Building Adult Discipleship Systems Across a Congregation

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Pastor John was on the other end of the line. John is the church planter and lead pastor of a church of over 1,000 people in Nevada. “A couple years ago we built a discipleship and leadership development system for our whole congregation. But when we implemented our new discipleship system, it flopped. Creating and implementing a workable discipleship system for the whole congregation is very difficult. I like what I see on your website. You have successfully done what we found so difficult to do. We pastors do not realize how hard it is to build a workable system of discipleship. Will you help us?” That is how our relationship began. Six months later, 60 women, many who had never been in any small group before, met together over 6 weeks, sitting at six round tables, studying “forgiveness” in these small groups. That was just one part of a system for discipleship they began to implement and construct.

Almost 30 years ago Dallas Willard lamented that few churches had intentional plans for discipleship in their congregations. I expect that he is pleased today that more churches are talking about it and are making plans.

If you are making a congregation wide discipleship plan, how confident are you that your plan will work? If you made a plan in the past, are you using it and seeing fruit multiply on account of it? I am not talking about a plan that will get 5% or less of your congregation into an intentional discipleship group, but one that gets much greater percentages of your congregation intentionally taking steps in discipleship.

Allow me to share some insights I’ve learned as I’ve coached churches through intentional faith development that will help you work a plan that will actually bear fruit by producing better disciples across your congregation.

  1. Provide multiple types of on-ramps for people to get into intentional discipleship. People need discipleship that is scaled to their place of spiritual growth. Many will not get involved, not because they are not committed as we so often think, but simply because the opportunities promoted feel highly threatening to them. One church developed a model that talks about “places” on the spiritual journey (intentionally NOT “levels”). They talk about an Exploring Faith place, a Foundational Faith place, a Growing Faith place and a Deepening Faith place. That is language that fits their church well. They are consistently asking if what they are providing for people at each faith place effects opportunities for them to move forward as disciples.
  2. While providing opportunities for people at all places on the spiritual journey, realize that most of your people are likely at the Foundational Faith place (what Willow Creek Association Reveal calls the “Growing in Christ” stage). Anecdotal evidence indicates that most churches, even most Christian Reformed Churches, have the majority of their people, no matter how long they have been a Christian, stuck at that place. How do you help these people get growing?
  3. Do NOT appoint a committee to study the problem and build a plan, as is our normal method in CRC culture. While this approach may develop a complete report, it rarely leads to substantive, continuous spiritual growth in people’s lives across the breadth of the congregation. Is that good stewardship of time and energy? Rather get a small team together to learn about discipleship systems and quickly implement small steps, reporting to the church leadership as they move along. Start small and get early wins in discipleship growth.
  4. Do NOT begin by taking a survey of where people in your congregation are at spiritually. Why would I not recommend starting there? Because too often lots of energy is spent on analysis, with little energy left over for implementation. Get started with planning small wins and implementing. If you want to take a congregation-wide test, take it later, after some discipleship momentum has begun.
  5. The Willow Creek Association indicates that the one catalyst for growth as a disciple they have found no matter where people are in the spectrum of spiritual maturing is “engaging scripture.” Notice that it is not necessarily “knowing” Scripture or “memorizing” Scripture, which are important. Rather the focus is on looking to Scripture and engaging it in the life of the congregation. Look for ways to increase your congregation’s engagement of Scripture in all the nooks and crannies of your ministry. That is a great place to start building a system.
  6. The senior leadership needs to cheerlead the discipleship system. While I advocate starting bottom up, with small wins in the congregation, very soon into any new endeavor the senior leadership needs to cheerlead by talking positively about the steps to increased discipleship, retelling the stories of victory and making public their intentionality about their own personal spiritual growth.

This has only scratched the surface of all that can be said about building adult discipleship systems and growing a discipleship culture in your church. I’m available for coaching churches through creating their own discipleship process. E-mail me for more information about consulting and coaching.

For your reference, here is a list of just a few of the many books out on this subject (in order of publication).

  • Deeping Your Effectiveness: Restructuring the Local Church for Life Transformation by Dan Glover and Claudia Lavy, 2006
  • Reveal: Where Are You, by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, 2007.
  • Follow Me: What’s Next For You, by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, 2008.
  • Building a Discipleship Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People Like Jesus Did, by Mike Breen and Steve Cockram, 2009, rereleased 2011.
  • Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth, by Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, 2011.
  • Become Like Jesus: Regaining Clarity on Transformation in the Local Church, by Mindy Caliguire, 2012.
  • Transformational Discipleship: How People Really Grow, by Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley and Philip Nation, 2012.

You can read my reviews of several of these on my goodreads.com page.

As you are ministering, make disciples! That is Jesus’ last command before he ascended. Making disciples is critical to living today the reality of the Kingdom.

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That should be "goodreads.com" rather than "goodbooks.com." I hope my mistake did not create confusion.

The paragraph has been updated.