Every pastor wonders how much difference he is making. I’m no different. I want to know to what degree my personal ministry, as well as our church’s ministry, is really helping people grow in their faith. I ask questions like:
- Are we truly making disciples or are we just keeping people active?
- Does activity/participation = growth?
- Which of our ministries is most effective/ineffective at helping people grow?
- How do we help all these people that are in such different places?
This summer I read Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, and I realized I’m not the only one who asks those kinds of questions. Move is about the lessons from a research project that studied over 1,000 churches by surveying over 200,000 congregants about their spiritual life and development.
As a pastor committed to helping people grow spiritually, I loved the book. It confirmed some of my convictions, surprised me about some of my false assumptions, and challenged me in a few crucial areas.
Confirmation of Convictions
Move affirmed a few of my convictions about ministry. I’ll list these confirmations and provide a quote for each one. PLEASE read the quotes. They’re excellent.
1. People want to be challenged. I’ve seen people respond to challenge time and again.
“Nothing is more indicative of high-impact, discipling churches than a ‘go-for-broke’ challenge factor.”
2. The Bible is hugely important for spiritual growth. Duh. But, I guess, it’s amazing how many churches don’t really engage people with the Bible. The authors write:
“The most effective strategy for moving people forward in their journey of faith is biblical engagement.”
3. People need different things at different stages of their spiritual life. As nice as one-size-fits-all approaches are for church leadership, they aren’t good for people.
“What people need in order to grow closer to Christ depends on where they are now in their relationship with him.”
4. Christians must have personal time with God in order to grow. Great church programs make little difference if a person isn’t spending time with Jesus.
“Nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than reflection on Scripture. If churches could do only one thing to help people at all levels of spiritual maturity grow in their relationship with Christ, their choice is clear. They would inspire, encourage, and equip their people to read the Bible—specifically, to reflect on Scripture for meaning in their lives.”
Surprises (Refuting My Assumptions)
Move also surprised me in a few key areas and refuted my assumptions. Again, please read the quotes.
1. Participation in church activities does not necessarily lead to increased spiritual maturity. Most church leaders assume that if we just get people active, they’ll grow. But, in reality, they’ll only grow to the degree that these activities help them develop a personal relationship with Jesus.
“All of our findings are derived from one essential fact: that spiritual growth—defined as an increase in love of God and for others—is not a product of growing participation in church activities or changes in lifestyle or the result of our natural aging process. Rather, spiritual growth advances in lockstep with a growing personal relationship with Christ.”
2. Organized small groups are more catalytic for people early on and less so later on. This shocked me philosophically, but not experientially. The longer you walk with Jesus, the less you need the organized small group because you have meaningful Christian relationships in real life.
“When we apply our context of human relationships to these findings, it makes perfect sense that organized activities become less important. The closer you are to someone—the more likely you are to depend on them to process your life issues—the less important organized settings tend to be. While you may have formed the relationship in a structured experience—in the workplace, perhaps, or at a neighborhood gathering—that setting is typically a springboard for the relationship, not something required to sustain it.”
3. Serving is the only organized church activity that moves people across all stages of their development. I wasn’t surprised that serving grows people. I was surprised that it was the only organized thing that helped everybody.
“Interestingly, serving experiences appear to be even more significant to spiritual development than organized small groups…The implication for church leaders is that we must encourage people to serve—in any capacity, in whatever valid opportunity their gifts and interests lead them to.”
4. Churches need to promote and provide a high-expectation, non-negotiable, senior-pastor-owned pathway of first-steps designed to jumpstart people’s spiritual growth. Rather than just throwing people in the game, churches need to have some basic introductory experience that gets people moving in the right direction.
“The military uses boot camp to turn civilians into soldiers. Baseball uses spring training to test new players and try them out in different positions. Many colleges require freshmen to attend orientation week so they can become familiar with their new environment and a new set of expectations. These short-term launching pads into life experiences are analogous to the first best practice found among the most spiritually effective churches in the REVEAL database. They get people moving by providing a high-challenge, nonnegotiable path of first steps to engage people in a process of spiritual growth—a process that will ultimately lead them to become followers of Jesus Christ.”
Challenges I Needed
Finally, Move challenged me in a few key areas. These were things that I knew were important but, for various reasons, had forgotten how crucial they were.
1. The #1 priority of the senior leader(s) must be to make disciples. More than attendance, numerical growth, personal platform, cultural influence, or anything else. This seems obvious, but it’s not. After leading a church for 5+ years, many other things compete for #1 priority. Move challenged me to refocus on what church is all about — making disciples.
“Five years of research findings point us to one singular conclusion—that the most essential decision a church leader makes is not what kind of worship service to offer or what kind of small-group system to build. It’s the decision to lead his or her church with an unyielding and unequivocal commitment to a very easy-to-say, very hard-to-accomplish goal—which is, to do whatever is humanly possible to move people’s hearts toward Christ.”
2. The senior leader(s) must have a white-hot relationship with Jesus. Duh, again. But it was a challenge I needed to hear. Nothing would serve our church more than me having a vibrant relationship with Christ.
“You cannot reproduce in others what you are not producing in yourself. The main thing you need to do—the one thing you must do—is fully within your reach. You must surrender all.”
“You can try other paths, find a new strategy, perhaps, or hire some really talented staff members. But in the end, if your church is not led by people completely devoted to Jesus—people who prioritize their relationship with him above everything else—it will not work. It will not produce life. It will not change the world.”
I thank God for Move. It came just at the right time with a number of fresh insights and important reminders. It will bear fruit in my life and the church. While it’s probably not the kind of book that most Christians will find too interesting, it’s a must-read for senior leaders in a local church.