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The Crisis of Discipleship in the American Church

By Charles T. Crabtree

Some years ago, my wife and I decided to buy an older house we felt had great potential. We hired a well-qualified contractor to examine the house. When he was done, we faced a good news, bad news situation. We decided to hear the bad news first. Among other things, some expensive structural repairs were needed. He found mold on the first level and some flooring needed a new base. Finally, he was done with the bad news. The good news was that for a price and with some patience, he could repair the house, and we would have a beautiful place to live.

In many ways, this article is a reality check on the state of discipleship in the Assemblies of God. Like the contractor who examined our house, I set before the church good news and bad news.

I have chosen to give the bad news first. The bottom line, however, is good news. At a price and with some patience, we can repair discipleship in the local church. Discipleship can become the means by which millions of people are saved and trained by a healthy church in the coming years, if Jesus tarries.

In recent months many Assemblies of God leaders have experienced a great awakening in discipleship. This is a bold statement because there has always been an awareness concerning the importance of discipleship beyond pulpit ministry. There are many good books on discipleship. Terms, such as closing the back door, are common. But awareness is not enough. Our Fellowship must first have a great awakening to the crisis in discipleship. Then we can motivate the collective will and passion to pay the price and persist until every church has a powerful, transforming discipleship ministry.

Most church leaders would agree that many American Christians are weak in their commitment to spiritual disciplines, lack boldness in their witness of Christ, and have lifestyles almost undistinguishable from unbelievers. The result is a weak and ineffective church. The quality of a church’s disciples determines the health and effectiveness of the church. Scripture tells us to study the fruit of one’s Christian life to know the truth and integrity of his profession of faith. Evidence suggests that the state of discipleship in the American church is grievous to our Lord.

Many consider the Assemblies of God to be a great Pentecostal church. Worldwide, its growth is stunning. If any church in America should be producing strong, healthy, effective disciples, it should be the Assemblies of God; and, it does. But the number of committed believers in contrast to the number of recorded decisions for Christ is both alarming and disappointing. This is systemic of the state of discipleship in the entire evangelical/Pentecostal church in America.

From 1995 to 2005, the Assemblies of God in the United States reported 5,339,144 decisions for Christ while Sunday morning attendance1 for the same period grew by only 221,790. The ratio of Sunday morning attendance gain to reported conversions is 4 percent. Obviously, this percentage needs an upward adjustment for several reasons:

  1. As a church gets older, there is a natural attrition in numbers because of the death rate. The death rate, however, is somewhat balanced by the natural birthrate.
  2. Most churches experience a significant number of losses through members or adherents moving from one community to another. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when people move to a different city, some never connect to another church and are lost to the Kingdom. Others remain in the Kingdom because they connect to another evangelical or Pentecostal/charismatic church. There are also incidents of church trouble and serious division that cause dwindling attendance. The reverse, however, is true. Those leaving the church are somewhat ameliorated by people who come into the church from other cities and churches.
  3. In statistics in which large numbers are involved, there can be misreporting or exaggeration of numbers, especially in salvation decisions. In some cases, pastors estimate instead of insisting on good, objective data.

After considering all factors, we cannot say with integrity that the Assemblies of God retained more than 10 percent of those who made a decision for Christ as Savior. Using this as an example, the lack of retention of new converts in the Assemblies of God is a spiritual tragedy.

To fix this problem, we need to know its cause. We must rely on the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit, or we could become sidetracked and merely address the effects rather than the causes.

Conversion and Water Baptism

The first thing we need to determine when looking at the number of decisions for Christ is how many decisions for Christ were true conversions. In the wisdom of God, the Lord commanded water baptism for people who repented of sin and were converted. It is clear in Scripture that a person cannot earn his salvation. Ephesians 2 tells us that salvation is a gift of God, and it is not possible through works to perfect it. Salvation is the result of a perfect sacrifice. When some in the Early Church considered circumcision an element of salvation, Paul — through the guidance of the Holy Spirit — rejected circumcision as a means of grace. In doing so, he slammed the door on adding anything that could be construed as requiring human effort to perfect the gift of God, and clarified the means and requirements of salvation for the Church forever.

Throughout church history, some have sought to add human works and ordinances as requirements for salvation. One Pentecostal group holds the false doctrine of baptismal regeneration and requires speaking in other tongues for one to go up in the Rapture. Such teaching is destructive to the doctrine of salvation.

Some have gone to the other extreme. Their fear of falling into the error of baptismal regeneration has clouded the importance of water baptism. Avoiding doctrinal error is commendable, but it must never dampen our passion for and declaration of truth, and our fulfillment of scriptural obligations.

We must not insist that water baptism is a requirement for salvation. We do insist, however, in water baptism for new believers because Christ commanded it.

When the Lord of the Church gave the ordinance of water baptism to the Church, He was providing a continual, powerful evidence of true conversion. Jesus knew what was in human nature. He knew a person’s decision to follow Him was meaningless if the person’s life did not change. How many of us smile when we hear someone say, “I am going to diet and lose 30 pounds”? However, if the person changes her lifestyle with observable results, we begin to take her seriously.

Water baptism is not a means of salvation, but it is a serious first step in discipleship. Church leaders make a critical mistake when they do not insist that new believers show proof (that is, water baptism) of their commitment.

Water baptism is an example of obedience. The Lord wants to see obedience in every new believer. Obedience is the beginning of true discipleship. Water baptism does not prove lordship, but it does prove that the new believer is not ashamed to tell the world that Christ is his Savior.

In some countries and cultures, water baptism merits the death penalty. In such cases, a new believer’s family will disown and ostracize him after he follows the Lord in water baptism. It is common for such families to hold a funeral service and declare the new believer dead to the family. It is ironic when people in an unbelieving, heathen culture seem to have a better understanding of a biblical ordinance than the church.

Romans 10:9,10 reveals the fact salvation consists of more than an oral confession; it is also a matter of the heart: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

This passage is critical to understanding why so many decisions for Christ are in word only and comparatively few disciples are living out what they say they believe. It is the difference between mental assent and conviction of the heart, between talking and doing, and between Jesus being added to the board of directors and Jesus being CEO and president of a life.

I belabor this point because merely counting decisions for Christ must not satisfy us. We must seriously question the validity of an oral confession without the attending act of obedience — water baptism.

While I do not advocate ceasing to count decisions for Christ in church statistics (since they indicate potential disciples), I do believe that the number of water baptisms gives a clearer picture of true conversions.

Using statistics from the Assemblies of God, we note that during the previously mentioned period, the Assemblies of God reported 1,329,364 water baptisms. The ratio of Sunday morning attendance gain to water baptisms was 17 percent. While it is difficult to factor in the death rate within any denomination and the net effect of demographic and population shifts, it is obvious that the average church loses well over half of the people who have been baptized in water. The state of discipleship among those baptized in water is, at best, in serious trouble.

Church Attendance

Church attendance is another critical factor in analyzing the state of discipleship. Going to church will not make you a Christian any more than going into a garage will make you a car. But the church should not count a person who makes a decision for Christ and chooses not to attend church. Such a person is usually not a serious convert.

The Church is a spiritual creation that the carnal mind does not understand. The Church is the worldwide body of Christ; an institution established by God for the purposes of God. The price paid to establish the Church was high — the death of Christ. People who do not take the Church seriously are willfully ignorant of divine truth.

The physical expression of the worldwide body of Christ is the local church. In the New Testament, the church was always at a physical address: Jerusalem and Antioch. Those who claim to be part of the body of Christ but do not participate in the physical, institutional church are deceived. Scripture makes it clear that the Lord has provided the church with gifts — such as pastors and teachers — for the perfecting/maturing (discipling) of the saints. The church is God’s divine provision for serious converts. Christians who claim they do not need the church are questioning the wisdom of God. Without faithfulness to the church a believer cannot attain perfection in Christ. Furthermore, Scripture commands us to meet as the body of Christ more and more in light of the coming of the Lord.

To continue our analysis, the average Assemblies of God Sunday morning worship attendance net gain was 221,790 (from 1,531,003 to 1,752,793). This is a growth of 14 percent. Again, when looking at these data, the numbers do not give a full picture. The Fellowship had to grow more than 14 percent in average Sunday morning attendance to make up for factors such as the death rate and the possible net loss incurred by those entering and those leaving the Assemblies of God. As in the comparison of the numbers between water baptisms and decisions for Christ, the growth of the average Sunday morning attendance (221,790) when compared with the number of recorded decisions (5,339,144) should disturb any responsible church leader.

Every person responsible for discipleship must have deep conviction concerning the importance of consistent church attendance. The enemy has sold many people on the idea that we cannot expect people with complex lifestyles and time demands to be faithful to church. Church attendance is an option that must bow to work schedules, extracurricular school activities, and opportunities to get away. People take Sundays off to use a second home or their boat.

Some Christians believe that reading devotions or watching Christian television can replace church attendance. Others are excited about attending revivals, seminars, and conferences but are less enthused about being faithful to the church.

For too long Pentecostal churches have been reluctant to preach, teach, and promote the importance of being faithful to church. Even though church attendance is not a component of salvation, it is, nevertheless, a major factor — the primary factor — in discipleship.

For a believer to make it spiritually in our 21st-century American culture, he must become a faithful attendee of a church. Church attendance must be one of the highest priorities in his life. Why? The church is not only God’s provision and resource for every believer, but it is also the only safe place for the family to be nurtured in the things of God. Those who complain that the church is imperfect or does not satisfy their expectations are forgetting two fundamental facts: The church is the believer’s spiritual home, and to neglect church life is to diminish the quality of one’s spiritual life.

There is a great difference between being legalistic and being responsible. To say that a person is not saved if he does not attend church is legalistic. To say that faithful church attendance is a must for spiritual growth and safety is responsible. To say going to the lake or a sports event on Sunday is sin is legalistic. Teaching people the importance of faithfulness to the church, however, is responsible.

Each believer has a responsibility to the church. On the other hand, church leaders have a responsibility to every believer. Pastors must do everything possible to make the church experience rich and fulfilling. The Lord is worthy of our best in every aspect of our service to Him — in preaching, teaching, music, facilities, pastoral care, and administration. Church leaders are not only proclaimers of truth but are also primary role models of truth. Everyone in the kingdom of God needs to pray as never before that the Church will always be at her best.

Church Membership

Church membership is an important factor in the state of discipleship. Statistics reveal that from 1995 to 2005, church membership in the Assemblies of God grew by 235,016 — from 1,377,320 to 1,612,336 (17 percent). In the same period, however, church membership grew about 3 percent more than Sunday morning attendance.

These figures tell us that church membership is being better promoted than it has been in the past. Church leaders realize that in our culture it is important for people to make a commitment to the church.

In the past, many pastors were hesitant to insist that people become church members in a formal sense. The main reason for this, in my mind, was the fear that people would begin to see church membership as a means to increase attendance numbers rather than as a means to encourage discipleship. Many denominations feel that church membership has no correlation to church attendance. While we do not want to use church membership as a reason to boast, we do want to make church membership an important tool for discipleship.

It is important that people make formal commitments to Christ and His church. That is the reason for water baptism and church membership. One could argue that signing a card does not make a person a disciple. Signing a membership card, however, is similar to signing a marriage license. It is an outward expression of an inward commitment and important to the future of a marital relationship. It makes a statement to the world that the couple is no longer available for courting, and holds the couple accountable to one another in times of temptation and difficulties. At a wedding, the pastor says, “Marriage is an honorable estate.” We need to make a similar declaration when the church family recognizes new members.

Church membership, like marriage, does not determine the quality of a relationship. It does, however, underscore God’s plan for believers to have a rich and rewarding relationship with all the rights, privileges, and obligations inherent in and to the body of Christ. The institution of marriage is under attack. A marriage becomes meaningless when there is a lack of love, purity, and responsibility. Even though some do not choose to make marriage what God intended, it does not lessen its importance or its contribution to the greater integrity and strength of society. In a day when lip service is being paid to marriage as an institution and church membership as an obligation, it is incumbent on all Christians to honor God by going beyond lip service to demonstrating a continued faithfulness to His will and commitment to His plan.

Adherents

Another indicator we need to consider when analyzing the state of discipleship is the number of adherents. To continue our statistical study, adherents grew from 2,387,982 to 2,830,861 — a 19 percent increase. In light of the fact the Assemblies of God’s average Sunday morning worship attendance was 1,752,793 on any given Sunday, more than a million people claimed by Assemblies of God churches were not in attendance.

It would be impossible to determine the quality of discipleship of Assemblies of God adherents as a group for obvious reasons. Often, their only attachment to the church, in a formal sense, is by their word. Anecdotal evidence and testimonies of pastors tell us that there are many committed, faithful believers within the Assemblies of God. A realistic look at the same evidence, however, tells us that a large majority of adherents are, at best, Christians in name only.

Conclusion

The Assemblies of God needs to gather the best and most reliable statistics to realize the tremendous potential for spiritual growth and development among those who claim the Assemblies of God as their church home. The greatest indicator of the state of discipleship, however, is in Sunday morning average attendance. This is the only indicator that shows the number of people who continue to stay attached to the body of Christ. Decisions for Christ, water baptism, and the baptism in the Holy Spirit are instantaneous experiences that are necessary in the Christian life. Unless new believers follow through in a continued walk with Christ, these experiences do not indicate a progressive commitment or interest in the things of God.

It is difficult to measure a believer’s involvement or faithfulness. In a practical sense, Sunday morning attendance is a demonstration, not of quality but of continued interest and connection to the church. Pastors must focus on these people as candidates for transformational discipleship.

Because the state of discipleship is determined by the quality of disciples who make up the church, we need an occasional reality check to make repairs, adjustments, and room for those who want to live in the community of the church and for others who will consider the church as God’s provision for them in the future.

Let us call back our friendly contractor — the Holy Spirit — to give an assessment of the state of discipleship. Based on statistics, a building expert inspecting the Assemblies of God might say:

“When assessed as spiritual housing, the Assemblies of God is still viable. It has great curb appeal and is functional. It is a large house and has room for a growing family. Presently, the foundation is in good shape. However, some structural problems, if not addressed, could cause the house to incur major damage in a storm or earthquake. I am not prepared to give the cost or a timeframe to bring the house up to divine specifications, but it will be expensive in time and labor.

“In looking at the potential of this aging structure, the good news is that with a willingness to face facts, pay the price, and seek the right help, the Assemblies of God can become the most sound, attractive, and best suited church for 21st century spiritual life in America. If you want, I will serve as general contractor.”

It would please God if every person connected to the Assemblies of God would say, “Welcome, Holy Spirit. We invite You to examine every part of the church. We pledge to God that we will not run from the truth but respond to it, finding new faith and freedom to make the church everything You want it to become.”

CHARLES T. CRABTREE is former assistant general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, Springfield, Missouri. Adapted from chapter one of his book, Transformational Discipleship. ©2007 by Gospel Publishing House, 1445 N Boonville Ave., Springfield, Missouri 65802.

Endnote

1. References to Sunday morning attendance refer to the churches’ major worship service and can include Friday or Saturday evening services or multiple services on Sunday.

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