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.