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Do Church Services Equal Discipleship?

In reviewing survey reports done by various research organizations (i.e. Barna Group, Pew Forum, LifeWay Research, etc.) about how discipleship is done in churches in the United States, I’ve discovered one clear fact: most churches equate worship services and Bible study groups to discipleship. In doing so, they may have inadvertently modified Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 to read, “Go therefore and make CHURCH MEMBERS of all the nations.”

And the reason also seems to be pretty clear: attendance numbers seem to be the true goal of most churches. Not just overall church attendance numbers, but numbers seem to be the focus on church committees and boards, and in the many church programs offered each week.

For example, I currently attend a church with a very modest attendance of around 50-60 each week. The church attendance has doubled in the last six months or so; likewise with Wednesday evening Bible Study. The numbers continue to grow as the weeks go on. Each week the pastor and long-time members of the church are practically giddy about the increase in the number of new attendees. However, there are few church ministries outside of Sunday morning worship or the Wednesday evening Bible study. Not to say that more are not planned or desired, but as of this date, there are few.

But moreover, there is no distinct life-long discipleship process or mentoring program at the church. I’ve noticed the pastor has geared his messages to good discipleship lessons, but that could be said for most sermons or Bible study lessons. What is missing is an intentional program to disciple believers in Jesus Christ. The pastor would say that he is hoping that one day this will happen but for now his “discipleship” ministry is preaching/teaching twice a week.

He is not alone. Before attending this church I attended a local “mega-church.” Ironically, the pastor of my current church used to work at this mega-church. This church has three Sunday morning worship services that include separate services for children and teenagers. During the non-summer months, a Sunday evening service and a few home Bible study groups are provided. There are no mid-week programs. However, during the summer, a family style dinner is provided on Wednesday evenings.

What is missing? That’s right, there are no intentional discipleship programs going on. This is a church with thousands of people attending each week and yet the Great Commission is being completely ignored.

This is not unusual to just the two churches I’ve recently attended.

In late 2008, the Assembly of God (“AG”) denomination commissioned LifeWay Research to conduct a survey to shed light on the current state of discipleship in AG churches. According to the AG Discipleship/Church Ministries Division, “discipleship is a top priority of the Fellowship.” However, they were concerned about how the local churches were performing their role in this crucial area.

Out of the 12,000 churches that received the survey, only about twenty percent responded. Although the lack of responses is discouraging, there was something to be learned from those who did respond. And again, numbers are what the AG was focused on. In fact, the AG was quite pleased that the report shows that “56 percent of AG churches have a five-year average worship attendance growth of 10 percent or more.”

But when it came to discipleship, the bad news was just that, bad. Although the following results are from the AG survey, I am not picking on the AG. I believe these results would be no different for most denominations in this country:

  • Less than 35% of the responding pastors reported an active involvement of 60% or more of their people in Christian Education or small group discipleship ministries.
  •  Only 45% of AG churches regularly evaluate the progress and spiritual growth of their members.
  •  Only 35% of AG pastors are satisfied with the state of discipleship within their church. Of that number 28% are only somewhat satisfied.
  •  Only 17% of AG churches offer an adult mentoring program.

AG pastors consider the following the most important discipleship ministry offered to adults in their churches:

  • Sunday School: 33%
  • Pastor led teaching time: 31%
  •  Small groups: 21%
  •  Other: 6%
  • Mentoring program: 3%

AG pastors consider the following are their most important meeting times for discipleship ministries

  • Sunday morning: 46%
  • Wednesday evening: 26%
  •  Other: 18%
  •  Sunday evening: 10%

What these numbers tell us is that most pastors believe discipleship is not done primarily outside the weekly church services. Again, I am not trying to pick on Assembly of God churches. I’m just illustrating the mindset of pastors in this country about what discipleship is to them. Clearly it is different from what the Bible teaches.

The good news is that the AG is not taking these results lying down. Indeed, their initial response to the report was to “release several new resources that will better equip churches to disciple believers of all ages. These include: 360-degree discipleship, a handbook for maturing believers; a Spiritual Health Planner, to develop a plan of personally discipleship growth; Small group resources for children and adults to increase understanding of the cardinal doctrines and fundamentals.”

I applaud the Assembly of God for these actions, but what will it take for pastors in the US to understand what Biblical discipleship is? I remember it being taught in Bible college. Was my college the only one teaching it? I’d hate to think so. I call all pastors to take this information to heart and act upon it. I call on all non-pastors to meet with their pastors, in love, and plead for a Biblical discipleship program in your church. There is more to this Christian life than 60 minutes a week.

“Go therefore and make DISCIPLES of all the nations.”

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