As part of my preparation for the priesthood I was required to meet with various priests before and during seminary to ask questions and have them pass on wisdom. One of my biggest surprises in those times was the consistent theme I heard from them about the ongoing struggle to disciple people. No one I talked to had a clear plan that was working. I remember thinking, “How come no one has figured this out better in almost 2000 years of Christianity?” I started to sketch out plans for a series of classes that would build people up to maturity and get them serving in ministry and missions. About the same time, I was assigned The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren in one of my classes. When I finally read the book, I realized I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel and just started adapting his ideas to my Anglican and local church context. (Simply copying what worked in a Southern California Baptist Church in the 90’s to a Florida Anglican Church years later didn’t make sense. However, adapting those concepts to my context completely made sense and worked beautifully). Over 20 years later, I have since learned that there are a lot of different plans for discipleship that are effective and that it doesn’t matter so much what plan a local church has, what matters is that there actually is a plan!
As I talk to clergy and church leaders in our Anglican movement, I have found that most churches have no plan to make disciples, no system to build people up in the transforming love of Jesus Christ. If you are serious about your church growing you must get serious about making disciples. Here are some principles to follow as you prayerfully figure out a discipleship system that will raise the maturity level in your church:
- Spiritual Growth Is Intentional. This was something I didn’t really understand for quite a while. Having grown up in the church but not knowing Christ as my LORD, I decided I was done with church in my early 20s. Soon after leaving the church I was born again! This happened while sitting on a couch, by myself, watching a Christian VHS tape on Intelligent Design. Being saved outside of the church or some parachurch ministry I had no real guidance other than from the Lord. I just started figuring it out. I assumed from my experience that spiritual growth was like that for everyone – pray the prayer of salvation and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading, done. So, as I led people to the Lord I would then move on to the next person thinking they would automatically grow from there. Over time I learned that my experience was more of the exception than the norm. The norm is that spiritual growth in not automatic. New believers need a clear pathway to be led on that moves them to maturity in Christ. And by maturity, I mean not only knowledge about Christ but living like Christ. As leaders, we need to be intentional about building people up. It won’t just happen automatically.
- Spiritual Growth is Incremental. It also won’t happen instantly. One of the most important aspects of any spiritual growth plan is that it allows people to grow over time. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all came out of the waters of baptism instantly and perfectly like Christ? It would be so much easier! That doesn’t happen. Instead we grow up incrementally. Think about how a baby naturally grows up. They start out needing to be cared and provided for by the parents. Later, sometime after learning the basics like eating and walking, they begin to share in the responsibility of the family. Then when mature they go out, marry and multiply. That’s probably oversimplifying but hopefully you see the point. New believers are “babies” in Christ so whatever plan you implement in your church, it needs to be a step by step process, “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” 2 Corinthians 3:18 (NLT) Changed “more and more” implies a process.
- Spiritual Growth is Incarnational. No matter how good the discipleship plan is we put in place, it will only be effective if the Lord is at work in the person’s heart. This is why there are so many church members who have plenty of head knowledge but their lives haven’t been transformed to Christlikeness. Maturity is more about an inhabitation of one’s heart by God than one’s imitation of church people. So yes, the person needs to intentionally work whatever the plan is but at the same time they must let God work in their heart. Philippians 2:12b-13 says it this way, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” You work out and God works in! True life transformation, like church transformation, must be a work of the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is the American Anglican Council’s Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching.