De-sizing The Church: Discipleship Fixes Everything

"All numerical markers — increased attendance, bigger and better programs, a larger budget — must take a backseat to listening to Jesus. Jesus calls us to abide in him." Peter Scazzero

When I teach at church leadership conferences, I often hold a Q & A session. At the start of one session several years ago, I was asked a simple, direct question: “How do I fix Sunday school?”

I responded, “Before I answer that, what is the purpose of Sunday school?”

The questioner’s answer was equally simple and straightforward: “To help the next generation of Christians love Jesus and know the Bible.”

“That’s a great answer,” I said. “So, instead of asking how to fix Sunday school, let’s ask, what’s the best way to help the next generation of Christians love Jesus and know the Bible? If fixing Sunday school does that, then fix it. But if something else does that better, do the other thing instead. We have to stop asking how to fix our structures and get back to why they exist in the first place.”

(This article is adapted from De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next, Chapter 13: Discipleship Fixes Everything, available now.)

It’s the same for the pursuit of numerical growth in our churches. When we ask, “how can we get more people in the building?” we’re asking the wrong question. Instead, start with a question that exposes our motives, like “why do we want more people in the church building?”

A full building and a massive online presence are not the goals. Making disciples is the goal. So that should be our first and only question. What’s the best way to make disciples?

In Small Church Essentials I wrote that “bigger fixes nothing.” If you take a small, unhealthy church and make it big, you now have a big, unhealthy church. And that’s not better, that’s worse. In the years since then, that axiom has proven to be truer than I realized.

The fact that something is big or growing doesn’t indicate if it’s good. We need a lot more information than numerical growth to make that determination.

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Discipleship Fixes Everything

Thankfully, there’s a truth on the flip side of “bigger fixes nothing.”

Discipleship fixes everything.

If you have a problem in a church, discipleship is the remedy for it.

  • Divisiveness in the church? Discipleship fixes it.
  • Immorality? Discipleship fixes it.
  • Lack of leadership? Discipleship fixes it.
  • Immaturity? Discipleship fixes it.
  • Inadequate finances? Discipleship fixes it.
  • Bad theology? Discipleship fixes it.
  • Apathy? Discipleship fixes it.
  • Ineffectiveness? Discipleship fixes it.

To frame it positively, if there are biblical goals you want to reach, discipleship will get you there.

  • Want a healthier church? Make disciples.
  • More people coming to Christ? Make disciples.
  • Financial stability? Make disciples.
  • Raise leaders? Make disciples.
  • Deeper worship? Make disciples.
  • Greater community impact? Make disciples.
  • Help the hurting? Make disciples.
  • Unity? Make disciples.

. . . Fixes Everything but This

The one thing discipleship is not guaranteed to fix is a church’s size.

First, because size (or lack of it) isn’t a problem that needs fixing. But also because getting bigger doesn’t require discipleship.

Plenty of churches have grown numerically without discipleship. In fact, discipleship will often undermine extra-biblical growth engines, such as a charismatic leader or a spectacular stage presentation.

The principles for attracting a crowd are not the same as the principles for changing a life.

Ask a typical, numerically growing church for evidence that they’re discipling people, and they’ll point to their growing numbers. Not just attendance numbers, engagement numbers, too. But always numbers. No doubt they’ll have some wonderful stories of life transformation as well, but that’s not the primary evidence that’s usually cited.

Discipleship Isn’t A Strategy

This may be the biggest mistake the church has made in the last five decades. Pursuing numbers has been seen as an essential aspect of discipleship. But it’s not. Sometimes it’s the greatest hindrance to discipleship.

Bigness can divert so much of our limited attention and energy away from discipleship that it quickly becomes a replacement for discipleship. Discipleship is the means and the end of what Jesus called us to do. But when we’re obsessed with bigness, we see everything as a strategy for numerical growth.

Discipleship is not a church growth strategy. Neither are prayer, fellowship, worship, or ministry. Even evangelism is not a church growth strategy. Whenever we see any of Christ’s commands and blessings as a strategic move, we’re no longer serving Jesus and much as we’re serving the endgame of growth.

As Chris Galanos wisely noted (in From Megachurch to Multiplication), “The late-20th-century church model, in so many applications, requires so much energy and attention that little to nothing is left for anything else, including discipleship.”

Jesus calls us to be disciples, not church growth strategists. He wants worshipers, not performers. Servants, not celebrities. We can’t do both.

In The Great Evangelical Recession, John S. Dickerson noted that, “academics and sociologists argue over exactly how to measure the success or failure of the evangelical church. But by one scriptural gauge, measuring our success or failure is embarrassingly simple. . . . Are we making disciples?”

(Adapted from De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next, Chapter 13: Discipleship Fixes Everything, available now.)


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