Principle Centered Ministry — Guiding Principles for Challenging Times
By Eddie Pipkin
Phil and I were having some socially distanced coffee and catching up last week, when I was reminded of a statistical anomaly that always catches me off guard: Phil has worked with hundreds of churches in the past few years – big and small, all across the country, founded 100 years ago or five months ago – and 40% of the time these churches offer no clear option for development as a disciple. Across the board, 80% of the time, even if they offer one or two clear options for development as a disciple, these churches offer no clear progression from beginning faith to maturity for those who wish to take their discipleship growth seriously. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Churches offer informational classes, and churches offer small groups (sometimes), but churches too often fail to connect the discipleship dots with transformational accountability that moves us from knowledge to changed behavior. And changed behavior – a lifestyle that reflects Jesus – is kind of the point of the whole discipleship deal, isn’t it?
Guiding Principle for the Week: Discipleship is not about imparting information. It’s about empowering transformation.
I asked Phil what the one question is that he asks local churches when consulting with them about the development of discipleship systems (or consulting with them about evaluating their congregational health, or coming up with a revitalization strategy, or being relevant in their community, or developing a vision for the future, or just about any topic for which a church would bring in a coach). Here’s the one question he always asks:
“If I came to your church and I didn’t know anything about Jesus, but I was interested in learning more about Jesus, do you have a pathway to help me make a decision for Jesus, ground me in Christian practices, help me form my life around Jesus, and send me out to witness to the world?”
Most churches answer, “Of course we do!” Then they hand over a list of classes. It’s a timeworn model, an instructional model honed in the 20th century, and a model that the world has in many ways moved beyond. Christian Education is not equivalent to discipleship transformation. Classes have a purpose. Information is important. But information is not the goal; it’s a resource that fuels our growth toward the goal. Even when we have functioning small groups, many times those groups embrace a classroom approach to studies and book reads. The classroom / information impartation model of learning and spiritual growth is so ingrained in us and our religious institutions that is a hard slog to move our minds to a different strategy. (And even when a class / informational approach is done well, it is very rare for a local church to have a clear, navigable progression that leads from beginning steps towards maturity.)
We tend to think that the people in our pews (physical or virtual) are becoming more mature by osmosis – they hear us preach, hear us pray, hear us read Scripture, hear us talk about giving and serving, and so they are learning to grow week by week in these areas. But research tells us this is often not true. The pews (physical and virtual) are filled with people who never move beyond the initial stages of discipleship. They are spiritual “plateaued”! Seeing is not doing, and learning is not necessarily transformative — there must be accountability, active hands-on application, and directionality (that’s the pathway part).
The pandemic re-think era is a perfect time to give serious consideration to the discipleship systems that we have built / need to build in our local churches. It’s a time of change, and this of all topics cries out for change. The fall season presents an opportune time to try out some new ideas.
The bulk of our work at Excellence in Ministry Coaching in the past few years has been in this area of discipleship development. We’ve been working on resources to help churches think about discipleship in new ways and to give them the tools to move beyond thinking about it to implementing new strategies. It’s a passion, because we think it’s the future, and we think strong discipleship strategies solve all of the “problems” that local churches are wrestling with. Whether it’s attendance, giving, community relevance, generational relevance, passion in worship, greater accountability, or developing a sense of vision, more mature discipleship practiced by more people in a congregation naturally addresses these metrics that keep leaders up at night. That’s, of course, because mature discipleship was always the goal, from the time of Jesus’ leadership of the original disciples; we just got mixed up about the metrics and got caught up as an institution in counting things (like people, dollars, buildings, staff, and programs).
We have written books, designed seminars and workshops, and developed an outstanding diagnostic tool for helping individuals and congregations evaluate their spiritual maturity. I’ll say more about that in a moment, but first and foremost I want to say this:
If you have questions about discipleship within your community, and you’d like to reach out to someone with whom you can talk about those questions, call us or email us. We love those conversations. No strings attached, we’d love to talk with you.
Here’s the contact page on our website with email and phone info for Excellence in Ministry Coaching. My personal email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can reach out in the comments section below.
Much of our discipleship thinking has coalesced in our newest book, Disciple Like Jesus: Making Disciples Like Jesus Who Make Disciples Like Jesus. This book lays out an easy to read and understand overview of the central tenets of effective discipleship. It calls out what’s not working well with our current discipleship approaches and gives a clear, biblically-based framework for transformational discipleship. It engages real stories from real people to illustrate the concepts, and it concludes that coaching and mentoring relationships are far superior (and far more biblical) than our traditional class approaches. (We’ve even developed a small group resource kit that is tailored to virtual use — perfect for our current conditions.)
The idea of a coaching / mentoring approach to discipleship (which partners developing disciples from different maturity levels in relationship with one another for a personalized context) can be used in conjunction with existing classes and small groups. It can be used independently of those formats, too. It gets to the heart of the truth that we all share the need to develop spiritual disciplines, but we all engage those disciplines in different ways. (There is no one size fits all.) We are all uniquely gifted and uniquely called. Too often the limitation of classes and even small groups is that they try to shoehorn us into a limited number of options for growth and service that leave us frustrated and feeling incomplete as members of the body of Christ.
This approach draws from ancient practice (the very manner by which Jesus originally discipled the disciples), and modern technology means it can be practiced in dramatically new ways.
If you’d like to explore these ideas more deeply, want to share more about the exciting discipleship work your congregation is doing, or have practical questions, call or email us today, or join in the conversation in the comments section below.
[By the way, in addition to our new book, Disciple Like Jesus, we also have a workbook for those who are just starting out as beginners on their discipleship journey called Foundations (which introduces key spiritual disciplines), as well as our interactive, small group book of exercises called Discipler: An Interactive Guide to Intentional, Relational, and Accountable Discipleship, which takes people experientially deeper into the discipleship journey with day by day exercises in prayer, Scripture exploration, worship, service, and generosity.]