Survey Gives Clues to Brethren Attitudes on Discipling Ministries

The Church of the Brethren took part in a survey by the Protestant Church-owned Publishers Association (PCPA) last spring when Brethren Press joined with 14 other publishing houses to compare how congregations are encouraging discipleship and spiritual formation.

The survey was conducted by the Southern Baptist-owned LifeWay Research. Their report to Brethren Press compared Brethren with the broader group of all denominations surveyed, and gives general findings for the whole group of congregations who responded. Respondents were asked to report about attitudes toward discipling ministries such as Christian education, Bible studies, and small groups.

The survey received 191 responses from Church of the Brethren congregations, out of a pool of over 1,000. Brethren Press publisher Wendy McFadden noted that this is a good response rate for surveys in general. She commented that the results were interesting, though there were limitations because the survey instrument was developed by representatives of several large publishing houses and was based on their interests and wording.

She noted that it is difficult to reach conclusions about Brethren materials because the questions are somewhat general. For example, they do not compare congregations that use denominational materials with congregations that don’t. Some of the findings seem contradictory, as well. For example, more congregations are writing their own curriculum, and more congregations report use of published curriculum.

Here are a few survey results:

— For all age levels–children, youth, and adults–Sunday morning Sunday school is by far the most important discipling ministry.

— In comparison with the wider sample, when asked “Which of the following does your church have in place to encourage the spiritual growth of your congregation?” Brethren are less likely to have an intentional plan for discipling children, youth, and adults. Brethren congregations also are less likely to have a leader responsible for the spiritual formation of those age groups.

— However, overall over 75 percent agree that their congregation is making significant progress in their spiritual development.

— The most commonly selected area for desired improvement is “more leaders.”

— Brethren are more likely to disagree with this statement: “It is clear which methods and strategies effectively develop and grow disciples today,” and less likely to disagree with this statement: “We have an action or service-oriented approach to spiritual development.”

— When asked about discipling ministries for children, 59 percent do not prefer a chronological approach to the Bible, 61 percent prefer a thematic approach, 90 percent prefer an approach that cycles through developmentally appropriate biblical concepts, and about 70 percent prefer a topical approach.

— For discipling ministries with youth, 90 percent prefer a topical approach.

— Asked how discipleship has changed in the past two years Brethren are less likely to emphasize moving participants to act on biblical knowledge and forming small groups outside of other church activities, and somewhat more likely to emphasize people serving in the local community and building relationships with those outside the church.

— When asked about discipleship programs for children, Brethren are less likely to have programs outside of Sunday school and are more likely to indicate that discipling programs for children are held for less than an hour, as opposed to a full hour or 90 minutes.

— When asked about desired outcomes of discipling efforts with children, Brethren are more likely to select “demonstrate more love in relationships” and acceptance as a desired characteristic, and less likely to select “better understand Scripture and its meaning.”

— Brethren respondents are more likely to report that no ongoing discipleship ministries are currently offered for youth outside of Sunday school. The Brethren also are less likely to report having youth worship, after-school programs, or other events like teen groups.

— With regard to discipleship ministries for adults, Brethren congregations are more likely to have adult Sunday school and less likely to have men’s or women’s groups or pastor-led teaching times other than regular weekend services.

— The results also suggest that Brethren are less likely than others to regularly start new small classes or groups.

— Asked to select desired outcomes or characteristics of discipling ministries for adults, Brethren are more likely to select “better understand Scripture and its meaning” and “learn how to better handle problems,” and less likely to select “witnessing changed lives” and “new leaders being developed.”

— One open-ended question was included: “Over the last two years, what new things has your church done or sought to do to encourage the discipleship and spiritual formation of your congregation?” In the responses, the words “group,” “study,” and “Bible” were among the most commonly used to describe new things that churches are doing.

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