Analysts and church growth experts say the North American church is in decline and “in a state of lethargy.” The signs are everywhere: a steady decline in church membership, especially among mainline denominations, a striking increase in the percentage of Americans who do not attend church, and a decrease in the numbers of young adults preparing for ministry. And the data is there to back this up. According to the Pew Forum, for instance, from 2007-2014, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated — describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” — jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths has also grown. All indications are that the trend has only intensified since 2014.
Things look no better in Churches of Christ, the denomination with which I am most familiar. Since 2000, roughly 1,200 Churches of Christ in the United States have closed their doors forever, and the number of men, women, and children in the pews nationally has shrunk by 200,000.
On top of this we see the loss of moral authority and credibility among ministers and churches due to widespread sex scandals and financial misconduct.
Many Christians view the decline of Western Christendom with alarm, as if God has fallen from heaven. Enormous effort and expense has been marshaled to launch church growth programs and shore up membership, increase giving, and keep religious ships afloat, with very little to show for it.
Naturally, I have some thoughts about all this. I would argue that the failings of the American church can be traced directly to a lack of direct engagement with God on the part of many who profess his name, or what the Bible calls discipleship.
Jesus commanded us to do one thing above all others. After his resurrection, as he prepared to ascend to his Father in heaven, Jesus gave us these words, which we call the Great Commission:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Note carefully the order of things in those words. First, Jesus instructs us to make disciples. Help people become followers of Jesus. Then, and only then, do we initiate those people whose hearts are already surrendered to God into the faith through baptism.
For many of our churches, we’ve been going about it backwards for decades: rushing people to the water (because baptisms are clearly defined events we can celebrate and count), and then afterward struggling mightily to get those people (who now believe they’ve received everything God has to offer) to surrender their lives to him.
So my contention is that the North American church has been living in the middle of a discipleship crisis. While Jesus’ call to “follow me” has always been clear, the North American church today has lost sight of the goal. The minister at one of the healthiest churches I know says that we’re pretty good at making church members, but pretty poor at making disciples.
Many of us long for change, but we also feel stuck? Where did we get off track? And how can we find our way back to God’s heart for discipleship?
To begin to turn the tide, we must first address our understanding of what makes a mature disciple of Christ. Many people think you’re mature in Christ if you know the Bible and follow its rules, or if you’re really gifted in preaching, teaching or leading worship. But Jesus seems to point to something else. Jesus says the whole of the law and prophets (in other words, all of the Old Testament) can be summed up in two commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40).
For Jesus, everything he wants to do in the world is rooted in and grows out of love. He says, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (John 14:15). And a few verses later, he tells his disciples, “This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
The apostle Paul seems to echo this same idea. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says we can know all mysteries and speak with the tongues of angels, but if we don’t love, we are resounding gongs and clanging cymbals, and our actions are worth nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
Furthermore, in his encouragement to the Ephesians, Paul establishes an undeniable link between a full experience of God’s love and spiritual fulness (spiritual maturity):
“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19)
Salvation is an invitation to a relationship of love — with God and with others. Too often, though, we’ve viewed salvation merely as an educational exercise, where information is transferred, but people often never learn to follow the God who loves them intensely. The goal of discipleship cannot be merely educational or transactional. It must be transformational. So for me, the goal of discipleship is spiritual maturity defined as helping people love God and love others; in other words, to love Jesus and to love like Jesus.
Some might prefer to define spiritual maturity more in terms of bearing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Certainly that’s a credible line of thought. However, in reviewing the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control), every one of those is an outgrowth of love.
The bottom line is that if we don’t love well, we’re not reflecting the one we follow. And if we don’t reflect the one we follow, we’re not mature, and we’ve missed the whole point of discipleship.
So in working with people, with spiritual maturity (defined as loving God and loving neighbor) as the goal, how do we foster that? How do we help people move down the road toward deeper engagement with God and greater spiritual maturity?
The method by which we do that is relational disciple-making. Jesus made it clear that our ability to love well and to cultivate authentic relationships with others is what identifies us as his disciples (John 13:35). Yet in my experience in churches in various parts of the United States, I’ve found that very few Christians have real and authentic relationships to support and encourage their spiritual growth within the church.
Jesus changed his world by loving and investing in twelve men for three years. Jesus-style disciple-making centers on relationally investing in a few people at a time over time, loving them and sharing life with them. My term for this kind of relational disciple-making is spiritual nurture, and it is not done quickly or en masse.
The conviction I’ve arrived at after years in ministry and study is that discipleship is a day-by-day, life-long process of patient endurance and obedience. While some try to reduce disciple-making to canned one-shot approaches, experience shows that hurried-up evangelism does not produce lasting results. A better approach is focused teaching on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and intentional and relational investment in a few at a time. The aim is to be spiritual fathers and mothers, loving and nurturing people who can then be spiritual fathers and mothers to those around them.
Love changes people in profound ways. But make no mistake, this is difficult work. Mother Teresa said, “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” Loving hurting, broken people into the kind of deeper engagement with Jesus that brings freedom and life is hard, and it’s messy. But it is the most needful thing we can do. And it’s what Jesus did.