Discipleship and a Healthy Church

A friend and mentor of mine, Aaron Coffey, once made a statement that at the time seemed to me astounding: “The local church is God’s program for reconciling his people to himself.” I was an undergraduate in college in a community where the university seemed like the church and thus my local churched somehow felt secondary. The local church that I had grown up in was wonderful, but not without its struggles, and I had always felt that the major spiritual growth in my life had taken place at parachurch ministries such as summer camps. So, when he made the simple statement to me of the vital importance of the local church I was put slightly off-guard. Yet, as life has progressed I have found the statement to be more and more exceedingly true. Not shocking, I know, because God said himself that “through the church [His] manifold wisdom (regarding the salvation of mankind) might now be made known” (Eph. 3:10, ESV, parenthetical addition mine).[1] So, why is it that many of our churches seem dead, or at least lacking abundant life? Well, because they consist of fallen people. Here’s the good news, these people have been saved by grace to new life and God is working His inevitable, sovereign plan of discipleship in their lives. Here’s some more good news, God is accomplishing His work of discipleship through the church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Let us take part in it mightily. This paper will depict how a healthy church is the goal for discipleship and will examine 3 specific areas in which my local church can improve its health.

A Healthy Church

First, let’s look at a snapshot of a healthy church. In lecture notes for Discipleship Ministries at Liberty University, Dr. Rod Dempsey listed 20 indicators of a healthy church,[2] here are six (some hybrid) that are particularly pertinent for this paper: 1) The gospel is being proclaimed by word and deed, 2) new believers are intentionally nurtured and developed, 3) the leaders see their role as equipping and empowering the saints, 4) the saints are growing in maturity, unity and love for one another, 5) relational groups are intentionally developed and multiplying into new groups with new leaders, 6) and the mission of Christ is being accomplished locally, regionally, nationally, and globally by members from within the local body.  These six indicators effectively cover the three stages of discipleship which are salvation, sanctification, and service. In essence, the healthy local church is to be directly involved in spreading the gospel, sanctifying believers, and sending laborers. In Ephesians 4, Paul maps out the functions and structure of the local church in accordance to discipleship. [“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13)] We see that the purpose here is that all may reach Christ-likeness (i.e. “the stature of the fullness of Christ”), and the method is the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry by church leadership.

Now, let’s look more closely at the six indicators above and how they are a necessity for vibrant discipleship. Prerequisite to the formation of a church, and paramount in the sustainment of a church is that the gospel is being proclaimed. Without the gospel, there is no church; yet many churches seem to have forgotten that. The gospel must be preached from the pulpit, but it must also be preached through the lives of the saints. James went so far as to say that believers are to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). A healthy church is one that grows in new believers through the gospel, not simply grows by transfer from other assemblies. To spread the gospel is the first step of discipleship for church and church members.[3] Then, the new believers ought not be left alone, but in a healthy church they will be intentionally nurtured and developed. Discipleship does not stop or take a leave of absence after a person gets saved. Dempsey explains that the new believer is like a newborn baby who needs to be nurtured and cared for … and that “a healthy church will intentionally devote time and loving care to new believers (see 1 Thess. 2:7–9).”[4] A natural progression of this nurturing and developing will be the equipping of the saints to the work of the ministry. Often in unhealthy churches the leadership will keep a stranglehold on the work of discipleship, assuming the saints cannot endeavor in it. But, a healthy church recognizes that the saints are growing and are actually supposed to be taking on work in the ministry (Eph. 4: 11-13). Through spiritual growth and spiritual service, the saints will also be growing in unity and maturity. The church is a living example of the fact that Christianity is not a go-it-alone journey, it is the exact opposite. Jesus said that the world will know we are his disciples if we “have love one for another” (John 13:34–35). Likewise, disciples are not destined to remain in adolescence but should progress towards full maturity and Christ-likeness. A healthy church will have a unified and vibrant body of disciples (Eph. 4:15). This will manifest in the multiplication of new relational groups and new leaders to serve in those groups. Lastly, a healthy church will be accomplishing the mission of Christ and conjointly the Great Commission by making disciples locally, regionally, nationally, and globally all through the work of local church members![5] As am extension of this, a healthy church will always be a church-planting church.[6]

Three areas of focus for my local church’s health

I am so blessed as to attend a healthy, vibrant, church-planting church in the Greenville, South Carolina area. But, given that there is always room for improvement I will outline three areas where my church-at-large and my related small groups can improve in their health! First, the sheer size of the church presents certain problems, as well as the context of Greenville being a community enveloped by a Christian college atmosphere. What I mean, generally, is that there exists a continuous flow of non-member college student church attendees that at times can agitate the flow of discipleship. The students come from all over the country and visit churches in the area while they are there, often never committing in membership to a specific church. That factor is especially prevalent at my local church and, in addition to its large size, there is room for improvement in developing (or connecting with) new believers or church attendees. Perhaps I can be a great help in advancing outreach strategies to new attendees, making sure that they are connected to other members and discipleship programs. Some examples would be listing the areas where shepherding groups (small groups) meet on weeknights, making available the contact information for the leaders of such groups, and creating forums outside of the college worship meeting where college students can get involved with other church members not their age. I believe such initiatives could bolster the church engagement as a whole and help newer members grow in discipleship rather than get lost in the multitude, growing stagnant.

Secondly, there is a wonderful segment in chapter 5 of Putnam’s book, DiscipleShift, where he writes on the lack of transparency in church. Putnam says of pastors he had interacted with on a trip to Israel and their churches: “So these churches had developed a system in which people most in need of the prayers and encouragement of others wouldn’t come to the groups intended to help them. The lack of honest sharing from the leaders, the absence of vulnerability, had created a culture of perfectionism.”[7] This problem persists in many churches in America today. Church becomes a place where people come to put on a façade of godliness instead of being honest about their struggles. The unfortunate consequence of their acting is that it does not produce real godliness, whereas a culture of honest repentance in church would. At Northland Camp, I learned that I, too, had lived under the influence of such a problem. There, our small camp staff was confronted with something many had never experienced—total transparency. The culture of the camp was to be truly open about our sin in a broken way, and it was implemented from the leadership down. At first, it was uncomfortable, but the product of our practice was remarkable change. Confrontation and openness led to repentance and correction. Then, and only then, could God use us as his vessels for honorable use (2 Tim. 2: 20-22). God desires a broken and contrite spirit, after all (Psalm 51:17). One of the keys to success here is that leaders submit to and even initiate this culture. Putnam states, “That’s the type of pastor I can be — one who is open and transparent about his own shortcomings … flawed, real, broken, and genuine,” but laments the fact that many in church leadership have not experienced this freedom.[8] In my small group settings such as my Monday night Bible Study I hope to reach a greater level of transparency with the other men. At times, we lack the fortitude or spiritual energy to dig in to truth and truly apply it to our lives. I believe a level of unabashed transparency could help us peel back the layers of our individual façades.

Thirdly, while my local church maintains a great focus on leaders equipping saints for the work of the ministry, in my smaller group settings we do not effectively mimic that standard. Often, my relational group neglect the structure of having leaders who equip saints who eventually become leaders of new groups. The small groups seem to struggle in their growth and multiplication, instead serving primarily as a social club. It is not always easy to maintain an intentional focus when gathering in a smaller, relational setting, but we must! No, these settings don’t have to be formal, but informal does not mean unintentional. Leaders ought to focus these gatherings with the mission of Christ and the steps of discipleship in mind, always looking to develop and equip the other saints. I see all too frequently college-aged church-goers attend church and even relational group meetings, yet refrain from advancing out of their adolescent discipleship stage. This is, in part, due to a lack of leadership (recognizing myself here) in molding young men and women for effective ministry work. I believe a refocusing and re-energizing of our ultimate mission and of the program of equipping the saints will do much for my local church organizations!

Conclusion

Not only is the local church God’s program for discipleship, a healthy local church is the goal of discipleship. Every element of discipleship finds its greatest fulfillment in the context of the local church. Because this is true, we ought to be engaged in our churches and diligently seeking opportunity to disciple and be discipled there. A healthy church, just as a healthy body, must have all the parts working properly in cohesion. Also, as is true of the physical body, a church body must have regular maintenance to see if their system is functioning at high level. As members of that body it is our duty, with Christ as the head, to submit to his beautiful program of discipleship to his glory, forever.


[1] All quotations from Scripture will be from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rodney Dempsey, 2016, “Lecture Notes: Creating a Healthy Church,” Discipleship Ministries, DSMN 500, Liberty University. Lynchburg, Va.

[3] “About 9Marks,” 9Marks, Accessed February 26, 2017, https://9marks.org/about/

[4] Dempsey, Liberty University

[5] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey. Disciple Making Is…: How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013. ISBN: 9781943965304

[6] Dempsey, Liberty University

[7] Jim Putman, (2013-04-23). DiscipleShift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples, ebook

[8] Putman, DiscipleShift

Phil Shiver

A seminary student living in Greenville, SC.

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