What barriers keep Christians from being part of a discipleship community?
For the new book Growing Together: A Three-Part Guide for Following Jesus and Bringing Friends on the Journey, Barna partnered with The Navigators to study how Christians can be and make disciples today. While the majority of Christians experiences some form of relational investment in spiritual growth, two in five (39%) aren’t engaged in discipleship at all.
Perhaps this doesn’t surprise you; in our increasingly individualized culture, 56 percent of Christians tell Barna that their spiritual life is entirely private. Yet, to encourage or enter these relationships, church leaders must appreciate when and how they occur—and understand why some Christians are not involved in them.
Just 28% of Christians Is Actively Involved in Discipleship Community
First, what exactly constitutes a discipleship relationship? It’s not a one-size-fits-all connection, but Barna research looks at a couple key ways discipling occurs.
For this study, researchers identified Christians who were both being discipled and discipling others as those who are fully engaged in discipleship community.
Just over one in four U.S. Christians (28%) falls into this category. Another 28 percent are being discipled, but are not helping others grow closer to Christ, and a very small percentage (5%) is only discipling others.
By these definitions, this means the plurality of Christians (39%) is not engaged in discipleship, in any direction.
Why do Christians engage in discipleship? When it comes to discipling others, top motivations for Christians include growing closer to God and further developing their faith.
Encouragingly, this study shows that is exactly the outcome many Christians are experiencing. Christians in discipleship community are more likely to feel re-energized by time spent with Jesus and derive deep joy and satisfaction from their relationship to him.
They also see a stronger connection between their spiritual life and their day-to-day life. About three in five strongly agree their relationship with Jesus impacts the way they live their life every day.
“It keeps me focused on God’s mission and Kingdom values,” notes a survey respondent asked about discipleship. “I am constantly aware of my own walk. Knowing that I am investing in someone else encourages me to invest in myself, so as not to lead someone else astray. For others, I think it is really encouraging when someone takes a genuine interest in them.”
Feeling Ill-Equipped Is One of Many Reasons Christians Don’t Make Disciples
Those who prioritize discipleship community also prioritize their spiritual life in general, Barna's research shows. In other words, to sincerely travel toward one means arriving at both.
However, there are many Christians who are not actively helping others grow closer to Christ. What holds them back?
Not feeling qualified or equipped (37%) is the main barrier for this group. Additional Barna research shows that disinterest in disciplemaking is tied to a fear of not being good at it, of not having enough knowledge or of being the wrong person for the job. The confidence crisis is a core issue.
Whether because of this personal wariness around discipleship or more general indifference, some Christians who aren’t making disciples seem only to need a push. One in four says the practice of discipling others hasn’t been suggested to them (24%) or they haven’t thought about helping someone grow closer to God (22%).
Interestingly, a lack of external motivation becomes the chief obstacle for Christians who are being discipled themselves but aren’t helping someone else grow in the same way; 31 percent (vs. 19% of Christians not engaged in any discipleship) say no one has suggested or asked that they disciple someone else, making this their top response. This implies encouragement to disciple others might be a key step to advance in this journey of growing together.
Similarly, when Christians don’t have a relationship that provides accountability, support and spiritual growth, the main reason is that they either haven’t thought about it (38%) or they haven’t found someone with whom they want to have this type of relationship (35%). From these responses, we gather that invitations into spiritually fruitful relationships just aren’t naturally occurring.
In summary, Christians tell Barna that lack of confidence, lack of thought and lack of opportunity are the greatest hurdles to discipleship. In Growing Together, Christians, and the churches that support them, can learn more about the transforming power of discipleship, how to prioritize discipleship in day-to-day life—and why Christians may be more ready than they think for disciplemaking.
Additional reading and resources:
- If you’re interested in learning more about day-to-day disciplemaking, check out Growing Together in Barna’s online store or on Barna Access Plus.
- For past research on discipleship in America, check out The State of Discipleship, available both in Barna’s online store and in Barna Access Plus.
- Listen to these recent ChurchPulse Weekly episodes that discuss discipleship: Amy Gannett & Justin Kendrick, Jim Sheppard & Julie Bullock
- Learn what five trends are shaping discipleship among the youngest generation, Gen Z.
About the Research
This quantitative study consisted of two online surveys.
First, an online survey was conducted among 2,511 adults who self-identify as Christian and live within the United States. The adults who completed this survey were randomly selected through online research panels. This survey was conducted from December 22, 2020 to January 18, 2021. The margin of error for the data is +/- 1.8 percent at the 95 percent confidence level, meaning Barna researchers are 95 percent confident that the true national numbers lie within this small margin of error.
Second, an online survey of 2,930 U.S. adults was conducted from June 1 to July 4, 2020. The margin of error for this data is +/- 1.5 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2022