06 Assessment



The gap between church leaders’ self-assessment of how they prioritize discipleship and their churches’ rates of participation in discipleship activities raises a question: How are churches assessing the success of their discipleship efforts?

The research shows that exemplar churches track discipleship much more closely and consistently than other churches. They are intentional about assessing progress. This is accomplished in part by observing “soft” measures: fruits of the Spirit among members, passion for sharing faith, individuals making God-honoring life decisions. Participation and leadership are the most common objective indicators: the number of people engaged in small groups or Bible studies, the number of new leaders, and the number of individuals serving inside and outside the church. Approximately half of exemplar churches also use surveys or self-assessments.

In order to ensure healthy growth, exemplars invest significantly in leadership development. Many also say their definition of discipleship has expanded from individual growth in Christ to include “making disciples.” This is because real, healthy disciples should naturally produce more disciples. More than half refer to making disciples as an important component of discipleship. Many have leadership classes or other training regimens specifically for discipleship leaders. As one exemplar leader wrote: “This is the ultimate determination of success for the process. Without multiplication, we’ve simply had another Bible study benefitting the local body. With multiplication, the impact will spread outside the walls of our church to the ends of the earth.”

Compared with exemplars, when senior pastors and discipleship leaders are asked how their church tracks and assesses discipleship effectiveness, responses indicate that effectiveness is not tracked, or done so only informally. Tracking methods mentioned by church leaders include simple metrics such as service attendance, participation in classes (including discipleship classes, Bible studies, Sunday school and small groups) and overall numbers of members and baptisms. Other assessment metrics mentioned are observational or anecdotal, such as pastoral conversations with church members, observations by discipleship group leaders and discussions among staff of perceived growth, and observed individual behavior such as increased participation in church leadership and activities, becoming more Christ-like and being trained or equipped to become a discipler.

When asked how they measure discipleship effectiveness, some leaders describe the process of discipleship and the programs they have in place, rather than how they evaluate results. Less than 1 percent of pastors report using an actual survey or other evaluation instrument.

Accordingly, equipping churches to develop a plan and measure its results could produce significant progress in the area of discipleship.


Four Reflections on the
State of Discipleship

By Preston Sprinkle

The statistics from Barna’s study reveal several interesting reflections on the state of discipleship in the church.

First, almost everyone recognizes that the Church as a whole is not doing a good job making disciples and that something needs to change. There are disagreements, however, about what needs to change. Some aspects are more agreeable than others. Many leaders seem to recognize that the program model isn’t (and probably never really was) working. Our 8-week, 12-week or 40-week programs where one speaker teaches a large group of “disciples” doesn’t get to the heart of what it takes to make disciples. Plus, putting a terminal date on the program (12 weeks, 40 weeks, etc.) assumes a wrong view of discipleship. Discipleship is for life.

Most leaders rightly emphasize that authentic relationships in small group settings are the best avenues for discipleship. Even better are models where there is more of a “shared life,” where the discipler and disciple do more than just meet once a week for coffee. I’m not sure what this looks like practically, but in my forthcoming book I plan on talking about some examples where this is actually happening.

Also, I think the model where the older, mature, more holy “discipler” teaches the younger, less mature “disciple,” needs to be challenged (as Greg Ogden and Jonathan Dodson have done in their writing). I think we need more authenticity and vulnerability from the “leader,” who is really a leader among equals and just as much a broken disciple as those whom he’s discipling.

Second, the study reveals some disagreement about what discipleship is and how it’s defined. Most leaders, though, say it has to do with “becoming more like Christ,” and this is true, I believe.

I think more attention needs to be given to articulating what it means to “be like Christ.” It sometimes feels like we’ve created a 21st-century American suburban Jesus who is most concerned with personal morality. But the Middle Eastern peasant who was crucified for political and religious treason is who we’re seeking to be like. Jesus hung out with people most Christians try to avoid. He lived so close to unholy people that he developed a reputation of being a drunk and a glutton. He loved his enemies and challenged the religious status quo every chance he got. All that to say, we need to de-cliché our language; we need to unpack what it means to actually become like the Jesus who is revealed to us in the Gospels.

Third, most Christians express a desire to grow and yet don’t appear to flesh out this desire. Busyness and apathy are among the reasons they aren’t engaged in a discipling activity (Bible study, small group, Sunday school, etc.).

I have three thoughts or questions about this. 1) Should we measure discipleship in terms of such church activities? Discipleship is more of an identity than an activity; understanding and believing who we are shapes what we do. Discipleship must begin with a firm understanding and belief in our identity as co-crucified sons and daughters of God. 2) The types of discipleship activities should also be re-examined. Sunday schools and Bible studies appear to be a thing of the past—for good or for ill (probably both). Many (especially younger) Christians are hungering for more real-life, tangible and authentic activities that are centered on doing rather than learning. These may include community service projects or ministries that address local and global injustices (sex trafficking, poverty relief, racial reconciliation, etc.). These types of activities shouldn’t replace, but complement the traditional learning-based activities. Discipleship is both about learning and doing, which are rooted in being. 3) Christians— all people, really—gravitate toward and make time for the things they desire and value. I wonder if the content of our discipleship (the teaching/ learning aspects) should be more holistic. One of the biggest complaints among Millennials is that they aren’t told how the gospel relates to everyday interests: vocation, politics, music, art, science and so on. Discipleship shouldn’t just focus on personal morality. It must cultivate and form an entire Christian worldview.

Fourth, we need to consider the role of grace or the gospel in discipleship. This may be a hard thing to assess and measure in research, but I would be curious to find out if a lame view of grace has contributed to the lack of desire for discipleship. Anecdotally, I see this as a major hindrance all the time. Christians are defeated by performance-driven approaches to the faith; the thought of pursuing discipleship feels like one more spiritual activity that they are going to fail.

It seems like much of the emphasis is on our pursuit of God, but there’s little emphasis on God’s pursuit of us. Since discipleship is primarily an identity, then our identity as loved and forgiven objects of God’s scandalous delight must be foundational to our pursuit of God. I just wonder if fear—the fear of man, fear of failure, fear of being known and the fear that God could never use someone as messed up as me—is at least part of the reason why some people don’t begin or persevere in discipling relationships.


PRESTON SPRINKLE, PH.D. serves as Vice President for Eternity Bible College’s Boise extension and has authored several books, including the New York Times bestselling Erasing Hell (with Francis Chan). He has been featured on dozens of radio shows across the country, frequently writes for RELEVANT magazine, and hosts a daily radio program and podcast, What Does the Bible Really Say? Preston lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and four kids.

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