Can Low Commitment Churches Make Disciples?

Posted by on May 10, 2010 in good idea! | 9 Comments

I recently sat through a three-hour service, with well-behaved children and a one-hour sermon in the package—and that after an hour-long Sunday School class. Only the occasional sermon is devoted to tithing, and yet 80% of the congregation tithes. But one feature in particular caught my attention: in 45 minutes of non-stop singing (worship and praise time), I heard no grand hymns of the church, only typical praise songs of the sort one might hear in any “contemporary” worship service.

Yet a customary criticism leveled at churches that sing only these “mindless” praise songs is this: how can we expect to form mature Christians when all they sing are worship songs without Scripture or “doctrinal” content. Two observations come to mind. One is that this church’s choice of worship songs “lite” does not appear to dilute the devotion and commitment of its members. And I wonder how those of us in mainline and even some traditionally evangelical churches would respond if that question were put to us. While we are wearing out our time-tested hymnals, have we in fact produced mature and knowledgeable believers? In other words, maybe the song selection has little or nothing to do with the question of spiritual maturity.

I think the problem is systemic, hidden deep within our institutions. One of the first books to attempt an explanation for why mainline churches were losing numbers in the late sixties was Dean Kelley’s 1972 sociological study, Why Conservative Churches are Growing. He argued that high commitment churches—churches that give you a reason to shuffle off to church on Sunday morning—attract more people than low commitment churches which require little of its members. Yet it is precisely this issue that continues to haunt us: we silently envy the laudable benefits of high commitment religion, but are theologically or practically ambivalent about employing the strategies necessary to achieve those effects.

I need to enter three caveats here. One is that our profile of a mature disciple of Jesus will vary along the ecclesiastical spectrum, even when we use the same words. A mature conservative evangelical, fundamentalist, pentecostal or charismatic will know their way around the Bible and can memorize numerous verses, generally attend church-related spiritual programs throughout the week, give generously to the church and mission, and place a high priority on evangelism, locally and globally.

A mature disciple in a mainline church may not differ much in theory, except that they will be expected to be more theologically nuanced (translate, less literal) in interpreting Scripture, express a greater appreciation for the church’s tradition, be more culturally sophisticated in hymnody and liturgical practice, and view mission more in terms of responding to social needs and justice in society.

The second caveat is that many pastors in low commitment churches do struggle deeply with the pressure to compromise the church’s teachings. The response was palpable following the publication of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s provocative book, Resident Aliens (1989). Pastors confessed they felt like ecclesiastical prostitutes, offering religious services without requiring commitment.

Third, no church is simply culturally compromising or counter-cultural. Evangelical and pentecostal/charismatic churches are high commitment in terms of their doctrines and certain moral standards. But they are low threshold in terms of worship styles. Mainline churches, on the other hand, are theologically and ethically low threshold, more “in step” with cultural shifts in ideas and mores. But they are traditional (high threshold) in their worship, preferring pipe organ, choirs and traditional hymnody.

There is undoubtedly an important link between Christian teaching/beliefs and practices. The question is where these two intersect in a congregation. The link is seldom direct and observable, but subterranean and systemic. Where will we find doctrinal and theological “input” within the congregational system in a way that produces maturity in its members?

While this may suffer from over-generalization, let me suggest four profiles that may help us understand our own church and others better.

Profile 1: Traditional Pentecostal/Charismatic

  • Participation: high commitment to the spiritual programs of the church outside of Sunday worship; e.g. involvement in Sunday School by both children and adults; greater number at weekly midweek services
  • Educational curriculum: high commitment to biblical content, and earlier introduction of Christian doctrine
  • Worship: low commitment to theological content in hymnody (except for those churches that continue to use a hymnal); low to medium commitment in preaching (a few pastors with a “theological bent” may preach the occasional doctrinal sermon)
  • Practices that support core doctrines and values: medium to low commitment to “tarrying meetings” for Spirit baptism; high commitment to camps and regional events for children and youth to guide them in making an early commitment to Christ

Profile 2: Evangelical (including some Pentecostal/Charismatic) Seeker Churches

  • Participation: medium to high commitment outside Sunday worship, including Sunday School; small groups are emphasized, but theological content is a lower commitment than building community and support; midweek activity is devoted to these cell groups
  • Educational curriculum: low commitment to doctrinal and theological formation; focus is on practical living
  • Worship: low commitment theologically in both hymnody and preaching; “evangelistic” focus is on connecting with the practical needs of the worshipper
  • Practices that support core doctrines and values: low commitment to doctrine, though higher commitment to core values of reaching the seeker and mirroring the “needs” of the culture

Profile 3: Traditional Evangelical

  • Participation: high commitment to participation outside Sunday worship, including Sunday School for all ages and mid-week Bible study and/or prayer meeting; mid-week service might include a sustained study of a book of the Bible or a doctrinal theme
  • Educational curriculum: high commitment to the doctrinal beliefs of the church; Sunday School curriculum will be rigorously biblical; doctrinal teaching is designed to reinforce the theological identity of the congregation
  • Worship: high commitment to doctrinal content through use of the traditional hymnal (even if mixed with “praise songs”), and emphasis on exegetical, expository and doctrinal preaching
  • Practices that support core doctrines and values: high commitment to practices that support the church’s doctrinal identity such as Bible study; commitment to theological consistency throughout the life of the congregation

Profile 4: Mainline

  • Participation: low commitment to participation outside Sunday worship; Sunday School for children integrated with worship time, as families are often unwilling to sacrifice the extra hour outside worship; low commitment to weekly adult study opportunities; only short-term education programs are successful (e.g. Alpha); conferences and retreats are attended by the few motivated core members
  • Educational curriculum: low commitment to doctrinal beliefs; Sunday school curriculum may give priority to social ministry rather than to issues of personal discipleship; the view of Scripture may reflect a more critical approach
  • Worship: the doctrinal content is located primarily in the liturgical rites (e.g. the Anglican Book of Alternative Services) and traditional hymns; low commitment to doctrinal preaching, which is possible but not necessary in lectionary preaching
  • Practices that support core doctrines and values: low commitment to practices that support the church’s doctrinal identity; programs for children, youth and adults are sporadic and uneven, and mostly at the initiative of the local congregation; resources from the denomination are minimal, due to lack of finances, commitment, or interest.

The dance between doctrine and practice is tricky. Separating the two can be lethal for

discipling believers, as neither dry doctrinal treatises nor pietistic platitudes will be effective. My interest here has been to take notice of our conventional criticism of one practice, “superficial” praise songs. This sliver in our brother’s eye belies the log in our own, because many of us in the mainline tradition have little cause to boast of the spiritual maturity of our own members.

I do not say this to disparage the riches in my own mainline tradition. But being a low commitment church, with its distinctive European heritage, is the hand we have been dealt. Nevertheless, we are not helpless. Lyle Schaller, patriarch of the church growth movement, once observed that those churches that are most successful in growing do two things: they are committed to proclaiming with confidence what Scripture teaches, and they are consistent in communicating those teachings at every level of the congregation’s life.

That may not be a magic wand. But is it a good place to start.



After leading a congregation in Connecticut into renewal and growth for thirteen years, David became Professor of Pastoral Theology at Wycliffe College in 1987. As Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology and Research Professor, he brings a wealth of experience of congregations of different sizes and in various states of health.


  1. avatar
    Peter Mills
    May 28, 2010

    Dear David,
    Thank you for your article. I am not sure but it seems to me you did not answer your question. Perhaps I missed something here or perhaps you just intended to raise the question. Another question that comes to mind is: how do we call for commitment in a way that doesn’t seem like nagging and laying burdens and obligations on members of the congregation?

    • avatar
      David Reed
      May 28, 2010

      You’re right, Peter. My purpose was to indicate that our criticisms are usually superficial and therefore we miss the deeper issues. Also, hopefully we get to look more honestly at our own problems. To address the matter in a mainline church is complex and I think calls for a more serious strategy, maybe the kind we read about in Good Idea.
      I think I am not particularly optimistic that our local churches are going to be changed dramatically. But I’d love to be surprised!

    • avatar
      Joshua Siu
      June 19, 2010

      Hi Peter, your question for Prof. Reed brought a book to my mind: Milfred Minatrea’s “Shaped by God’s Heart – The Passion and Practices of Missional Churches”. In Chapter 3, the author describes “Missional Practice Number One: Have a High Threshold For Membership”. With regards to your question of how to raise commitment without nagging/laying obligations on the congregation, Minatrea’s reply might be: “Why not make the obligations and expectations clear? And while you’re at it, raise the bar for people.”

      How can we expect and desire the church to be full of passionate people if they do not feel the call to suffer for what they love, as Christ suffered out of his love for all of us? I don’t come from an Anglican background, so I’m not sure how these ideas might translate, especially in defining church “membership”…but perhaps this book, and this specific chapter, might provide some grounds for further discussion.

  2. avatar
    Nola Crewe
    May 28, 2010

    Really simplifies how to respond to those confused about what different churches practice such apparently different worship.
    Do wish you would create a “print” button so that we would not waste so much paper on the left side when copying these articles to pass on to others at church. Not everyone has an email address to which one can send things.

    • avatar
      Ryan Sim
      June 1, 2010

      Thanks for your idea, Nola. Until we do implement a print button, many web browsers will let you select the text you want to print, and print only that selection.

  3. avatar
    David Reed
    May 28, 2010

    Well, I have hung around a lot of different groups, so think my types are generally accurate, though there are always, always exceptions.

  4. avatar
    May 26, 2011

    I agree completely with the premise that high commitment churches make disciples, while low commitment churches do little to help people grow in their faith. Here’s my problem: I’m a Lutheran. How do you encourage (require?) people to live up to commitments without imposing a new Law on them?

  5. avatar
    David Reed
    June 1, 2011

    hi kim,
    to some degree, i think it is a difficult task. the positive side is that i find ‘goods’ in the mainline church that are missing in the conservative evangelical (high commitment) churches. so to some degree it is picking your preferences.
    but let me add that i think there is progress to be made. there are strong evangelical anglican churches. they might not be AS high commitment, but their identity and practices are strong and healthy. i would only say that it is a minimum of a 10-year task to change the identity of a mainline parish. the best case scenario is to match up with a church that knows something is not right and wants to move (at least the core leadership). at least then you have something to work with. one important factor is developing critical mass and an identity that is recognizable, since it will be most long lasting if the church knows how to select your successor. in sum, we cannot change the whole church or the world. but if we can find a parish that wants to change (however vague its desire may be), then go there and plan to stay for at least ten years. and i add that the rewards will likely be greater than you imagined.

  6. avatar
    June 2, 2011

    Thanks for your reply, David. I would LOVE to stay at this church ten years—if they have ten years left. The other thing I failed to mention is that the congregation is located in a decaying “Rust Belt” former steel mill town in Pennsylvania, many of the “active” members (i.e., those who attend worship) are elderly, and virtually everyone has moved out of town to the suburbs. Having said that, they are a congregation which has maintained a weekly soup kitchen for 19 years (through the work of a dedicated, but small and aging band), and host an annual 3 week art show (different leaders, but same demographic). The folks who “get it” really have “gotten it.” This congregation, along with five other churches in town who have weekly soup kitchens, makes a real difference in this community where the unemployment rate is 49%. That’s not a typo. 49% unemployment. However, the attitude of all but these, and a few other folks is: “I don’t care what happens to the congregation after I die, as long as I can be buried from the church.” These are the same people who are afraid to come into the neighborhood unless it is at high noon. The neighborhood is not that bad. I grew up in a similar one, and have worked in similar ones throughout my life as first a professional lay minister, now ordained. I have yet to be riddled with bullets! (Or robbed, raped, stabbed, set on fire, or have packing peanuts thrown at me.) It’s frustrating.

    As a matter of fact, the only time I have ever been a victim of a crime was when my car was stolen in “Toronto the Good” while I was a student at TST (St. Mike’s) back in the late 80’s. (I just realized you are from Wycliffe, and was delighted to discover the connection.) To top it all off, it was stolen from a service station in Missasauga by an employee who cleaned out the cash register on New Year’s day, and took my car for the getaway vehicle! (I had broken down on my way out of town for the Christmas holidays and I ended up taking a bus home. Obviously by this time the car had been repaired.) The good news is somehow or other the cops tracked him down in FLORIDA and I got my car back, unscathed. (Although I think it was the Metro Police Force working with the cops in Florida, I still like to think it reinforces the adage “The Mounties always get their man!”) Cheers!


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