It is reported that churches are in rapid decline and in poor health. In addition, there is high pastor turnover. Many see a lack of leadership as a major contributing factor. This paper argues that an intentional refocusing of discipleship, grounded on the doctrine of the imago Dei can lead a church to recover the mission Christ gave his church. To that end, this paper argues that a five-fold process is needed in leading the church to recover its mission of making disciples. Leaders must help believers be intentional about spiritual growth, lead them to commit to the vision Christ gave his church, surrender to God’s will, be an active part of the mission, and in turn invest in others and help them grow as disciples.
Today many churches are struggling to grow. According to Rainer (2019) 70% of churches are declining or plateauing, while only 30% are growing by reaching new people. The same study found that only 7% of churches are reproducing via church plants. Elsewhere Rainer (2014) states plainly that, “many of our congregations, plain and simple, are not in good health.” In addition to experiencing decline, many are experiencing conflict. As a result, many state conventions offer classes and support for conflict resolution in local churches. Added to this mix, Green (2016) reports that a large number of pastors leave their pastorates every year. They feel overworked, underappreciated, and believe their churches have unrealistic expectations for their work. For those who do not leave the ministry, it is reported that the average pastor tenure is three to six years (Church Health and Pastoral Tenure Longevity).
Clearly, something has gone wrong in many churches. From decline to conflict to high pastor turnover, the contemporary landscape paints a dismal picture that does not reflect the power and expansion seen in the books of acts. This problem has been brewing for a while. According to Barna (1997) the issue is a lack leadership in the church. He writes that the “church is dying due to a lack of strong leadership. In this time of unprecedented opportunity and plentiful resources, the church is actually losing influence” (p. 18). Blandino (2018) agrees, arguing that despite sound, orthodox theology, without the proper leadership a church will fail to achieve the mission entrusted to it by its Lord. He writes, “without an adequate supply of qualified leaders, you’ll hit a lid organizationally and burn out personally.”
However, the concept of leadership is a broad topic. There are many reasons for leadership failure in a church. Decline and conflict have been attributed to church governance. Payne (1996) for example attributes church decline to allowing deacons to run the church. Harbuck (2018) agrees, arguing for an elder led model of church leadership. Others see a lack of proper vision casting as the cause. Malphurs and Penfold (2014) write, “The problem is not a lack of pastors. It is a lack of capable, visionary pastors” (p. 30). Their solution to rebuilding dying churches is found in recasting a biblical vision of God’s will for the church. Others still, believe the problem is found in not following Christ’s command to make disciples. Hall (2016) for example argues that in too many churches there is a salvation culture where the goal is to lead people to Christ, but those same churches have lost the mission which is to lead people to follow Christ.
While each perspective offers great insight, it is the purpose of this paper to argue that the problem is a combination of leadership and theology. While orthodoxy may not be a problem in declining churches, a lack of orthopraxy may very well be. In other words, to right the ship sound theology must be applied to everyday Christian living. The word is emphasized to draw attention to the reality that living one’s life is not the same as living one’s life intentionally as a Christian. In that regard, this author agrees with Hall’s thesis that discipleship must be the primary mission of the church. However, discipleship proper must be grounded in a solid biblical understanding of human nature as defined by scripture.
However, the term discipleship has come to mean different things to different people. For many in the church, it is simply another program that one can take or leave. However, according to Christ, discipleship is the mission of the church (Matt. 28:16-20). As such, discipleship is not a program, but a way of life as defined by Christ for those who seek to follow him. However, when a person first comes to faith in Christ, they bring many things with them into the kingdom, not least of which is their lack of understanding concerning the things of God as well as the many bad habits, sins, deceptions concerning life, the world, their place in it, and Christ. The job of the church is to see that such people overcome those things and grow in their faith.
This paper seeks to propose that belief in Christ is expressed as a disciple who is being conformed to the image of Christ. This is a process that theologians often refer to as spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is not something that happens by accident, nor is it something that is vaguely defined. Spiritual formation takes place as a person begins to conform to the image of Christ. He is the standard. Further it is a lifelong process that will be complete only when a person enters God’s presence.
In order to understand this process, one needs to learn what it means to be created in God’s image. The fulness of God’s image for humankind is see in its fulness in the person of Christ. He is the image of God. And God seeks for those who believe and follow him to be conformed to who Christ is as revealed in scripture.
Hence, this paper will argue that spiritual formation is grounded, first in a proper understanding of God’s image; and second, that conformity to that image is the basis of what it means to be a disciple. Therefore, God’s image as seen in Christ is God’s goal for humanity and spiritual formation takes place as one is intentional about being a disciple. Finally, five spiritual factors that enable a disciple to be conformed to the image of Christ will be discussed.
The Doctrine of God’s Image
The discipline of biblical anthropology teaches that all people are created in the image of God. Far from being a peripheral doctrine, it is central to understanding the human condition (Small, 2020). It explains not only from where we come, but gives great insight into where we are going as a people (Fuller Seminary, n.d). In that regard, the doctrine of the imago Dei has the ability to both inform and to guide believers into what it means and what it looks like to follow Christ (Jones, n.d.). As such, the doctrine clearly communicates God’s goal for humanity. Therefore, all endeavors for a healthy model of spiritual development should depend upon this reality.
We get out first glimpse of the doctrine in Genesis 1:26-27. We read,
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
The importance of the doctrine being connected to creation cannot be overstated. From the beginning, it was God’s will that people share in his image.
Many have attempted to retrieve from these verses an understanding of what the specifics of God’s image entail. However, when consideration of the words “image” and “likeness” come into focus, the details of God’s image become less important than the fact of his image being given to humankind. Grudem (1994) writes, “in this discussion it would be best to focus attention primarily on the meanings of the words image and likeness” (Grudem, 1994, p. 443). He suggests that to the original readers the words “would simply inform the original readers that man was like God, and would in many ways represent God” (p. 443). This understanding widens the scope of what it means to be created “in the image of God.”
Heiser (2015) finds a similar meaning in the words of the text. Specifically, he proposes the idea that being created in God’s image entails a special status. “We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are by definition. The image is not an ability we have but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God” (Heiser, 2015, p. 42-43). Further, he argues that any specific attribute one may identify, will by necessity limit the meaning of the concept and limit those who are considered to be created in God’s image. For example, if God’s image entails self-awareness, then a two-day old fetus that has not developed a brain could not be said to have God’s image, since at that moment it lacks self-awareness.
Likewise, Kilner (2015) also sees in the image of God language something more than a few specific characteristics that can be applied to people. Like Heiser, he argues that the idea is not to think of the image of God in ways that people are like God. He points out that for every attribute one can think of, the same attribute can be applied to creatures not created in God’s image. For example, some argue that the ability to engage in rational thought is an attribute of God. While this is true, it is also an attribute of angels as well as demons. The angels of God (both good and fallen) were not created in God’s image but share that attribute. Therefore, to label the ability of rational thought as part and parcel of what it means to be created in God’s image will distort its meaning. While God is rational, rational thought (and similar attributes), cannot define its meaning.
Instead, Kilner (2015) proposes that being created in God’s image entails one’s ability to be connected to God and, from that vantage point, having the ability to reflect God back into the world. And while certain characterizes must be reflected, the idea of God’s image entails that reality. He writes, “The wonder of being in God’s image is about people’s special connection with God and how that will enable all who wish, to be a reflection of God in Christ” (Kilner, 2015, p. 105). To that end he defines the image of God as God’s intent for humanity. It is God’s intent that people reflect him. He writes, “People have a special connection to God, and God’s intention is that a variety of human attributes (somehow reflecting God’s own attributes) ought to evidence such a connection” (p. 134). But if specific attributes do not constitute that reflection, the observant reader will ask the question, “From where do they learn to reflect God?” The answer is found in Christ.
Scripture is clear that Christ is the fullness of God’s image revealed to humankind. Of Christ the Bible says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:15). If one wants to see the “image of God,” they must look to Christ. Kilner (2015) writes that, “conforming to the model of Christ’s being and doing is tantamount to conforming to God’s image. It is the fulfillment of God’s determination at creation that people would be ‘in’ God’s image, living and growing in reference to God’s standard for humanity” (p. 53).
The Call for Spiritual Growth into God’s Image
Further, scripture is clear that spiritual growth and development is a natural component of the Christian life. The importance of the doctrine of God’s image for spiritual development is evident. If one is to grow in Christ, it is necessary they have a clear picture of what they are to grow into. Pettit (2008) writes that each person, “who places their faith in Jesus Christ and living out of the life of faith here on earth is being (present tense) transformed (sanctification) into the image and likeness of our Savior” (Pettit, 2008, p. 20).
Small (2020) makes the crucial connection between the reality of God’s image created in people, and the point that to be fully human is to live according to God’s image. After all, the language of Genesis 1:26 reveals God’s intent. To be human is to be created in God’s image. This is not to suggest that those who reject God and his ways are less than human. But it is to recognize that such people are not fulfilling the purpose for which they were created. Kilner (2015) makes the same vital connection. He writes that “the New Testament presents humanity’s renewal as taking place according to the image of God in Christ” (p. 234). To be renewed is to be restored to that image humankind was originally endowed with. Hence it is to fulfill the purpose for which God created people.
The path for renewal in the image of Christ is seen in the call for spiritual growth. There are many exhortations for spiritual growth in scripture; many of them connecting one’s spiritual formation with the image of God in Christ. In Ephesians Paul writes,
“But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:20-24).
If one is to grow, they must put on the new man – who is Christ. This entails “putting off” the old man of sin, that is preventing God’s purpose from being realized.
Further, to the Corinthian church Paul writes, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). To the Roman church Paul wrote, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). These passages make clear that spiritual growth and transformation has as its goal to be conformed to Christ. This is what Small, (2020) calls, “living in light of the image of God.”
The Path to Spiritual Formation
The Leaders Imperative: Setting the goal post
Thus, spiritual growth has as its goal to be conformed to Christ. According to Averbeck, the idea of spiritual growth is best understood from passages of the Bible that “refer to the Holy Spirit in the context of forming, transforming, or conforming a person’s life toward Christlikeness (“until Christ is formed in you,” (Gal. 4:19b)” (Pettit, 2008, p. 51). It is to that end that God provides leaders. The book of Ephesians reveals God’s will in regard to a leader’s role in the spiritual formation of others. The goal of their ministry is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13).
The Bible, then, presents the mandate for what spiritual growth looks like. Believers are to look like Christ as they serve him. Kilner’s (2015) understanding that the image of God is seen in one’s connection and refection of Christ is seen in this mandate. This removes any doubt and makes clear that spiritual growth is not a vague concept without a tangible result. To be biblically sound, spiritual formation is grounded in the person of Christ. To be effective, then, a leader begins the journey with the end in mind. Covey (2013) writes that an idea of “the image, picture, or paradigm of the end of your life as your frame of reference or the criterion by which everything else is examined” should be known at the beginning of the journey (Covey, 2013, p. 105). It is the leader’s responsibility, then, to set the goal of Christlikeness for those they lead. Conformity to Christ and service to him is the end goal.
Becoming a Disciple
However, this does not happen by accident. It is proper to understand that spiritual formation contains particular steps that shape the discipleship process. First, it is essential that believers understand the mission Christ gave the church. Any path of spiritual formation which does not take into consideration the reason the church was created may very well work against the reason it exists (Stetzer, 2007). For example, many in the church erroneously believe the mission of the church is to evangelize the world by preaching the gospel. While it is essential to preach the gospel, Jesus makes it clear that this takes place in the context of discipleship (cf. Matt. 28:16-20). Evangelism is never an end in itself. Evangelism is the first step in bringing someone into the kingdom as a disciple. If evangelism is the goal, what happens to those who respond positively to the gospel? Some will say, “They got saved! Praise the Lord!” Praise the Lord, indeed. However, according the Great Commission, a profession of faith is not the end of a process (evangelizing), but the beginning of new life (spiritual formation). That new life must be intentionally conformed to Christ. The great commission makes this clear. Many churches have learned a hard lesson. People who make professions of faith, but who fail to be discipled are more apt to leave the church, contributing to the decline churches experience.
Therefore, according to Christ, the first step one makes after making a profession of faith, is to learn to follow him as a disciple. Before ascending to heaven, he gave the church its official mission. The most comprehensive expression of his instructions is found in Matthew’s gospel. He said,
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20, emphasis added).
The main point is to direct the church to make disciples. They were to do this by going, baptizing, and teaching. These things are the pillars in the process of making a person a disciple, not the main things themselves. When done correctly, they forge a sinner into an obedient follower of Jesus.
Far from being a side note on the church’s agenda, Jesus makes it clear that discipleship is to inform everything the church is and does (Stetzer, 2007). As such, it reveals the purpose for which Christ created the church and therefore defines the parameters of spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is seen in the context of “making disciples of all nations.”
It is important to define what it means to be a disciple. The word disciple means, “a learner.” A disciple of Christ is one who learns Christ. As they learn Christ, a disciple becomes one who actively and obediently follows Christ into a new way of life, in the context of the church, for the purpose of making Christ known amongst the nations. That is what a disciple is. Second, what a disciple does, as they make Christ known amongst the nations, is to lead others to actively and obediently follow Christ, themselves. Therefore, a disciple is one who follows Christ and who then seeks to lead others to follow Christ (Platt, 2013). For the church to be successful, then, the church must train believers to be disciples who then become disciple makers (Hall, 2016).
This is foundational to the Great Commission. Hence, when a person is saved, they are called to follow Christ as a disciple. The book of Acts reinforces this truth. In Acts 11:26, the Bible says, “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” The significance of this statement cannot be overlooked. In the early church, those who followed Christ were pejoratively labeled, “Christians” by their enemies. In other words, those who lived lives of dedicated serve to Christ as disciples were recognized as being “followers of Christ.” Indeed, the word “Christian” means, “Follower of Christ.” The word Christian was not a label the Church gave to itself. It was a label others gave the church as it witnessed their service to Christ. This text reveals that a Christian is not someone who simply believes in Jesus but is a disciple of Jesus.
This must be the starting point for spiritual growth. If one is to learn to “image” Christ into the world, they must first become a committed follower of Christ. Quoting Barth, Hall writes that the call to discipleship “is the substance of the call in the power of which Jesus makes people his saints…. We may say, therefore, that in practice the command to follow Jesus is identified with the command to believe in Him” (Hall, 2016, P. 19). Hence, a believer in Christ is a follower of Christ. When one follows Christ, they learn to become like Christ. Therefore, Hall (2016) writes that, “discipleship is about conformity to Christ” (p. 15).
To enable one to be a committed follower, five spiritual factors are needed. We will discuss each in turn.
First, a new follower of Christ must be intentionally led into spiritual growth. Only when one grows in Christ can that person reflect Christ as they participate in his mission in the world. After Peter preached his first sermon after Pentecost those who made professions of faith were not left to wonder what came next. The book of Acts records what took place, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:41-42). Far from being left on their own, these new believers were intentionally led into a process of spiritual growth.
It is important to notice the community that formed around their profession of faith. Today, while new believers are encouraged to attend church, they are not always taught about both the importance and the purpose of that community. In a survey Rainer and Stetzer (2010) asked churches this question, “New members are immediately taught about the importance of living in community with other Christians?” (Stetzer & Rainer, 2010, p. 173). In their survey 64% agreed. However, from two decades of pastoral experience, while many agree to the statement, this author has observed that few churches are intentional about leading believers to be active participants in that community as a disciple. Passively sitting in church once a week is not the same as actively engaging the community as learner of Christ who seeks to be conformed to his image, with the intent of reflecting him into the world.
It is important to note that the things the early church did in Acts are not different from what most churches do today: Bible study, sermons, worship, witnessing, serving, fellowship, etc. The difference in a church intentional about discipleship is that these things are expected, and believers are held accountable to the body as whole. On the importance of this, Berg (2000) writes that “accountability is the constant watchfulness and enforcement behind every effective discipleship effort … [and] God uses accountability to stimulate change” (Berg, 2000, p. 30, 31).
However, in many churches while there is an unstated rule that growth is expected, there is no intentional discipleship process that guides the community as a whole, nor accountability to help stimulate growth, nor are any expectations communicated to believers that this is what the Lord expects (cf. Heb. 10:23-25).
However, Stetzer and Rainer (2010) report that churches who focus on intentional biblical community see greater growth in individuals and as a church as a whole. They call this intentional process a Transformational Loop. This entails a vibrant leadership that is intentional about plugging new believers into the worshiping community, being intentional about building relationships that revolve around Christ, and communicating the importance of the community as foundational for the mission of the church. Churches that have such a process see less people leave the church, and experience success in reaching others with the gospel.
Commit to the Vision
As a believer is being shaped into a disciple within the community of believers, they must be taught the vision Christ has for their lives within the church. His vision per, the Great Commission, is that the church is to make disciples who are to take the gospel to all the nations (cf. Luke 9:57-62). It must be understood by the church that it exits because of the Great Commission, not despite it. Jesus gave the command to “go make disciples of all nations” at the beginning of the churches life because it is Christ’s vision for the church. To deviate from this is to chart a course different from the one he gave.
Therefore, the goal of the church is to help a growing Christian take ownership of the mission, and to help them understand their part of that mission. Failure to help a new disciple understand this vision will result in mission failure for that new believer and for the church that believer has joined.
To be successful, then, each believer’s life must be tied to God’s larger purpose. In that regard, Stanley (1999) makes the point that, “all divinely inspired visions are in some way tied into God’s master plan” (Stanley, 1999, p. 99). When believers understand God’s master plan, and their place in it, they will be encouraged to participate, knowing they are a part of God’s work in the world.
Further, Stanley (1999) makes the helpful observation that Jesus renamed people. For example, Cephas he renamed Peter (the rock). He argues that Jesus had a vision for Peter – a role that Peter had to embrace for the church to move forward. He writes, “Jesus had a vision of what Peter could become. Jesus saw in Peter the potential for greatness. So he gave him a name that reflected his potential. Peter. The Rock. From that day forward Peter carried a constant reminder of what Jesus saw in him. What he could be. What he should be” (p. 113). A good leader does not just share the big picture but leads others to see how they are a necessary part of the vision. For the church to accomplish the vision Christ gave his church, each member must not only know the vision, but see themselves accomplishing that vision themselves.
To that end, scripture is clear that every believer has a place in both the body of Christ and the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 12). Each believer is quipped by the Holy Spirit to contribute to what God is doing in the world through the church. Absent a believer’s participation, the church suffers loss. As such it is necessary that leaders clearly and effectively communicate the vision Christ has for his people and lead every believer to take ownership of that vision.
Surrender to God’s Will
A necessary ingredient for committing to the vision is surrendering to God’s will. Scripture is replete with calls to “count the cost,” “take up your cross,” “follow me,” “sell all your possessions,” and “deny yourself.” Further, Jesus asked the challenging question, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). As we have seen, the saved life is a life of discipleship. But it must be further understood that the life of a disciple is a life of complete surrender to the will of God.
To that end, Paul wrote to the Roman church, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). The word sacrifice means a life given. In the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system, it meant a life given to death on the altar. But in the context of the New Testament, it means a life offered to God by way of service. But a form of death is still required. As the animal died on the altar in the Old Testament, so too the disciple dies to self in the New Testament.
About surrendering as a disciple, Arnold (1994) writes,
“Despite the circumstances of our time we must be open and free to live for God’s will for the future …. We must be ready and willing to give up our resistance to God; then he will work in us through his Holy Spirit. God is always ready, always there. It is we who are not ready for his cause. If we would only yield to God’s authority, to the way of Jesus, and to the power of the Holy Spirit, then the flame which gives light to the whole world could be kindled …. This means surrendering everything – our self-will, our hopes for personal happiness, our private property, even our weaknesses – and believing in God and in Christ. That is all that is asked of anyone. Jesus does not expect perfection, but he wants us to give ourselves wholeheartedly” (Arnold, 1994, p. 77).
Often, people leave the church because they have not been taught this vital truth. As a result, though they believe in Jesus their first commitment is to themselves, not to Christ and his kingdom. However, scripture is clear that Christ did not save a people to live for themselves. He died for them so they could live for God. A proper understanding of the kingdom therefore, not only challenges the impulse to live for self, but demands that Christ and his kingdom becomes the disciple’s first priority.
Evans (2013) writes that, “the problem in most of our lives today is that God is merely in the vicinity, not in the center. People often tell me that they just don’t have time enough for God. What they are really telling me is that God is not first in their lives” (Evans, 2013, p.123). One answer is to reassess one’s priorities. Having time to serve God is not a matter of calendar time, Evans argues, but a matter doing those things that matter most to us. He says, “a person will always make time for what matters most” (p. 123). But one’s priorities can only be shaped by a correct understanding of God’s will as revealed in scripture.
However, as disciples are taught the Word of God, learning to be intentional with one’s time and learning to make kingdom living the priority through which believers measure what is important, must be both communicate and modeled. Indeed, Jesus did not give the fledgling disciples a sermon and tell them to go be obedient. He spent three years both teaching and modeling what living for the kingdom looked like. He was there teaching, correcting, rebuking, redirecting, encouraging, and instilling in them the values that would take the world by storm. Finally, Christ demonstrated the fullness of what surrender looks like when he made his sacrifice on the cross. Later the apostle Paul would write, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Paul learned the meaning of surrender by studying the Word and through Christ’s example. Hence, learning to surrender is not a principle taught only in a classroom, but a lifestyle modeled in day to day living. Leaders who want to see their people be “more committed” must demonstrate, as Jesus did, what surrender looks like; and they must ensure this becomes a shared community principle.
Another way to further embed this value in the community is by simply asking people to serve. Jesus began his ministry with his disciples with the simple invitation, “Follow me.” He asked and they followed. In that regard, leaders should not be afraid to ask for a commitment. Warren writes, “If you don’t ask people for a commitment, you won’t get it. You have not because you ask not” (Warren, 2018). Further, he says, “It’s amazing to me that many community organizations require more from participants than local churches do” (Warren, 2018). In his church, Warren imbedded the concept of asking for commitment into the spiritual development of believers. He designed a series of classes with the aim of moving people from being attenders to becoming actively involved in ministry. Those level of commitments are: commit to membership, commit to maturity, commit to ministry, and commit to missions (Warren, 1995, p. 130). He called this “a life development process” and he says that “at Saddleback we call this ‘moving people from the community to the core’” (p. 130-131).
Be a Part of the Mission
As believers surrender to God’s will and learn to serve, they must be empowered to engage in ministry. Since every believer is equipped by the Lord to serve (cf. 1 Cor. 12), then every believer should be enabled to serve. In some churches, however, the ministry of the church is limited and stunted by the form of church government they practice (Payne, 1996). Many churches, especially smaller churches, have a committee form of church governance. In this model it is not unusual to see a nominating committee that decides who serves where in the church. In contrast, the New Testament reveals the Holy Spirit is the one who choses who serves where; and each believer must be encouraged to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 13:2). Indeed, if the Holy Spirit is the one who distributes spiritual gifts as he will (cf. 1 Cor. 12:11), then it stands to reason that the same Spirit must be allowed to lead his people to serve as he will. As believers begin to understand how the Lord has equipped them in the body, they must then have the room to use their gifts in the context of the church.
As new disciples are being encouraged and empowered to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit, they must also be taught to see the entirety of their life through the lens of God’s calling and equipping. Often, churches define serving as being on the worship team, teaching Sunday school, being on the welcoming team, etc. While these are both needed an important, believers should be encouraged to see their calling extend beyond the doors of the church building.
For that to take place, believers must learn that their primary calling is first to walk with God. Hillman (2008) writes, “Our primary calling is to a living and dynamic relationship with God … [further] our primary calling is the umbrella under which we function as believers. We are called first and foremost to God, not to just a role, a career, or a location (Pettit, 2008, p.198). To the Roman church Paul wrote, “…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom, 1:5-7, emphasis added). The importance of this cannot be overstated. One’s obedience to Christ begins with one’s relationship with Christ. When Christ calls a person, they are called into a relationship with him. The implication is that a believer is not called into a role, but called to a person, Jesus. Anything a believer does for God is always a derived from their relationship with God. Therefore, there can be no genuine service to God absent a relationship with God.
Further, that relationship extends beyond the times one is assembled with the church body. In contemporary culture it is not unusual for people to compartmentalize their lives, their Christian lives included. People wear many hats, but under Christ all roles are brought into submission. The Bible says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24). There is not time when a disciple is not serving the Lord. As such he is served while at work, on vacation, amongst family and friends, and even when one is taking a walk. The consequence is that a disciple’s focus is always on the Lord. Within the parameters of this relationship is when functional service, as Hillman (2008) calls it, is rendered.
A functional calling, according to Hillman, is how one lives out their primary calling (walking with Christ) in daily life. Some have specific vocational callings (preacher for example) but all have the obligation to extend their relationship with Christ into the lives of others. Hillman writes, “everything that brings you into relationship with other people is part of your functional call. In fact, living out your primary calling in the various avenues of your life actually has the power to transform all the spheres of your life into functional callings” (Pettit, 2008, p.200-201). In others, disciples live their lives in such a way that they reveal their relationship with Christ in all they do. This becomes foundational to the Great Commission.
As such, this extends the basic meaning of evangelism. While all believers are called to share the gospel (cf. Mark 16:15), evangelism is seen in the context of a lifestyle one lives in the presence of Christ. While evangelistic programs have their use, a witness to Christ while living a life for Christ has vastly more power. Evangelism is not a program the church does, but a lifestyle a disciple lives. This now becomes the backbone of the Great Commission. The church is a sending body. However, believers are not only sent to temporary locations (a short-term mission trip, for example) but into the world as light for Christ (cf. Mat. 5:14-16). There are no restrictions on where and when that light is to shine. It must shine in all places at all times. When a disciple learns to shine that light in every sphere of life, they are now a part of the mission Christ gave his church.
Help Others Grow
Finally, as believers live their faith for all to see as a witness to Christ, they are called to replicate themselves into the lives of others. In short, disciples are to become disciple-makers. Quoting Dawson Trotman, an author of leaflet called, “Born to Reproduce,” Platt (2010) writes,
“‘Every person who is born into God’s family is to multiply.’ Yet he maintains that most Christians are not multiplying. He laments, “In every Christian audience, I am sure there are men and women who have been Christians for five, ten, or twenty years but who do not know of one person who is living for Jesus Christ today because of them. This is a problem” (Platt, 2010, p. 203-204).
In contrast, the book of Acts reveals a church where believers, being led by the Spirit of God, invested in the lives of others and not only led others to believe in Jesus, but showed them what it looked like to follow Jesus.
The capstone of discipleship is seen in this essential component of the Christian life. A believer is never more like Christ than when they are sent out, doing the Father’s will, and investing in the lives of others for the sake of the gospel. Before he ascended to the Father, Jesus said, “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you’” (John 20:21). The gospel was never meant to be lived in isolation from others. It was always meant to be lived in such a way that it could be freely given away to all who would respond to Christ. Jesus left the glories of heaven to become a servant to others (Phil. 2:5-11). So too, a believer fulfills their calling when they serve others by sharing the gospel, living the gospel, and leading others to live for Christ as well.
Unfortunately, this important component of discipleship is not always emphasized by leaders today. Hall (2016) writes, “in our efforts to emphasize grace, we fail to talk about standards and expectations. … Not many churches expect their members to witness, bring others to the Christian faith, and disciple new converts to reproduce as well. … We have set the bar quite low. We do not expect growth, and we certainly do not expect reproduction” (Hall, 2016, p. 106). However, Christ taught this, demonstrated this, and expects this from his church.
The result of not focusing on the mission for which Christ created the church has had a devastating impact. While written three years ago, Rainer (2017) wrote that “somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 churches in America will close their doors in the next year.” That is a shocking number and a sober wake up call for leaders who seek to see their churches experience a vibrant life once again.
While many churches are struggling and are not in good health, they must be reassured: they can be. A new beginning is available. Churches can be revitalized by focusing on the mission Christ gave his church. They key, as Jesus taught and demonstrated, is to invest in the lives of others with the gospel, leading them to be committed disciples. When leaders emphasize this as the mission, churches not only have the potential to be revitalized, but to re-ignite the movement Christ began when he gave the gospel to the church. Ultimately, it is a movement empowered by the Spirit of God (cf. Acts 1:8). Through the Spirit’s power, believers can become fruitful disciples when they are intentional about their spiritual growth, commit to the vision Christ gave his church, surrender to God’s will as revealed in scripture, be a part of Christ’s mission in the world, and by investing in the lives of others with the gospel, helping them to look like Christ.
Arnold, J.H. (1994). Discipleship. Farmington PA: The Plough Publishing House.
Barna, G. (1997). Leaders on leadership : wisdom, advice, and encouragement on the art of leading God’s people . Ventura, Calif., U.S.A: Regal Books.
Berg, J. (2000) Changed into his mage: God’s plan for transforming your life. Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press.
Blandino, S. (2018, March 22). Why Leadership Development Is Essential to the Great
Church Health and Pastoral Tenure Longevity. (2018, September 27). Dr. Kevin Blackwell. https://drkevinblackwell.com/2018/09/27/church-health-and-pastoral-tenure-longevity/
Convey, S. (2013). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Evans, T. (2013). The Kingdom Agenda : life under God. Chicago ILL: Moody Publishers.
Green, L. (Janurary 12, 2016). Former pastors report lack of support led to abandoning pastorate. Retrevied on September, 28 2020, from: https://lifewayresearch.com/2016/01/12/former-pastors-report-lack-of-support-led-to-abandoning-pastorate/
Grudem, W. (1994). Systematic theology : an introduction to biblical doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Hall, B. (2016). Conversion and discipleship : you can’t have one without the other. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Heiser, M. (2015). The Unseen realm : recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible. Bellingham WA: Lexham Press.
Harbuck, M. (2018). Deacons, the biblical system of church leadership? D.Min. Dissertation,
Liberty University, United States – Virginia. Retrieved October 28, 2019 from: https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2758&context=doctoral
Jones, K (n.d). Jesus, the Image of God : Ligonier Ministries. Retrieved September 9, 2020, from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/jesus-image-god/
Kilner, J. F. (2015). Dignity and destiny : Humanity in the image of god. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans
Malphurs, A., & Penfold, G. E. (2014). Re : Vision, the key to transforming your church . Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Payne, L. (1996). The role of the New Testament deacon : An office to hold or a ministry to perform? D.Min dissertation, Liberty University, United States – Virginia. Retrieved October 28, 2019 from: https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1255&context=doctoral
Pettit, P. (2009). Foundations of Spiritual Formation : a community approach to becoming like Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.
Platt, D. (2013). Follow me : a call to die. a call to live. Carol Stream, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers.
Rainer, T. (2014). Dangers of denial in a declining church. Retrieved on September 28, 2020
Rainer, T. (2017), Six Stages of a Dying Church. Internet. Available from: http://thomrainer.com/2017/06/six-stages-dying-church
Rainer, T. (March 6, 2019). Major new research on declining, plateaued, and growing churches from Exponential and Lifeway research. Retrieved on September 28, 2020 from: https://thomrainer.com/2019/03/major-new-research-on-declining-plateaued-and-growing-churches-from-exponential-and-lifeway-research/
Small, R. (2020). The renewal of the image of God : retrieved on September, 7 2020 from: https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_666754_1&content_id=_41730068_1
Small, R. (2020), Introduction to Theological Anthropology. Retrieved August 25, 2020, from https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_666754_1&content_id=_41730060_1
Small, R. (2020) Living the image of God: Retrieved September 14, 2020, from: https://learn.liberty.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_666754_1&content_id=_41730072_1
Stanley, A. (1999). Visioneering. New York, NY: Multnomah Publishers.
Stetzer, E. (2007). Comeback churches : how 300 churches turned around and yours can too. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing.
Stetzer E. & Rainer T. (2010) Transformational church : creating a new scorecard for congregations. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group.
Theological Anthropology | Fuller Seminary. (n.d.). Retrieved August 25, 2020, from: https://www.fuller.edu/next-faithful-step/resources/theological-anthropology/
Warren, R. (2018, May 29). Raising the Commitment Level within Your Church. Pastors.Com. https://pastors.com/raising-commitment-level/
Warren, R. (1995). The purpose driven church : Growth without compromising your message and mission. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan.
What Is Christian Leadership? 8 Principles. (2018, March 2). CU Online. https://online.campbellsville.edu/ministry/christian-leadership-principles/