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discipleship without accountability?

December 4, 2010

The Barna Group just released new findings on the status of accountability (and thus discipleship) within the American church. Click here for the full report, but here are some highlights (all of which are excerpts from the article):

  • A national survey by the Barna Group among people who describe themselves as Christian and involved in a church discovered that only 5% indicated that their church does anything to hold them accountable for integrating biblical beliefs and principles into their life.
  • Barna Group studies among pastors and other church leaders have consistently shown that such leaders have a distaste for initiating any type of confrontation and conflict with congregants. Another barrier is that many followers of Christ are uncertain about the difference between judgment and discernment. Not wanting to be judgmental, they therefore avoid all conversation about the other person’s behavior—except, sometimes, gossip.
  • Americans these days cherish privacy and freedom to the extent that the very idea of being held accountable by others—even those with their best interests in mind, or who have a legal or spiritual authority to do so—is considered inappropriate, antiquated and rigid. With a large majority of Christian churches proclaiming that people should know, trust and obey all of the behavioral principles taught in the Bible, overlooking a principle as foundational as accountability breeds even more public confusion about scriptural authority and faith-based community, as well as personal behavioral responsibility.”

If the people in churches are essentially allergic to accountability and the leaders balk at entering into anything perceived as conflict, it can’t be any great surprise that we have a discipleship crisis in the church.

As many of you know, Huddles (the discipleship vehicle created while I served at St. Thomas Sheffield) sprung from a time when there had been an unbelievable lack of accountability. Sometimes people ask where Huddles came from. The short answer is they came from a very real need to hold leaders accountable after I took over a church rocked by scandal.

Here’s something with a bit more depth into where it all began and why accountability is so crucial if we ever hope to make disciples:

In 1994 I arrived as the new vicar of St Toms and was soon answering questions about the demise of the Nine O’Clock Service (NOS), widely considered the first “post-modern” worship service in the world. Though originally under the supervision of St Thomas’ and meeting in their building, the NOS had moved into their own space and not under the leadership of St Thomas’, allegations began to surface involving widespread sexual abuse by the leader. Still considered one of the largest scandals in the history of the Church of England, St Thomas’ was left with many of the repercussions, as media outlets ran story after story on the now non-existent church service.

I was left as the one answering questions from the media, day after day, week after week, month after month, as we were the church the NOS planted out of. And I wasn’t even there when it all happened!

It was in this climate of cynicism, hurt and fear that a culture of accountability and discipleship was birthed that would lead to the creation of Huddles. Obviously one of the reasons the NOS failed was a lack of accountability and leadership run amok, so creating vehicles, practices and a culture of accountability was vital for St Thomas’. In addition, the church was beginning to experiment and develop Missional Communities (originally called Clusters) that were a decentralized expression of church, involving 30-50 people where discipleship and mission happened, though still connected to a larger church body. If a decentralized expression of church was going to be successful, consistent accountability, discipleship and development of church lay leaders would prove crucial. Huddles would become the connective tissue to the body of the wider church for the leaders. In other words…if we weren’t regularly holding people accountable, everything would just fall off the table. Huddles, with their active practice of accountability, is what held everything together. (You can read more about the history of Huddles here)

I’ve seen what a lack of accountability can lead to and I’ve seen what the presence of it can create.

The idea that only 5% of American Christians are actively being held accountable is just scary to think about.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2010 9:29 am

    This is a really interesting post and something we have been thinking about at college. I have just read “The Rise and Fall of the Nine O’clock service” – most illuminating.

    Yesterday, some of us (St John’s students) were reflecting (with a degree of awareness about our spontaneous, not-yet precisely thought-through, reactions) on personal encounters with Jesus in the gospels and we figured we wanted to know more about Zacchaeus and how he was held accountable as his life continued. What biblical pericopes do you think we can exegete so that we can anchor models for ‘huddles’ to scripture?

  2. Mark Carey permalink
    December 4, 2010 11:20 am

    This is really good. The Barna research if repeated in the UK would show similar issues – there is indeed a discipleship crisis. Huddles are the best vehicle for producing discipleship and I am beginning to wonder whether the most crucial thing I will ever do as a leader is huddle people.

  3. caroline hurren permalink
    December 4, 2010 12:04 pm

    This is so important!

  4. Don McVicker permalink
    December 7, 2010 1:18 am

    I’m surprised it’s that high (5%)!

  5. December 7, 2010 4:32 pm

    In smaller churches here in the US the people want to hold the pastor accountable for things deemed ‘work of the church’, but they do not want the pastor to hold them accountable

    • Bjorn Lervik permalink
      December 30, 2010 4:52 am

      You nailed it Brian, but why do you restrict it to smaller churches? A Pastor

  6. December 8, 2010 9:57 pm

    Excellent thoughts, Mike. Until American Christians recognize that accountability HELPS them move forward in their life of faith, huddles will be hurdles. But once they figure that it’s more benefit than pain, they become the best kind of evangelists about it–I know that’s what huddling has done for me!

  7. Josh Garrington permalink
    December 29, 2010 6:07 pm

    I agree with this whole post.
    I do suspect that the 5% is actually a bit low though. I know I have been part of church leadership that has had to administer discipline. I also know that it is generally not a public disciplining unless absolutely necessary. I would wager to say that 75% or more of any given congregation may very not be aware that the church leadership excercises church discipline. If polled they may answer “no” when the actual answer is “yes”.
    Having said that, I’m not convinced that it is a good thing for the congregation to be un-aware that church discipline is being excercised. I have to do more thinking on that.


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