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How To Tell If Your Church Is Actually Producing Disciples

One of the frequent criticisms I hear of churches that are trying to reach people who don’t attend church is that they fail to produce ‘disciples’.

Honestly, this is a criticism that, off and on, has been levied at our ministry for years. And it bothers me.

I know it’s a criticism that has followed many of you as well.

So…how do you engage it? Better yet how do you respond to it?

For a while I wasn’t sure how to answer back.

Over the years we’ve worked hard on our discipleship process, engaging people in groups, serving, giving and inviting non-Christians to explore Christianity. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better all the time.

And yet any process begs the question: how do you know if you’re producing spiritually mature disciples or not? How do you measure?

Finally a few years ago I stumbled on a test that for me, at least, answers the question as well as I’ve heard it answered. I’m hoping it clarifies things for you and your team as well.

discipleshipFirst, Some False Tests

I’ve written about how the church today is getting discipleship wrong in this post and again here.

If you listened to many in the church these days, you’d think knowledge equals maturity. The more you know, the more mature you are.

Scripture suggests that’s a false test. After all, as Paul points out, knowledge puffs up; love builds up.

Knowledge makes you arrogant. Love transforms you.

This sheds light on one of the greatest puzzles of the church today: why is it that the Christians who claim to be the most spiritually mature are often the most:

Smug

Arrogant

Judgmental

Bitter

Divisive

And even angry?

When did an arrogant and judgmental heart become evidence of Christian maturity?

It’s not.

And it never was.

In fact, as I argue here, many things Christians think are signs of spiritual maturity actually aren’t.

A Much Better Way to Tell

So how do you know whether your discipleship strategy is effective—whether it’s producing followers of Jesus who are maturing?

Enter Jesus. He summed up the proof of discipleship as succinctly as anyone.

I was reading through this passage again a few years ago that I finally realized Jesus gave us the test that defines discipleship exceptionally well.

He simply said: “By their fruit you’ll recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?”

In other words, look at someone’s life for the evidence.

What evidence? Evidence that the Holy Spirit is transforming someone, or as the ancients used to say, evidence that someone is being sanctified.

That sounds great, but what does that look like?

Back to Paul. He actually defines what it’s like to be transformed by the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5.

He begins by listing the fruit of people who are NOT being transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Paul says people who are not under the direction of the Holy Spirit have lives characterized by, among other things:

Hatred

Discord

Sexual immorality

Jealousy

Impurity and debauchery

Fits of rage

Dissension

Factions

Envy

Conceit

So…look at the people who are following Christ in your church and ask yourself: is this what their lives look like?

If so, you have some work to do on your discipleship strategy because it’s not producing what the Holy Spirit produces in people’s lives when he’s at work.

So what does the Holy Spirit do in peoples’ lives?

When the Holy Spirit gets a hold of someone, he produces:

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self-control

So, (here’s the test again) look at people who follow Jesus in your church and ask “Is this what characterizes their lives more than it did a few years ago?”

If the answer is yes, you have an effective discipleship strategy.

If the answer’s no, you have some work to do.

You can’t set perfection as your standard because we live on this side of heaven.

Will everyone who claims to be following Jesus ‘be there’? No.

Will everyone stick around? Nope, you’ll lose a few. (If you have no back door you’re either running a cult where no one is allowed to leave or you’re really not growing.)

But people SHOULD be more like Christ than they were.

And that’s the point.

Their character and heart are being re-shaped by the Holy Spirit. That’s effective discipleship.

As the ancients knew, sanctification (the process of being made holy) is a life-long process. God isn’t done shaping you until you’re dead. And even then, he has plans for you.

Bringing This Home

The more I thought about Jesus’ teaching (by their fruit you’ll know them) and Paul’s definition of fruit, the more I realized that maybe despite the critic’s claims, we actually have an effective discipleship strategy.

Why could I say this?

I looked at the people we baptized 3 to 5 years ago and ask where they are now and what they’re like now.

First, most of them are still around. They’re still following Jesus. AND, when I see where they’re at in their lives, they actually are more loving, more patient, more kind. They’re exercising more self-control (sometimes remarkably so) and many would tell you they have far more peace.

They also display less immorality, less envy, less divisiveness, better control of their temper and greater humility.

Guess what?

The scripture tells us that that’s the Holy Spirit at work. They’re being discipled. They’re becoming mature. 

The Irony

The irony I see (and I have to be careful how I say this), is that often the people who slam churches for not producing disciples are the people who display the fewest fruits of the Holy Spirit.

In fact, their accusations are often characterized by anger, hostility, pride and sometimes jealousy (their criticism often targets growing churches). At a minimum, you don’t get the sense that their question is motivated by love.

You see the incongruity, right?

The people who claim to be the most spiritually mature fail the biblical definition of maturity.

And the people who don’t claim to be spiritually mature often pass it.

What Do You Think?

It’s just something to think about the next time someone claims yet again that your church fails to produce disciples.

And it’s a great way to evaluate your own ministry.

Just look for the fruit. You’ll see it. One way or the other, your ministry is producing something in people’s lives.  Wise leaders know what it is.

What are you learning about discipleship in your ministry? Scroll down and leave a comment.

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8 Comments

  1. Brian Phipps on May 28, 2017 at 6:45 am

    I think this is a great article. It puts knowledge where it belongs… as the means to the end and not the end. Jesus says we will know the truth and the truth will set us free. Freedom is the goal, and truth is the means to get there. Jesus also prays for the truth to sanctify us. Again, the end is sanctification… with truth as a means to get there.

    My only challenge is to add “calling,” or gifts of the spirit to the fruit of the spirit. The formula for disciple-making I use is character x calling = IMPACT. It is making a difference. Thanks for your leadership Carey!

  2. David Munson on November 13, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    Very timely topic: our Elder board is working on an assimilation plan; and have been mired down with the issue of, what is an “assimilated” churchgoer. Or, more precisely, what does that assimilated person look like; or what measure do we use to determine it.

  3. Rick on November 5, 2015 at 8:21 am

    John 13:34-35

    34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

    35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

    We must be careful not to create a doctrine out of one scripture but out of a cover to cover understanding of what is being taught. All comments below have a good Biblical foundation but none stands alone. Lets love one another by being supportive of each other that the world would know that we are His disciples.
    Thank you Carey for sharing a very important PART of what it means to be a disciple. I enjoyed your blog and would read it again.

  4. Bryan Lee Davidson-Tirca on November 3, 2015 at 2:26 am

    I liked this blog.

  5. Scott Madeira on November 2, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    True discipleship and true growth consist of both knowledge and love (and daily increasing of the other fruits.) You can’t be a disciple of someone you don’t understand. Once you understand your master then you start to become more like him. Ephesians 4 lays out a comprehensive picture of what I think a true disciple looks like. How you assess that externally? I think you are relying on the outward signs and then following that up with conversations to see where people are in their relationship with Christ. There are no shortcuts to evaluating your discipleship program. There are lots of wolves in sheep’s clothing out there…

  6. Daniel on October 14, 2015 at 11:58 am

    In Matthew 7, the “fruits” that Jesus speaks of are not external deeds, nor is he referencing the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. Instead, he’s warning against the fruit of false prophets: their teaching. In fact, externally, they could very well look like successful practitioners of the discipleship strategy you outline in this post; their deeds will look great (like sheep’s clothing). However, the metric Jesus gives in this text is not “spiritual maturity” that one can see. The metric is simple: is that person teaching the truth or falsehood (the standard for this being God’s written Word)? The fruits (i.e. their teaching) will tell you if they are someone whose word you ought to heed.

    This post creates a false dichotomy between knowledge and love, implying that knowledge is bad and love is good. But of course the irony is that in order to make such a distinction (which the apostle Paul doesn’t even make), the post must actually put forth, well, knowledge. So my question is, what makes the knowledge of this post exempt from the knowledge which it bemoans? Why should I heed THIS knowledge if knowledge leads to arrogance?

  7. […] a concrete follow up to a previous post on measuring discipleship growth from Cary Nieuwhof. Nieuwhof offers a Biblically-centered approach to looking for fruit, centered on Paul’s […]

  8. Kelly Moore on October 13, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Interesting post for sure – and I would share it on Facebook in the clergy groups I’m in but there are several pastors that have clearly had members that are faith filled disciples yet become so small in numbers that the best thing for them is to close. That being said – I think this would disheart them. As for me it’s a good question for me and my husband (we serve as co- pastors) need to consider. Good points and great challenges to those actively engaged in church leadership.

    Also why is there only a Twitter icon to share quotes yet no Facebook ones?

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