The 20th century church is fat, laboring slowly uphill with potbelly hanging out, gasping for air. We are out of shape indeed. Church growth statistics don’t tell the real story. They serve more as a bathroom scale which tells us how heavy the church is but doesn’t measure true muscular growth. Churches have been labeled super, dynamic, mega, and so on – but not yet have I heard of one being pronounced obese.

Allow me to define “fat”. It involves scores of passive parishioners sitting week after week and soaking up what is, in some cases, gourmet preaching, but who are still infected with a disease called “spectatorism”.  This mass of untapped potential is generally educated far beyond their level of obedience, and is not translating Christian theory into practice.

Therefore, what former football coach Bud Wilkerson says about the physical fitness of our nation applies to the church as well.  “On any given Sunday in the National Football League we find 22 men on the field desperately in need of rest, while in the stands sit 80,000 who are desperately in need of exercise.”  There are many churches composed of one minister leading scores of spectators. Yet, the biblical motif for the church is one pastor leading an army of ministers (Ephesians 4:11-16).

Spectatorism generally creates flabby, weak, spoon-fed believers who have grown old, but not grown up, in the Lord.  They know more about church policy than evangelism, and are better acquainted with parliamentary procedure than with discipleship.

If we were to diagnose the disease we could say that, on the surface, there seems to be a lack of stamina and determination for ministry.  However, if we were to trace it further, we might find that the lack of ministry stamina and determination is because the people don’t have enough motivation or vision to exercise their gifts and abilities.  This happens when the average church member doesn’t know “how I fit” into the apparent puzzle of God’s purpose.  When we trace this situation all the way to its starting point, quite often we find pastors who lack the courage of their convictions.

Many pastors believe in making ministers in the style of Ephesians 4:11-16 – once maturity is reached, most members of the body are doing their part as ministers and pulling their own weight.  Then the body “grows and builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16).  But this involves sacrifice for the pastor on several fronts.

First, he must cease to be the Big Fisherman – the one doing the lion’s share of the evangelism from the pulpit as well as on a personal basis.  It will mean letting go of certain ministries traditionally given to the clergy so that the laymen can function properly.  Since the New Testament’s description of ministry lists more than 30 different functions, it is obvious that one man cannot possibly do all the ministry.

A major impediment to making ministers is pressure to produce numbers and to grow at a rapid rate.  So often this pressure feeds on the pastor’s ego needs and sense of insecurity, and he sells out to the quick fix.  He takes the shortcut style of fattening up the church in numbers, facilities, and budget.

But making ministers means taking part in the risky business of getting close to a few men and training them in various ministry skills.  This is difficult, especially if the pastor is not accustomed to it, because it takes time to build men.

Also included would be phasing out various programs which are not making ministers, along with forging into new territory to find effective vehicles of discipleship.  This would involve sufficient change for the pastor to be misunderstood and criticized (since the cause of every problem is change).  Be assured that making ministers will make enemies, beginning with Satan and anyone he can recruit in the church.

In spite of this, the benefits resulting from a serious discipleship thrust are so attractive I believe, as to be well worth the necessary adjustments.  The idea of hundreds of ministers involved in the harvest is exciting.  The parishioners are already resident in the harvest field, and after they are trained they become laborers in that same field.

If you would like to get the fat out by making a serious attempt at making ministers, may I suggest a general course of action.

The first step is information.  Get it.  Know what you are talking about before you begin to speak.  Investigate the biblical description for the purpose of the church.  Then determine the best possible method that will facilitate the realization of that purpose.  Remember, the biblically stated purpose of the church is inspired, but the methods employed in working toward the goal are up for grabs.

Read available books on the subjects of discipleship and evangelism.  Along with this, consider the resource material offered by parachurch consulting groups.  If need be, hire a consultant to evaluate your local situation and allow him to suggest a tailor-made program for your specific needs.

Once again know what you are talking about.  Be able to articulate your position based on a biblical apologetic and the benefits of pursuing a course of action.

The second step is communication – selling the vision to the congregation without alienating those who do not understand (which, by the way, will include a good share of the leaders in the average congregation).  Do not draw lines in the sand and ask those who are truly spiritual and mean business with God to step over to the discipleship side.  Jesus didn’t use this method until His followers were mature, so we should not expect anything more of the average churchman.  The key to effectively selling the concept of evangelism and discipleship as the heart of the church program lies in painting an attractive portrait of the possibilities of how everyone can make a contribution, and how everyone counts.

The parishioners must see how they fit into the big picture.  Once they see this and understand how everyone works together you will have them on your side.

The third step is execution.  Put it to work.  The proof, as someone has said, is in the putting.  Execution is the Achilles heel for a great many programs in general and discipleship in particular.  We may possess the knowledge to make ministers – along with the best sales technique – and the lion’s share of the church may be “chomping at the bit” to get the fat out.  But unless the vehicles we have designed to make ministers are successful, the resurrection of parishioners and program alike is next to impossible.  I’d suggest these ways to avoid common pitfalls.

First, build the foundation well.  Think big, but start small.  Even though the program may not begin with a splash, it will grow into something meaningful.

Second, never expand the program beyond trained leadership.  Nothing will kill your efforts more quickly than nonproductive leaders.  There must be quality control in our disciple-making efforts.

Finally, be patient.  Jesus selected the 12 after a year of ministry.  Don’t give in to pressure, from well-meaning parishioners and fellow pastors alike, to get impressive results quickly.

It is interesting that the most important results the church is told to produce are the most difficult to demonstrate – that is, the fruit of the Spirit.  Many times, the results don’t show up right away in large numbers and the temptation to question the value of what you have committed yourself to can set in all too easily.  But this temptation must be resisted at every turn.

I believe the purpose of the church is to glorify God and the most satisfying way to achieve this is to bear fruit for God.  Bearing fruit is accomplished only by disciples (John 15:8).  Therefore, the Great Commission, by commanding the church to make disciples (Matthew 28:19), ultimately results in God being glorified as disciples in the church bear fruit.

Making ministers is the essence of the church’s task; and as we carry out that task, we shape up the saints and get out the fat.

Bill Hull