Most Protestant pastors feel confident about the discipleship taking place in their churches. However, there’s still plenty of room for growth, according to a new study from LifeWay Research.
Nearly two-thirds (65%) say they are satisfied with the state of discipleship and spiritual formation in their local church, while 78% indicate there’s room for improvement.
While two-thirds agree they are satisfied with discipleship, 44% are not regularly evaluating discipleship progress to inform that opinion. About 8 out of 10 (83%) have an intentional plan for discipleship.
“Following Christ involves movement,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “And that movement can either be walking with Christ or straying from that path. Churches must be vigilant and proactive in encouraging the progress of believers.”
Churches use many approaches to disciple and encourage spiritual development in adults, the study found. On average churches chose more than six of the nine approaches listed in the survey. Sunday School and ongoing small group Bible studies are the most common discipleship approaches followed by sermons, women’s groups and short-term Bible studies.
“In a broad sense discipleship is really an intentional and consistent effort driven by faith to follow Jesus,” said Michael Kelley, director of discipleship and groups ministry at LifeWay Christian Resources. “But the specific dynamics of how discipleship happens in an individual church vary based on the context of that local church.”
When it comes to the question of on-campus or off-campus small group Bible studies, almost all Protestant pastors (96%) say they have ongoing adult Sunday School or small group Bible studies at the church building. Slightly more than half (53%) say they have small group Bible studies that meet in homes or outside the church building.
The pastor survey also reveals demographic differences by age, region and ethnicity, as well as church size and denomination:
Pastors of churches with attendance of 100–249 (70%) are more likely to say they are satisfied with the state of discipleship in their church than those with attendance of 50–99 (61%). Pentecostals (75%) are more likely to agree than Baptists (63%) and Methodists (54%)
Pastors ages 45–54 (88%) are more likely to say their church has an intentional plan for discipleship of individuals and encouraging their spiritual growth when compared to those 55–64 (80%). Non-white pastors (91%) are more likely to say they have an intentional plan than white pastors (82%).
Pastors in the South (59%) are more likely to say they evaluate discipleship progress in their church than those in the Midwest (51%). Pastors age 18–44 (60%) are more likely to evaluate their church’s progress than those 65 and older (49%).
“The majority of older pastors grew up in churches where discipleship was assumed to be taking place,” McConnell said. “More younger pastors realize it’s something that must be tracked.”
McConnell and Kelley noted that years of research have generated the Discipleship Pathway Assessment, a comprehensive tool to help churches gain a better understanding of the spiritual health of their congregation and the effectiveness of their methods of discipleship.
“Every Christ-follower is on a pathway,” said Kelley. “Time and again Scripture uses the word walk to describe how we interact with Jesus Christ. Our job as pastors and disciple-making church leaders is to help people take step after step on the pathway of discipleship toward the goal of Christlikeness.” (LifeWay)
Church leaders interested in evaluating their church’s discipleship process can learn more at DiscipleshipPathwayAssessment.com.
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