Becoming disengaged in the faith is a common fatality for unfruitful discipleship. In our culture, many things desire our attention and hinder our ability to hear God. Jesus informed us that a believer must be able to hear and go wherever the Spirit leads (John 3:8). A Christian who is unable to hear the Holy Spirit’s voice can only proclaim faith—not live it.
This new year, start over with the basics, from the beginning. Begin with fresh, new eyes. Below, I’ve listed three practical ways to reinvigorate and jump start your faith.
Intentional Slow Down
In John Ortberg’s book Soul Keeping, he advises that the challenges of the world test the depths and elasticity of the soul. When I was young I had a stretch Armstrong doll; it was filled with a gooey gel, and was pliable and very stretchy. My brother and I tried to rip it apart and couldn’t (boy tested and approved). However, when we put in the freezer, the gel congealed and became hard—the elasticity was gone. That’s what has occurred to many believers—they’ve grown cold and become hardened by the world’s busyness and possessions—no longer pliable to hear from God.
We must slow down our thoughts. For some of us, slow is not an option—in that case, we should be intentional about our time. We cannot hear from God without reading the Word or setting aside time for prayer. We must intentionally slow down our minds to soften our souls—to stay pliable. Say to God, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).
Having Everything, Dying of Starvation
There’s an old story about ten people sitting around a round table with platefuls of food in front of them—however, they had no elbows. While having healthy amounts of food, they slowly starve and die because of an inability to get food into their mouths. As the story goes, if they would have fed each other, death would have been averted.
Christianity is starving—yet engorging itself in everything. While the technology age fattens us, we lack love, fellowship, and mission. Intentionally gathering with one another is imperative for spiritual growth and maturity. Church is not about attendance, but gathering with the body of Christ to share in worship, love, and encouragement. Isolation is a form of starvation—don’t possess everything of the world, and die of starvation.
Location, Location, Location…
I’ve shared this many times—The Celtic Christians called their connection place with God—a thin place. A strategic location that was set aside as holy. Derived from Jacob’s vision of a ladder to heaven, he declared, “Surely the LORD is in this place” (Gen. 28:16). A thin place is where heaven and earth collide, a place where you and God meet. Find your thin place—removed from distractions—an intentional location of solitude—to arrive at the “throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16).
It is only in the silence of God where you will hear gentle instruction. It is only in the love, fellowship and mission of God where you will find calling. And, it is only in a dedicated thin place where you’ll enter the presence of God as never before.
Make this new year intentional—make it a new beginning.
The music plays softly in the background. Emotions are stirring within the hearts of the crowd. Reverberating through the seats, a thunderous summoning for the people to rise to their feet. A tearful plea. An appeal for the listening multitude to accept Jesus, “Come. Walk down the aisle for personal salvation!”
The great crusades of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had success in the proclamation of the gospel. Especially regarding the Great Awakenings. However, concerning discipleship and the ecclesiastical community—not, so much.
Nearly two hundred years removed from the remarkable orations of George Whitefield and John Wesley. One hundred years since the preaching of D. L. Moody, or even just a decade of the marvelous Billy Graham crusades—we still hear it … You need a personal salvation.
Observations are only observations. Sometimes we can learn from them and sometimes, not. Observation does not necessitate a cause—as many factors may contribute—especially regarding the Western church decline.
However, I perceive—by research and observation—that some of the Western church’s dilemma resides in “personal” salvation. There is a growing divide between church importance and millennials, and it’s not getting any better.
Only two in ten millennials (ages 30 and under) believe that church is important.While we could equate spiritualism, intellectualism, humanism, evolutionary science, and other factors into the equation—59 percent of millennials who grew up in the church, no longer attend. Why don’t we be honest—the problem is the within the church, not within culture.
The truth is—the Western church is horrible at reproducible disciple-making (less than 20% of Christians partake in discipleship). Why are believers horrible at following the one chief command given (Matt 28:19–20)? I believe there is a correlation between “personal” salvation and the collective imperative of the ecclesiastical community.
Failure to be connected
Almost 90 percent of individuals who claim to have faith in Christ do not attend church. There is an overwhelming majority that believe they can “love Jesus” but not love the church. Unfortunately, this is an erroneous human construct. The Church is the body of Christ—you can’t hate the church and love Jesus.
Jesus declared the “gates of hell” ineffective against his church, not the individual believer (Matt 16:18). Our faulty understanding of the word church, has much to do with our dilemma. Without diving into a Greek ocean of vernacular—the term church is defined as gathered, called out ones.
There can be no disconnect between salvation and service—at least according to the apostle Paul. In Ephesians 2:8–10, Paul distinctly declares salvation as a work of God, by faith, because of being created for good works. Paul’s Epistle professes an overall appeal for the unity and praxis of the church.
I believe a major factor in the growing divide between church relevance and faith is caused by some of the teachings of a “me” centered gospel. Let’s face it, if God solely focused on personal salvation, he’d “rapture” people at conversion. Albeit, believers represent the incarnate body of Christ on earth—a collective living and breathing—relevant—body.
Factors for change
The Millennial generation is larger than the Boomer generation—can we say, “Houston, we have a problem”—an astronomical problem!
Barna states, “Millennials who are opting out of church cite three factors with equal weight in their decision: 35% cite the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders as reasons to check out of church altogether. In addition, two out of 10 unchurched Millennials say they feel God is missing in church.”
I would agree that the church does not maintain a healthy balance between charismania and academia. But after all, the church is a gathering of sinful people cleansed by Christ, but not perfected—we know we have our faults and dysfunctions.
Regardless, to close the door of the divide, the church must relate the importance of salvation for the collective community—the power of God on display—through prayer, proclamation, and praxis.
Recently, I completed my doctoral work. It was an arduous journey—physically and emotionally draining. Life doesn’t stop because you’re tired. Juggling the many “hats” I do, burnout was no laughing matter. Merriam-Webster defines burnout as “an exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” That was me.
I think we’re obsessed with goals. We read gads of leadership books about how to be “successful.” Recently, I read an article about how Richard Branson, Tim Cook, Bob Iger, and Tim Armstrong became successful—they awoke at 5 am. I thought, “I get up at 3 am—guess I’m doing it right!” Hashtag—Fail.
Success isn’t about cramming hours into a day. Reaching goals should be easier.
So, I researched goals and burnout. I dove deep. Out of the oceans of reasons, I was seeking a life-preserver—something to bring balance during the waves of life.
I discovered a parallel between the imago Dei (image of God) and the missio Dei (mission of God). God created man to work—pre-fall (Gen. 2:15; Eph. 2:10). Work is not a curse, but a blessing.
Man is a creative leader—like the Creator. Place hammers, nails, and wood in a room with monkeys and maybe—if you’re lucky—you get bent nails and broken wood. But with man, you get something creative! We were made for work and to have “dominion” (Gen. 1:26). Man was created for working-leadership.
So why burnout?
How come when we reach our goals, we’ve sacrificed relationships, health, and faith?
A man once questioned Jesus about which of the commandments was the greatest. Jesus responded, “The most important is … you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater” (Mk. 12:29–31). God’s command was unified, but we separate them. We burnout because we fail to strive for our goals—healthily.
Mark Strauss validates, he writes, “[The] four distinct features of personhood … do not represent separate components of human life, but function as a [unified whole]. Loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength has at its foundation and motivation in the transforming love that God poured out on us. The natural response to this overwhelming gift of love and grace is to love others with the same kind of self-sacrificial love God has shown us.”
I’m a big fan of tools—the right one makes the job easier. So, I developed a tool. The Health Before Goal, tool.
The Health Before Goal tool emphasizes the categories of the great commandment: spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational. When we focus on our goals, instead of our health—if—we reach the goal, we have sacrificed an area of health (spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational). If we seek health before goals, we reach our goals healthily.
As the imago Dei, we are spiritual beings. When we put anything before God—we’re setting ourselves up for spiritual failure. We’re sacrificing our soul, for success. When we focus upon God first, our spiritual health matures and flourishes—the imago Dei aligns with the missio Dei.
Application? Focus on quiet time for prayer, reflection, reading the Scriptures, prayer journaling and walking, fasting to place the spirit over the flesh, and devotional reading.
The next logical step is emotional health. Life is exhausting. Archibald Hart advises, to “Pay careful attention to developing an awareness of your limits … take a good Sabbath rest at the end of every day.” No one likes a grouch.
Application? Fast from social media an hour before bed, get adequate sleep, meditate, prioritizing your schedule, and practice short nap-taking.
Until a little over 100 years ago, man traveled by foot. God created man with physical activity in mind (Gen. 2:15). A moderate amount of exercise benefits: increased strength, feeling of well-being, reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, blood sugar levels, reduced body fat, anxiety, depression, and an overall balance of life.
Application? Try walking, running, lifting weights, or cardiovascular activity a few days a week for overall heart health.
Man needs healthy relationships. When goals become priority, people do not. Stepping on others may get you to your goal—but at what cost?
Application? Jesus commanded us to, “love one another” (John 13:34). Simple.
If you focus on the four areas of health, in order, you’ll achieve your goals healthily.
I’m a big discipleship advocate—constantly preaching and teaching about the Great Commission, mission, and disciple-making. Not only do I preach and teach it—I disciple and invest into others. I love relational community.
But, the Western church is hemorrhaging. I believe the number one reason is a lack of disciple-making. Barna reveals, “only 20 percent of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity.”
In the research, Christians were asked which term or phrase best described a spiritual growth process. Ironically, but very illuminating, “discipleship” ranked fourth on the list—being selected by fewer than one in five Christians (18%). That’s disturbing. Only one in five Christians equated the term discipleship with spiritual growth. It seems that something is amiss within the contemporary church.
Spiritual Growth is Great?
Barna’s numbers seem contradictory. Only 25 percent of the polled respondents stated discipleship was very relevant. The research indicated “The implication is that while spiritual growth is very important to tens of millions, the language and terminology surrounding discipleship seems to be undergoing a change, with other phrases coming to be used more frequently than the term ‘discipleship’ itself.” So, the dilemma within discipleship is the fact that a majority of Christians do not equate themselves with disciples.
I found it ironic that 52 percent who attended church in the past six months, asserted that their church “definitely does a good job helping people grow spiritually,” while 73 percent believed their church places “a lot” of emphasis on spiritual growth. How can that many believers think their church is doing a good job at growing spiritually, and yet the church is not making disciples?
The problem is the perceived definition of spiritual growth and its relationship to disciple-making. It seems that a majority of Christians view spiritual growth as an individual construct—as if discipleship can be divorced from Christianity—it’s in a vacuum. Nearly twoout of five of all Christian adults consider their spiritual growth to be “entirely private.”
The Real News
Disciple-making is about reproducing—making other disciples. If 73% of the polled believers stated that their church places a major emphasis on spiritual growth—why is the church not making disciples?
I believe it has to do with perception. In the article, Barna stated that only 1% of church leaders believed their churches were discipling very well. That’s only 1%—one—uno—eine—en—no matter what language— just 1% believe their church is discipling very well. Opposite of doing well—60 percent (60%) of pastors state the church is not discipling well, at all!
Why would that be? Don’t three out of four Christians believe their church places a major emphasis on spiritual growth? Why the disparity?
As a pastor, I believe it’s because we (pastors) correlate discipleship with relational communion—life together. Barna’s poll revealed that 91% of pastors considered “a comprehensive discipleship curriculum” as the least-important element of effective discipleship. Yet, when polling Christians, a perception of discipleship, or spiritual growth is related to curriculum, class, and study—not relational connectivity and with-ness.
Barna notes “Only 17 percent say they meet with a spiritual mentor as part of their discipleship efforts.” That’s it! This is why the church is not growing and this is why the church is failing at making disciples. The majority of Christians do not see relational communion with others as important. And discipleship pertains to personalized spiritual disciplines.
How Did This Happen?
There’s a logical explanation—but not a quick one.
Perhaps due to infant baptism, from the fifth-century, and continuing into the Reformation period, discipleship progressed toward individual spiritual discipline more than communal interactive relationships concerning the daily rhythms of Christian life.
While catechesis still existed for new converts, the continued practice of infant baptism shifted discipleship away from the convert catechumenate (waiting three years prior to baptism, but partaking in communal life) to spiritual disciplines and devotions of individualized believers. Perhaps the most notable reformer, Martin Luther, believed that discipleship guided the believer into deeper devotions toward Christ. For Luther, discipleship referred to Christ’s inner working power and “not our attempts to imitate” the deeds of Christ.
The early church had communal gatherings for fellowship, teaching, and life-on-life. But, due to ongoing heretical views—the church began to focus more on the individual development of personal character and devotion, along with theological and doctrinal polity. Albeit, Luther’s discipleship consisted of a deeper commitment to the spiritual devotions of prayer, fasting, and the Word of God, it was not communal.
John Calvin described discipleship as an automatic title for the regenerated believer, an identity by grace in Christ. Calvin, a paedobaptist, considered all believers disciples (and I agree), but not in the same aspect of the communal spiritual nourishment, as that of the early church. For Calvin, baptism became the sign and ratified seal of a “professed” disciple (I find an infant professing anything as odd). However, Calvin focused more on knowledge transference, with believers hearing the preached Word, than a day-to-day activity with believers who practiced fellowship-style catechesis and breaking of the bread (Acts 2:42–46). But to his credit, Calvin believed that all Christians should carry out the commission of God within their lives.
So, the problem was an eventual drifting from the early church communal relationship instruction and fellowship to a more individualized spiritual discipline-type formation. So then, you can see, for the contemporary Christian, discipleship is perceived as curriculum, not as much associated with communal spiritual growth. Discipleship became divorced from collective spiritual maturity, because it became divorced from the communal gathering and growth with others.
The solution calls for reverting back to the origin of Christ-following and being a relational disciple-maker of Christ. Disciples make disciples. Discipleship is not merely spiritual growth, but helping others, relationally, to develop into mature disciples, who make disciples, etc.
 State of Discipleship, Barna.org, https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/
 State of Discipleship, Barna.org, https://www.barna.com/research/new-research-on-the-state-of-discipleship/
 Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), xviii.
 Allan Rudy-Froese, “Learning from Luther on Christian discipleship.” Vision (Winnipeg, Man.) 13, no. 2 (September 2012): 55–63.; Reformation period (c. 1517–1648), Martin Luther (c. 1483–1546).
Aubrey Malphurs has extensively researched the characteristics and attributes of what it takes to revitalize a church—I’m not going in that direction. I agree with him—it takes an apostolically gifted individual, someone charismatic, a self-starter, self-motivator, and magnetic personality, gifted by God, to revitalize a church. All that stated, we don’t have a lack of pastors, we have a lack of gifting and understanding of the gargantuan task at hand.
Revitalization is extremely difficult—yes, I’m showing my cards, now, looking at the diagram again (below), once a church has moved from the downward turn (not to a downward turn, which ambiguously can be a myriad of factors: pastoral change, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, etc.) and drifts toward dying—the closer that church body gets to dying, the less of a chance it has of revitalization. This is not an opinion, and assuredly, there are exceptions, but seems to be the rule. The church I serve may be one of those exceptions—possibly—only time will tell.
In nearly all of the cases that I’ve looked at (and I haven’t seen them all, I’m not declaring I have), replanting is better suited. Why? For a congregation of people affected by culture and demographics—all churches will be—but now facing a constant downward spiral—they become more concerned with keeping it alive than in flourishing and making disciples. This is a natural inward digression, but it’s a church killer. The reality of keeping the doors open can be correlated to when my 13-year-old Lab had cancer—I know Labradors are bigger dogs and have an approximate 8–12-year window of life. My wife and I decided it was better to love and lose than not to love at all. But when the veterinarian stated that our beloved companion had cancer, refusing to eat, we knew the answer—we had to put her down. To keep her alive was to not face reality— (1) motivated by selfishness; keeping her alive for us, (2) the inevitable was still going to take place—death, and (3) we would not be good stewards of God’s creation. There comes a time when “putting the church down” is the better way.
I know you’re asking…What constitutes a downward turn?
Remember, I stated, from a downward turn—meaning, the church is not facing a sudden decrease, but have progressed into a continual unhealthy downward spiral and now face the inevitable—cancer.
For a church to revitalize, it usually needs to substantially alter its missiological (and at times, orthodoxical) DNA. The DNA is culturally created to match that of, and for, the reaching, serving, and making disciples among the community. Often the building is emphasized more than the people, who make up the church. The dying church no longer views itself as living, breathing, and untethered to material possessions, to serve out the mission of God.
Replanting on the other hand is a new beginning—which seeks to begin the process all over again. Usually replanting includes renaming, selling property, revisiting the mission and vision, for the purpose of seeking a vibrant passionate gospel calling back into the community. If a dying church assesses that close to 75% of the members are not living within the community—my advice—shut the doors—offer the building (if it’s paid for) to a church planter for the kingdom, or sell the building and proceed with a replant somewhere else—but make no mistake—either a replant or revitalize will take a new “leader” and equipping of the five-fold ministry gifting (Eph 4:11–12).
I’m not saying that a revitalize cannot work—surely, God can do all things. But the likelihood of it happening for any length and sustaining time period is unlikely. There’s so much more to this conversation—but I pray it leads you and others into that conversation and if you want me to join in with you, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Aubrey Malphurs and Gordon Penfold, Re: Vision: The Key to Transforming Your Church, 3rd Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 30.