Dallas Willard on How We Assess Spiritual Growth
It is possible, but often not very encouraging.

How can churches know if they are being effective at making disciples?

Many churches are measuring the wrong things. We measure things like attendance and giving, but we should be looking at more fundamental things like anger, contempt, honesty, and the degree to which people are under the thumb of their lusts. Those things can be counted, but not as easily as offerings.

Why don't more churches gauge these qualities among their people?

First of all, many leaders don't want to measure these qualities because what they usually discover is not worth bragging about. We'd rather focus on institutional measures of success. Secondly, we must have people who are willing to be assessed in these ways. And finally, we need the right tools to measure spiritual formation. There are some good tools available like Randy Frazee's Christian Life Profile and Monvee.com, which John Ortberg likes.

In the past people grew through relationships with spiritual mentors and by engaging the church community. Is there a danger that these individual assessment tools will remove the role of community in formation?

Any of these devices must be used in a community setting. Assessment tools that work best are a combination of self-assessment and the assessment of a significant other who knows you well. They don't work with people who don't want to be assessed, and they should not be administered like individual personality tests that some employers use.

If you have a group of people come together around a vision for real discipleship, people who are committed to grow, committed to change, committed to learn, then a spiritual assessment tool can work. But there must be a deep fellowship of trust to support that work. I don't think any group should go into an assessment without that. I wouldn't advise a pastor to use one of these tools on his or her congregation without first establishing a clear commitment to discipleship. You can't take your average congregation and just lay one of these assessments on them.

Are you ever discouraged by how few churches have that kind of clear commitment to discipleship?

I am not discouraged because I believe that Christ is in charge of his church, with all of its warts, and moles, and hairs. He knows what he is doing and he is marching on.

But I do grieve for the people within the church who are suffering—especially the pastors and their families. They are suffering because much of North America and Europe has bought into a version of Christianity that does not include life in the kingdom of God as a disciple of Jesus Christ. They are trying to work a system that doesn't work. Without transformation within the church, pastors are the ones who get beat up. That is why there is a constant flood of them out of the pastorate. But they are not the only ones. New people are entering the church, but a lot are also leaving. Disappointed Christians fill the landscape because we've not taken discipleship seriously.

May 03, 2010

Displaying 1–10 of 10 comments

David, justopenthebook.com

May 10, 2010  12:21pm

I think this is a great conversation. I recently saw a sermon from Paul Washer referencing Matthew 7 about the narrow gate and narrow path. Counting how many people said a single prayer to accept Jesus or attendance and offerings is not a true measure of success. The true disciple will be known by the fruit that he bears. A difficult thing to measure, to be sure, but a good look at the quality of family life in the church body, the people acutally doing service (as opposed to just showing up to the first half hour of the project) etc could go along way to help gauge success.

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Enoch Era

May 07, 2010  9:59pm

I agree with Dr Dallas - that pastors need to change their definition of success. We have been too long in the thralls of capitalism's models of success - tending to measure everything in terms of investments and results/numbers. I am a pastor/evangelist from India and lead two churches in Hyderabad. As I battled with the idea of what true success is, Lord began to impress upon me that its not so much about how much I do for Him but it is about how much He is doing in me, how much I am allowing Him to subdue me, transform me and that whatever I do for Him must flow from what He is doing in me. Now I am at rest and my focus has moved to see that I am allowing His kingdom to come in me and into the lives of those who He has given me. I have also come to realise that we must move away from being driven by programmes and performances to more natural and spontaneous ways of teaching. I have learnt from experience that mentoring happens not in seminar halls/conference rooms/or large gatherings but in drawing rooms and in natural settings. I believe we must rediscover our Lord's pattern of discipling and mentoring. I also feel that teaching and modeling spiritual disciplines to my people is imperative for their growth. Soon I am planning on start a series on 'Spiritual Disciplines' for my people in June - making use of the books 'Celebration of Discipline' by Richard Foster and 'The Spirit of the Disciplines' by Dallas Willard

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John L

May 05, 2010  12:19pm

God bless Dallas Willard for once again getting to the heart of the issue and hitting the nail on the head. So many churches do indeed use the wrong measures, or at least woefully incomplete measures, to determine spiritual maturity. Attendnace and giving are great, but they can almost as easily occur in any secular social group. The things Willard mentions are much better indicators of real maturity in my experience. So many times I see deeply involved believers who still have serious anger issues, who treat people who are different with contempt, who are not honest or open or transparent in their dealings, or who yield to various lusts (not just the sexual by any means). The evangelical church so needs to hear this word, and we so need to refocus on seeking the heart of Jesus in all things.

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May 05, 2010  12:02pm

I think the point is missed. Willard is not advocating tools or any tool in particular. Rather, he is saying the measures we use in church today to determine success are the problem with the poor state of the spirituality in the western church. He offers the areas that need to be measured in order to determine spiritual success within the body. There are some relatively new tools being brought to bare that can aid in that process, however, Willard himself in the article states that they can only be used in a context where accountability in relationship can be implemented. I would suggest the critics read some Willard to understand the nature of his perspective then come read this article again in that light.

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May 04, 2010  4:18pm

There is no doubt the household of faith in America is far less mature than pastors think or can measure with their institutionalized relationship to the saints. I would suggest this institutionalized relationship (1 to 200 or 1 - 10,000), no matter how many additional staff they have, is the basic reason saints are not growing in faith. The institutionalized approach to faith building is 80% information dispensing and 5% modeling and mutuality based modeling. 100% of the NT instructions are mutuality based modeling instructions (unless you believe "preach the word" = lecture the word). You can't ignore God's design and get God's results. The saints have no basis to grow up if the system is set for perpetual dependency feeding and one-way communication focused relationship with leaders. What I have said here will make no sense to anyone who thinks the current institutionalized system is inspired by God.

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May 04, 2010  11:34am

One likely positive outcome of the assessment type that Willard speaks of will be a shift and narrowed focus in perspective from confusion or apathy toward the realization of the necessity of spiritual growth and, in particular, the specific aspects we ask about.

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May 04, 2010  7:01am

Assesment tools are easy to criticize. They are and always will be subjective. The larger issue is the question of doing assesment at all. It seems that Dallas' point is that assesment is important, but that it must be done in the context of relationship. I believe it is essential for church leaders to have some understanding of the spiritual maturity of their congregation and even each congregant. So, rather than attack assesment tools, I would ask.... how am I assessing?

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Linda Stoll

May 03, 2010  1:07pm

Trust is the key issue here. Without trust, we will not feel safe enough to be who we really are, to authentically walk through these type of heart assessments honestly, to make any real soul-level change that will impact our communities. Without trust, we will continue to wound each other - and in the process, bring shame and disgrace to the Church, and grief to our Savior. Without trust, we will continue to value our numbers more than the condition of our souls and the depth of our relationships.

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May 03, 2010  12:27pm

I too am skeptical of assessment tools and their ability to be really helpful in the process of discipleship. The biggest problem that I see in all of them is that they are highly subjective. If you want to evaluate my spiritual growth, don't just ask me - ask my wife, my friends, my boss, my coworkers, my pastors, my neighbors, etc. I think we need more than an individualistic tool used within the context of community; for a tool to be successful we need something that will provide us with a 360 degree perspective of our spiritual life. Even then I'm skeptical. As a pastor I see very, very few people who take their spiritual development seriously enough to put in that kind of effort. But I think that goes back to the problem Dallas pointed out of our need for churches centered around calling people to life in the kingdom of God.

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May 03, 2010  9:50am

Will better tools or methods fix our problems? I'm skeptical: the track record of such things is quite poor. Am I to assume such tools would have been effective with, say, Judas? What sort of anthropological statement do such "tools" make, anyway? (Not to mention the sociological issues.) I'm sure I sound really harsh: my gut reaction is to run as far away from this as possible. What would the monks say?

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