Church growth is often measured numerically by attendance, baptisms, and membership. But what if we look at it from a different angle and consider the spiritual growth of church members? Although it can be difficult to measure spiritual growth numerically, it is possible to track the number of people currently involved in discipleship relationships, particularly if the church has a discipleship process in place.
Discipleship is a value that often lacks a real definition, and therefore lacks emphasis. We all know that we’re supposed to make disciples. That’s what Jesus told us to do. But without Discipleship Training or Training Union, how do we do it? Do we just hope that when people show up to church, get involved in small groups and participate in programs, discipleship will naturally happen? Or do we define it better, create a process, and put more emphasis on it? And what does discipleship have to do with church growth, anyway?
What is your church growth strategy?
Common church growth strategies include things like evangelism, outreach, small groups, labor-intensive programming, powerful preaching, dynamic seeker-driven worship services, community engagement, and relational or “friendship” evangelism. Although discipleship can occur through all those means as well, their emphasis tends to be on getting people involved in church, not necessarily involved in discipleship.
What if we made discipleship the driving factor of our church growth strategy, rather than a hopeful byproduct of it? Would that lead us to better fulfill the Great Commission?
What did Jesus do?
When we look to Scripture for examples of discipleship, we see Jesus modeling it with his disciples. He taught large groups and elaborated on his words among his chosen few. He ate with them, walked with them, slept on the ground and in guest houses with them. After he taught them everything he could during his time in the world, he challenged them to do the same, and they did. They taught people in large crowds, in synagogues, in houses and town squares. They took on personal disciples and took them with them on missionary journeys. It seems likely that some became closer to their disciples than their own families. And through this multiplication-growth of discipleship, the church grew quickly. Before long, it became a force to be reckoned with. A light in a dark world. A city on a hill.
My discipleship background
In the New Mexico Baptist church where I grew up, my parents briefly ran a discipleship program based on Operation Timothy material from the Navigators. As a teenager, I benefited from that program, where I was assigned to an adult mentor and we met regularly to go through the material for several months. Outside of our assigned meeting time, we also spent a lot of time together, as our families were close and her kids were my friends. So in addition to regularly meeting and discussing assigned topics, she was also my teacher and mentor in the process of simply doing life. That experience was not only beneficial in establishing my faith, but it also instilled in me the value of discipleship as an essential part of ministry and Christian living.
For my entire adult life, I have sought out opportunities to be involved in personal discipleship. In the churches I have been a part of, those opportunities could be much harder to find than they should be. People are busy and many don’t understand what discipleship is. In my current church, my pastor husband has more than once asked a Bible study group, “What is discipleship? What is a disciple? How do you know when you’ve made one?” The response? Blank stares. People know we’re supposed to make disciples. Few of them know how.
The A13 Experience
A few years ago, Nate Templin, the Regional Director for Southeastern Colorado, set out with a few other guys to create the A13 Experience (based on the sending out of Saul and Barnabas in Acts 13). As stated on the website, A13 is “an intentional process to develop disciple makers and catalyze a kingdom movement.” It started small, with 10 people starting and 5 finishing for each of the first three two-year cohort groups. When they opened up a cohort for women, I decided to check it out, along with a member of our church’s leadership team and my dad, who helped pique my interest in discipleship in the first place.
A13 not only defines discipleship and emphasizes its importance, it also helps participants create their own discipleship strategy. In year one we read through the entire Bible, learned Bible study methods and important terms guiding disciples to a true understanding of God’s revelation of himself through his word. People are encouraged to take a weekly topic and have either evangelistic or discipleship conversations with friends, co-workers, and even strangers, then come back and report on their “homework.” While many church Bible studies focus on Bible knowledge, A13 focuses on helping people use Biblical truth to navigate real life in Christ.
I’m in year two of A13 now, and the emphasis is on teaching groups of disciplemakers. The theological topics are deeper and more systematic, and the teachers have more education and training. The idea is to equip people to take these methods and principles into their own ministries, whether they are part of a church or parachurch organization, and teach more people to make disciples.
It has been exciting to see the growth, both numerically and spiritually, among people in the A13 Experience. The first three cohorts started with ten people and dropped to four or five by the end of the two years. The year that I started we had 17, and about 15 went on to year two. It looks like we will finish with 12 or 13. The current year one cohort started with over 20. With all of us meeting in the same building and then breaking off into our cohorts, it feels like a lot of people, and most of these people are involved in discipleship relationships with several people outside of A13. It is a glimpse of the multiplication concept of discipleship at work.
Challenge to churches:
Develop a discipleship philosophy, plan, pathway, and pipeline
How can churches create a similar process of making and growing disciples, who make more disciples? While any Christian can take the principles of discipleship and make disciples, I believe it requires intentionality from church leadership in order to make it a successful strategy for church growth. Church leaders can make discipleship a priority by:
- Establishing a Philosophy
What is the church’s philosophy of discipleship? In what contexts will it take place (one on one, groups of two or three, Bible study groups, etc.)? What is a disciple and how do we know when we’ve made one?
- Creating a Plan
Once the philosophy has been established, create a plan for how it will be accomplished. Will you develop a training ground like A13, or ask people to sign up with a discipleship coordinator and report back on progress? What is the best plan for your church?
- Mapping out a Pathway
What is the path that disciples will take? Will you use a published curriculum, create one internally, or give disciplemakers freedom to create a pathway that works for them? How will you track progress along the path?
- Setting up a Pipeline
Who in your church is currently best equipped to take on a leadership role in disciplemaking? Can you identify potential disciplemakers and disciples? What is the process for communicating with people who are interested?
If discipleship becomes not merely a byproduct of ministry, but a priority of ministry, church growth will be exponential. It is not a magic pill; it takes real time and effort by real people with real commitment. It is a difficult path that few will follow at first, but it works. Jesus modeled it, his disciples proved it, and we are called to it. Let’s go and make disciples.
Finding people to serve and lead is difficult
What if your church could develop more and better disciples and leaders?
Sign up to receive our weekly Momentum articles to your email inbox and you’ll be given access to the Multiplication Pipeline, an online training system that helps you train leaders and send your congregation on mission.