By Daniel Im
Have you ever judged the effectiveness of your ministry by attendance at church? On Easter Sunday, after setting up extra chairs, perhaps you had to pull out even more to accommodate the influx of people.
It may have felt good to preach to a full room. Lives were changed and there was a tangible buzz in the air.
By all accounts, that service felt like a win.
But then what happened in the following weeks? Where did all the people go? Did they stick with their faith? Or did everything go back to “normal?”
And if that happened, did you end up feeling like a failure?
The fact is, we can’t help having responses like this.
From report cards and standardized testing scores to gas mileage in our cars and the square footage of our homes, we measure everything—especially what “success” looks like in ministry.
How many people were baptized last year? What is your average weekend attendance? How many campuses do you have? How many do you have on staff? What about your budget?
Those can be great indicators of health. But they don’t measure matters of the heart. And they don’t tell us whether someone in our church is a disciple and whether people are maturing in their faith.
I want to introduce a different way to measure success in discipleship—one that is based on one of the largest studies done to date on discipleship in North America.
Let’s dig in.
Measuring spiritual progress
Measuring discipleship can be a little like measuring other kinds of human endeavors aimed at changing your life—like losing weight or saving money.
There are two factors to keep in mind: input goals and output goals. Input goals are the behaviors or habits you adopt when trying to make a change.
In weight loss, input goals would be things like counting calories, exercising, or cutting back on fast food. For saving money, they’d be things like bringing your lunch to work or setting a family budget.
We adopt those input goals in order to see some kind of output in the future. Output goals equal feeling better physically, losing a certain number of pounds, or having a certain amount of money in the bank.
The two are linked; certain kinds of inputs lead to certain kinds of outputs.
Churches often measure success in ministry and whether someone is a mature disciple by using output goals, such as attendance, giving, and serving. But we need to think about input goals as well.
Over the last 3 decades, LifeWay Research conducted a series of in-depth studies examining the state of discipleship in the church today. This included the Transformational Discipleship research which recently was updated in the Discipleship Pathway Assessment.
The latest survey examined 2,500 churchgoers in the U.S. It built upon earlier interviews with 28 discipleship experts, a survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors, and a survey of 4,000 lay people in North America (30 percent of the respondents were from Canada).
This research revealed eight attributes that consistently show up in the lives of maturing disciples: engaging the Bible, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, building relationships, and being living unashamed.
The study also found that certain kinds of behavior led to people growing in those attributes. Among them: confessing our sins and reading the Bible.
The study found that confessing sins on a regular basis can lead to spiritual growth. People in the study who confessed their sins often became more transparent with other people, were more willing to deny themselves, and were more interested in seeking a deeper relationship with God. The study also found that confessing sins led people to be more willing to share Christ with others.
As expected, praying for non-believers, sharing with them how to become Christians, and inviting them to church were the typical input goals that led to a higher score in the study’s output goal of sharing Christ.
But how does confessing your sins relate to evangelism? Perhaps it’s confession that helps you get in the right posture to share your faith with others. Imagine the domino effect in maturity that would result if we continually led our congregation to confession on a regular basis.
Reading the Bible was another input goal that affected spiritual growth. In fact, it was, hands down, the input goal that had the greatest direct impact on the total score of all output goals, or discipleship attributes, in the Discipleship Pathway Assessment.
When asked, “How often, if at all, do you personally read the Bible?” individuals who read some Scripture every day showed higher levels of spiritual growth than those who didn’t read the Bible as regularly.
It’s important to understand that this survey question was not measuring whether an individual studied the Bible thoroughly or memorized Scripture.
While those two were definitely important factors that predicted a higher score for Bible engagement, this is not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the simple act of reading the Bible on a regular basis.
In other words, the more an individual did the input goal of reading the Bible, the higher the person scored in all of the output goals.
So the more you can help the people in your church to read the Bible, the better they will be able to obey God and deny self, serve God and others, share Christ, exercise their faith, seek God, build relationships, and be unashamed about their faith.
This is astounding. While you might not need a research project to tell you that reading your Bible helps you mature broadly as a disciple, it’s amazing that it helps you grow in all of these specific discipleship attributes.
Faithfulness and fruitfulness
While it’s easy for me to geek out on this research, since I’m passionate about discipleship and church strategy, I need to remind myself that I cannot force myself or legalistically mature myself in Christ.
I can be faithful, which will result in fruitfulness in God’s timing and His providence, but I cannot make myself fruitful.
Ultimately, there’s nothing you or I can do to cause ourselves or those in our churches to grow spiritually. God is the one who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). No program, strategy, matrix, or pathway alone will cause your church members to grow.
Growth is up to God and it’s ultimately His responsibility. However, we cannot let that be a cop-out for doing nothing. We still have a role in the growth, as outlined in 1 Corinthians 3:4-7, to plant and water the harvest that is so plentiful.
DANIEL IM (@DANIELSANGI) is director of church multiplication at LifeWay and author of No Silver Bullets: Five Small Shifts That Will Transform Your Ministry (B&H Publishing), from which this article was adapted.
Our quest to walk with Christ compels us to want to be more like Him on the journey. But, staying on the pathway with Christ is not always easy. What can we do to ensure we stay on course throughout our journey?
The answer was illustrated in the close of the 2018 Iditarod, the iconic, annual sled-dog race to Nome, Alaska from Anchorage over almost 1,000 miles of trail. The race is nicknamed “The Last Great Race on Earth.”
Nicholas Petit was leading the race by 2 hours and 43 minutes at mile 777 – three quarters of the way through the race. If Petit continued mistake-free racing, the race was his.
Petit and 11 dogs left Shaktoolik (mile 777) at 1am March 12. Mitch Seavey and Joar Leifseth Ulsom left the checkpoint at 3:43am and 4:48am respectively. Their next checkpoint was in Koyuk (mile 827). Leifseth Ulsom soon moved into second place passing Seavey, but Petit was maintaining a healthy lead.
The trail ahead of him traveled on the ice of the Bering Sea. If there is a dog team ahead of you, your lead dogs pick up their scent and naturally stay on course. But Nic Petit was in the lead. There was no scent to keep them on the trail. It was up to Petit to keep them on course as he had for days.
The long days of very little sleep were taking their toll on each of the mushers. They drive their teams night and day alternating resting and running through ice, deep snow, flowing creeks, and snow-less stretches of trail.
Petit’s team was contending with blowing snow that night as they traveled in the open, unprotected sea of ice — a stretch that is bleak, flat and monotonous according to the race guide. As the trail headed up the coast, Petit’s team ventured off course to the East and he couldn’t find the trail.
The official Iditarod trail is marked with wooden posts. Each post has an orange tip, reflective tape, and blue ribbons tied to them. The posts are not as frequent as lane markers on a highway, but there were about 1000 of them marking this 50-mile stretch. The Iditarod trail was not the only trail in the area. There was an unmarked hunting trail and leftover ribbon-less markers from a February Iron Dog snow machine race in the area.
Petit didn’t realize his sled was on the wrong course until he arrived at land. He knew the trail was supposed to be out at sea much longer than that. So, he turned around hoping one of the trails would intersect with the Iditarod trail. When asked what he said to his dogs when he realized he was off course he said, “a lot of Jee and Haw” (voice commands for right and left) as he looked for the trail. And “good dog” to make sure they didn’t get discouraged.
The 8-mile, 1.5 hour detour was devastating. His dogs slowed way down. As he looked for the trail Joar Leifseth Ulsom, a Norwegian musher, passed him. Petit’s run from Shaktoolik to Koyuk was an extremely long 13 hours and 10 minutes. Leifseth Ulsom completed the segment in 8 hours and 13 minutes permanently taking the lead and later winning his first Iditarod.
Staying on course in our walk with Christ can be equally as difficult. There are stretches where there may not be anyone blazing the trail ahead of us for us to follow and we can feel alone. The signposts marking the trail of God’s will for us may seem miles apart.
Sometimes there are stormy relationships blowing in our face and life’s many urgencies block our vision. We can be weary from the long distances we have already traveled. And some of the trail markers for other teachings may look very similar to the indicators of truth. If we cannot quickly discern the true markers from the markers for a different trail, we can quickly get off course and out of God’s will.
The signposts on our discipleship pathway are essential. They are not the destination, but they mark our course. If we are not intentionally staying on God’s paths for building relationships, serving others, sharing Christ and other important signposts we will not make progress on our journey.
Mushers in a dog-sled race run from checkpoint to checkpoint stopping to check the health of their dogs, the condition of their sled, and to rest. In the same way, followers of Chris need to plan stops on our journey with Christ to check on the condition of our walk with him.
Using the 8 discipleship signposts measured in the Discipleship Pathway Assessment, we can check to see how close we are to where God wants us to be on these biblical markers. Assessing where we are on the discipleship pathway is one way to invest in the next leg of your race.
The Apostle John, chose not to name himself in the Gospel that most credit him with writing. He instead referred to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
While it is common for English writers to avoid use of the first person in writing, John, as an eye-witness goes to great lengths to not write in the first person (e.g., John 21:20).
Regardless of his true motive, it is clear that John’s primary identity had become Jesus’ love for him. As one of the first disciples of Jesus, John sets an example of the primacy of love in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Instead of our first reaction being to describe our walk with Christ as hard, trying, beautiful, or improving John invites us to see the focus of our relationship with Jesus as being the undeserving recipient of God’s faithful love.
John’s focus on Jesus’ love extends beyond his own identity. In both his Gospel account of Jesus’ earthly teaching and ministry and his letters, John repeatedly points to love’s role in our relationship with God.
God’s love demonstrated in Jesus
In his first letter, John looks back on the Gospel and describes love in this way:
This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us We should also lay down or lives for our brothers and sisters. 1 John 3:16
Our relationship with God only exists because of God’s love. It doesn’t even depend on our love for Him. God is love (1 John 4:16). All we can do is to respond to and to remain in that love.
Jesus described God’s love to Nicodemus in Scripture’s most quoted verse.
For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
God knew what was needed to have a relationship with Him. He alone could create the means. His action becoming flesh in Jesus and taking the punishment for our sin in our place proves His love for us (Romans 5:8).
Remaining in God’s love
God first loved us. Now what? He asks us to remain in His love. This comes by confession that Jesus is the Son of God and belief that God demonstrated His love by Jesus’ death for our sin.
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God – God remains in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. 1John 4:16-17
John does not leave any room for us to love God plus anything else. In fact, he sets before us a clear choice of loving the world or the will of God. The former passes away and the latter remains forever.
It is not that things in our world today are not compelling. Far from it. This is actually a difficult choice. John describes the things we see and can possess in this world with the word lust. These options naturally create very strong desires and longing within us. Despite the natural hunger that we have for things in this world, John encourages us to instead choose the love of the Father.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s possessions – is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does the will of God remains forever. 1 John 2:15-17
This believing and remaining in God’s love rather than choosing the world or our selfish desires is the beginning of our walk with God. It is not only the beginning of the relationship, it is the center of it.
Responding to God’s love
The Discipleship Pathway Assessment includes several specific statements that allow us to agree with our amount or degree of love for God. However, these questions are not used in any of the analysis. Why? How can a discipleship assessment not use questions about love especially with everything described in this article?
The answer is simple. Almost all who say they are followers of Jesus Christ say they love God. It is virtually unanimous, even with alternative wording, that we agree we love God. Yet, Scripture is clear about how we know if a person loves God. Our love must be evident in action and truth.
Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in action and in truth. 1 John 3:18
John explains this as “the message you have heard from the beginning.” And to emphasize how old the message is he doesn’t just go back to the law Moses recorded (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), he goes all the way back to Cain and Abel to say “We should love one another, unlike Cain.”
We respond to God’s love for us by also loving each other.
Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. 1 John 4: 10-11
We respond to God’s love with love. “We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).”
Our motivation for everything we do as a follower of Jesus Christ should be love. Not guilt. Not pride. Not paying back a debt.
If we see the discipleship markers and the details found in the questions themselves as just a giant to-do list…
Or if we see them as a way to be a better Christian…
Or if we see them as a chance to earn God’s favor…
Then, we have missed the point, and we will be greatly frustrated with our inability to exhibit these in our lives.
He loved us first. We can’t earn that. We can’t ever be in a better place than being loved by Him.
So, our response to His love must be love. Yes, the expression of that love should show up in these biblical markers, because these questions are based on biblical truths about how God created us. But any intentionality on our part should be simply a reflection of His love.
Lord, I love you and want to engage with your Word more because your word is Truth and helps me know you more.
Lord, I love you and want your love to flow through me toward others.
Lord, I believe in you. Help my unbelief.
Lord, I can’t help but praise you. Help my words and my use of time to reflect that.
Lord, your love for me has so radically changed my life that I cannot help but want to spend time with others who have experienced that same transformation.
Lord, your love has been so good for me, help me to share this good news with others who are not yet following you.
Lord, with everything that I am help me to love you.
As we think about our walk with Christ, it is easy to fall into two common traps.
- The Trap of seeing “Disciple” as a status
This dangerous trap is thinking that as a disciple of Christ that we have already arrived. It is true that when we trusted Christ for our salvation and confessed Him as our Lord, we passed from death to life. But that was the beginning of a journey as a disciple, not our arrival. Being a disciple is more than a label or checking a box on a survey or setting a status on our social media profile.
- The Trap of thinking we are “good enough”
No, this trap is not trusting our works for salvation; we understand we are not that But, we honestly are pretty content with our discipleship progress. We look around and see many who we have passed on the journey. We have set certain criteria in our minds of what being good enough includes, whether that be a level of church attendance or volunteering or consuming biblical media or avoiding specific egregious sins.
These two traps share the same root – the mistaken idea that discipleship is passive, already taken care of, and not needing our attention. God’s has called us to respond to Him. This takes consistent intentionality.
- View being a Disciple as an action
This pursuit of being like Christ is an all-consuming journey. Being a disciple is who we are by God’s grace and it should impact everything about how we live.
- Pursue what is “not yet”
The trap of seeing ourselves as good enough, is focused on where we are or what we have already done. Instead God invites us to focus on what He wants us to become.
The necessity of actively responding to Jesus’ invitation to walk with him is evident in his invitations to the first disciples. He told Andrew to “come and you’ll see” (Jn. 1:39). He later told Philip, “follow me” (Jn 1:43). Later He challenged his disciples to take up their cross daily and follow Him (Lk 9:23).
These are not passive commands. These are not even “wear the t-shirt” or carry your membership card instructions. These were challenges to pursue Him.
As we begin to see being a disciple as intentional, we start to see this attitude over and over again in Scripture. You might think that remaining and standing are about as unresponsive as action verbs get. But these two words in Scripture describe a very intentional pursuit of Christ.
One of the most important actions Jesus gave us is to remain in Him (John 15). As we think of the goal of producing much fruit, Jesus used the image of Him being the vine. Our task is to remain in Him (v.5) and His love (v. 9). But remaining isn’t just keeping a disciple status on our Facebook account. Jesus explains that remaining in His love means keeping His commands.
That is not an easy task! His commands are many and are not our natural response. Yet he has shared these with us as His friends (v. 15). This quest to always be obedient and always be remaining in Him is motivated by our love for Him. Tools like the Discipleship Pathway Assessment remind us of the biblical signposts in which we should be growing and give us a framework for thinking about the many commands in Scripture.
Paul uses similar language as he wrote to believers in different churches. He repeated tells them to stand firm. In the context of Paul pursuing as his goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call (Php 3:14), he immediately tells us, “in this manner stand firm in the Lord” (Php 4:1).
Paul closes his first letter to the Corinthians with the action-filled command to “Be alert, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Do everything in love” (1 Cor 16:13-14).
Paul also told us to do all we can to stand by putting on the armor of God (Eph 6:13) and to stand firm to the biblical teaching we have heard (2 Thes 2:15).
Finally, intentional discipleship is not to be done alone. Paul exhorted the church in Philippi to “live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then… I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, in one accord, contending together for the faith of the gospel…. (Php 1:27)
It is amazing how proactive and action-filled these biblical descriptions of remaining and standing firm are!
These actions are only the beginning. We haven’t even looked at actions in the fruit of the Spirit, the beatitudes, seeking, asking, telling, and praising that are found in a disciple. As we become intentional about following Jesus daily, we will need to lean on His grace and strength to do so.