“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12–13)
Nowhere in the Bible is the concept of equipping better defined than the passage above. In the first century, church leaders were responsible for equipping God’s people and empowering them to serve the world. This was the primary responsibility of church leaders. In this context, people who did not know God would experience His grace and mercy through the actions of a committed follower of Jesus Christ. This is the recipe for evangelism, the survival of the church, and spiritual growth.
Something happened, however, that changed the role of church leaders in the church and the world. The institutionalization of the church put more responsibility on the backs of ‘professional believers’ and lowered the expectations on the people. The shift from an equipping model to an attendance model began in the middle of the first century, and it never went away.
But the good news is that, while some churches are fading away, many churches are thriving. These churches are doing things differently. Let’s face it — if the way things have always been done was going to work, it would have worked by now.
The key to expanding your capacity for ministry is not necessarily to hire more staff members. In fact, that might just complicate things. The key is to engage more people in the work of ministry and live out God’s design for his church: to ‘equip the saints for ministry’. The call to the church is to equip people for works of service. How we we respond to that call is very important. Investing deeply in the lives of people, equipping them with the tools they need to lead, and empowering them to engage in ministry is the heart of an Ephesians 4 church.
It begins by investing in people.
The process of equipping and empowering is seen in how Jesus invested in the lives of His disciples. In His last words to them, Jesus makes it clear that all authority is His, and then He puts the work of building the church in the hands of His followers. In short, He equipped them and then empowered them to lead by entrusting His most important mission to them. This was and is the model of church leaders. Yet, many leaders have bought into the idea that their job is to attract people to the large gathering. They hire staff to manage the educational ministry of the church. This is the program-driven model.
The role of church leaders hasn’t changed. It is their job to equip God’s people and empower them for service. That is a biblical mandate, not a suggestion.
It requires empowering people to lead.
How do we know that the equipping strategy of the church is working? The Bible says it will result in people being engaged in ministry. The Bible describes it as spontaneous ministry. Church leaders today like to measure ministry involvement by counting the number of people who showed up on Saturday to pull weeds and spread mulch at the church. That’s not ministry; that’s gardening.
Ministry is focused on delivering God’s hope and grace to people who need it most. Ministry isn’t a substitute for hiring a landscaping crew. Ministry is ongoing and life-changing. It’s not an event on the church calendar. Unfortunately, many of the things people today call ministry are nothing more than organized excuses for not engaging in real ministry
What are the stories of spontaneous ministry happening in your church?
It results in changed lives.
The culture of your church is contagious. You’ll attract more of whatever it is you have. If you have a dynamic environment characterized by life change, spiritual vitality, and community impact, you’ll attract people who want that. If you have an atmosphere characterized by stale programs and stagnant spiritual development, you’ll get more of the same.
Many church leaders want to change the culture of their churches without changing anything else. That desire is as absurd as the statement. And yet, that truth doesn’t stop leaders from creating museums dedicated to a time gone by. The tasks of a preservationist and of an Ephesians 4 church are mutually exclusive.
What evidence of life change do you see in your church? What is causing the life change to take place?
It is a process, not a program.
There have been a number of programs that included ‘discipleship’ in their names. This has caused some people to see equipping as something that takes place in a six-week course offered on Wednesday nights. Often this approach results in people receiving information but not putting it into practice. That’s not equipping. That’s just a class.
Church leaders prefer programs because they have convenient starting and ending points. They fit nicely into the schedule. Childcare is available if the schedules are coordinated. However, authentic equipping can’t be forced into a strict schedule. It is individual and organic, not corporate and structured. It is personal, not universal. One size doesn’t fit all or most.
Equipping others takes time and investment. It can take months or years, not days or weeks. Equipping is face-to-face, not face-to-screen or -stage. Nor is the pastor the only person able to equip others. When God’s people are equipped, they all take on the role of disciple-makers.
How is one-on-one equipping happening around your church?
It is individual, not corporate.
How many times have you heard someone refer to a large gathering, a classroom experience, or even a small group as discipleship? It happens all the time because we know that investing in others is messy. It’s much easier to place hope in programs. Church leaders acknowledge their responsibility for equipping, but they don’t really want (or have the time) to invest in equipping leaders or meeting with people themselves. That’s why they try to do equipping in large groups. Too bad it doesn’t work.
Every person begins his or her journey with Christ at a unique point. Because people’s backgrounds, upbringing, education, religious experiences, families, biblical knowledge, and needs are unique, their discipleship paths are unique. There is no course that works with everyone. Real equipping requires investment and personal attention.
Who in your congregation is deeply investing in the lives of others? How can they serve as an example for others to do likewise? How are you supporting and equipping them?
Equipping is measured, not manipulated.
This can get tricky in many churches because leaders often want to create the illusion of equipping without having the infrastructure in place to make it actually happen. There is a difference between having a plan to equip people to lead and offering Bible studies. What’s the difference? Remember, Like what you're reading? Get the book. discipleship is all about equipping God’s people for service. If the intended outcome is anything other than people serving, you don’t have a equipping plan. Bible studies aren’t bad; just don’t assume every Bible study fulfills the ‘equipping the saints’ responsibility the church has.
It’s easy to manipulate the environment and make it look as if equipping is taking place. Many churches do this without remorse. They assign people to groups based on their demographic or geographic data and hand them content. The groups meet, eat, and talk about the content. Is this equipping? Did anyone become a better spouse, friend, parent, co-worker, or neighbor as a result? If not, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.
It’s not equipping if the effect of the experience ends when the meeting is over. If there isn’t some motivation to act in some new way as a result of the biblical truth that was discussed, equipping never took place. Why? Once again, there was no subsequent work of service, and equipping is all about empowering people to serve God and love others.
How do you measure the effectiveness of the equipping that happens in your congregation?
Spiritual maturity changes the conversation.
Let’s suppose you want to plant a garden. You look out back and realize that the yard is made up of red clay and rocks. You recognize that a garden can’t thrive in those conditions. So, you can scatter seeds and hope for the best, work the soil and make it ready, or give up on the idea.
This is the way it is with equipping. Authentic equipping creates the fertile soil in which spiritual growth flourishes. Without a place to grow, new plants won’t survive. Many churches expect people to be equipped and serve in spite of an environment that doesn’t support spiritual growth. Others prep the soil but forget that you still have to fertilize the plants and pull the weeds. Equipping, like gardening, requires constant care and monitoring and results in fruit.
As people grow in their relationship with God, their conversation turns from self-focused interests to the needs of others. Suddenly, the score of the football game loses its significance. People are more aware of their surroundings and more concerned about the spiritual needs of other people walking through the doors. They stop trying to be interesting and start being interested in the lives of those God places in their path.
Some churches have a tough time equipping people because they haven’t created an atmosphere conducive to spiritual growth. They aren’t serious about what they do. They don’t prep the soil by investing in the people and processes necessary to support success. They are haphazard and disorganized.
Some churches have a tough time equipping people because the senior leader isn’t growing spiritually. When a leader isn’t thriving in their relationship with God, it will be hard for them to encourage others to thrive. Spiritual maturity is taught and caught.
How would you rate the environment at your church? Is it fertile or rocky? Explain your response.
Spiritual maturity addresses most problems.
When a church gets serious about equipping the saints, many of the problems it faces start to disappear. People who are growing in their relationship with God are more inclined to attend worship, serve, give, go on mission trips, invite their friends, and encourage others as they grow in their faith.
Some churches, however, continue to expect people to outperform their levels of spiritual maturity. They want spiritual babies to lead ministries. They expect new believers to suddenly give. They ask people who have never shared their faith to lead a small group.
Churches with dynamic equipping strategies still have issues, but many of the issues other churches face aren’t there. Ephesians 4 churches sometimes have budget surpluses, more volunteers than opportunities, fewer empty chairs in worship, and an ever-increasing need for more small groups and discipleship opportunities. Wouldn’t it be great to have those problems?
List the most pressing issues facing your church. Are they more consistent with the absence or presence of a strong equipping strategy?
Spiritual maturity draws seekers.
Many seekers today are recovering church people. They attended church in the past. They gave up because it grew irrelevant and boring. In an effort to win them back, many church leaders did something brilliant — they invested in a new sound system and robo-lights! Throw more light on irrelevance and the flaws become more noticeable. Give irrelevance a better microphone, and it simply increases the reach of powerless words.
As people begin to grow in their relationship with God, they will tell their friends and family members. As a result, other seekers will begin showing up. They’ve been looking for a place where they could grow in their relationship with God without having to step back in time 20 or 30 years.
Growing people attract people who want to grow. Likewise, complacent people attract people who want nothing more than to go through the motions. Look around your church. The spiritual hunger of those you are attracting is indicative of the spiritual health of your congregation. If people are growing in their faith, you’ll attract people who want to grow. If people are bored with their spiritual lives, you’ll attract spectators.
Based on the spiritual hunger of the people you are attracting, what can you conclude about the spiritual health of your church?
Spiritual maturity breeds leaders.
Leaders attract other leaders — but not when they are spiritually dry or burned out. The effort to identify and recruit new leaders is typically healthy in most churches. The effort to equip, support, encourage, and monitor those leaders isn’t. As a result, highly motivated, attractional leaders begin to feel isolated and unappreciated over time. Suddenly and surprisingly, you get a call from that leader telling you he or she is done.
If you invest in ongoing care of your leaders, they will remain vibrant and fulfilled. They will become magnets for other leaders instead of yet more disillusioned believers circulating out of your ministry.
You must meet people where they are.
There is no one-process-works-for-everyone program you can use to create equipped and empowered leaders. Everyone comes into your church with unique experiences and needs. Some people have no faith background; others need to understand the theological differences between your church and their last church. Many people have been church attenders, but never true disciples.
The only way you can meet people where they are is through personal conversations with each person coming into the church. You need to understand their history, life situation, and expectations. At the same time, you need to help them realize the importance of spiritual growth. Remind them that spiritual growth is expected; it’s not optional.
You must provide a personalized growth plan.
Because there is no standard plan, you must function a lot like an academic institution by offering foundational elements in conjunction with specific ministry-focused equipping options. People don’t want to be forced through a machine; they expect personalized treatment and clear instructions.
If spiritual growth is expected, you should structure your staff to facilitate it. Get the best people you can to invest in others. Give them the resources and tools they need to track people through the spiritual formation process. If this becomes just one of the things you do, you will never lead the church to the depths of spiritual maturity you desire.
What is your process for helping people develop a spiritual growth plan? Who is your point person? What additional resources or tools are needed to help make this area function at its best?
You must mentor people into a dynamic relationship with God.
Spiritual growth is a one-on-one experience. People don’t sustain spiritual development by being exposed to large group environments only. This can be labor-intensive unless you have a leader development process designed to identify, equip, and empower new leaders to walk alongside new believers.
Because it can be so labor-intensive, many church leaders try to accomplish this in bulk. That just doesn’t work. Everyone starts in a different place and has different goals. There isn’t a universal process that will produce equipped and empowered leaders. Jesus never discipled people as a group; He dealt with them one on one. If discipleship according to Jesus is personal, then it must be personal for us. Mentoring others is the highest calling of church leaders today.
You can spend your time attracting a crowd, or you can spend it investing in individuals. One strategy will weigh down your organization; the other will energize it.
Who are some people you know who can start mentoring new believers? What changes do you need to make so you can create an atmosphere where one-on-one engagement is the norm?
You must invest for the long term.
Following the Ephesians 4 model requires a significant stable of healthy, vibrant leaders. You can’t stop loving on them after they have signed up to lead.
Far too often, we find a new leader and release them to serve a purpose in our church. This looks and feels great on the surface, but if you stop there, you are probably experiencing a revolving door of leadership in your church. Leaders come and go without a robust strategy to provide ongoing training, support, and monitoring
This feels daunting at first. But what if you refocused your paid staff towards this goal? If your leaders are caring for other leaders who in turn care for the flock entrusted to them, you distribute the workload of ministry, foster equipped leaders who equip others, and create a multiplying culture that can’t be stopped.
We’ve talked a lot about what to do. Now it’s time to take a step toward engaging more people in your church in ministry. That is the intended outcome and the fulfillment of God’s design for church leaders to ‘equip the saints for ministry’.
Defining your next step may take a lot of effort, but it’s worth it. If you continue to rely on a few people to do ministry, then you’ll always have a lid on your potential to build community and create a Kingdom impact
Here is a good outline of your next steps:
- Create an accurate picture of where you are right now. It's OK to be critical or brutally honest.
- Define the idea equipping ministry for your church. Be as specific as you can while you dream about what might be possible in your current context.
- Connect where you are to where you want to be. Outline a series of simple, achievable steps.
- Create a timeline and plan that move the organization toward the new reality in a steady but non-disruptive trajectory. Without accountability, nothing will change.
As you think through your response to this challenge, consider everything that might happen when people in your church get excited about what God is doing in their lives and the lives of those around them. It all begins with investing in others. When you actively create an environment where people want to grow spiritually, people will experience life change — both the people doing ministry and the people benefiting from it.