Several weeks ago, I read Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth
by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson. Greg is the executive pastor at Willow Creek Community Church. Cally is Willow’s director of communication services. The book is based on their research of over 1,000 churches. It takes a hard look at spiritual formation in our churches with a focus on best-practice ministries.
This book is by far the book that has most challenged my thinking regarding spiritual formation in the church. My Kindle version has highlights throughout. This morning I went through all those highlights and tried to narrow them down to the twelve that I found most challenging to current church practices. Unfortunately, these statements only provide a snippet of the findings and best practices outlined in the book.
12 Reasons Your Church Doesn’t Produce Spiritual Growth
1. You focus more on Bible teaching than Bible engagement.
“We learned that the most effective strategy for moving people forward in their journey of faith is biblical engagement. Not just getting people into the Bible when they’re in church—which we do quite well—but helping them engage the Bible on their own outside of church.”
2. You haven’t developed a pathway of focused first steps.
“Instead of offering up a wide-ranging menu of ministry opportunities to newcomers, best-practice churches promote and provide a high-impact, nonnegotiable pathway of focused first steps—a pathway designed specifically to jumpstart a spiritual experience that gets people moving toward a Christ-centered life.”
3. You’re more concerned about activity than growth.
“Increased church activity does not lead to spiritual growth.”
4. You haven’t clarified the church’s role.
“Because—whether inadvertently or intentionally—these churches have communicated to their people that, no matter where they are on their spiritual journey, the role of the church is to be their central source of spiritual expertise and experience. As a result, even as people mature in their beliefs and embrace personal spiritual practices as part of their daily routines, their expectation is that it will be the church, not their own initiative, that will feed their spiritual hunger.”
5. You’re focused more on small groups than serving.
“Serving experiences appear to be even more significant to spiritual development than organized small groups.”
6. You’re not challenging people to reflect on Scripture.
“If they could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, their choice would be equally clear. They would inspire, encourage, and equip their people to read the Bible—specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives.”
7. You’re unwilling to admit that more is not better.
“Based on findings from the most effective churches, however, this ‘more is better’ way of thinking is not the best route for people who are new to a church, and it is particularly unsuitable for people who are taking their first steps to explore the Christian faith…Instead of offering a ministry buffet with multiple tempting choices of activities and studies, these churches make one singular pathway a virtual prerequisite for membership and full engagement with the church.”
8. You haven’t raised the bar.
“Too many churches are satisfied to have congregations filled with people who say they ‘belong’ to their church—who attend faithfully and are willing to serve or make a donation now and then. But that belonging bar is not high enough; simply belonging doesn’t get the job done for Jesus.”
9. You’ve created a church staff dependency.
“Taking too much responsibility for others’ spiritual growth fostered an unhealthy dependence of congregants on the church staff.”
10. You believe that small groups are the solution to spiritual formation.
“Based on the churches we have studied, including our own, there is no evidence that getting 100 percent of a congregation into small groups is an effective spiritual formation strategy.”
11. You focus on what people should do rather than who people should become.
“Unfortunately, churches often make things harder still by obscuring the goal—to become more like Christ—with a complicated assortment of activities. For instance, encouraging people to: Attend teaching and worship services every week. Meet frequently with small community and Bible study groups (often requiring follow-up communications and homework). Serve the church a couple times a month. Serve those who are under resourced on a regular basis. Invite friends, coworkers, and family to church, special events, support groups, etc. When the church incessantly promotes all the things people should do, it’s very easy for them to lose sight of the real goal—which is who they should become.”
12. You aren’t helping people surrender their lives to Jesus.
“Spiritual growth is not driven or determined by activities; it is defined by a growing relationship with Christ. So the goal is not to launch people into an assortment of ministry activities; it is to launch them on a quest to embrace and surrender their lives to Jesus.”
Here’s my Amazon link if you’d like to read the book. I strongly encourage you to do that and wrestle through what you read with your ministry leadership team. If you are honest with yourselves, this book will shift the way you do ministry in your church.
Now, I’d like to talk about why most churches will be unwilling to make the necessary changes to address this issue.
It comes down to four challenges that will require us to get uncomfortable. And those challenges involve four different groups of people.
The Teaching Challenge
This is the challenge that involves our teaching pastors. As Greg and Cally pointed out, we’re good at getting people into the Bible on Sunday morning, but we do a poor job of encouraging Bible engagement outside the church. Any movement here will require pastors to shift their approach to teaching. The win isn’t a great message. The win needs to become people engaging God’s Word.
How do we help people see how the Bible addresses real life issues? How do we help people look to God’s Word when they need wisdom? How do we provide tools and encouragement and the right expectations to move people to a place where they become self-feeders?
The challenge is that we’ll have to provide practical next steps to help people embrace new spiritual disciplines. Remember, teaching has the potential to shift thinking while systems (or disciplines) have the potential to shift behaviors.
The Activity Challenge
This is a challenge that involves our paid staff. As soon as we hire someone, we measure their success by how many people show up to the event. If we only had one ministry in every church, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. The problem is that even the smallest of churches typically has dozens of ministries. And whenever staff is involved, we’ve conditioned them to believe success involves holding a weekly event and getting as many people at that event as possible. The more staff we hire, the more ministry we expect to get done and the more events they try to pull off. Our staff end up essentially competing against each other to get more people to their activities.
The goal is making disciples, not keeping disciples busy. In addition to counting attendance and baptisms, what else do we need to start measuring to determine whether or not spiritual growth is actually happening? How do we redefine the win? How do we move beyond measuring activity to measuring heart change? How do we get ministry staff working together rather than competing with each other?
The challenge is that we’ll have to say no to some events and activities in order to shift the culture and the mindset of our churches.
The Mission Challenge
This is the challenge that involves our most engaged lay people. When they hear God calling, we’ve conditioned them to bring that calling to the church. Rather than engaging the mission on their own, they assume it’s the church’s responsibility to embrace their mission. They expect the church to provide the platform, the people and the resources to make it happen.
The goal is to get people on mission where they live and work and play. In many cases the worst thing we could do is to agree to make it “a ministry of the church.” Instead, we need to challenge people to be the Church. We need to encourage people to listen to and be obedient to God’s calling in their lives. If they see a need, they need to address that need. If they need help, they need to talk to their friends to get some help. If they need money, they may need to become good stewards of what God has provided so that they can be generous with their church and their personal mission.
The challenge is that we’ll have to free people up to be obedient to God’s prompting without accepting that prompting as the church’s responsibility.
The Consumer Challenge
This is the challenge that involves the people we’re trying to reach. We live in a consumer culture. There’s no doubt about it — people are consumers before they become contributors or committed. I still believe the church needs to provide some “consumer” opportunities to reach our culture, but we can’t solely rely on that method across every ministry and every environment in our churches. Jesus taught the crowds. People consumed his teaching. We can’t discount that. On the other hand, Jesus did a lot more than teach. Unfortunately, we’ve reduced “ministry” to worship and teaching whenever people gather in our churches. When we do that, we’re fueling a consumer mindset.
Consider the various ministries in your church. Think about every ministry environment and every gathering or event. Do people come expecting to receive or to give? When people think of worship do they think of singing or being a living sacrifice? Do your ministries encourage people to both love God and love others? Do you love people enough to challenge them to move beyond consuming ministry to being the ministry?
The challenge is that we’ll have to reinvent the way we do church in order to reach the unconvinced consumer and help them become disciples of Jesus who also make disciples.
Every challenge should make us uncomfortable. Every challenge should require us to lean into God for his wisdom and direction. Every challenge will require us to give up something that’s familiar to discover a new and healthier approach that makes new and healthier disciples.
A friend just shared this quote from Dr. Henry Cloud in his recent book Necessary Endings:
“You have to be able to face losing some things you might want in order to be free to do the right thing. If you can’t, you are stuck.”
With all of these challenges, we’re going to have to face losing some things we like. That’s going to involve change. That’s going to offend some people. That’s going to make us uncomfortable because we want people to like us. That’s why I think most churches will be unwilling to address spiritual growth issues. They’d rather do what they’ve always done. They’d rather stay stuck.
I’m praying you are not that church.