Five Spiritual Formation Lessons from the Megachurch

Very large churches are sometimes accused of being shallow. A mile wide and an inch deep. There is certainly truth to that potential, but I have found that many of the driving characteristics that allowed a church to become 2,000 or more people, or 10,000 or more, include a discipline and depth that brings much integrity to their ministry.

Nonetheless, the risk of shallow is a real one.

Growing a local church always involves risks and trades; there is no perfect plan. But the trades are not an either/or situation. The primary and most common trade is the willingness to risk depth of discipleship (spiritual formation) for reaching more people. These two will live in tension, however they are not mutually exclusive.

To reach more people risks depth and community.

To maintain closeness and intimacy risks reaching more people.

There is no perfect formula. Let’s be candid, there are small churches that are shallow and large churches that have depth. Just as there are large churches that are stuck and no longer reach new people, and many small churches that are growing like crazy by reaching new people. Ah, and when that’s true, the small church becomes larger! Then the risk is simply swapping one trade for another.

Personally, I think generalizations are unwise, but I understand why we make them, and they often provide for provocative and productive conversations.

So for that conversation, let’s focus on the question of depth in spiritual formation within the megachurch.

1) The church will never have more depth than its leaders.

Programs don’t produce depth of spiritual maturity, leaders do. I’m privileged to serve under a leader of great wisdom, depth and discipline. Kevin Myers is the founding and senior pastor 12Stone Church, a megachurch located in the suburbs of Atlanta. Kevin has a strong and vibrant prayer life, chases God with passion, and lives with great integrity. Those qualities are infused into the DNA of the church. The wisdom and insight that God grants him, whether in a board room or teaching on Sunday morning, is truly Holy Spirit driven.

Kevin would tell you, and so would I, that it is certainly more difficult to drive depth in churches that grow larger and larger, but that’s why we keep leaning in and leading! 12Stone Church has its flaws, but being shallow, easy or “all show” is not among them. Guests, including pastors, nearly always include among their first comments, the sense of spiritual intensity. It all starts with the leaders.

2) To stop reaching more people is to become shallow.

In my opinion, we don’t have a choice. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is clear; to make disciples! But we can’t forget that includes evangelism. The Great Commission never instructed us to disciple the same people with the same programs in the same ways over and over again. Discipleship by definition and logic must begin with evangelism. You and I are passionate about the process of spiritual formation in the life of a “disciple” of Christ. A Christ-follower. Spiritual formation begins with conversion!

Candidly, if we have the same people in the same Bible study for years on end and nothing changes (the church or the people), maybe that is shallow. The New Testament is filled with stories of miracles, life change, and reaching people. Yes, the churches from Ephesus to Corinth were filled with flaws, but reaching people was the purpose of the gospel.

3) Speed and pressure create the tension.

The process of spiritual formation is not any easier in a smaller church, people are people. But the smaller church does not face the complexity of speed and pressure in the same way as found in mega-churches.

The forming of someone’s spiritual maturity takes time, nurture and care. These things are not absent, or less in heart and culture in a megachurch. But the finite nature of time has objective limits. The larger a church becomes, the scarcer the precious commodity of time becomes. It is the nature of a megachurch to move fast, carry great weight, and therefore time is compressed. The primary solution is raising up and developing capable volunteer leaders who have a heart for leading others in their spiritual journey.

4) Don’t confuse the depth of spiritual formation with complexity.

In my earlier years I have been included among those who designed and produced a process of spiritual formation (discipleship), that was more complex than plans to launch a space shuttle for weeks of orbit. It took me some time to learn that complexity didn’t equate to depth.

In fact, it is the opposite. Like preaching shorter is more difficult than preaching longer, a simple (not simplistic) process requires massive thought, experimenting and continual innovation. The best processes are seamless and easily communicated. They don’t need a chart. At 12Stone, we focus on two things, small group life and serving. That’s it. Is there more to spiritual formation than that? Of course! But we build all these things into those two large components of Christian community.

In addition, we employ a short front-end process that includes: 1st time Guests / Discover 12Stone/ Salvation / and Baptism. The list is not long and we make it easy for people to find their way. More importantly, the leaders know how to point the way, take a hand, and lead.

5) Maturity is difficult to measure.

We never want to stray from biblical standards, but be cautious of long lists. Well intended commitment to scripture can quickly turn into a pharisaic list of to-dos, then maturity can become works oriented. If you want a list, I recommend that you go with something as simple as prayer and evangelism for evidence of maturity, or perhaps the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5).

Another way to measure spiritual formation is from spoon fed (baby Christians) to self-led. The self-led Christian takes responsibility for their own spiritual formation. The church for them is simply the environment that resources, encourages and inspires their continued growth.

A third way to measure maturity is clean, clear and simple. It is stories of life change. After all these years and practicing all these and more, it is the one I prefer most. Capturing and telling stories of changed lives is compelling; it embodies the vision. I find it to be the most comprehensive, organic and practical approach. There is no list, and yet you have all of Scripture you can apply. Further, the idea of self-led is easily taught and incorporated.

Spiritual formation is not static. None of us ever arrive. However, scripture makes it clear that maturity can be achieved. If you are part of a megachurch or perhaps you lead a smaller church and sense a need to strengthen your spiritual formation, I trust these are helpful to you.

Read more from Dan.

Want to learn more about the effectiveness of your church’s discipleship process?

Download PDF

Tags: , ,

| What is MyVisionRoom? > | Back to Discipleship >


Dan Reiland

Dan Reiland

Dr. Dan Reiland serves as Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY. He and Dr. Maxwell still enjoy partnering on a number of church related projects together. Dan is best known as a leader with a pastor's heart, but is often described as one of the nations most innovative church thinkers. His passion is developing leaders for the local church so that the Great Commission is advanced.

See more articles by >


What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> Amen!!
— Scott Michael Whitley
comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you so Much for this great article. It has open my eyes on where we have faltered and the things we need to work on. God can never indeed be the problem. It's us.
— Bertille
comment_post_ID); ?> Thanks for this information. It helps me begin to look at the church in a different light.
— Faith Jackson

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.

Follow These Three Signposts on the Path to Spiritual Growth

What Are We Missing in Discipleship?

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about spiritual formation and discipleship, and rightfully so. I think we can all agree there’s a discipleship deficit in many churches. There isn’t a whole lot of discipling going on, even though that’s precisely what we, as Jesus’ followers, were commissioned to do—make disciples.

A Pathway to Maturity

If we can agree that spiritual maturity is the goal for disciples, how do we achieve it? How does God expect us to disciple? Though essential (and actually a gift from God), having a desire for spiritual growth is not enough in the Christian life; we must be on the path. That’s one of the reasons why we call this a “spiritual walk.”

If you’re just hoping disciples will somehow find their way through the spiritual jungle, you are fooling yourself. There are many distractions and pitfalls. Jesus had warnings about those who make it difficult for seekers to find their way.

And while you as a pastor or leader will have to break out the machete at times to clear overgrown paths, others have already blazed a trail and left us some good markers. Paul was such a trailblazer, making more than just a few disciples. So I think we can learn from his process.

A Path to Growth

We have found through Transformational Discipleship research that there is a progression, a path involved in making disciples. But, that’s just a reflection of the biblical realities showing up in our research of churches.

Paul writes of this path in his letter to the Colossians:

“For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God” (1:9–10, HCSB).

Here are three things that mark the path of spiritual formation:

1. Knowing

Being filled with the knowledge of God’s will is a vital part of becoming a disciple of Jesus. We can tell people to be more like Jesus all day long, but if they don’t know Jesus, they won’t be like him. This knowing happens individually, and through relationships.

Reading the Bible is obviously essential here. Show me someone who isn’t reading the Word of God, and I will show you someone who isn’t growing deeper as a believer.

The psalmist says to God, “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). The path to spiritual maturity is lit by the Word.

Historically, there were people employed to carry lights so that others could see the path at night. On the community level, pastors and leaders are to facilitate the walk by carrying the light—the Word—out in front.

This involves teaching and mentoring. Then people have to see that light at their own feet—as the word they carry lights their individual path.

Learning facts found in the Bible won’t make you a Christian, but if we ignore the light of Scripture, we won’t be able to stay on the path to spiritual development.

2. Being

We don’t learn about God to become theological encyclopedias. Rather, we learn and know so we can be. That’s learning to walk worthy by being, increasingly, who we are in Christ.

There is a mysterious transfer of spiritual DNA that occurs as a believer walks the path of discipleship. It is a becoming.

It’s true in every area of life. The more time you spend with a mentor, read a certain author, or listen to a certain speaker, the more you will begin to think like that person.

The same is true when we walk with the Lord—the very nature of walking with the Lord helps us to walk worthy. Walking with him shapes us to be like him—to walk worthy.

In Romans, Paul talks about this kind of being in our spiritual walk—being who we are in Christ.

He says, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). We begin to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord when we take on his traits as his children.

Scripture tells us that Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham walked with God. They knew God well, and that affected how they lived. We need to make it clear that this spiritual path can be walked. Disciples can, by and in the power of Christ, walk with God into a deeper spiritual life.

3. Doing

Just as our mindsets are formed by our training and belief, our actions flow from who we are.

Knowing who you are in Christ, then being who you are in Christ (by walking worthy), leads you do doing the work of God. (Getting them in the wrong order is a problem… )

Everyone looks forward to the day a baby can walk. But that development is not the end of their journey. After they walk, they are expected to contribute in other ways, from chores around the house to getting an education, and eventually a job. When they produce in these areas, it is a sign of maturity. It means the child understands the path he or she is on.

It is one thing to be told to clean your room. But when the child starts cleaning their own room and also volunteers to clean up the neighborhood, you know they get it.

Bearing fruit in every good work is an indicator of development. Just as no one becomes a believer by knowing more about God, no one is redeemed by doing good things for God. But being a disciple will inevitably result in doing the work of a disciple—not just doing good things but also bearing fruit.

We do good works not just so good things are done, but as Jesus taught, “So that [people] may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). That is bearing fruit.

If being a disciple is about taking on Christ’s traits, producing fruit is about exhibiting the presence of Jesus. We were designed to produce spiritually. He is the vine. We are the branches.

Paul tells the church at Ephesus, “For we are his creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Fruit is a sign that a tree is maturing. Fruit in a believer’s life is a sign that a disciple is growing.

Walking (and Inviting Others to Walk) a Clear Path

There are no accidental disciples—God gives new life in Christ. Then, disciples learn to know, be, and do what the Christian life is. No one wanders into spiritual maturity, and you and your church need to know that truth. You need to have people walk the path.

Do you want a clear path for spiritual growth in your church? Faithfully lead believers into the knowledge of God’s will so that they can walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, doing good works that produce fruit in their lives and in the lives of those around them.

What would you say is the biggest roadblock on the path to spiritual maturity? Of the three things I mentioned here (knowing, being, doing), where do we most often drop the ball?

> Read more from Ed.

Download PDF

Tags: , , ,

| What is MyVisionRoom? > | Back to Process >


Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

See more articles by >


What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> Amen!!
— Scott Michael Whitley
comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you so Much for this great article. It has open my eyes on where we have faltered and the things we need to work on. God can never indeed be the problem. It's us.
— Bertille
comment_post_ID); ?> Thanks for this information. It helps me begin to look at the church in a different light.
— Faith Jackson

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.