Being a faithful churchgoer does not necessarily equate to being a faith-filled Christ-follower. That disconnect is disconcerting – and easily explained. Quite simply, the steps to becoming a dutiful church citizen differ greatly from those to become a disciple of Jesus Christ. In other words, there is tremendous misalignment between the indoctrination process churches take people through today and the process that new believers in Scripture typically went through in their discipleship journey. As a result, it’s no wonder most Christians tend toward self-preservation rather than self-sacrifice during this pandemic. Nor is it surprising churches are still not racially integrated nearly 60 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Personal Transformation Process
God is His infinite wisdom and power can accomplish all things, but we shouldn’t expect transformation from a process that’s not designed to produce it. Stories from the Bible and empirical evidence from the lives of world-changing Christians point to 7 phases in the development of an unconditionally-loving and fully-committed relationship with Jesus. They are also the sequence of steps the Lord took me through from 1997-2000, culminating in God unveiling His vision for Meet The Need and introducing me to my wonderful wife, Claudine.
- Humility – Arriving at the realization that we have lived a lie, mistakenly thinking we possessed some measure of control and deserved credit for personal achievements
- Prayer – Beginning a conversation with the rightful Owner of everything entrusted to us – our abilities, assets and accomplishments – asking Him to reveal Himself
- Worship – Bowing in submission to our heavenly Father, thanking and praising Him as the only true source of help for today and hope for tomorrow
- Repentance – Pledging to turn from a lifestyle of sinful self-absorption in the face of Jesus’ self-sacrifice in spite of our unworthiness
- Surrender – Subjecting to the Lord’s will in every aspect of life, meaning dying to “self” daily and “crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires”
- Discipleship – Walking in obedience to the commands of Jesus, which boil down to an Agape love that fuels compassion, evangelism and disciple-making
- Servanthood – Ongoing sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit, meaning progressively looking more and more like Jesus, who was above all else a Servant
Developing a keen sense of hearing, a sensitivity to the voice of God to understand His will and His plans, occurs naturally at some point along that process. Christians who only go through a portion of that process may wind up hard of hearing. Wouldn’t every church want to ensure members are strongly encouraged and presented with opportunities to complete all 7 of those steps?
Yet the process churches take visitors and members through today looks so much different. Demands for humility are replaced with promises of a better life, positioning God as our personal anchor and rescuer during the storms – the theme of most contemporary Christian songs. Corporate prayer is infrequent yet the feasibility of incessant personal prayer is rarely emphasized. Worship outside of church, repentance, dying to self and disciple-multiplication are foreign concepts to most churchgoers.
Maybe some pastors fear that presenting a realistic picture of what Jesus actually expects of us is akin to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Maybe taking the risk of asking churchgoers to endure all of that disruption would only serve to make congregants less dependent on a place and a pastor – the prevailing definition of “church” in America. Would debunking the inference that pastors have a more direct line to the Lord and convincing members they are the true embodiment of “church” adversely impact church growth and revenues?
Church Indoctrination Process
All churches have a well-defined member engagement process, but few have a personal growth track. All measure cumulative attendance, baptisms and giving, but few set goals around individual progress in living and loving more like Jesus. No doubt every church and pastor wants all attenders to experience personal transformation, but their operating principles and performance metrics are set up to achieve organizational objectives that can actually inhibit meaningful life change…
- Attendance – Foster a hospitable, welcoming environment that encourages adults and children to come back every Sunday
- Teaching – Offer a “lite”, convenient form of discipleship centered around short weekly sermons and occasional, optional small groups
- Engagement – Feature a range of programs, activities and events in bulletins and announcements
- Fellowship – Strengthen relationships among the church family
- Conversion – Hope the prior steps lead fence-sitters to repeat the Sinners’ Prayer during an altar call
- Membership – Invite believers to join the church, typically with baptism and financial giving as prerequisites
- Leadership – Ask members to help manage internal ministries and run small groups
Pastors and staff develop strategies and work diligently to ensure this process moves people into deeper levels of commitment to the church – from “crowd” (1-2) to “community” (3-6) to “core” (7). Of course, church leaders expect that a transition from 1 to 7 (crowd to core) entails movement along the personal transformation spectrum. However, pushing congregants too hard toward the more challenging aspects of personal growth like repentance, surrender and discipleship could adversely impact the organization’s growth objectives (above).
Process Alignment…the Path to Church Reform
Could a church reorganize and reset goals around the 7 personal transformation steps? Should we gauge a church’s health by evaluating the alignment and effectiveness of that process in the lives of its members? Absolutely. Yet in this age of church consumerism, doing so will be costly for that church, at least until whoever doesn’t leave eventually gets over the initial sticker shock of authentic submission to God’s will. A biblical set of church operating principles would be designed to produce…
- Humility – Being honest about the Christian life and walk, that it’s not about us and may cost us everything we held dear
- Prayer – Becoming a praying church, forming intercessory teams, holding regular prayer vigils, issuing prayer guides and dedicating more service time to prayer
- Worship – Encouraging worship beyond the building by sharing Bible study plans, distributing journals, suggesting praise music and providing worship resources for families/groups
- Repentance – Remembering that Jesus, Paul, Peter and John the Baptist all came out the gates preaching repentance; and no longer facilitate the fallacy of “cheap grace”
- Surrender – Driving home the critical importance of leaning on the Holy Spirit to continually kill off any vestige of self-interest that rears its ugly head
- Discipleship – Establishing 1-on-1 and triad discipling and accountability relationships, as well as classes going deep into the life of Jesus, His GC2 mandates (i.e. Great Commandment & Great Commission) and evangelism training
- Servanthood – Following Jesus’ model of leading with compassion by identifying, offering and investing substantially in year-round opportunities to move the needle on social and justice issues impacting the community
Pastors who don’t advocate and implement those 7 steps risk pews filled with people who Know about Jesus without Being in a committed relationship with Him or Doing what He says. Practical sermons may lead some to salvation (justification), but genuine life change happens over time (sanctification) as we advance past those early stages of the transformation process. Almost no one in world history knew Jesus better than Judas, but he never reached the point of repentance, surrender and faithful service. We who live between advents, after the resurrection, have no excuses for stopping short of obeying all that Jesus asks of His followers. Yet failure to emphasize those latter transformation steps may convince new believers and even long-time churchgoers that they’re really not very important.
It’s Your Turn…
Please share examples of church leaders who have revised their strategies around any of the 7 personal transformation steps and describe how that has revitalized their ministries…