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.
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.
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.
First, A False Test
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.
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 even 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.
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:
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.
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.
A More Mature You
The challenge for a lot of us is that we intend to do better, but we’re our own worst enemy.
Despite our best efforts, we grow cynical and proud, we compromise our integrity and we end up feeling empty.
My new book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the 7 Greatest Challenges Everyone Experiences But No One Expects, which is available now, covers all this in detail.
It’s a journey into the soul that I hope will make you a better leader and a better human being and Christ-follower.
Here’s what top leaders are saying about Didn’t See It Coming:
“Seriously, this may be the most important book you read this year.” Jud Wilhite, Lead Pastor, Central Church
“Powerful, personal, and highly readable. ” Brian Houston, Global Senior Pastor, Hillsong
“Whatever challenge you’re facing, whatever obstacle you’re hoping to overcome, whatever future you dream or imagine, there is something powerful for you here.” Andy Stanley, Founder, North Point Ministries
“Uncommonly perceptive and generous…You have to read this book.” Ann Voskamp, NYT bestselling author
“Masterful.” Reggie Joiner, CEO Orange
“Deep biblical insight, straightforward truth, and practical wisdom to help you grow.” Craig Groeschel, Pastor and NYT bestselling author
“This book is sure to help you.” Daniel H. Pink, NYT bestselling author
Over the years, one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about being a public speaker is having opportunities to hang out with Carey…It’s not a matter of if you’ll run into these challenges; it’s a matter of when. Be prepared by spending a little time with a leader who has already been there.” Jon Acuff, NYT best-selling author
“Nieuwhof’s book provides expert guidance…with an accuracy that pierces the heart.” Nancy Duarte, CEO Duarte Inc.
“A refreshingly transparent guide for all leaders in a wide variety of industries.” Bryan Miles, Co-Founder and CEO, BELAY
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.