Disciple-Making in the Local Church

“So what do I do now?”

The pastor asked the question with seriousness and a level of expectation. He knew that many of his members were woefully lacking in biblical knowledge. And he had full awareness that many members were attending less frequently, and that some had dropped out altogether.

So he asked me what he should do. I responded from my research and consultations that his church needed a clear process for discipleship with clear expectations for members. I could tell by his look that more questions were coming. “Okay, what’s that look like? So what do I do now?”

The Solutions of Old

There was a day for most churches when the solution to this dilemma was to turn to some organizational entity, such as a denomination, and get the needed programs to meet the needs of the church. Disciple-making through the local church was thus simple as ordering the material, advertising the program, and getting the members to attend.

Not so today.

In many cases the programs became worn and stale. They no longer met the needs of the church. In other cases, the programs became the end instead of the means. Churches became program driven, but they could no longer see the purpose behind the programs. Many churches, understandably so, abandoned the programmatic approach.

The problem is that little was available to replace what was eliminated. So today thousands of church leaders are asking, “So what do I do now?”

Listening to Effective Disciple-Making Churches Today

As we heard from churches across America, we began to see a common pattern in churches that were more effective in making disciples. The attendance rate of members of those churches was higher, and the dropout rate was lower. Look at some of these common traits:

The church has an entry point class that all new members attend. Though these classes have different names, they have similar purposes. The classes did provide information, but they weren’t limited to dispensing facts about the church. The classes also established expectations of members. Some of the expectations are noted below.

Members are expected to attend an open group Bible study. An open group is an ongoing class that allows entry at any point. Historically, they have been called Sunday School classes, but today they have a variety of names. The point is to get members connected to a common group of people in regular Bible study.

Members are expected to be involved in one or more deeper studies throughout the year. These classes are set for a predetermined number of weeks, a twelve-week study for example. They tend to dive deeper into Bible study, doctrinal study, or studies of critical issues for the Christian. They also tend to be closed groups, because attendance every week is important to grasp the material. It is difficult for someone to enter the class after it begins because the material usually builds on itself.

Members are expected to attend a corporate worship service each week. This is the time for the people to gather for the preaching of the Word and to worship the One True God together.

Members are expected to be involved in at least one ministry or mission activity a year. The church has clear expectations that members are to be involved in those activities that cause them to look beyond themselves and to care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others.

Members are expected to read and study the Bible daily. Our research has shown that daily personal Bible study is the clearest indicator that a Christian is growing spiritually. These disciple-making churches exhort, encourage, and provide resources for the members to be involved in daily Bible study.

Raising the Bar

It is not unusual to hear objections when we present this research. “If I led my church to have these high expectations of members,” the argument goes, “we would have a mass exodus.” But our research shows just the opposite. Higher expectations get more positive behavioral patterns. People want to be a part of something that makes a difference.

If church leaders expect little, they will get little. If they raise the bar of expectations, most members will respond positively.

And as more church members get involved in open groups, deeper studies, corporate worship, ministry, missions, and daily Bible study, they will become more effective disciples for Christ. And thus churches will grow stronger and become healthier.

May God grant us more true disciple-making churches.

Posted on October 1, 2009

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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1 Comment

  • I completely agree. I believe that we will be seeing more true disciple-making churches in the coming years. The world is attracted more to people who are living out their faith and not living for the American Dream.