We can put a man on the moon, but we can't cure the common cold. This complaint, which dates back to 1969, has its church leadership variation. It goes something like this:

We can organize more and more ministries—worship experiences, Bible classes, small-group fellowships, support groups, outreach opportunities, missison encounter—and yet, for all this, we still struggle with the most basic goal: fostering spiritual growth. The Willow Creek Association's recent Reveal study made it evident that church programs and activities do not necessarily lead to spiritual maturity. In fact, church activities sometimes get in the way of spiritual growth. How can churches help and not hinder the Great Commission—the making of disciples of Jesus?

What's a pastor to do? Leadership sought the wisdom of four church leaders:

Bill Easum is a church consultant and regular contributor for ChurchCentral.com.

Mel Lawrenz was senior pastor for ten years and now serves as minister at large for Elmbrook Chuch in Waukesha, Wisconsin; he is the author of Whole Church: Leading from Fragmentation to Engagement (Jossey Bass, 2009).

Adele Calhoun is co-pastor of Redeemer Community Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and the author of Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (IVP, 2005).

Rich Nathan is senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio, and serves on the National Executive Board of Vineyard: A Community of Churches.

We asked them: How do you guide congregational life so that it contributes to spiritual growth and doesn't become a hindrance?

Bill Easum

Growing in spurts

A lot of conversations and misunderstandings have arisen as a result of the Reveal study. No, Willow Creek is not suggesting that churches drop all their programs. But Reveal does show that participation in church activities does not automatically make spiritual giants.

Most churches have too many programs that are never evaluated. Every program should be evaluated regularly by asking one question: "Is this program making or growing disciples?" If not, drop it.

Reveal shows that the most important thing the church can do to move people deeper into the faith is give them opportunities to study and reflect on Scripture. But the study also shows that spiritual growth isn't linear. You could couple this insight with Larry Osborne's concept that people grow in spurts—when they need to know something or when they need to grow.

Also, as people grow in Christ they depend less and less on their church. Worship becomes less important, and more of their spiritual growth comes through personal disciplines and personal relationships. At the same time, people want their church to challenge them and hold them accountable. And since the most mature, Christ-centered folks are the best evangelists, tithers, and servants, they are the ones depended on most by their church.

Mel Lawrenz

Engage on four levels

The decisive dynamic in congregational activities that have an enduring influence is engagement—that is, bringing divine resources into real contact with human need. I challenge our church's members to be able to answer these four questions:

1. Am I engaged with God in a life pattern of authentic worship?

2. Am I engaged with God's people through koinonia, or the shared life, not just shared coffee cake and chit-chat?

3. Am I engaged with my community through meaningful service?

4. Am I engaged with the world by becoming a globally aware and involved believer?

When a church's programs foster these four kinds of engagement, the cumulative energy is astonishing. They help hold a congregation together.

As a paradigm for ministry, engagement nullifies our drivenness to discover the Holy Grail of church programs. There are thousands of ways people can be engaged on these four planes. We can stop running from program to program. We don't need a standardized machine for discipleship. Rather, church leaders must foster an environment in which people can watch the God gaps close, in which meaningful engagement is possible in every activity, at every turn.

Adele Calhoun

Develop the root of love

Growth comes when God's seed takes root within us (Mark 4). It is not a program. It is an encounter of love. People grow when they are truly and wisely loved by God and his family. Most often the information that has changed me comes clothed in loving human flesh.

Sometimes people get loved while involved in a small group or a service project. But the project is not the cause of growth, nor is it even the means. The project is simply a venue for the means of love to start working.

My husband and I recently moved from being on the staff of a 5,000-member church to being co-senior pastors of a church plant of 150. The demographics of both churches are the same: busy, successful, depleted, professionals. The big difference is our programming.

Since our church plant only has access to a building on Sunday morning, we are program-lite. In general our congregation is glad to not be inundated with programs and structures. And my husband and I feel the relief of not having to put in hours and hours to find volunteers, replace volunteers, and maintain ministry activities.

I know I don't know how to help these people grow. But I do know that I spend hours every day trying to love them, one on one, in groups, from the pulpit, and everywhere I go. It is the only plan I have.

Rich Nathan

Serving in Christ's name

If you were to ask most evangelicals how people grow, we would say that you need to have a devotional life and be in a small group. But almost always, Christians grow as they get involved in meaningful service to others.

Ministry to others is not an add-on to our growth, it is an essential ingredient.

Service pulls people out of their comfort zones. Then they begin to feel a need for deeper devotions and the ability to explain their faith better. People come back saying, "I was helping out at the medical clinic and I realized that I didn't know how to share my faith. What should I say?"

That's why many churches make service the very first thing they encourage for new converts. Howard Hendricks once said, "We begin to grow when we take responsibility for the growth of another person. Ministry to others is not an add-on to our growth, it is an essential ingredient."

At a Leadership Network meeting several years ago, Eric Swanson shared a really interesting insight from Ephesians 2:8-10. ("For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.")

He said that evangelicals almost always omit verse 10 in their understanding of what a person needs. It is true that every person has a God-shaped void, as described in Ephesians 2:8-9. But there is a second hole inside of every person, a purpose-shaped hole. And this hole cannot be filled by prayer or Bible study or small groups. Instead it is filled by engaging in the good works that God has prepared for us to do.

—Adapted from ChurchCentral.com

—Compiled by Tim Avery, associate editor of Leadership