Raising the Level of Discipleship in a Declined Church

By Bob Bickford

Note: This is a follow-up article to Why Churches Die, Part 4: They Focus on Transformed Behavior, Not Transformed Hearts.

One of the key characteristics present in many declined churches I consult with is the congregation’s level of spiritual maturity is stifled, stunted or low. As congregations and congregants age and mature chronologically, they often fail to keep maturing spiritually.

These dear saints are being faithful in many ways. The issue? They are not truly being transformed by the power of the gospel. And the impact on the church is significant.

Simply put, a lot of deficient discipleship can be found in the church at large. It is important for us to ask why. Here are three reasons I have found.

1. An emphasis on belief over being transformed. Our family of churches prizes right belief, correct doctrine. We believe in the authoritative inerrant word of God, the virgin birth and divinity of Jesus Christ, the reality of our fallenness and sin and the necessity Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, his death, burial, and resurrection.

All those bedrock beliefs serve as foundations of our faith. Yet it’s not uncommon to meet people who affirm them heartily but fail to live transformed lives because of them. Sadly, what people believe isn’t making a difference in their lives – which should lead us to ask whether they really believe these things at all.

2. A rejection of pastoral authority. Hebrews has a curious verse that exhorts us to obey those who keep watch over our souls. The obedience described here is not full compliance without question, rather it means to yield to or follow trusted leaders. Let’s acknowledge: Many leaders have proven they don’t deserve trust. On the other side, many leaders do. The sacred trust placed in pastoral leaders, called by God and congregation is both firm and fragile. Some churches, who voted in majority to call a pastor, sometimes end up resisting the leadership of the man they called to lead them corporately to follow Jesus.

3. Failing to die to self. Listen to the way members of a congregation speak about their church. Phrases like; “my church” or “our church” are commonplace and typically innocuous. Yet the same phrases, used during times of resisting necessary and even biblically motivated change, reveal a failure to understand that Jesus is the head of the Church. The core issue often is a failure to die to self, which includes preferences, models, styles, aesthetics and postures toward the community needing to be reached.

Changing the culture of discipleship in the local church can occur but it’s going to be a challenge.  Here are five reasons why.

1. Discipleship isn’t linear. Every person matures spiritually in a start, stop, start, stall and start again manner. A simple review of the New Testament writings reveals letters to churches that both got it and grew in grace in many ways, only to fail to get it, regularly falling into sin and immaturity. Even Jesus’ disciples exhibited great growth and regress. There’s not a one, two, three easy discipleship plan that ensures maturity grows steadily over time.

2. Discipleship takes time. When we consider Jesus’ discipleship model, we must acknowledge the significant time He invested in the twelve. Three years, 12 hours a day, amounts to more than 1,000 days and 13,000 hours. At best, over three years, we might have as many as three hours a week in regularly scheduled worship and study gatherings. If we are above average and doing personal discipleship, we might get an additional one or two hours dedicated to spiritual formation. If you do the math, and factor in the irregularity of modern-day church attendance patterns, it will be easy to see that we don’t even come close to investing the amount of time Jesus did.

3. Discipleship requires patience. A favorite quote of our Replant team is when R.C. Sproul famously said these memorable words during a question-and-answer time at a conference: “What’s wrong with you people!?” Reading the Gospels gives one a sense that Jesus may have thought this too. Endeavoring to help someone grow spiritually as a disciple is an exercise in patience as the learner grows, struggles, regresses, then grows again.

4. Discipleship is highly relational. In our Western world, we prize efficiency and effectiveness. Our educational approaches have been classroom-centric and involved knowledge transfer in a mostly sterilized setting. Sit and learn from the experts, write it down, take a test, embed the learning into your life.  The problem is that most life lessons needing to be learned – and most all discipleship – is learning in real life, outside a classroom. And it’s based on a need to know, need to grow basis. Moving spiritual formation into real life is critical.

5. Discipleship requires a plan and strategy. While I’m not certain how widespread or common, my sense is that most churches don’t possess a defined discipleship pathway or strategy. Before you protest this point, using what I’ve written above to refute what I’m now writing, hear me out: Everyone needs some sort of plan to grow spiritually. Spiritual growth never happens passively. It requires focus, effort and input from others who help you see your life as it is and where God desires for you to grow. 

My favorite replanting and church renewal verse is Colossians 1:28-29, which says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all His energy that He powerfully works within me.” (ESV)

Preach the gospel, warn and teach, understanding that the goal is maturity for everyone in Christ, regardless of their age.

And know this: It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but you are not alone.

Published February 7, 2023

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick