November 20, 2012 — 5 Comments

(Does Church Make a Difference? was first published on 2/1/2012)

A recent study by The Barna Group called “What People Experience in Churches” is quite troubling. “Practicing Christians” who attended church services at least once a month and indicated that religious faith is very important in their life were polled. Less than 50% of these indicated that “Attending church affected my life greatly.” Less than 30% indicated that church attendance made a real difference. Amazingly, 46% of regular participants indicated that church attendance had no affect on their lives either positively or negatively. Willow Creek’s extensive Reveal Study told us essentially the same thing: Their web site reports, “After five years of studying 280,000 in-depth responses from congregants in 1,200 churches across a wide variety of denominations, we have learned “Church activity IS NOT a blueprint for spiritual growth.”

My personal experience in two denominations over a period of 60 plus years affirms what these studies claim. Even churches that are good at helping people make a profession of faith are not very good at helping people grow into mature, committed disciples of Jesus Christ. We seem to been better at getting people “justified” than getting them “sanctified.”

I’m afraid this may be true because we have largely forgotten how to help individuals grow to maturity. This is especially unfortunate for us Methodist since John Wesley put so much emphasis on this very issue. Maturity (Wesley called it perfection) was at the very heart of Wesley’s movement. He took cold, spiritually sick church members, recruited them into small accountability groups, and helped them grow in Christ. He took those who were actually unwanted in the churches of his day because of their social status and transformed their lives through the same process. In addition, he reached many who had simply come to believe that the church was no longer relevant to their lives. Sound familiar?

The good news is that there are churches making mature disciples. It does happen in traditional churches. Perhaps it happens more often in places like twelve step groups, Walk to Emmaus, Cursillo, covenant groups, and some organic/simple churches. These latter churches are sometimes called simple because they focus on the core process of making disciples and are not involved in a lot of the other things that most churches do.

There is a great deal of discussion going on in the  United Methodist Church today about the Call To Action. Some believe the recommended actions will reform the United Methodist Church. Others believe it will turn out to be another occasion for “shuffling the chairs on the Titanic.” Ralph Franklin, my college band director used to tell us when we face a problem, “Do something, even if its wrong. If it is wrong you’ll have plenty of people to let you know.” Perhaps the Call To Action will be something even if its wrong. And no doubt there will be plenty of people to point out its faults.


Dr. Gary Thompson


I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I write adult curriculum for the United Methodist Church and have been doing so for over 10 years. My passion is helping the Christian Church more effectively fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ and to help individuals identify and fulfill their God-given personal mission.

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  • Michael_N

    Dr. Thompson,

    I really believe that church has no effect when it’s just an hour on Sunday. Think about people who exercise once a week for an hour. Would that one hour of exercise really have much effect on their physical self? If you ate healthy only one hour a week would that have a positive effect on your health?

    The simple answer to me is a hunger to do more, learn more and be more. Once people get involved in ministry, regular bible study, or sharing the word themselves they start to grow and mature. I’m a layman, but this is my feeling about it from my own experience.

    • Dr. Gary Thompson

      Michael, you are absolutely right. “Church” once a week is an attempt at an “easy fix.” Of course, we live in an age when we expect instant results like instant potatoes and “tv dinners.”

  • Drgaryt

    Michael, you are absolutely right. “Church” once a week is an attempt at an “easy fix.” Of course, we live in an age when we expect instant results like instant potatoes and “tv dinners.”

  • Ron Amundson

    Taking the advice of your band director :)

    If I look back over the years, direct church attendance had about zero to do with discipleship and growth, but the church as a large body of believers played a massive role. I use the term direct, in that participation in churchy activities, worship, Bible studies, small groups, camps, ministries, etc are things on the periphery. The combination of said activities on a larger scale provides for a sort of resource bank, than if not for aforementioned activities would likely not exist.

    Stated another way, discipleship is mostly a solitary pursuit, which is sometimes aided by the assistance of 1 or 2, but is often hindered by larger group dynamics. On the other hand, too much lone rangering, or small tribe cowboying can also lead one astray, as there isnt enough scale to find out you are going down a wrong path.

  • DrGaryT

    Ron, If I understand what you are saying I would agree with you. Someone recently responded to me on Twitter saying they had dropped out of church because of their disappointment. I responded by suggesting that while I too am disappointed in the church there is still more good things going on there than bad. There is in most churches a culture that helps people grow. I still remember Mrs. Goldman, my “junior” class Sunday School teacher who first told me I was going to be a preacher when I grew up. (And I just got tears in my eyes as I wrote that!) My concern is to change church culture, to make it much more helpful in our journey toward mature discipleship.