The State of Discipleship

The State of Discipleship


Since 1933, The Navigators have had discipleship and disciplemaking at our core. In those early years, helping people know, love and follow Christ was the burden Dawson Trotman carried with him as he initiated conversations with young Navy men and encouraged them to do the same. Before long, multiple spiritual generations of “Navigators” were nurturing their own walk with God even as they reproduced the faith in the people around them—where they lived, worked and played.

The Navigators are by no means the only, let alone the first, organized movement of discipleship and disciplemaking. This was, of course, the Great Commission Jesus offered His followers at the end of His earthly ministry:

Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20, MSG)

The Great Commission is an audacious undertaking, all the more so given the fast and sweeping changes taking place in the broader culture. As we continue to bring the unchanging message of the Gospel to our friends and neighbors, effective approaches to discipleship become more important, especially in a world that is increasingly polarized around spiritual issues.

That’s why The Navigators commissioned the research presented in this monograph. We wanted to hear from laypeople and leaders, professors and practitioners, across the spectrum of American Christianity, about what is getting in the way of following Jesus in our world, and what is proving effective in knowing Christ and making Him known. As an organization we’ll be wrestling with the findings in this report as we continue our participation in the Great Commission. We hope that our friends and collaborators from other Christian missions and movements will similarly find this research to be helpful as they tend to the people God has brought under their care. Together in spirit, we will continue the good work of the Great Commission, and we look forward to seeing the fruit of our labors as God works in and through us.

Doug Nuenke
U.S. President
The Navigators


What is the current state of discipleship in the U.S.? How is it defined? What are the hallmarks of transformative discipleship, and how do we measure its outcomes? What resources and models are necessary for effective discipleship in the 21st century? And how do The Navigators’ discipleship methods and resources align with the needs of the Church?

To answer these questions, The Navigators and NavPress commissioned Barna Group to undertake a comprehensive, multi-phase research study.

The first phase was a series of in-depth interviews of 36 educators from Protestant and Catholic seminaries and Bible colleges, conducted online in December 2014 and January 2015.

The second phase included in-depth interviews with leaders of 30 churches and seven parachurch ministries that exemplify excellence in discipleship. These “exemplars” completed an open-ended, online survey in February 2015. Participants were identified by Navigators staff or nominated by Protestant pastors from Barna’s Pastor Panel.

Next, a total of 2,003 self-identified Christians, including 1,237 practicing Christians, participated in a survey conducted online and by telephone in March and April 2015. Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who attended a Christian church service at least once during the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life today.

Barna also wanted to discover how closely the perspectives of those connected with The Navigators compare to other U.S. Christians. To that end, Navigators invited people formerly discipled through the organization to complete the Christian population survey described above. Where relevant, the data on Navigators alumni are presented in this report alongside the findings among other Christian adults for ease of comparison.

The final phase of research consisted of 833 online and telephone interviews conducted in April and May 2015 with Protestant senior pastors and congregational leaders who specialize in discipleship and spiritual growth. A total of 615 interviews were conducted with senior pastors and 218 with discipleship leaders. (In the following report, senior pastors and discipleship leaders are, more often than not, analyzed as one larger group called “church leaders.” Where significant differences between the two groups exist, these are highlighted.)

Executive Summary

A critical component of this study is to define “discipleship.” The concept is familiar to many, but a widely accepted definition remains elusive. Although it may seem a mere technicality, accurate and relevant terminology and a clear definition are important first steps toward ensuring a church or ministry can effectively grow disciples.

The preferred terms of various groups are helpful, though not definitive, in revealing their priorities and preconceptions. Christian adults and church leaders alike most commonly prefer “becoming more Christ-like” to describe the process of spiritual growth. Approximately half of both populations select this terminology.

With the term “discipleship” there is a gap between leader and lay language: Only 17 percent of Christian adults prefer “discipleship” compared with 46 percent of church leaders. Importantly, however, the term is considered “relevant” by 65 percent of Christians who do not choose “discipleship” as their top preference.

Accordingly, the reported goals of discipleship mirror “becoming more Christ-like.” Church leaders prioritize life transformation (“being transformed to become more like Jesus,” 89%), while Christian adults are somewhat more outcomes-focused (“learning to live a more consistent Christian life,” 60%, and “learning to trust in God more,” 59%). Leaders from exemplar churches validate these goals; many report a shift away from an emphasis purely on knowledge toward life transformation.

Making disciples, or “winning new believers to become followers of Jesus Christ,” is the least-commonly chosen goal of discipleship. Nevertheless, nearly half of the surveyed populations consider this important: 46 percent of Christian adults and 59 percent of church leaders.

How well do churches “do” discipleship? Christian adults have positive impressions: 52 percent of those who have attended church in the past six months say their church “definitely does a good job helping people grow spiritually” and another 40 percent say it “probably” does so. Church leaders, however, are unconvinced: Only 1 percent say “today’s churches are doing very well at discipling new and young believers.” Sixty percent feel churches are discipling “not too well.” Looking at their own church, 8 percent say they are doing “very well” and 56 percent “somewhat well” at discipling new and young believers.

Self-reported participation in discipleship activities (Sunday school, spiritual mentoring, group Bible study or Christian book study) is weak— as low as 20 percent—indicating that church leaders’ assessment of discipleship effectiveness may be more accurate than their parishioners’. Against the overall trend of low involvement, discipleship leaders estimate approximately half of their members are in some sort of discipleship group or relationship. This suggests that churches with a dedicated discipleship leader are able to engage more of the flock in spiritual growth practices, activities or disciplines.

Navigators alumni responses reveal a healthy faith and deep commitment to Navigators’ core tenets of discipleship. In fact, they are more likely to resemble church leaders in their answers than the general population.

Barriers to Discipleship 

Such low participation invites an obvious question: Are there significant barriers to participation in discipleship activities?

All the groups Barna interviewed—Christian adults, church leaders, exemplars and educators—agree on the two most significant barriers to spiritual growth: the general “busyness” of life and a lack of commitment to discipleship. However, church leaders and Christian adults disagree significantly on the magnitude of these barriers. For example, 85 percent of church leaders say busyness is a major obstacle to discipleship, while only 23 percent of practicing Christians say the same. In fact, none of the barriers presented as options to Christian adults resonate as a major obstacle with more than one-quarter of respondents.

In addition to low rates of participation in discipleship activities, further evidence of general spiritual apathy comes from the one in 10 Christians who say their spiritual growth is “not too” or “not at all” important: Two-thirds of these say they are comfortable with where they are spiritually. Among a significant number of Christians today, there is simply no drive to prioritize spiritual growth.

Additionally, an isolationist approach to spiritual growth is common among U.S. Christians. Among those who consider spiritual growth very or somewhat important (90%), nearly two in five prefer to pursue growth on their own (37%). One-quarter prefers a small group (25%); 16 percent prefer the one-on-one approach; and one in five likes a mix of these methods (21%). Notably, Millennials are more likely to prefer one-on-one discipleship (21% vs. 14% of Gen-Xers and 16% of Boomers and Elders).

Church leaders prefer a small group format (52%) nearly two-to-one over mentoring (29%); mainline pastors prefer small groups even more than the average. Exemplar church leaders, however, widely consider a one-onone component essential to fruitful discipleship.

Among the 90 percent of Christians who believe spiritual growth is important, one-quarter are being discipled by someone (one-on-one, 23%) and one in five is discipling another person (19%). The primary barrier cited by those who are engaged in neither relationship is a lack of priority. Twenty-nine percent of those not being discipled say they simply “have not thought about it,” while 25 percent do not believe they need to be discipled by someone else.

Indicators of Effective Discipleship

A healthy culture of discipleship, according to exemplar leaders, appears to be created by 1) senior leadership and 2) a clear plan. Three-quarters of exemplar respondents say senior leadership vision or endorsement is critical to their efforts, along with a clearly articulated approach to discipleship. Among all church leaders, 26 percent say discipleship is their number-one priority, and another 61 percent list it among their top three priorities.

When asked how they want to improve in their discipleship programs, a plurality of church leaders says they would “develop a more clearly articulated plan or approach to discipleship” (27%). Additionally, churches need to develop assessment criteria to track the effectiveness of their discipleship efforts. Less than 1 percent of leaders report using a survey or other evaluation instrument to assess the results of their programs.

With regard to resources, there is a general desire for materials. Fifty-nine percent of church leaders believe it is “very valuable” for Christians to be involved in a systematic curriculum or program of discipleship. However, two out of three believe there are enough—or more than enough—discipleship materials currently available.

In Sum

Churches are in need of new models for discipleship. Current programs capture only a minority of Christians, and most believers do not prioritize an investment in their spiritual growth. At the same time, church leaders desire a clear plan and lack systems to evaluate spiritual health. Millennials, as we will see—though time-starved and distracted—crave relationships, especially one-on-one. Each of these needs aligns with Navigators’ approach to discipleship, suggesting opportunities to provide much-needed influence and guidance.

Discipleship in Future Tense

David Kinnaman

Research usually examines a subject matter in the present tense.

A good example is this project: the state of discipleship. In fact, we completed this study in partnership with the Navigators in order to understand the current reality of discipleship—how it’s defined, how it works, what keeps people from growing as disciples. Beyond the anecdotes, these pages contain many insights into what is actually happening with the Church’s discipleship efforts.

In addition to describing the present reality, however, good research can help us to think in future tense. What might we change to create a different and better set of spiritual outcomes? If we are concerned about the current reality of discipleship—and the findings suggest we should be—what changes can we make today that will shape the future of making and forming disciples?

We hope this research—expressed in infographics, charts, tables and narrative analysis—helps you to envision your future contribution to Jesus’ Great Commission.

The Urgency of Future Thinking

Thinking about our future together as Christ-followers is an urgent matter. Here are three reasons this is so important:

The Screen Age. The digital era is creating a new cultural context for and intensifying the pressures facing the Church. The “Screen Age” has exponentially increased access to information about life and how to live it that, paradoxically, both augments and competes with biblical wisdom. The Internet and social technology have also created a new outlet for questions about the nature of authority, and especially about the truth claims of the Bible. We believe that technology can be both friend and foe when it comes to discipleship, but either way there’s little doubt it’s changing the rules of spiritual formation.

The Distracted Era. One of the reasons technology is changing our spiritual context is that it contributes to unprecedented levels of distraction. But it’s not just our screens that suck us in. People are busier than ever with things like kids’ sports, increased workloads, and recreation and leisure activities. Humans simply are over-choiced with ways to spend their time. In the spiritual arena, people who consider themselves “regular churchgoers” attend church fewer weekends per year and are often less involved in their faith community’s rhythm of communal life.

The Shift to Self. A third macro-trend affecting the discipleship landscape is the rise of the individual as the center of everything. Original sin created the self-absorption problem in the first place, but we live in a comparatively narcissistic era. Whether because of consumerism’s tentacles, or the instant gratification of digital tools, or some combination of other factors, more people are “all about me.”

• 84% of adults in the U.S., and 66% of practicing Christians, agree that “the highest goal for life is to enjoy it as much as possible.”
• 91% of adults, and 76% of practicing Christians, believe that “the best way to find yourself is to look inside yourself.”
• 97% of adults, and 91% of practicing Christians, agree that “you have to be true to yourself.”

This mindset especially affects the work of discipleship. If we peel back the layers, many Christians are using the Way of Jesus as a means of pursuing the Way of Self. Our discipleship efforts must prophetically respond to the “iSpirit” of the age; people must not only convert to become a disciple of Jesus, but also de-convert from the religion of Self.

Opportunities for Discipleship

To address these challenges, the research identifies many opportunities for the Christian community invested in making disciples. For example, the non-practicing Christian segment is an enormous group of people not currently involved in church, but who want to grow spiritually. They indicate that finding someone to help and knowing what next steps to take are significant barriers to the spiritual growth they desire.

Another opportunity: People identify family members and people at church as having had the most significant spiritual impact on them. So empowering disciples to disciple others (family members, someone at church, friends) is an important way churches and discipleship ministries can multiply their impact. One of the biggest opportunities is also, perhaps, the largest challenge: getting people past their apathy. Apathy is not merely a lack of passion, but a reluctance to dive fully into what God has in store.

How do we help people prioritize discipleship? How can we promote one-on-one discipleship and mentoring relationships? In what ways can we get people to take responsibility for one another and not just their own personal discipleship? And how can we become the generative disciple-makers Jesus calls us to be?

With a firm grip on reality today, we can begin to think in future tense.

David Kinnaman is president and owner of Barna Group. He is the author of the bestselling books You Lost Me and unChristian. Since joining Barna in 1995, David has overseen studies that have polled the opinions and perspectives of more than 750,000 individuals. He has done research for the American Bible Society, Compassion, Dreamworks Animation, Habitat for Humanity, HarperCollins, Navigators, NBC-Universal, Paramount Pictures, the Salvation Army, Sony, Prison Fellowship, World Vision, and many other world-changing organizations.

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