Equipping the Saints: What We Must Expect…and When

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Standing on the word...and knowing itWhen I follow trends in church programming, read other Christian blogs, engage Christian leaders, or read what Christians are saying in social media venues, I come to one inescapable conclusion: We Christians have little or no understanding of what constitutes a Christian worldview. Doctrine eludes us. Discipleship is something we do when we have time for it—and between shopping, working, and vacations, none of us supposedly has time. Far, far too many of us don’t know the foundational truths of the Faith we supposedly confess.

We don’t know what the Gospel is. We don’t know what the Bible says about important issues of life. We don’t know why Christ came, or how to know Him, or why He’s the only Way. We don’t know our eschatology or why it even matters. We don’t even know why our service matters. We simply don’t know what we’re talking about.

I’m an avid birder (birdwatcher being the antiquated term) with more than 30 years experience in that field. I can ID 85 percent of North American Birds on sight, but when it comes to my region of the country, that number approaches 100 percent. Any birder can be fooled, yes, but I know my region’s avians.

If I meet a guy who introduces himself as a fellow Ohio birder with similar multi-decade experience, a certain expectation exists. If this guy tells me he was just down at the lake the other day and saw an albatross, I’m going to think, Mr. Experienced Birder’s skills are about as sharp as a sack of wet mice. If he adds that he saw a Carolina Parakeet, too, then I know his credibility is bupkis. It doesn’t matter what he may say his credentials are, he’s doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

In truth, I can pretty much tell you how long people have been birding just by watching their ID methodology, their ability to talk out difficult IDs, and their willingness to admit they may not have gotten a good enough look at that last bird for a positive ID.

What’s scary to me is that it’s far harder to tell how long people gave been Christians by watching their behavior or asking them simple questions about the faith. It should be obvious, but it’s not. There should never be a reason—ever—for us to encounter a “seasoned” Christian and come away thinking that disciple is about as sharp as a sack of wet mice. And yet we have those people in abundance in our pews on Sunday.

What does that say about the way we American Christians disciple converts to maturity?

Honestly, what should be expected of a convert to Christianity at one, three, five, ten, and twenty years after that conversion?

I don’t know why Christian leaders are not asking this eternal-life-and-death question. It may be THE most important question to ask!

How would I answer that question? Well, below I give  a “tip of the iceberg” list of five essentials per milestone year.

At one year, every convert to Christ should:

Have read through the entire New Testament once

Have completed a very basic theology class taught by pastoral staff that teaches core doctrines of Christianity

Know why Jesus is the sole source of salvation and be able to articulate that belief with supporting Scriptures

Be in a Bible study led by a mature Christian who knows the Scriptures and can communicate them effectively

Be participating in a church-sponsored service, teaching,  or outreach program

At three years, every convert to Christ should:

Have read through the entire Bible at least once

Have completed an intermediate theology class taught by pastoral staff that covers a wider range of important doctrines, including any denominational distinctives

Be able to articulate what the Gospel is, with supporting Scriptures

Be participating in a church-sponsored class that gives an overview of the Bible and covers the major themes in each of the 66 books

Be serving as an understudy to a leader in a church-sponsored service, teaching,  or outreach program

At five years, every convert to Christ should:

Be able to provide an overview of the major themes of each book of the Bible and exhibit a Christian worldview that understands the arc of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration

Have completed an advanced theology class that emphasizes apologetics and the finer nuances of Christian doctrine, including those that may be different from the church’s denominational distinctives

Understand the core teachings of at least one non-Christian religion or cult and how to rebut them

Be participating in a church-sponsored leadership class

Be serving as a co-leader in a church-sponsored service, teaching, or outreach program

At ten years, every convert to Christ should:

Be capable of teaching/leading one of the previously mentioned theology/Bible classes or a small group

Be commissioned as a church representative, capable of representing the church in ecumenical and interchurch events

Have helped to lead at least a half dozen people to Christ

Be discipling new converts

Be leading a church-sponsored service, teaching, or outreach program and be encouraged to start new ones to fill gaps in the church’s programs

At twenty years, every convert to Christ should:

Hold a church office or leadership position

Be able to identify spiritual gifts in others and mentor those people in those gifts

Be mentoring younger leaders

Be actively designing service, teaching, or outreach programs for the church

Be capable of planting a new church or serving on the mission field

I look at that list and wonder how any part of it can be deemed unreasonable. And if it’s not unreasonable, why are our churches not doing it?

It took me fifteen minutes to conceive the list above. One person, fifteen minutes.

If we want to know why the Church in America is making no inroads into reaching lost and broken people, we don’t have to go any further than the list above. If we want to know why our people are dull, listless, and incapable of articulating the Faith, look again at the list and see how our church educational programs compare.

What’s truly distressing is that anyone with a hobby he enjoys knows the path to becoming an expert in that hobby. She knows what is required to be the best she can be at her hobby. And he and she  pursue that excellence too.

Knowing Jesus and serving Him is far, far above being a hobby. Yet we treat it like one. In fact, because so few people are experts at it, we may be treating Christianity as less than a hobby. A dabbling perhaps. Something we do between syndicated episodes of Scrubs or when it doesn’t interfere with shopping or a round on the links.

No reason exists why we can’t institute attainable educational standards for converts that assist them to maturity. None.

We have no excuses.

28 thoughts on “Equipping the Saints: What We Must Expect…and When

  1. Valerie in CA

    You’re right. About it all. Hardly anyone replied to your survey because the answer for most of us is: none or hardly any. I go to a church with an attendance of over 1,000 every Sunday and there is no Sunday school for children or adults. Small groups are meager and attended by probably less than 15% of attenders. Altar calls are done but there is NO new believers class. I don’t know what happens to the Sunday morning converts after their altar experience; maybe they’re sent to a small group? Our kids are not in the service at all (though we’ve trained them to sit in church with us, and they can if we ask them to) so they go to a kids church thing that is inoffensive but inane.

    We homeschool, so discipleship and cathechising is going on in the home.

    I could offer lots of theological or cultural reasons for this drift; there are many for why we’ve become lazy consumers of the fun Christian product. But the bottom line is that the American church is seriously falling apart in many sectors because we are too comfortable. We are ripe for deception which is what Scripture predicts. You may or may not agree with everything he teaches but there’s a reason why Mark Driscoll is having such a huge global impact: vigorous contending for discipleship/teaching/doctrine and he’s making all of his content FREE as opposed to the pulpit pimps who have dominated the scene for too long. He is following in the footsteps of his admired friend, John Piper. He is birthing something real for once, as opposed to all of the hype the church is always running to. I, for one (and I’m not alone), adore and am thanking God for the fact that MD is undertaking this sisyphean task.

    You have lamented in the past over the disintegration of small groups and churches. I wholeheartedly agree. But something less institutionalized is emerging. Something organic, small, adaptable. God is leading his church. The road is just getting a little rocky because we’ve entered the woods.

    Have you read “Total Church” by Chester & Timmis? You should if you haven’t.

    • Valerie,

      I will check out the book.

      Though I say this as someone with a degree in Christian Education, the loss of paid Christian Education staff in our churches is directly tied to the poor state of education in the church today. It’s a 1:1 loss. You simply can’t run a coherent, comprehensive, cradle-to-grave education program with volunteers. And honestly, most pastors are ill-equipped to put together such a Christian education program anyway.

      • Let me also add that the demise of Christian Education programs came at the same time and speed as the rise of mega-expensive sound systems at many large churches. A church will think nothing of spending $100,000 on their sound system and yet nothing for Christian education, beyond buying some prepackaged elementary school program from Youth Specialties.

        That’s a wicked priority, if you ask me.

  2. trevor

    Good post. I might quibble with a couple of the details, but I 100% agree with your suggestion that the normal Christian experience should be a journey to maturity. I think that it’s completely reasonable that a Christian of 20 years experience should be capable of planting a new church (probably with a caveat that this is a group, not individual, activity).

    We call a child of 20 years an ‘adult’. If we’ve done our job as parents, they are able to function as fully independent human beings in society, earn a living, take charge of their own further education, and raise children of their own. This is closely analagous to what I believe should be the typical christian experience. If our leaders have done their job properly, ‘adult’ christians, i.e. those who have been believers for 15-20 years, should certainly be able to function independently, excercise their ministry gifts effectively, and disciple others.

    I’d be very interested in hearing if you have any ideas why this isn’t usually the case. Do you think that the existing church systems have a vested interest in actively preventing christian maturity?

    • Trevor, et al.,

      I don’t believe existing church systems have a vested interest in this because it is actually divisive. And it’s divisive because we have no disciplinary structures in place within our churches. In the early Church, there was the Church and there was “not the Church.” If you flaunted the rules of the early Church, you were disfellowshipped. Today, if someone’s church asks too much of them, they join a different church.

      So as a result, we do not offer education as we should because if we did it the way we should, it would be mandatory. It would be like your school days as a kid. You don’t show up in class, you’re truant. You can get in trouble. But our churches don’t discipline, therefore, there is no incentive to teach in a systematic way that actually yields results.

      I believe that every church in this country needs to declare a “Choose this day whom you shall serve” day. The church lays out the direction and offers those who are not on board the chance to go elsewhere. Fish or cut bait. Do what the Lord asks or go. Grow or go someplace where you can lounge.

      Every church entrance lobby should have plaques that state exactly what the church believes and what is expected of members. Visitors can immediately decide if they buy it or not.

      Too harsh?

      You want to sell Mary Kay cosmetics or Tupperware, there’s a certain expectation. You want to be a Boy Scout, there’s a certain expectation. You want to be a doctor, there’s a certain expectation.

      In fact, you can’t name an organization or field of service that has no expectations yet produces amazing results. They don’t exist. The Church is no different. Christ is Lord of your life or He isn’t. If He is, then there’s expectations. The burden is light, but it’s there nonetheless.

      If we put no expectations on our Christian educational systems, then there will be no results. And that’s pretty much what we see everywhere we look.

    • Sulan

      Trevor, I have a girlfriend, who was closely involved in a church, doing the sound system for 19 years. Not sure what happened and it is none of my business, but her first question when she left was — ‘Where will I get fed?’

      This is a lady, who through the years, every time I would ask her if she was in the Word daily, told me she just didn’t have time. Now she is learning that she has to take time.

      When your only views of God and the Godhead, are what the leader tells you, then you cannot be having a personal relationship with Them. It is in that personal relationship, being led and corrected by the Holy Spirit Who lives within you, that you grow and mature. It is applying to your life, what you read in the Word each day.

      Also, in doing that, you become familiar with what the Word says, and when anyone comes along espounding a lie about it, it only takes seconds to realize it.

      As you can tell, I am radical about Bible reading and knowing God personally! I think that as you walk through the land of Christendon, and view the troops, you can tell those who know God and the Godhead in a great way; they stand tall, confident in who they are in Him, nothing topples them or their belief, their roots go down deep in Him. (Jeremiah 17:8)

      I watch Christians everyday, who are blown about by the least little wind. So sad to me because it doesn’t have to be like that. God has given us everything we need, we just don’t avail ourselves of them

      ******pushing box I stood on back under the bed ….

  3. Valerie in CA

    … its a confluence of factors that have led to the perfect storm.

    1. Pastors are the professional Christians and the rest of us are spectators.
    2. The institution of church exists to protect and replicate the institution, not the disciples.
    3. In a good-hearted effort to protect doctrine, lay people have been pushed aside as teachers.
    4. (the converse of 3) Sunday School has died and given way to home groups that are often unclear as to purpose: rather than education they’re for fellowship.
    5. There’s been an explosion of curriculum from parachurch publishers; some of it good, some great, lots mediocre and mushy. Who makes buying decisions? Teachers & students who complain that the curr. is ‘boring.’ There’s nothing systematic to it anymore, folks just ping pong around… or slog year after year through tripe.
    6. You’re right, the value on qualified CE directors has also crashed and burned.
    7. Raising up qualified leaders means you’ve birthed a a bunch of stallions to corrall. That’s hard work! Does anyone really want a bunch of Pauls and Peters running around? It takes a Jesus to manage them.
    8. You’re dead right about church discipline and accountability.
    9. Extremists who downplay education and book learnin’. This is found amongst charismaniacs, on TBN, and even Baptists. There’s always an anti-intellectual strain that creeps in.

    I could go on and on, because of my experience in lots of denominations, but whatever combination of factors is at play (and there are more), the result is always chillingly the same: ignorance and weakness. It is a plot of the enemy and it is (imho) a signpost on our way to the end times.

    But all is not lost! Driscoll (and others) is doing it on a macro/global level and home churchers and homeschoolers are doing it on a micro level. Doing what? Taking back the church and stepping into the fullness that God created us for. Birthing Pauls and Peters, trusting God to watch over the whole thing. The Holy Spirit is faithful and at work. Don’t despair. God shakes things to the foundation and burns away chaff. Let the church take the hit. It is still His bride and He is at work.

    You raised the issue a while ago of church planters vs. revitalizing existing churches. For every church planted, the AG closes an old church. Its a dead tie. Why? Go ask the old guy pastoring the tiny church in its death throes. Ask him if he’d be willing to step aside to let a young gun (with an MDiv even!) try his hand. His answer is all too often no. Why? Because he has a job to protect! This process of protecting the institution is covered well in lots of books including ‘The Radical Middle.’

    p.s. You should still read ‘Total Church’ 🙂 and also ‘Vintage Church’ from Driscoll. Both would give you massive amounts of fodder on this topic.

    • Valerie,

      Many good points in your comment. My comment about #3 is that most lay teachers aren’t qualified to teach because the very same leaders who are against their inexperience are the ones who left those lay people bereft of experience. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • Brian

      Valerie,

      Number 9 in your list is one that really sticks in my craw. I’m getting ready to read “Full Gospel, Fractured Minds?” by Rick Nañez about the anti-intellectual bias in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement.

      I’m currently in a Sunday School class that alternates between a chapter-by-chapter study of a book of the Bible (we did Acts last year, and we’re wrapping up Romans this Sunday) and a book on Christian living (most recent was Identity by Eric Geiger) or some other short topical series that runs 6-8 weeks. Though unfortunately the class may be breaking up after August, as attendance has dropped steadily the last couple of years. I wonder how many we may have lost because they felt the in-depth, sequential study was “boring,” and how many have left just due to life changes or moving into ministry helping in another class or with the kids. We lost one of our teaching team because of the need for her and her husband to be in worship service with their teenagers at the time our class meets (we have 3 morning sevices on Sunday, with different classes meeting during the same time slots). One of the 4 remaining teachers is getting ready to teach a class on Christian financial management priciples at two daughter churches, which kills his prep time for the class, and another guy’s consulting work has him with an unpredictable international travel schedule.

      I’m attending my A/G district’s School of Ministry (9 weekend classes a year), even though I don’t have current plans to seek credentials. And I’m considering going back to school for an M.A. in practical theology or missions, and maybe even an M.Div. Even if I’m always an unpaid volunteer, I want to be the best-prepared

  4. Sulan

    As I witness some of the churches around me, it is:

    1. Don’t miss services.

    2. Nothing offensive is ever taught as it might offend.

    3. If offended, the person or persons may leave and take their tithes and offerings. Heaven forbid!

    4. Elevate the pastor and his family to heights not known to be good.

    5. Believe everything that comes across the pulpit, never make a wave, and the pastor will tell you what you need to know about the Bible.

    I know of no one where I work — and we have about 45 employees — who doesn’t claim to be a Christian; but it is very hard to find more than 3 that can discuss the Word, to any length. Go about asking, ‘Do you read the Word every day?’ Interesting responses.

    I am fortunate to work in an office in our building, with 2 other women, and we discuss the Word, Jesus and God all day, as we work.

    I am not saying a lot of folks aren’t saved, but I am sure saying that, IMO, a lot of them do not know their God.

  5. Pam

    One thing I’m not seeing in these lists is time spent with God. As the years progress, I hope that the Christian is spending time with his Father and getting to know the heart of Jesus. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read the Bible, if I don’t have intimacy with my Creator, all the bible reading is hay and stubble.

  6. Eskimez

    In your growth timeline where are the sons? There is no room for them because those who could have been sons taught by the H Sp and introduced to true heavenly realities in Christ Jesus have been programmed by man and limited thinking and boxed spiritual experience to be held back by the ceilings of the religious systems of one sort or another.
    Another “good idea”! Nice try, but lacking a vital component called “My ways are not your ways”.

  7. casey

    Two things. . .
    1) you are on a slippery legalistic slope if you want to put a time limit on when and where people should be in their spiritual lives. You are assuming that all people are alike and will progress at the same pace. Some have deep hurts or addictions to overcome, others may never advance beyond a baby christian. I’m not sure a church that asks people to fish or cut bait is going to draw in a lost and hurting world.
    2)regarding one of your comments, I may be biased, but I think a committed volunteer crew of people with a vested interest in their childrens spiritual education can do great things in teaching and leading the children and teens of the church. I am constantly amazed at the large number of people who are willing to sacrifice GREAT amounts of time and effort for our kids. If they teach them nothing else, they are showing them by example how to love and serve God’s people and I think those are two biggies.

    • Casey,

      You go to any Third World nation where the Church is growing and you will see a much more rigid timeline and set of expectations than you see here. Our laxity is largely a result of luxury and our culture. It just isn’t like that where the Church is truly growing. In those places, “fish or cut bait” is the given.

      As to volunteers, yes, they can accomplish some things. But there is good, better, and best. And volunteer groups typically never make it beyond good, especially in educating others. There has to be a coherent plan from cradle to grave at every church. We do not have one at ours and it shows.

      Dave Smith handed out a true/false test on basic theology to some kids in the young teen classes. These are kids who are have been raised in the church. I saw some of the answers some kids were writing down. It was sad.

      A kid raised in our church for years should be able to lay out the basic plan of redemption by sixth grade, and with supporting Scriptures. No reason exists for them not to know this. Far too many don’t.

      Our church needs a comprehensive educational direction. If it exists, I don’t know about it, and I’m probably one of the more plugged in people on this issue. What should our kids know by ages 6, 9, 12, 15, and 18? Are we teaching toward those goals?

      I have discussed a catechismal program with a few people at church, but there simply is not enough support for it, which shocks me. It may explain the sad truth that most of our young people are gone by age 20 and that’s it. Considering that very few go hundreds of miles away to college only makes the situation worse. We don’t see them again, despite the fact they stay in the community. That’s a loss for us that we should not have to endure forever.

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  9. ianmcn

    I agree with the sentiment behind your post, but it is clearly written from the perspective of an intelligent, educated man with a high literacy level. In my church, I’ve discipled several young men who have had virtually no formal education and have a very young reading age. For them, short of a miracle or going back to school, reading through the entire bible would be an impossibility. Our challenge is to find ways of helping them to get into the word and learn theology in a way that is accessible to them. We have a lot to learn from the education world in terms of inclusion, learning styles and accessibility.

    • ianmcn,

      Leonard Ravenhill (again) tells of preaching at a church one evening. Afterwards, as he was leaving, he ran into the cleaning lady, who had been working, but also listening as she worked. The woman said that she liked what he said about Christ transforming one’s mind, but she could not believe that would apply to her, as she had been told she was feebleminded and had only a rudimentary education. Ravenhill encouraged her that the Lord can take even the most meager mind and make something glorious from it.

      The cleaning lady believed him. She began taking classes at night and soon graduated with an equivalency degree. She went on to learn multiple languages, taking those gifts to the mission field, where she had a powerful ministry.

      I offer that because no one is beyond God’s ability to transform. If these men can’t read the Bible, then get them audio versions. And encourage them to renew their minds. If someone believes God strongly enough, there is no limit to what he or she can do. Plant that in these young men and nurture it. And if they can’t believe it, believe it for them for now.

      Don’t settle for anything less than God’s best.

      • Dan,

        For the most part, I’m on board with you here.

        However…

        “If someone believes God strongly enough,”

        What if they do, but God (for his own reasons) doesn’t choose to train them up according to your plan? Who are people likely to hold responsible in that event–the God on whose miracles we were depending, or the person who had no inherent ability to perform according to your expectations?

        You might answer one way, but there’s a tendency (when words like “we must expect” are tossed about) for those who hop on the bandwagon to answer the other way.

        And when that happens, we now have a group that’s busy snapping all the bruised reeds they can find.

        There are goals to aim for, and there are ultimatums. The thing that makes me uncomfortable with what you’ve said here is that it’s perfectly packaged for the latter use.

        (Please keep in mind who’s writing this comment: when I was six years old, I spent time on my back stoop eagerly trying to host a Bible study for the neighborhood kids, KJV in hand. I’m well aware of what God can do, but I’m just as well aware of the fact that He is not bound by our presumptive demands. And unless you can show me a command in the Scriptures to do anything you’ve mentioned on the timetable you’ve mentioned, that’s exactly what this appears to be.)

  10. Here’s another way of looking at the importance of this. (Though one must be aware of the limitations of the method–not every use of a word applies in the same way–it’s still indicative of something significant, I think.)

    A search on terms relating to knowledge (including know, study, learn, teach, instruct, in various forms and tenses) reveals over 800 uses of these words in the New Testament. That’s about three times in every chapter, on average.

    The word “disciple,” which could be translated “learner” and obviously holds high prominence in the Bible, was not included in that count.

    For comparison, various words related to faith, trust, or belief show up something like 550 times, and “love” in various forms shows up between 200 and 250 times.

    There is also the obvious that is too easily overlooked: God’s major revelation to us comes in the form of a book.

    But for too many in the church, the attitude is “What, me study?”

    • Tom,

      I agree completely. We are not limited except by the limits we impose upon ourselves. God has no such limits. See my comment above about Leonard Ravenhill and the cleaning lady.

  11. Dan,
    Regarding your birding analogy, I would have had my doubts if someone told me they’d seen a Silver Gull in the CBD of my town. (The gull is a coastal bird and I live 4 hours inland from Sydney, Australia) however last week I personally saw a very lonely and lost looking Silver Gull in the supermarket car park.

    On to your main topic…

    You said:
    “:We Christians have little or no understanding of what constitutes a Christian worldview.

    Recently I have become convinced that we have little understanding of GOD’S view. What is God’s reason behind the gospel? What does God intend through the gospel? And what goal is God aiming for by establishing the gospel.
    Through participation on blogs and forums I have seen some very strange doctrines being promoted which express some very strange ideas about the outworking of the gospel. Those ideas seem to hang in the air with no clear purpose in view. They portray God acting in particular ways without any thought about why He would act in those ways. It’s almost as if people believe that the gospel exists merely for the sake of existing, that it’s not leading to something bigger than getting people “saved and setting them up in a church each Sunday.

    Maybe there is a lack of discipling in the church today because preceding generations ALSO lack that foundation of discipleship.I have seen churches attempting to do the right thing but they’ve relied on methods and prepackaged programmes instead of being based on a mature disciple passing on the knowledge and experience they have gained through their relationship with the Lord.

    • Onesimus,

      Yeah, I’ve seen some weird strays, too, such as a Mandarin Duck. Talk about being out of range! Still, an albatross over southern Ohio would be the sighting of the century.

      John Piper writes that God is the Gospel. I think that’s the best way to see it, and it answers your point, too!

  12. Eskimez

    The so-called “church” does not know how to cleanse itself from defilements of flesh and spirit because entry into the heavenlies which Jesus freed for us is not on the agenda sufficiently in most pastor’s notebooks. The “pastor” is often (not always) a controller and manipulator who hasn’t entered in to spiritual truths beyond the level he teaches (controls) from and restricts people into. Best to ditch the lot of it and take God at His word and listen to the Holy Spirit lead into ALL truth, and move up a bit into what Jesus died to give us as new creatures in Himself.

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