What Thriving Is & Isn’t

Our Vibrant Faith Team has been deeply invested for more than two years with a cohort of churches that have committed to a growth path toward thriving. Along the way we’ve worked to narrow and clarify our definition of thriving. These five markers for thriving seem especially important to us:

  1. Creating inclusive, welcoming settings where Christ-centered relationships are nurtured.
  2. Equipping people to talk about and practice faith at home, and in their daily lives.
  3. Increasing people’s capacity to be present to God and one another.
  4. Deepening connections and partnerships with local congregations and community ministries.
  5. Developing a congregational culture that helps leaders listen, observe, experiment, and give birth to new ministries.

These are not “shoulds” for ministry goal-setting—they’re more like ingredients in the rich soil necessary for thriving disciples. As we work together with the churches involved in our Thriving Congregations project, we’re learning firsthand how challenging it is to measure, promote, and guide people into a thriving relationship with God. Not long ago I asked three ministry leaders—two church pastors and one parachurch leader—to describe what thriving looks like “on the ground.” I chose three areas of pursuit to get at this. Below you can see how each of these three people responded to my questions…

How do you measure thriving? How do you know if someone’s growing as a disciple?
  • Lead Pastor In a Small Midwest Church: The easy answer is, how much do they look like Jesus in terms of their actions and thoughts? Do they talk like Him? Do they love like Him? Do they challenge people in the way Jesus might? Do they look more like Jesus today than they did six months ago? The hard part is—what does all of this look like? How do I talk like Jesus, or act like Him? If people respond to us the way they responded to Jesus, maybe we’re on the right path.
  • Lead Pastor In a Medium-Size Midwest Church: What type of thriving are you measuring—foundational or formational? The first is the same for everyone, the second is different for everyone… Foundational = 1) How active is your relationship with God—praying often, listening often. 2) How has God been speaking through Scripture to you? 3) Are you in community, making significant connections with others in a spiritual context? 4) Are you involved in serving others and reaching others? 5) What is God teaching you today? Formational = Creating space where you can experience God—your particular way of living-out of your relationship with God. This changes constantly, morphing your expression of discipleship to your current calling and circumstances. It’s whatever you do as the result of following Jesus.
  • Parachurch Ministry Leader: Quantitatively measuring thriving is difficult, because growing into the image of Jesus is a gradual growing process. It’s certainly not checkboxes. I think a person has to be involved with another person who’s a little further along, who can prod them along. There has to be enough of a personal journey that you open yourself to be “infected” by the faith of others. The measure is relational. The key question is: Do we see a hunger in the person? Are we seeing an attitude that’s beginning to bend toward Jesus, cultivating the fruit of the Spirit? Are they willing to grow in areas of weakness? Thriving assumes growth. I’m also looking for people who are other-centered, “servants of all.”
When it comes to thriving, what’s the outcome you’re looking for?
  • Lead Pastor In a Small Midwest Church: We’re looking for markers that transcend “spiritual dullness.” The outcome we’re looking for is tied to how people love others.
  • Lead Pastor In a Medium-Size Midwest Church: I’m looking for the fruits of the Spirit, the evidence of Jesus having greater and greater influence in their lives, resulting in fruit. That means they have an awareness of their gifts and their calling. I’m not looking for impact—I’m looking for someone whose life produces the fruit of the Spirit, and is calling-oriented.
  • Parachurch Ministry Leader: Is the person teachable, hungry to learn? Are they moving forward, going deeper, no matter what their starting point? I look for growth in the areas of growth they’re targeting.
Why do many people believe in God but don’t actively pursue thriving as disciples? What do you think might change that?
  • Lead Pastor In a Small Midwest Church: It’s Peter’s question, after Jesus asks His disciples (in John 6) if they’re going to abandon Him as the crowds have just done: “Where else would I go?” Translated, this means “I’ve tried other answers, but Jesus is the only answer.” A thriving person has embraced this reality—that Jesus both resolves and creates tensions in my life at the same time. People don’t actively pursue because we’ve given them lesser targets to go after—but if we’re determined to help them learn more about the heart and character of Jesus, they are magnetically drawn to Him. And there’s an element of approaching Scripture as an innocent, with no preconceived notions—people who put themselves under that text can be transformed by it. We need people who will encourage us to go down the rabbit hole toward Jesus.
  • Lead Pastor In a Medium-Size Midwest Church: A lot of people talk about the Greek teaching model—transferring information. That’s not what Jesus was doing—He transferred life. He didn’t say, “Think this way.” He said, “Be like me.” Paul picked up on the same thing: Follow me as I follow Jesus.
  • Parachurch Ministry Leader: As a church, we eat, sleep, and breath small groups. We do everything we can to knit people into a small community. The structure must be relationally driven. And we make it as easy as possible to get involved in this. Small groups can’t seem like just another program. Many people don’t know where to start, when it comes to thriving as a disciple. They’re not self-starters. They hear all of our announcements, but they don’t know what the faith-formation path really is. They know the church wants them to come back, and maybe even give, and maybe get involved. But generic involvement doesn’t translate to discipleship. We have roadblocks to growing, but no one has gotten to know us well enough to help us over those roadblocks. We need up-close relationships to do this. It’s not hearing a preacher give a sermon. Churches tend to focus more on the crowd than the one-on-one relationships Jesus advocated and modeled. He specifically said He goes after the Ones, leaving the crowd “grazing” on the hillside.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.




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