In Acts 3, we find Peter and John going to an afternoon prayer service at the temple. As they approach, they see a lame man at the gate. There, he sat and asked people for money as they walked by. When Peter and John came near, the lame man asked for an offering. Peter answered, “I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!” (Acts 3:6, NLT)
The formerly crippled man's life was changed forever. He was healed. While this was probably the man's first Jesus experience, it wasn't his first begging experience. He was 40 years old and was born crippled. It's even likely he sat in the same spot for years. In those days, most of the handicapped were totally dependent on the benevolence of others.
Over the years, I have thought about this story. I can see this guy sitting on the ground at the gate called Beautiful, week after week, year after year asking the same question, "Can you help me?" And I can see the nice church people passing by; some giving money, while others pretend not to notice him. I have often wondered why someone didn't bring him to church or invite him to their home. Maybe he was obnoxious. Maybe he was anti-church. Who knows. But what if it was something else. What if the church was just as crippled as the man? I assume if the church could spend money to build an extravagant gate, they could probably afford to help this hungry, crippled man who lived in their community and sat right outside their door every week.
Unfortunately there are churches that mirror the dysfunction of the lame man; they have members (people) who aren't functioning the way God designed them to. This is especially true in churches with attendance 500 and less. While it's easy to blame church stuckness on uncommitted or lazy church members, the real problem lies much deeper. The real problem is a lack of discipleship. When a church makes disciples, growth happens.
Here are three common issues that can cripple discipleship in churches 500 or less:
Problem #1: Assimilating people into members, instead of disciples
There is a reason approximately 85% of the churches in the United States average under 90 people in attendance. A recent survey showed that out of all the people who drop out of church, 82% drop out in the first year. This means our assimilation strategies are broken. Too often churches are more focused on people becoming church members instead of disciples. When this happens, they gain a lot of names on the membership role, but few butts in seats. Assimilation must give people easy next steps that lead towards relational environments where they are challenged to follow Jesus.
Problem #2: Pushing people into programs instead of relationships
There isn't anything wrong with Bible studies or programs, unless they are your only means of making disciples. If Bible classes made disciples, the church would be full every weekend (there usually isn't a shortage of classes). At the end of the day, you can't program discipleship because you can't program life. Everyone is in a different stage of life, which is why churches need different flavors of small groups. Small groups is the best engine for making disciples. Churches 500 and less often struggle or fail at small groups because they are unwilling to stop the things (classes, programs) that compete with groups. You have to be willing to bury the things that aren't producing life change and resource the things that are (or will) produce life change. Burying a ministry can be tough, especially when it's been around a while. Click here for a tool that may help.
Problem #3: Building small groups without B.C. Entry Points
If the church's vision is about reaching the unchurched, the discipleship (small group) model must align with that vision. Small groups must have easy on-ramps for B.C. (before Christ) people. This means the model must make anyone, including non-Christians, feel comfortable to participate as much or as little as they like. It must foster an environment that is highly relational and gospel-centered. Actually, that's the way Jesus did it. When a church has small group model like this, great things happen. People can invite their unchurched family and friends without reservation; and because the gospel is the centerpiece, life change happens. In this way, small groups becomes both an evangelism and discipleship engine.