I love numbers. My husband, also a pastor, isn’t a real fan of them, particularly as they relate to people in the church and discerning the effectiveness of our ministry. I totally understand this. It is hard to measure transformation—and it should be! And at the same time, I think our fear of being too calculated and numbers-centric has resulted in the opposite problem. We have too many churches unwilling to talk about a discipleship strategy because it feels too much like business.
Let me frame this as a story. When I was in college, I was encouraged to sign up for a small group. Eager to receive more development, I signed up with a group of friends, only to experience no follow-through. The strategy was missing.
If our churches don’t have a discipleship strategy—a strategy for fostering the characteristics and competencies that we want Christians to display—how will we really know we’re making a difference?
Here’s what I’m suggesting: with a few other people from your church, including your pastor, elders, and other volunteer ministry leaders, reflect on the following questions about discipleship strategy. As you do, feel the grace of God in this process. Articulating the problems in your context does not mean that you’re a bad Christian or that your church is hopeless. Instead, consider that this process can highlight where you can bring more intentional strategy to your church’s disciple-making.
How is your church inviting individuals to hear the voice of God every day?
I’m sure the people at your church know they should read their Bibles. Maybe you or your pastor encourages journaling. But do you or other congregational leaders regularly talk about hearing the voice of God?
Our role as leaders is not to make others hear the voice of God, but instead, to offer teachable and reproducible practices that invite the Holy Spirit to speak. Sometimes, this also means naming our intention behind a practice, like explaining why you read the Bible. For instance, I often say, “I read Scripture to not only understand the abiding principles of following God, but to also better tune my ears toward hearing the voice of God.” We can no longer assume the Bible has loyalty in the lives of the people in our churches. As part of our discipleship strategy, we need to articulate why it is still a living resource worth pursuing.
How is your church fostering intentional, accountable, and hospitable community groups?
Many churches use the small group model, often called life groups or community groups. If these groups aren’t established as explicitly spiritual, they can quickly turn into discussion groups or social clubs. Consider what your church’s small-group structures look like. Do you have a dinner group that has been meeting for twenty years without inviting in anyone new? If you have groups divided by gender, does that allow for healthy, confidential conversation, or do the groups end up complaining about their spouses? Are there lively, intergenerational groups that support each other personally and spiritually?
Poll the other small group leaders. Are they holding their group accountable to anything? Ask if they’ve worked to discern a purpose for the group: what are the general wishes and hopes for each group? Maybe each group member has an interest in studying Scripture. Maybe each person wishes to serve the community together. How can the group leaders work toward holding each person accountable to being on mission in the world together? Small groups are a more effective discipleship strategy when accountability and a clear purpose are built into their structure.
What is one problem in your community, and who is already working to create transformation there?
Discipleship is intimately tied to mission. Part of what it means to be a disciple is that we follow Jesus as he heals, restores, and reconciles the world. That means no discipleship strategy is complete without mission. Consider with a team of others what major problems might be happening in your community. Some churches are in neighborhoods where kids need help in school. Other neighborhoods are full of business people who are harboring secret mental health issues. And other communities are fighting about whether to build new apartments or preserve green space. What are the issues in your community?
Once you’ve answered that, ask who might already be working on this problem. This part of the question is key. The journey of disciples on mission is not about becoming a church that creates a big community center, especially if there is another community center already in your city.
If you together don’t know, begin to ask around. Work with the rest of your church to really investigate who has boots on the ground and has already established partnerships. When you discover who those people are, ask them what they need. Again, another key practice in moving out into our community is discerning whether or not you can actually help. Inserting your church into a half-resolved situation might not always be helpful, especially if you don’t have all the information yet. We do believe everyone needs Jesus, but we must understand the landscape first. If people who are already addressing the issue can articulate what they need, consider what you can do together.
Overall, discipleship is about creating natural places where we can build and hone our spiritual muscle memory. Eventually, we’ll get good at one practice and need to target another area, or we’ll decide to add more weight to strengthen the muscle.
Either way, as your church nurtures vibrant followers of Jesus, consider taking one faithful step toward discerning your discipleship strategy. I promise it can make all of the difference.
Rev. Annalise Radcliffe
Annalise Radcliffe is coordinator for Next Generation Engagement for the Reformed Church in America. She is passionate about intergenerational ministry and believes that youth ministry is the work of the whole church, not just the youth pastor. She and her husband, Ron, are planting pastors of City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can connect with Anna by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.