Dr. John B. MacDonald
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Why measure?

In the process of making disciples of Jesus Christ we come to the vexing issue of accurately assessing both the growth of disciples and the effectiveness of the ways used to make disciples

Evaluation is both useful and necessary for two broad reasons. 

First, assessing the growth of disciples from time-to-time informs us whether they are developing toward the desired goals and whether they are ready for the next stages of training and living.

Second, evaluating the progress of disciples discloses whether the training tools and methods we use are effective in moving disciples toward the desired goal. These reviews also help identify what may need to be changed or improved.

As explored in "What is a Disciple?", a disciple is a person who is becoming more like Jesus Christ. How do we determine whether a disciple is more like Jesus today than he or she was a year ago, or even a month ago? 

Modern measurement tools

What modern tools are currently used to determine the progress of disciples? 

If you conduct some internet searches of phrases such as “evaluating discipleship” or “measuring spiritual growth” you will discover a host of results. Many, if not most, modern approaches to measuring discipleship or spiritual growth in the Western world are self-evaluations of certain behaviors

Typically, the behaviors measured include:

  • regularity and length of Bible reading and prayers;
  • church attendance and involvement in identifiable ministries such as small groups or short-term missions;
  • financial giving; and,
  • communicating the gospel.

As important as these behaviors are, can a person engage in these activities and still not be developing as a disciple of Jesus Christ? On their own, do these activities provide accurate insights into spiritual growth or progress as a disciple? 

At least two deficiencies exist for a self-evaluation approach of selected activities. 

First, an individual is not usually the best judge of his or her character or growth. We can discern thoughts, emotions, motives within ourselves that may not be observed by others. However, being objective in assessing self-knowledge can be difficult. If Judas Iscariot self-evaluated his development as a disciple of Jesus Christ, what would he have said? 

Second, is whether these tools measure the right things. Making disciples of Jesus Christ impacts all areas of life, not just the religious bits. Dallas Willard observes that when we measure such things as church attendance and Bible reading we are measuring the wrong things. He continues, “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.”

One attempt toward a more accurate and useful measurement of spiritual growth is presented by Brad J. Waggoner in his book The Shape of Faith to Come: Spiritual Formation and the Future of Discipleship. Waggoner focuses on seven domains and the answers to questions relative to a defined biblical truth. These domains are: learning the truth; obeying God and denying self; serving God and others; sharing Christ; exercising faith; seeking God; and, building relationships. 

Although Waggoner’s comprehensive survey is an improvement in some ways, it still suffers from the two deficiencies we identified: measuring the wrong things and the unreliability of self-evaluation. As to the first, Waggoner’s approach is still weighted toward religious-type behaviors rather than all areas of life.  Second, he observed that the respondents’ self-perceptions that they had grown spiritually over the previous year were inconsistent with the evidence collected. 

What assessment methods do we discover in the Bible? That is for the next post.

This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, The Matthew Paradigm: reclaiming a way for being and making disciples. To get further resources and news subscribe here.

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Photo credit: Photographing Travis on Visualhunt / CC BY

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