the heroes. But, they are all called to make heroes. They are all called to invest in others and help them flourish in ministry. They are called to work themselves out of a job, so a new ministry, a new group, or a new church can be launched to serve others and repeat the process.
These three phases may not be the only phases. They don’t necessarily need to be taken in exact order (or else some churches will camp on phase two until Jesus returns and never get to phase three). The point is everyone must be challenged to take a next step at every phase. Those only attending worship must be challenged to join a group. Everyone in a group must be challenged to take what they learn to heart and mature in their faith as evidenced by their actions and attitudes. Those who are maturing must reach out to their neighborhoods and share their hope. Those who are serving must develop others to serve.
Attractional services and advertising built some great churches over the last 30 years. The next 30 years will be much different than the last 30 years. This statement is not meant to discount what happened over the last 30 years, but it’s time to gear up for what is next. In working with churches across North America, I’ve visited many formerly great churches. At one point in time, the church was the shining beacon in the community. Maybe they were the first church to offer contemporary worship music and relevant messages. People came in droves, until every other church in town followed the model. Now those churches are dwindling. They are formerly great.
There is a shift that must take place in order to engage people in the 21st century. These concluding thoughts reveal part of the thinking needed for the church to flourish in an increasingly minority Christian culture.
Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples. Robby Gallaty. Nashville: B&H Books, 2013. https://replicate.org
The key to successful church-wide campaigns has been lowering the bar on leadership. It’s time to stop.
Campaigns have seemed successful in the past. The numbers are up and to the right. Every campaign recruits more leaders and connects more people into groups. But, have you considered the attrition? How many people are no longer leading? How many group members are no longer in a group? If you look only at numbers and aren’t tracking the individuals involved, you are entering into a scenario of disposable small groups.
The problem with qualifying anyone to lead is that you’ll get just anyone to lead. They aren’t equipped. They are inexperienced. They might be new in the faith. How can they give what they don’t have? But, there is a way to recruit an abundance of new small group leaders without lowering the bar.
Where Are You Headed?
The goal of a church-wide campaign is not to create DVD-dependent hosts who can never open their Bibles and rightly divide the Word of Truth. In fact, many churches have experienced a diminishing return having launched campaign after campaign only to discover their group members are unchallenged and frequently forced back to “kindergarten” spiritually. There is a time to begin and a time to grow up.
Ultimately, small groups should be environments where disciples are made. How do you make a disciple? According to Mike Breen, “People learn by imitation, not instruction.” To make disciples you must make disciples of the group leaders. Felt needs topics on video-based curriculum is a great test drive for admitted non-leaders to try their hands at leading groups, but it’s not a long term strategy.
But, if you go back to “quality” groups, then what happens to connecting everyone into groups?
Where Do You Start?
The benefit of church-wide campaigns and small groups for that matter is leader development. The dilemma comes; however, most people don’t regard themselves as being any kind of leader. I’ve had numerous people turn down the invitation of “Would you like to lead a group?” It’s the wrong question. Many avowed non-leaders have leadership qualities that they haven’t recognized as leadership gifts. This is where the campaign comes in.
By offering a short-term opportunity for someone to gather people they are comfortable with and do a study together, they demonstrate the ability to lead a group without asking them to lead a group. Yea, but, didn’t that just lower the bar? This is more than semantics – you didn’t invite anyone to become a leader. You invited them to recruit themselves for a trial run at leading a group without saying “lead.” Unfortunately, this is where most church-wide campaign efforts stop. This is not the finish line. This is the starting line.
Now, It’s Time to Raise the Bar.
Once a “leader” and group have a couple of series or semesters under their belts, they are effectively indicating that they want to continue. Now it’s time to bring back the requirements you might have delayed initially. There’s a big difference between lowering the bar on leadership and delaying the requirements. When leaders have proven themselves and have fulfilled the requirements for leadership in your church, then it’s appropriate to call them a leader.
Calling anyone a “leader” right out the gate is risky. As Paul told Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands…” (1 Timothy 5:22). Before anyone is commissioned or given a title, they need to prove themselves through some kind of trial run. If they pass the test, then invite them to more. If they don’t do well or exhibit the wrong attitude, then thank them for fulfilling their commitments. You see, there was something to that “host” strategy after all.
Grow your leaders. Grow your groups. Turn up the temperature in the curriculum and in expectations of the groups. Challenge them to take risks, to serve, and to do things that scare them. Encourage them to face hard conversations and to tell the truth – good or bad.
Jesus commissioned His disciples to “go and make disciples” – not connect people into groups and not to assimilate newcomers. That may be part of it, but how is discipleship coming along in your church? How many are connecting? How many are growing? How many are leading? Where is your bar set?
Want to continue the conversation? Join the Stop Lowering the Bar Webinar on Thursday, June 6 or Tuesday, June 11 at 2 pm EDT. Register Here.
Most pastors realize their church’s Easter attendance is a better indicator of the church’s true size than its weekly attendance. Albeit there are a significant number of visitors on Easter Sunday, the reality is many of these visitors are not visiting. This is their church. They don’t attend another church. They claim yours.
In his new book, Connect: How to Grow Your Church in 28 Days-Guaranteed, Don Corder writes, “On any given Sunday, eighty percent are regular attendees and twenty percent are non-regular attendees” (p. 30). He goes on to explain that the 80 percent attend about 33 times per year, while the 20 percent of non-regular attendees are there only 2.4 times per year based on researching The Provisum Group’s database of church clients. What does this mean?
An Attendance of 100 is Really More Like 559.
A church of 100 people is really made up of 559 people. By Corder’s calculation, 126 people attend 33 times per year on average, while another 433 make up the other 20 percent of weekly worship attendance. So, how many people actually attend your church?
If your church averages 1,000 people on the weekend, then your actual attendee number is somewhere around 5,590. By the same calculation used above, 1,260 of your people attend about 33 times per year, while another 4,333 attend about 2.4 times per year. If you have any doubts, look at the total number of records in your church’s database. It’s not so farfetched, is it?
What Does This Mean for Discipleship?
Often the measuring stick for groups is compared group membership to the weekend attendance. If you’re in a church of 500 and have 250 people in groups, then you could claim that 50 percent of your people are connected into groups. But, that’s not realistic in light of this new calculation.
A worship attendance of 500 really represents 2,167 people who attend your church over the course of the year. If you have 250 people in groups, you actually have about 12 percent of your people in groups. Well, you weren’t supposed to be proud of numbers anyway, right?
The church’s mission is to “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:18-20). Sermons don’t make disciples. How do you engage the 77.46% of your congregation who only attends an average of 2.4 times per year?
Get Them While They’re There.
What are your church’s peak worship services of the year? Christmas and Easter, right? The first pastor I served would often say in Easter services, “Well, if I don’t see you for a while, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas” and the reverse at Christmas. Rather than ridicule your infrequent attendees, why not invite them to something?
A pastor’s immediate reaction is “But, it’s impossible to get any airtime on Easter Sunday (or Christmas)…” That’s true. And, it’s okay. If you could get airtime in the worship service, that would be great. But, what’s more important than airtime is a plan.
Make a Plan to Connect Your Infrequent Attendees.
Your infrequent attendees took a step to attend a service. You just need to give them another step. What are their needs? Where do they need help? What issues in their lives do they need answers to? If they checked their children into your children’s ministry on Easter, then a parenting group which is appropriate to their stage of parenting might be of interest. Are they married or single? How far do they live from the church? Is there a small group in their neighborhood? What groups could you promote to these folks? As long as you have their contact information, you can promote a group that meets their needs. Or, better yet, a group leader could call and invite a few to their group. Better still, a person who knows an infrequent attendee could call and invite them to a group (or start a group).
It doesn’t matter if an announcement wasn’t made in the service or didn’t appeared in the bulletin on Easter Sunday. For most parents, their children have overdone the sugar and just want to get home. They’re not thinking of signing up for a group on Easter or Christmas anyway. But, since they’ve just attended a recent service, the church is on their mind. Then, when they receive an invitation by email or a phone call from a warm, friendly group leader, they might be open to join a group.
While You Have Their Email Addresses…
Remember, infrequent attendees are only coming to your church for the most part. They may not attend very often, but they aren’t going anywhere else. If you invite them to a group launch or connection event, they just might join a group.
Many pastors look at that overly bloated part of the church database and wonder why they keep all of those records anyway. Many folks don’t appear to attend much or give anything, so why not purge the database? Don’t purge the database. These folks are familiar with your church. They are more likely to attend a service or join a group than people who have never attended. Invite them to your next connection event. Use the Summer for groups to host open houses and invite infrequent attendees who live in their neighborhoods.
How Many People Actually Attend YOUR Church?
If you want to make the calculation for yourself, then you’ll need to check out Don Corder’s book, Connect: How to Grow Your Church in 28 Days-Guaranteed . In the meantime, don’t write off your infrequent attendees. They need to join groups and be discipled too.
Don’t rest on your laurels. Your connection percentage just got blown out of the water. Start thinking about turning every group member into a group leader (or every church member into a group leader). The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few.
Sermons do a lot of things, but sermons don’t make disciples.
Here’s the dilemma: the church’s mission is to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20). If sermons don’t make disciples, then how does the church fulfill its mission? If sermons don’t directly fulfill the church’s mission, then why is so much emphasis placed on the weekend worship service and the sermon?
What Do Sermons Do?
I’m a preacher. I have nothing against preaching. I take exception, however, in depending on preaching to accomplish what it cannot accomplish.
Sermons serve to inspire, inform, and motivate. People can come to Christ as a result of responding to a pastor proclaiming the Word of Truth. Preachers are brokers in hope. They can help people reframe their lives from a context of frustration and despair to embrace hope and God’s love. Sermons anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit are dynamic things that can make an impact. Yet, sermons don’t make disciples.
If discipleship was a uniform process or the mastery of a body of knowledge, then the information delivered in a sermon would certainly add to knowledge acquisition. But, that’s not what discipleship is. Disciples aren’t processed. They’re crafted.
How Do You Make Disciples?
Disciples make disciples. While much of Western Christianity has depended on the definition of a disciple as a student, then placed the student in a class and delivered thorough teaching, it has ended up with very educated, yet disobedient students. Here’s the proof: what they know is not adequately reflected in their attitudes and actions. I’m not building a case for perfectionism. But, I am a believer in the principle that what people truly believe is reflected in what they do. Or, put another way, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17).
Now, I realize that some at this point will wonder if I am advocating some works-based approach to Christianity. This is where I’m going: if church-goers have no desire for the things of God, then I would question whether they truly belong to God. As Paul writes to the Philippians, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). We don’t work for our salvation, but we work out our salvation because God is working in us.
If disciples aren’t merely students, then what are they? The word “disciple” is derived from several different words including follow and “to rub off on.” The model Jesus gave us was to spend 75 percent of His time with His disciples and 25 percent with the crowd. How much time is spent on the sermon? How much time is spent making disciples?
Why did Jesus spend such a disproportionate amount of time with a small group of people? Jesus knew how we learn. People learn by imitation, not instruction.
Who has been the most powerful influence in your life? For most people, they would say their parents. You act more like your parents than anyone else. After all, you could read a dozen books written by experts in marriage, yet your default is a marriage that more closely resembles your parents’ marriage than anything presented by the experts. (Depressing thought, huh?) Change requires intentional effort, committed support, and better models to imitate.
Paul challenged his followers to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:9). Imitation requires transparency. Imitation requires time and attention. Disciples make disciples.
Why is the Sermon so Important Then?
Sermons can start something. A presentation of the Gospel can help someone start their relationship with Christ and their journey of discipleship. The sermon can lead a congregation to love their neighbors, to focus on the majesty of God, and to hold on to hope. But, the result of a sermon is not another sermon. The result of a sermon is a next step – make a decision, join a group, lead a mission, serve your neighbor, pray…you get it.
This is why I’m a big believer in alignment series and groups that help church-goers take their weekends into their weeks. The sermon can deliver a challenge, and the group can provide the support and accountability necessary to meet the challenge. The sermon by itself, however, is forgotten usually within 48 hours. If they can’t remember it, how are they supposed to do it? Groups help with this.
On any given weekend, pastors have the opportunity to lead a large portion of their congregations to take a step. The weekend service is the largest things a church does in any given week, but it’s not the most important thing they do. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Disciples make disciples.
For most pastors, whether their churches are 100 people, 1,000 people, or 10,000+ people, would view the sheer scale of disciples making disciples as completely daunting. The key is to start small and multiply. Jesus invested in 12 disciples which multiplied over 2,000 years into some 2 billion people. If pastors invested in just eight people, and then those disciples made disciples within four years the church would have 4,096 disciples making disciples (8x8x8x8). Without disciples making disciples, pastors have audiences for their sermons.
Back in college a speaker challenged us to think about 5 sermons that influenced our lives for Christ. To be honest, most of us couldn’t come up with one – not even the sermon from last Sunday. Then, the speaker asked us to name 5 people who had influenced us for Christ. Those names immediately came to mind.
The key to discipleship is not a process or a proclamation. The key to discipleship is a disciple.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.