Roots and Fruits: Why the Church Struggles to Disciple (Part 2)
Many congregations suffer from biblical illiteracy, critical spirits, low morale and general apathy. Divisiveness, gossip and backbiting are the norm. Meanwhile the faithful few struggle to recruit help to teach, lead, serve and guide programs, events and activities. One person can’t do it alone and yet many churches ride with lone rangers.
In part one of this blog, I shared how Jesus’ parable of the soils (Mark 4:1-20) reveals why a church struggles to attract and retain guests. Essentially, the hard and shallow soils represent an inability to meet intrinsic human needs for security, pleasure, connection and community. And if a plant can’t root, it’ll never grow fruit. Consequently, I suggested churches have to create stickiness or natural attraction through relational strategies so they’ll be ready for deeper discipleship and leadership development.
People hunger for relationship. If you don’t belong, it’s so long. And once there’s root, there’s the potential for fruit.
So what happens once a church persuades the guest or irregular attender to be more active, more involved or more regular? Every program, event, class and activity rides on how a church answers that question. And yet many congregations struggle to effectively produce mature disciples who can lead, evangelize and teach. Something in our strategy is failing. Again since it’s the farmer’s job to prepare, plant, tend and weed the soil, the responsibility falls on those more mature to do the weed-pulling.
So let’s look at the thorny soil for insights into how we might better disciple.
WEEDY GROUND: Regular attenders/immature disciples. NEEDS: Grace and Worth. This is a sticky wicket issue, but let’s talk about programming because it’s true that what you win’em with, you keep’em with. And too many churches choose to persuade with gimmicks and guilt, shame and games. We motivate with extrinsic pressures and incentives. In his parable, Jesus taught how a nice plant rooted but the soil was infested with thorns (pleasures of this world, worries, deceitful wealth) that soon stole the nutrients of real Faith. The soil was good but full of bad stuff.
This is why I believe it’s a tragic mistake to use bribery to foster spiritual behaviors. Many children’s ministries dole out Bible Bucks for bringing a Bible or guest. Youth pastors will use pizza parties or mission trips to encourage perfect attendance. I’ve seen many a teacher buy a boatload of candy to feed Scripture memory. I remember one church I attended gave an “extra trip” to the “treasure chest” for any child who decided to be baptized! In reality, these “games” and “tricks” and “treats” are merely thorns that seem innocuous and innocent, but in reality only distract and detract, and eventually, detour authentic Faith. What does a pizza party have to do with perfect attendance or a toy with Scripture memory? Nothing! We don’t gather to learn or worship to GET something (which is the real hidden–and dangerous–message behind many church programs and attraction strategies); rather we gather to GIVE something (our time, our talent, our prayers, our money, our worship).
Too many times we use worldly ideology and incentives to motivate people to attend, learn, grow and join…but all we’re doing is planting thistles. Yes, the dandelions look pretty (at first) but once these weeds go to seed, a garden grows of gimmes and whadjagets. A consumer faith is nothing more than weeds and we’ve now raised a generation of Millennial Christian baited by incentives, only to see them leave in droves as young adults. Even many secular educators view these strategies dimly. A better approach is to allow failure with forgiveness (rather than incentivize success and promote perfectionism) and create environments where people of all ages can mature in their Faith lathered in GRACE rooted to human DIGNITY (as a uniquely Divine creation).
Imagine a class where a person feels free to ask questions (without judgment), empowered to contribute according to personal desires and ability, and viewed as a unique, Divinely-created person. The problem is incentives, rewards and punishments short-circuit this freedom. Teachers operate more like cops and lawyers (insuring students perform to the rule). Relationships are stiff, stunted and stifled as winners and losers are created. Incentives prove temporary fixes and a lose-lose strategy to grow long-term spiritual behaviors (or any behavior, for that matter).
Ultimately, we are human beings not human doings. We are created in the image of God, not dog (many incentive strategies are rooted to Skinnerian behaviorism). Games, guilt and gimmicks fail to hold people for long-term Faith.
They only seed weeds.
But if your ground is good, fruit happens…and that’s what we’ll see in the final soil.
NEXT TIME: WHY THE CHURCH STRUGGLES TO PRODUCE LEADERS