American Protestants Deviate from Biblical Discipleship Standards

by David Roach on Thursday, May 28, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Although only 17 percent of Protestant churchgoers in America demonstrate a "decent" level of spiritual maturity, a widespread recommitment to biblical standards has the potential to ignite revival, according to a book by Brad Waggoner, executive vice president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The 17 percent represents those who scored the equivalent of 80 percent or higher on a spiritual formation survey designed to measure key areas of Christian discipleship.

"Let's not make things look worse or better than they are," Waggoner writes in The Shape of Faith to Come: Spiritual Formation and the Future of Discipleship, released by B&H Publishing Group, the publishing arm of LifeWay. "We must embrace the truth. We must set aside whatever self-centered or self-serving, biased filter we look through. No one is helped by our dodging or spinning the truth. Let's own up to the facts and work on the solutions."

For the book, Waggoner surveyed - in May 2007 and again in May 2008 - 2,500 Protestants who attend church on a regular basis. Using an evaluation tool called the Spiritual Formation Inventory (SFI), he evaluated seven domains of spiritual formation among respondents.

The seven domains measured include learning truth, obeying God and denying self, serving God and others, sharing Christ, exercising faith, seeking God, and building relationships.

Waggoner said in an interview that a 30-year passion for spiritual formation drove him to write the book.

"I love to watch people be transformed by the power of the Gospel and the renewing impact of God's Word," he said. "However, in observing many of our churches I have become very concerned about the lack of focus upon qualitative discipleship. Too many leaders and churches measure success by numbers rather than by the transformation of hearts, minds and character.

"The research that led to this book is a wake-up call for anyone who is serious about the biblical mandate to make disciples," he said.

Waggoner emphasized that the book prescribes a biblical standard for discipleship rather than simply reporting statistics. Each chapter presents a biblical norm and subsequently shows how Protestant churchgoers measure up.

"God's redemptive plan ultimately leads toward heaven, but the journey between now and then is to be one of radical transformation," Waggoner said. "Way too many professed Christians seem to demonstrate little evidence of biblical spiritual formation. This book will explain what it is that God desires for His followers and how to move forward on the journey of transformation."

Among the book's findings:

  • Only 16 percent of Protestant churchgoers read their Bible daily and another 20 percent read it "a few times a week."
  • 23 percent "agreed strongly" with the statement, "When I come to realize that some aspect of my life is not right in God's eyes, I make the necessary changes."
  • Among evangelicals, 70 percent have identified their primary spiritual gifts through a class, spiritual gifts inventory or some other process.
  • In the past six months, 29 percent of respondents said they shared with someone how to become a Christian twice or more, 14 percent once and 57 percent not at all.
  • 47 percent of Protestant churchgoers admitted to just "going through the motions" often during the singing and prayer portions of worship services. One-quarter strongly disagreed that they merely go through the motions.
  • Fasting was perhaps the most neglected spiritual discipline, with 80 percent of respondents saying they had not fasted during the past six months.

When surveyed one year later, the churchgoers evidenced very little change in overall discipleship or spiritual formation. However, a majority believed they had grown spiritually over the course of the year.

"We discovered a problem with these self-perceptions for growth or decline," Waggoner writes. "Fifty-five percent of our respondents believed they had grown spiritually in the last year. However, based on SFI scores, only 3.5 percent showed a statistically significant level of growth."

In the midst of complex calculations and formulas, Waggoner reports that the No. 1 catalyst for spiritual growth is simple: daily Bible reading. If pastors emphasize Bible reading and church members do it, Christians can expect progress, he writes.

Those who buy the first edition of The Shape of Faith to Come will receive an access code to complete the SFI online and evaluate their own spiritual development.

"I will be thrilled if this book, and the SFI that comes with the book, help individual believers and church leaders engage in very honest and objective assessments of the degree to which they are becoming more like Christ and the degree to which our churches are actually producing biblical disciples and not mere ‘churchgoers,'" Waggoner said.

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