Churches are great at filling the calendar. Most churches have no shortage of programs, events, and fellowships. Yet most churches somehow struggle to do the one thing Jesus commissioned us to do: make disciples.
Declining churches assume that providing a variety of opportunities for growth is all that is necessary for growth to happen. While this feels right, it almost always fails.
People don’t need more programs. They need a Discipleship Pathway.
Many of the people in declining churches have heads full of Bible knowledge but have no way to use it. In the absence of a Discipleship Pathway, the people in your church will bottleneck in the place that feels most comfortable.
In a real-world sense, this looks like people showing up for Sunday morning worship, but never stepping out of their comfort zone and joining a smaller community for Bible study and prayer. Or it looks like people attending three Bible studies, but never stepping up to serve as an elder or even an usher. Inevitably, it looks like a lot of people who know a lot about the Bible but rarely share their faith.
When your church focuses on filling the calendar with programs over creating a streamlined Discipleship Pathway, the people in your church will never be held accountable to grow.
So, how do you begin to build a discipleship pathway in your church?
Step 1: Determine What a Disciple Looks Like
What are the key characteristics of a disciple?
If you want to make disciples at your church, you need to define what that actually means. Far too often, we use the term “disciple” without any real clarity about what that looks like. Therefore, you’ll need to set some parameters around markers of spiritual maturity.
Try to keep the list to six to ten characteristics. At The Malphurs Group, we begin with Acts 2 and observe the behaviors of the disciples in the growing Jerusalem Church—not as prescriptive but as a descriptive way of understanding discipleship. If you want to make disciples in your church, you need to clarify what a disciple looks like.
Step 2: Define Discipleship Steps
What are the key actions a person must take to be a disciple?
This is the central component of the Discipleship Pathway. Every church will have their own interpretation, but this is typically three to five steps you believe everyone in your church must take. Each step in a Discipleship Pathway corresponds with deeper engagement (and likely deeper spiritual maturity). Therefore, these steps should correspond with the natural “next best step” principle so that most can understand and follow.
You’ll need to define the “Steps” and then assign one (and only one) “Primary” ministry with each step. A primary ministry is something you expect everyone to attend (think: Worship Service, not: Motorcycle Ministry).
The sanctification process for each believer is unique, and it is rarely linear. People have ups and downs. They grow and they backslide. The Discipleship Pathway isn’t a replacement for the raw, authentic journey of individual believers. Instead, it provides a defined context from which believers can engage in their unique journey. By contrast, most churches have a scattershot approach to disciple-making, which can add confusion and unpredictability for the people in our churches.
What does this look like on a practical level? For example, you may decide that growing disciples must worship, take ownership of spiritual growth, use their giftedness to serve the Church, and share their faith. You might summarize this as: Worship, Grow, Serve, and Share.
Step 3: Streamline Your Ministries
Do all of your ministries line up with your Discipleship Pathway?
You’ll need to re-adjust your programming to align with this pathway. As I mentioned above, each “Step” should have a primary ministry (something you expect everyone to do) but can also have secondary ministries (something people can choose to do). I encourage you to limit the secondary ministries, and only use them to promote your primary ministries.
Some church members push back on this and say, “Can’t we have some events just for fun?” I always respond with, “Sure you can do things for fun. But why does the church need to plan, promote, and pay for it?” The mission of the church is to make disciples, not social connections. Be intentional about what “stays” as a part of the pathway and what will ultimately need to go.
Every yes is a no to something else. Be mindful of where you say, “yes.”
If a program or ministry doesn’t fit into your Pathway, it may need to be cut. If it fits, but isn’t effective, you might need to re-envision it. If you have a step that has no primary ministry, it may be time to innovate.
The process of developing a Discipleship Pathway is simple in principle but difficult in practice because it’s emotional. Saying goodbye to failing ministries is hard.
At the end of the day, churches must remember that Jesus gave one clear mission: make disciples. Everything else is secondary.
It’s time for your church to take greater ownership of that mission and begin to generate disciple-making momentum.
Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).