Spiritual Formation: Slaying the Elephant in the Church

By Dick Loizeaux

Dallas Willard has written: “…non-discipleship is the elephant in the church; it is not the much discussed moral failures, financial abuses or the amazing general similarity between Christians and non Christians. These are only effects of the underlying problem, the fundamental negative reality among Christian believers now is their failure to be constantly learning how to live their lives in The Kingdom Among Us. And it is an accepted reality.”

George Barna bluntly states: “Stunningly few churches have a church of disciples.” Ouch. And that sad condition is in spite of all our talk of spiritual formation and all of our church discipleship programs.

Since that is true, effective pastors need to become elephant hunters, learning to track and kill anything that gets in the way of real spiritual formation in their congregations.

Ready to hunt? Check these reasons churches fail at discipleship, and see if any apply to your church:

1. The pastor is not hard on the trail of spiritual formation. We believe in it. We are pursuing it. But kind of sporadically. The pressures and problems of ministry crowd out the time we actually invest in our soul formation. Or the adrenaline rush of saving souls lures us away from the hard work of letting God shape our souls. We become busier crafting sermons, solving problems or executing ministries than cultivating our inner life.   

Question: As the spiritual safari leader, do you communicate your personal pursuit of holiness as passionately as your heart for lost people? Are your sermons laced with examples of your spiritual formation journey?

2.  We rely too much on preaching. We have heard the statistics of just how little people remember of our sermon by the next day (less than 10%). We believe that life change happens best in the context of relationships.  Yet when we budget our time and energy, preaching usually gets the lion’s share, so the elephants continue to roam.

Question: Do I act as if what I do during the week to promote discipleship within our church (through discipleship planning, mentoring and coaching) is as important, if not more important, than what I do for a half hour on Sunday morning?

3. We focus on sin management rather than true Lordship. We can become so busy meeting felt needs (a good thing) that we fail to invest in the core issues of surrender, obedience, ongoing repentance, and becoming more like Jesus (the important thing).

Question: How much of our programing and preaching is directed at solving problems and managing sin, as opposed to stirring spiritually driven life transformation from the inside out?

4. We communicate “Support the church” more than “Shape your souls.” We talk about and track whether people are attending regularly, giving generously, and serving actively (all good things), more than we talk about and track whether they are actually growing spiritually in the fruits of the Spirit or the beatitudes. Before you answer that, consider a similar problem that is…

5. We create a church culture where working hard for the Lord takes precedence over the Lord doing the hard work in me.  People will often substitute being busy in multiple ministries for being busy at spiritual habits and disciplines. When we multiply programs and mistake activity for spirituality we are feeding the elephant of non- discipleship.

Question: Do I encourage by teaching, by strategizing, and by example, that people should invest as much in God’s work in them as in God’s work through them? Do they believe I am more interested in their spiritual formation than in their service to the church?

6. We make spiritual formation a cookie cutter program rather than life long journey. As Gary Thomas points out in “Sacred Pathways” and John Ortberg in “The Me I Want to Be,” because God created us all differently, spiritual growth methods that are effective for one person are less effective with another. The pastor who builds or buys a “one size fits all” discipleship program around the disciplines and habits that work for him, is just feeding the elephants of non-discipleship for people who God has wired differently.

7. We fail to define the goal. People only engage in the hard work of spiritual formation if there is a clear goal worth making the sacrifice. Do the people in your church know the goal of spiritual formation? You say, “Sure, to become like Jesus.”  That is true, but not specific enough to motivate effort or measure progress. Have you defined what “Christ-like” looks like in a concise, clear way? Is it the fruits of the Spirit? The beatitudes? The 10 Commandments? Or some other criteria?

Question: If you asked your people what the marks of a mature believer are, what would they say? Would their answer be all external behaviors, or would it touch on heart issues? 

8. We think “programs” not “steps.” Does your church have a spiritual formation plan? Or does it have a cluster of programs (small groups, men’s and women’s ministries, marriage and family ministries, seminars, etc.).  Does your church have a plan that maps the steps that can form people spiritually to be more like Christ in how they think and behave? Does your planning and strategizing intentionally work around those steps? Do you show people how to take those steps? Do you reduce the number of church activities which could distract them from taking those steps? 

Question: If you asked your people how to grow spiritually, could they answer something more than “Read the Bible, go to church, and pray”?

9. We create a process but don’t work the process. If you don’t have a clear goal, a clear plan, and ways of measuring progress, you will never kill the elephant. If staff doesn’t believe that their spiritual formation is essential to their ministry, and that their job is to foster true spiritual formation in the lives of others (as opposed to running programs) you will never kill the elephant. If you bury your discipleship and spiritual formation efforts under an avalanche of other ministry initiatives, you will never kill the elephant. 

10. We read the article. We believe the article.  We are convicted for a couple of days. But we never discipline ourselves to become elephant hunters, so our church never changes.

Question: Where has the Lord convicted me? What is the most important thing for me to do this week to become an elephant slayer, for the sake of my church and my Lord?

For more resources: 

For Gary Rohrmayer’s ebook “Quiet Moments with a Missional Mystic” click here.

For Josh Taylor’s seminar “Building a Culture of Discipleship” click here.



Spiritual Formation, Dick Loizeaux