By Taylor Combs
In a previous article where we examined what causes incomplete discipleship, we saw that growth in fellowship and growth in truth are both indispensable to Christian discipleship, but that, unfortunately, most churches thrive in only one or the other.
We called discipleship that is high in truth and low in fellowship “brains-on-a-stick” discipleship, because it treats people as though they were disembodied minds; these are heady churches.
We then called discipleship that is high in fellowship and low in truth “feel-good” discipleship, because it creates a cozy environment without much substance; these are shallow churches.
The question we must ask, then, is, How can heady and shallow churches move toward whole discipleship? How can they become thriving churches?
Below are a few suggestions for shallow and heady churches, respectively.
Three Ways to Shift from Shallow to Thriving
1. Incorporate expository preaching.
The most important ingredient in the life of any church is expository preaching, and this is the first shift a shallow church needs to make.
Thabiti Anyabwile defines expository preaching as “the kind of preaching that exposes the meaning of the text of Scripture and applies that meaning to the hearer. When the main point of the text becomes the main point of the sermon, then you have expository preaching” (Reviving the Black Church, 41).
Expository preaching is the opposite of topical preaching, which first and foremost focuses on a given topic—like money, sex, church, or evangelism. At best, a topical sermon includes Scripture to support the preacher’s main point; at worst, the preacher flounders about sharing his fallible opinions on any number of topics.
The question preachers must ask is, Whose word is authoritative and whose word has the power to save? In John 6, the apostle Peter made a profound confession. When faced with the prospect of leaving Jesus, he asked, “Where else will we go? Who else has the words of life?”
Only the words of the Bible—that is, the Word of God—have the power to bring new life. “Ten tips on a better marriage” or “five principles for personal finance” won’t cut it; your hearers need the Word of God. As long as they sit under the preacher’s authority and the preacher’s opinions, they will remain shallow.
Give them real food. Give them God’s Word.
2. Center groups around Scripture.
For the same reason expository preaching is essential, centering your groups around the Bible is a necessary step in becoming a thriving church.
Every group gathers around something: Book clubs gather around books, AA groups gather around their need for freedom from addiction, and sports fans gather around a love for their team.
Your groups will gather around something. Again, the only thing that can give life is God’s Word. What better to gather around?
3. Practice silence and stillness
When was the last time there was a moment of quiet in your church? When was the last time someone prayed a long, slow, contemplative prayer in the service, with no keyboard or guitar in the background?
Too often, we are terrified of silence, so we fill our church services with noise and lights and action. Moreover, as shallow churches that are strong on fellowship and weak on truth tend to attract expressive extroverts, it may have been a long time since these believers were exposed to a quiet environment anywhere.
Introducing this to your worship services can be critical for helping individuals find space to connect with God, get in touch with their emotions, confess sin, and be led by the Holy Spirit through prayer and His Word.
Three Ways to Shift from Heady to Thriving
Heady churches are prone to intellectualism, individualism, and isolation. They need to make some shifts to help their members grow in fellowship, which means they need to engender more communal practices into the life of the church.
Here are a few ideas.
1. Eat together.
This is perhaps the easiest practice to implement. Churches can do this by hosting a quarterly meal, a spring or fall picnic, or a dessert fellowship after a member meeting.
But it shouldn’t be exclusively through on-property events. Church leaders should encourage their groups to eat together. Something shifts in the life of a small group when the members of that group eat a meal together each week, or even spend 20 minutes breaking the ice around coffee and cookies.
We get to see one another as our normal selves—not just the version of ourselves that we portray while discussing Scripture.
2. Pray together.
When the disciples of Jesus asked him to teach the how to pray, his model prayer began with the words “Our Father.” Christian prayer is not just an individual spiritual discipline; it’s a corporate one, too. We’re praying not just to my Father, but to our Father, and we ought to pray to Him together.
Like eating together, this can be done in larger contexts—church-wide prayer meetings or moments in the service when attendees are encouraged to pray with those surrounding them—or in smaller contexts, like Bible studies and life groups.
3. Confess sin to one another.
This might be the most challenging shift a heady church can make in the move toward health. The Christian life is lived not just on the vertical plane—between me and God—but also on the horizontal plane—between me and my brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is why church membership is so important. It’s why Jesus gave instructions for church discipline (Matthew 18). It’s why James told his readers to confess their sins to one another (James 5:16). To whom are members of your church confessing their sins? Who is holding them accountable? Are they exercising any vulnerability?
I said in the previous post that heady churches make it “nearly impossible to foster a culture of honesty, vulnerability, and confession,” and that “without the gracious safety net of stable, constant relationships, many people won’t survive life’s difficulties.”
Confession of sin—coupled with radical, abundant grace—allows us to develop those relationships that will carry us through suffering and help us persevere in faith until the end.
The life of discipleship is a holistic life. We cannot limit the demands Jesus places on us to the mind or to the heart, to our individual spiritual disciplines or to Christian fellowship.
We need to constantly grow in both truth and fellowship, and church leaders are tasked with helping to create environments where this kind of growth is possible. And friends, it is possible. We don’t have to be resigned to being one kind of church or the other. With a few shifts, your church can be the beneficiary of thriving discipleship culture.
Taylor is an associate publisher for B&H Publishing, and is pursuing a PhD in historical theology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Taylor lives in East Nashville with his wife and daughter. He and his wife both serve in various ministries at their local church.