The Dangers of Defining Down Our Relationship with Jesus 

Every church would benefit by specifically targeting discipleship to help Christians grow to spiritual maturity. Barna Research Group has released survey data, conducted as part of an annual survey going back over twenty years, and the trends identified make it even clearer than before that we can always benefit from a renewed interest in discipleship.

Barna’s research confirms what many of us have seen firsthand in our churches. His research shows significant declines in church attendance, Bible class attendance, Bible reading, trust in the accuracy of the Bible, and a dramatic rise in the number of those “unchurched.” But, strangely, at the same time, there has been an increase (5%) in the number of people who profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

One would think amid the drop in almost every other statistic, we would see a drop in this one as well. Why is this not the case? Barna has a theory, and he might just be on to something: “I think part of the explanation for why we are seeing increases in being born again has to do with how we market salvation … The research indicates that almost all of the people who are accepting Christ as their savior do so without being truly broken of their sins. They pray to ask for forgiveness, but not with a heart that’s shattered by the reality of their sin in the context of their relationship with God. We have a lot more people who think they’re born again, based on following prescribed procedures, than we have people who experience true grief and sorrow for their sins and shift to total dependence upon Christ. They have acknowledged and confessed their sins but are not turning their life over to God or seeking His guidance in all matters. They understand salvation intellectually but they don’t allow a deeper and more complete transformation to occur.”

Maybe this gets to the heart of how we can see many churches growing in number but still not see the transformational change we expect to see in people who claim Christ as their Lord and Savior. As a redeemed people, we are reaching people and teaching them, but we can’t forget to help them grow to spiritual maturity. This, I believe, is the great crisis facing churches today.

Barna would seem to agree. In his book Maximum Faith, he writes: “If you were to objectively evaluate all the data, as I have tried to do, I believe you would reach the same conclusion that I have: astoundingly few Americans who identify themselves as Christians — and even a minority of those who might be deemed to be ‘born again’ by traditional measures — appear to be serious about letting God transform them into the person He wants them to be.”

Even when it comes to “born again” Christians, Barna, also in this book, sees the same problem: “Even if we narrow the scope of our focus to born-again Christians, the picture is not flattering. In essence, the born-again community has invited God to reside in our hearts, accepting the special gift of love and forgiveness that He offered, along with His promise of eternal salvation. Sadly, once we felt certain that we had His gift securely in hand, we abandoned Him and have continued to operate by the standards and values of the world, searching for earthly treasures and pleasures. That is why the research has consistently shown over the past two decades that the lives of born-again Christians are essentially indistinguishable from those of people who do not claim Jesus Christ as their savior. We may be ‘religious’ but we are not truly transformed by our faith in and relationship with God. Only a tiny proportion of born again adults get beyond their profession of faith to experience the more robust and significant life that is available through Christ to His followers.”

We definitely are good about teaching that everyone should “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins …” (Acts 2:38). But after we are one in Jesus Christ, we should begin to surrender our will to God’s will. We can’t neglect this teaching today. Paul writes, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). Too often, we focus on things that are easily measured, but we neglect the harder, perhaps more significant, challenge of helping people in their path to spiritual maturity. I’m not suggesting we pull back in the work of evangelism and baptizing people, but each of us individually and collectively needs to confront the broader work of making disciples and recognizing that evangelism and discipleship are two sides of the same coin (Matthew 28:19-20). 

If the disturbing trends from Barna’s research continue, we’ll be left with churches that are hollow at the core, and with an even more shallow understanding of what it means to walk with Christ and be transformed. One bit of good news is that much of the statistical drop took place in the decade from 1991-2001, and the trends leveled off after that. Maybe we are beginning the long climb back.

Pray that God will help leaders, both old and new, see the benefit of true discipleship, and that elders, preachers, Bible class teachers, and members will focus on discipleship alongside evangelism. If we work with the transformational nature of the gospel, then the church will be a strong and effective witness.

Kyle Campbell