Good Church Members vs. Growing Disciples

ByJohn Whittaker

Over the last couple of years, I have found myself reflecting on the contrast between good church members and growing disciples. This, in turn, has led me to consider the subtle differences between churches who emphasize making growing disciples and churches that don’t, even if those churches are what we would describe as healthy, growing churches.

I think this is a critically important point, and after thirty years of ministry and training ministers, I have concluded that all too often, we have placed emphasis and focus on creating good church members rather than making growing disciples.

Good church members could be defined as those who:

  • Attend regularly
  • Serve in some capacity
  • Give consistently and sacrificially
  • And the really committed ones lead in some way

By this definition, what pastor wouldn’t want a church full of good church members? So, we emphasize and celebrate good church members. We have strategy sessions, trainings, conferences, and books all aimed at how to have more and more of these types of people in our church.

In reality, a person could do all of these things and still not be living as a disciple of Jesus, who is increasingly becoming like Jesus.

Now to be fair, growing disciples usually do some of the same things as good church members… they serve, they attend, they give. However, those things are secondary to their life in Christ, not primary. Serving, attendance, giving, etc., flow out of their discipleship to Jesus, not their commitment to a church.

Growing disciples could be defined as those who:

  • Arrange their life to be with Jesus
  • Intentionally pursue the character of Jesus
  • Increasingly love what Jesus loves
  • Are committed to the mission of Jesus because of their devotion to Jesus

For most churches and their leaders, shifting the focus to forming growing disciples is both subtle and massive. It reorients what we prioritize, what we measure, and what we celebrate.

Making good church members often puts the organization first—its growth, its financial health, its size, etc.

It emphasizes and celebrates everything the organization is doing and how many people the organization has involved. The leaders say things like “we couldn’t do this without you…”

The goal is to help the organization flourish, and people are called to and celebrated when they participate in accomplishing this goal.

But when making growing disciples becomes the focus, the people move to the fore, and the organization exists to grow the people and enables the people to flourish.

When growing disciples becomes the focus, the questions then become:

  • How can we help people order their everyday lives around attachment to Jesus?
  • How can we intentionally guide people toward becoming like Jesus from the inside out?
  • How does transformation happen and are our programs and events actually facilitating transformation?
  • How can we resource people to live as disciples who make disciples?

The goal is no longer about growing a great church, but instead, becomes about growing great humans—humans who are intentionally and increasingly moving along a path toward becoming like Jesus.

I have found that for me and other pastors I have worked with, recognizing the differences between a good church member and a growing disciple brings a lot of clarity to the priorities we should be focusing on as pastors and leaders if we want to carry out the core mission of the church—disciple making. It clarifies the target and helps us to clearly see if our sites are set on the wrong things.

Additionally, recognizing these differences focuses us on what a disciple really is in contrast to someone who is just an active and involved church member, but is not laser focused on becoming like Jesus from the inside out.

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