Why Churches Make so few Disciples

The next time you fill your tank, consider this: most of the gasoline you pump into your car is wasted.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, only about 14%–26% of the energy from the fuel in your tank propels your car down the road. The rest of the energy is lost to heat, friction, and other engine and driveline inefficiencies.

In other words that \$60 fill-up is producing, at most, \$15 worth of forward motion. And that’s if you drive a hybrid.

Churches are similarly inefficient when it comes to making disciples.

When Jesus left our planet, this was his clear command (Matt. 28:19). Yet in most congregations, less than a quarter of the time and money goes into direct, intentional disciple making.

Why? Just like the car, the majority of our energy goes into other things.

In most congregations, the bulk of the energy is spent preparing a weekly worship service. Whatever energy is left goes into meeting the needs of church members and the community. Only a tiny fraction of energy remains for disciple making.

God is all-powerful – but people are not. Christians don’t seem to realize that human time and energy are finite. It’s simple mathematics: if pastors and volunteers expend most of their time and energy preparing and presenting weekly worship services, there won’t be much energy left for disciple making.

Here’s how this dynamic plays out in church.

Pastor Wally leads a typical U.S. congregation of about 150 people. Wally spends about 75% of his workweek preparing for Sunday morning. The other 25% of his time is devoted to the flurry of meetings, counseling, hospital visitation, etc. Wally is frustrated – he wants to personally disciple more people but he’s already working 60 hours a week.

So why doesn’t Wally re-arrange his schedule so he can spend more time discipling? It would mean the death of his church – and the end of his job.

Churches live or die based on the quality of their weekly worship services. Consumers (excuse me, worshippers) visit and make their decision to return based on the quality of the Sunday morning experience. The only way pastor Wally can keep his job or raise his salary is to bring in new customers (excuse me, members).

Churches with bad music and mediocre preaching are being overrun by multi-site megachurches that deliver excellent sermons and songs. Churches with poor children’s programs and facilities are being passed over for bigger congregations that offer “Disneyland” youth facilities and programs.

To provide this quality experience, the church’s volunteers must devote about 75% of their time to creating the weekly worship event. The bulk of the volunteer efforts go into ushering, serving communion, staffing the nursery, teaching Sunday school, and of course, playing in the worship band.

So how do churches mask this scandalous lack of disciple making? By redefining the term. Any Bible teaching event is classified as disciple making. Sermons, Bible studies, classes, community service, children’s and youth ministry – we slap the “disciple making” label on all these activities.

But do these really produce many disciples?

So what if we built a church from the ground up to make disciples? What would it look like? What would we have to jettison to make more time for the intense, one-on-one work of making disciples? How would we organize? How would we train and deploy people?

Would such a church look anything like the churches we have today? Would it even offer a weekly worship service? After all, that’s where 75% of the energy is going.

The good is the enemy of the best. Our current model of church is full of good things. But the energy, time and money it requires may be keeping us from doing the best thing.

It’s great to see men singing, listening to sermons, ushering, teaching Sunday school and cooking at the church potluck. But at some point, every man needs to be discipled by another man. Where will we find the time and energy to do this difficult work? I’d welcome your ideas in the comments section below, or join the discussion on our Facebook page.