First, let’s consider the data.

A 2012 Gallup poll illustrates about three out of four Americans (77 percent) still identify as Christian. And about 137 million Americans, or 44 percent of the population, say they are part of a specific Christian congregation, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census. Most weekends, tens of millions of worshippers still attend churches. Even the lowest estimates show that about one in five Americans—or about 60 million people—show up in worship every week.

But I think we’d all agree that fewer follow Jesus. Fewer let their faith shape their lives or have deep spiritual resources to draw on when life gets hard.

Why is that?

I suspect many churches have forgotten their main calling: to make disciples. Instead, we believe drawing a crowd of people on Sundays is enough. We invite people to come to church or to be good people—but not to follow Jesus.
Sociologists like Christian Smith say many Americans follow something called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief in God that’s mainly focused on being a good person and having a positive self-image.

That kind of religion feels good. But it doesn’t have staying power. And it doesn’t motivate people to act on their faith in areas where it costs them.

Take giving, for example. Empty Tomb, a Christian nonprofit that studies church giving, looked at donations from members of 23 of the largest Protestant groups in the U.S. and found the average church member donated 2.3 percent of their income in 2011. That’s down from 3.1 percent in 1968.

“Is the issue that the church is not providing an authentic alternative to the consumer mindset?” asks Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of Empty Tomb, in an interview with Religion News Service. “Over a period of time, if the church isn’t providing more of an authentic alternative, the church will lose.”
Churches can also suffer from what’s known as the 80/20 rule—the idea that 80 percent of the work gets done by 20 percent of the people. In their book The Other 80 Percent, authors Scott Thumma and Warren Bird say many church members see themselves as spectators today. They hold certain beliefs and often show up at church, but they don’t make a connection between faith and everyday life.

“Faith in Christ is not widely perceived as an active lifestyle that one attempts to live out every day in all one’s actions,” they write. “Rather faith has become something that one can assent to but does not live, believe but does not follow, and belong to but does not support or participate in.”

In essence, Thumma and Bird suggest the word Christian has come to mean “someone who believes things about Jesus” rather than “a disciple who believes in and follows Jesus.”

This article excerpted from The Discipleship Course.

The Discipleship Course is available on Amazon, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.

This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.