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 churches and ministries for years. And it bothers me.
On a recent speaking tour, I heard it again and again from church leaders. (Almost always, by the way, from leaders whose churches weren’t growing.)
I know it’s a criticism that has followed many church leaders.
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.
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.
First, A False Test
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 makes you humble.Knowledge is not spiritual maturity. Knowledge makes you arrogant. Love makes you humble. Click To Tweet
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:
- And angry?
When did an arrogant and judgmental heart become evidence of Christian maturity?
And it never was.
In fact, as I argue here, many things Christians think are signs of spiritual maturity actually aren’t.When did an arrogant and judgmental heart become evidence of Christian maturity? Click To Tweet
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 when 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.Is someone being discipled? Just look at their lives for the evidence. Click To Tweet
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 the Holy Spirit is NOT transforming.
Paul says people who are not under the direction of the Holy Spirit have lives characterized by, among other things:
- Sexual immorality
- Impurity and debauchery
- Fits of rage
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:
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.Sanctification is a life-long process. God isn't done shaping you till you're dead. Click To Tweet
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. Further, 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.
The scripture tells us that that’s the Holy Spirit at work. They’re being discipled. They’re becoming mature.
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.The people who claim to be spiritually mature often fail the biblical definition of maturity. Click To Tweet