By Jennifer Johnson
A look at how some growing churches are growing in ways difficult to measure but vital to achieve.
Executive minister, adults
The Creek, Indianapolis, Indiana
In our movement, I think the habits of the early 19th century are ingrained—that discipleship means giving people the right material or sermon. At The Creek, we have made an intentional shift from “informational discipleship” to a relational model.
Four years ago we started a series of four classes called “Life on Life.” The idea was you’d move through them—from Belong to Grow to Serve to Engage—and be ready to reach others with the gospel and disciple them. We found that hundreds of people went through the first class, and then the numbers steadily dwindled. Very few people went through all four.
Last summer, I suggested to our executive leadership we develop a relational model. Because our people love classrooms and sermons, I knew this would be a cultural change that needed to start at the highest levels. I also knew we needed people from a variety of backgrounds to help develop the plan, so our team included people from the business, academic, and ministry worlds.
We decided we needed a discipleship system, a template to fit any ministry. We also determined we wanted our system to be relational, intentional, and flexible.
Relational means personal connections that involve face-to-face interaction and generous investments of time.
Intentional means specifically focused on training people to be like Jesus.
And flexible means acknowledging this is not “one size fits all.” We define discipleship as building relationships that transform us spiritually.
We also realized there are stages of growth, so things like accountability and spiritual direction look different to a new believer versus a mature Christian. So the people on your mission trip who are new to faith are going to need a different type of leadership than those who are longtime Christians.
As we talked about how to invest our efforts, the question became, what can we control? We can control baptism, in the sense that it happens at a specific time and setting (in a baptistery, river, lake, etc.). We know leadership development is something we can largely control. So those are two areas we focus on. For instance, we trained leaders who would stay connected with a new Christian after his baptism.
We’re also thinking about classroom and group life. We call these things leverage points; if you press in on them, we move forward spiritually. The pathway to spiritual transformation will look different in different areas, but now we’re reminding people that a classroom experience is just the beginning.
We’re starting small and doing it organically. It’s about having a vision for where we’ll be in three to five years, not “we’ll get this all done in February.” It’s a culture shift.
Spiritual formation pastor
SouthBrook Christian Church, Miamisburg, Ohio
For a long time, part of our mission statement was to reach the skeptics or nonchurched, and then help them live like Jesus, but we weren’t accomplishing the second part as successfully as the first. To improve this, we began by deciding what we wanted to measure. For instance, we began counting things like how many people were getting baptized, volunteering, and participating in small groups.
When our staff meets to discuss these things, we acknowledge we can control some things, but not others. We began offering our Launch class right after baptism weekend. And we know, in theory anyway, people are more likely to own their spiritual growth if they’re in community, so we began looking more intentionally at how we were connecting people in small groups.
We also began teaching the spiritual disciplines annually as a sermon series and in various other ways. I’m striving to pay closer attention to the church calendar year, so I host a prayer event on the Thursday night before Easter. It’s just a dark room and prayer, not “entertaining” at all, and different for our smoke-and-lights church.
We’re also wrestling with how we can create environments for connection, where people can find “their people” in a more natural way. Like a lot of churches, we’ve tried to help people plug into a small group, and then other times we’ve encouraged people to find their own relationships and start having more spiritual conversations.
Also like a lot of churches, we’re trying to crack the whole missional community thing. I feel like being missional is nothing new—it’s just something we forgot to do for a while.
We’re also thinking through what it means to encourage people to listen to God. If we want people to hear from God, we need to teach them what his voice sounds like, and to weigh it against Scripture and the traditional teaching of the church. So while we’re trying to unleash people, we’re simultaneously trying to equip them.
I think all of this has changed some of the victory stories we tell. We’re accustomed to celebrating a weekend service or some big event, and those are great. But now we’re looking for more stories of how God has worked in people’s lives. We’re celebrating those things more.
Pastor of spiritual formation
Eastview Christian Church, Normal, Illinois
On one hand, there are clear admonitions in Scripture that we are to grow deeper. On the other hand, there’s also a deep sense of mystery about how this happens. The Holy Spirit doesn’t always explain things.
This working definition is part of every discussion of spiritual growth at Eastview: “God, the Holy Spirit, takes the initiative through various means in cooperating with our response and changes us to look like Jesus in order to serve others to the glory of God.” We’ve done an all-church study around that sentence, and we’ve also developed a 15-question assessment that can be taken digitally, with statements like “I’m growing in my understanding of the Bible” and “I’m practicing some of the Christian disciplines.”
Occasionally during worship we’ll ask people to take their phones out and complete the assessment. It becomes a way we gather information. For instance, we discovered from the responses that we are a pretty faithful church with some of the Christian disciplines, but not in our attempts to verbally witness. And the only way we knew that was by asking people.
We’re also attentive to what God is doing among us. We’re blessed to have a pastor who cares deeply about spiritual formation. A lot of guys who grow churches numerically don’t have an affinity for this or recognize the need.
What we’re talking about is deeply messy. The lead guy doesn’t need to have the giftedness to lead in this area, but he needs to be intentional about having someone, paid or unpaid, to wave the banner for this and care enormously about it.
Pastor of small groups Jim Probst and I also do a 17-week course to deepen our small group leaders. We’re a small-group-driven church, so the investment there is critical; if our leaders aren’t maturing and cooperating with the Holy Spirit, then we’re in trouble.
We also talk about it corporately throughout the year; we’ll do an annual emphasis on spiritual formation in our preaching and teaching. So we’re coming back to it regularly. It’s not about a program or a quick fix.
There are four transferable principles for other churches and leaders:
1. Pray like crazy. Pray there is an alertness to the value of these efforts in the core leadership team.
2. Create your own definition or sentence recognizing your context and the unique way the Holy Spirit is at work among you.
3. Develop an assessment tool. It doesn’t need to be like ours, but you won’t know how things are going if you don’t ask.
4. Most importantly, watch to see how God is at work, and then try to be part of what he’s doing. He’s always ahead of us and doing something; all we need to do is partner with him in his work.
The question for all of us invested in kingdom work is, “What do we want this person to become?” That provides a starting place. Look at how Jesus grew the Twelve. What did he instill in them? How is he doing that now? The apprenticeship he invites us to is customized.
Journey Christian Church, Greeley, Colorado
At Journey Christian Church, discipleship is about someone developing a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, and if that gets established, it will bear fruit in all kinds of areas. This simple concept is radically changing us.
As our church has grown, the increases have mostly been in people coming to Christ instead of people transferring here. And people who are new to faith want a relationship with Jesus Christ. They don’t always know how to verbalize that, but they don’t come to faith because they merely want to attend services and go through religious practices. They want a relationship.
This morning when I met with my executive team, one of the questions I asked was, “How is your relationship with Jesus?” That’s the key to everything.
Church members and visitors often ask me, “What does that look like? How does a person live that out?” I ask them to think about a positive relationship they have with another person, perhaps their spouse or a good friend, and I ask what makes those relationships work. They’ll answer, “Well, we make time to talk to each other after the kids go to bed” or “We trust each other.”
And I say, “Great! How could you talk to Jesus more?” or “What would it look like to trust Christ more?” And they’ll say, “Well, I am pretty nervous about my finances lately. Maybe I could talk to Jesus about that.” And there you go—it’s a starting place.
We’re prone to works because we want to see it and feel it and have a system in ways that would be dysfunctional with another person. If your husband spent exactly 20 minutes with you every night and asked you the same three scripted questions, it would drive you crazy because such behavior comes out of obligation, not love. Love would involve talking throughout the day, doing stuff for your spouse because you want to.
But we approach Jesus differently. We think it’s about reading the Bible every day, praying for a certain amount of time, working in the nursery—doing, doing, doing out of duty instead of relationship.
If you get super busy and don’t get to talk to your spouse for a day or two, you’re still good; there’s freedom and grace and a realization that life gets crazy sometimes. But if we miss two days of “devotions,” we feel guilty.
So we focus on partnering people together to work through this. When someone gets baptized, they get a study Bible and a copy of Devoted that has a 40-day study in it, and we pair the new Christian with a more mature believer—men with men, women with women—and encourage them to walk through the first weeks and months together.
What we’re seeing now is that when we ask people why they’re serving in an area of our church, their first response is often, “Because I love Jesus, so I want to.” It’s becoming part of our DNA.
Spiritual formation pastor
Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois
We have a gunslinger mentality at Parkview. We’re always getting ready to take the next hill, and we have a philosophy of doing whatever it takes for people to hear about Jesus. Our story is about welcoming the prodigals. But when you’re a come-as-you-are church, and then you begin to talk about character growth and spiritual formation, people say, “You told me to come as I am, and I did, and that’s how I’m going to stay.”
At Parkview, we started by defining what spiritual formation looks like. For us, it’s “the process by which God through the Holy Spirit transforms us into the character and activity of Christ.” The hardest part of that has been helping our theologically conservative folks understand that we have some agency here; we have a part to play in this process, and it’s not working for the Lord in tangible ways, but working with him. We talk about discipleship as “being with Jesus, and learning to be like him in every area of life for the sake of the world.”
Leaders must cast vision for that, and each individual must eventually catch that vision for his own life, and it needs to be stronger than almost anything else because there’s so much competing with it. There’s a lot of talk about how to have a prayer time, learning your spiritual gifts, reading your Bible. And those are key, but that’s just the very beginning of the Christian faith. There’s a whole world of people wondering, how do we actually do what Jesus called us to? How do I love my enemies? How do I live without greed or lust?
As we move toward the fruit of discipleship, we move toward less and less certainty, and I don’t know how churches based on metrics will deal with that. Spiritual formation pushes us to get our theology of the Holy Spirit in a better place. Do we really trust him to lead our people?
The added wrinkle is that discipleship in the local church must fit the culture, but also speak to who the senior leader is. In many megachurches, this kind of stuff doesn’t come naturally for the leader.
For Tim Harlow, our senior pastor, the hook was when Rick Warren asked him to use Saddleback’s 101, 201 classes plan and teach in Malawi. So I developed three classes for us here that include practice and reflection, in addition to content. For instance, we’ll talk about how to read the Bible, then I give class members an exercise to practice, and then we’ll get back together to reflect on it.
That’s phase one. Phase two is we want to move people to where they’re trying to cultivate wisdom, not just understanding. How do I take what I know and do something with it? There are some aspects of spiritual direction connected to that; I’ve been training to become a certified spiritual director, and we want to equip people in our congregation to function the same way.
The big thing is, we prize vision over validation. The measurements are not as important as we’ve made them.