Why the typical plan for discipleship isn’t working

That night in the mountain home, I knew we were failing to hit that target of making mature and equipped followers of Christ. In my best estimation, (and that’s all that it was), I knew that my description of a mature and equipped follower of Christ would apply to a small minority of our church members. But oddly enough, I would assume a good majority of our people were growing in their commitment to Jesus and in their knowledge of God’s Word.

I look back now and understand why that was the case. It was because I was utilizing the typical church’s plan for spiritual formation. And I have grown more convinced, year in and year out, that the present day church (for the most part) has embraced an ineffective plan for making and training disciples.
In the early years of our church, we were using that same plan. That plan, put simply, is giving God’s people biblical directives and then challenging them to follow (or obey).

I vividly remember meeting with a dozen or so of the most noted and respected pastors in America. Several of their names you would readily recognize were I to mention them. These guys were approximately my age and as young pastors then, were pastoring some of the most noted and respected churches in America. We met together periodically for 2 or 3 days to discuss common topics of interest. It was our practice, day one, to contribute topics for discussion. My requested subject at this particular gathering was (as you might guess), “How do we take people to spiritual formation?”

The most noted and respected pastor of the group had summoned us to meet and was therefore hosting and moderating the meeting. His plan was to first “prime the pump” giving his thoughts and then to open the floor for discussion on each subject. He planned our agenda & our subjects in priority for discussion. I was interested to see that my subject was last on a list of about 20.

In the last hour of our final day, we came to my requested topic and I vividly remember his comments.

They were something like this: “You notice I’ve held this one as the last subject. The reason is because I’m not sure what to say about this one” (which was the first and only time that had happened). He went on to say: “How do you help God’s people develop in strong spiritual formation in today’s culture? Today, if you can get your people to worship weekly, share their faith and volunteer to serve, that’s about the best you can do.”

As he continued sharing his thoughts, he asked an interesting question. “How many of you guys had a spiritual mentor in your life who was like a loving drill sergeant or coach in your life – who pushed you when you needed to be pushed, pulled you when you needed to be pulled and hugged you when you needed to be hugged?”
As I looked around the conference table, every one of us raised our hand, and then he said: “How would you do that in church today?” That question is the all important question which will be addressed in the next chapter. But just to underscore how ineffective the typical plan used in churches today is for discipleship, let me share one last example.

Now, many years after that Pastor’s gathering, I have been invited to speak at numerous pastors conferences. In an effort to underscore the need for a different approach to hit our desired target, I lead those pastors in an insightful exercise.

I first have them collectively create a description of a mature and equipped follower of Christ (before seeing mine). Then I ask them to individually note their church’s four or five best offerings to help people in spiritual formation. Their lists typically are very similar including sermons, seminars, classes, Sunday School and small groups.

After asking them to glance at their list of spiritual formation offerings, I ask the all revealing question. “How many of you think that your four or five spiritual formation offerings are effectively taking your people to the destiny of becoming your description of a mature and equipped follower of Christ?” It would not be uncommon to see no hands raised.

Now I am certain that each of those offerings noted by these pastors are helping in their people’s spiritual formation. But the reality is, they are experiencing what we had experienced at Perimeter in our early years.

But there is good news. There is a plan that is extremely effective to enable churches to take their people to their desired destiny (maturity and equipping). And it’s nothing novel. In fact, it is as old as the New Testament and it was modeled by Jesus.