“Get people involved.” That’s what many church leaders assume is the best thing for new persons. “Get them busy in our church’s activities.” “Maybe not,” according to a study of over 1,000 congregations of different denominations across North America. The purpose of our churches is to help people grow to be more like Jesus – to love God and to serve our neighbor. Being busily involved in church activities is not predictive of spiritual growth. This was one of the surprising findings reported in More: What 1,000 Churches Revealed About Spiritual Growth (published by The Willow Creek Association). Just because people participate doesn’t mean that their hearts and lives are being transformed. So, what can congregational leaders do to help their people grow spiritually? In this and the next four posts, I’ll share with you the five things that people need their congregation to do to help them mature spiritually, beginning with: Get them in the Word!
Well, doesn’t every church do that? Actually, no. According to the Move study of over a quarter of a million church goers, as few as 3% of people in some congregations report that they have established a daily habit of prayer and Bible reflection. (The high was 42%.) And nothing is more predictive of spiritual growth than this personal discipline. In fact, it turns out that daily personal engagement with Scripture is more than twice as predictive of spiritual growth as any other growth catalyst! If congregations did nothing more than teach and encourage persons daily to seek to hear and obey what God is saying to them through Scripture, it would have a profound impact in people’s spiritual vitality.
Here’s another important finding: many people in the study (13% of persons across their whole sample) described their spiritual growth as “stalled out.” And most people reported that they had experienced times when their spiritual growth had stalled. The primary reasons shared were not a personal crisis, but a crazy- busy lifestyle and a lack of personal discipline. Either way, the result was they were investing very little effort in their relationship with Christ, listening to his voice and responding obediently. What they also reported was that they began to regain spiritual momentum by establishing the personal discipline of daily prayerful Bible engagement.
All this suggests a change in what is normally assumed in many congregations. Rather than assuming that coming to worship is the primary catalyst for spiritual growth, this research suggests that the decisions people make throughout the week are the primary determinants of their spiritual growth. So how can a congregation “Get people into the Word” throughout the week? Here are several ideas:
· Leaders need to lead the way personally. Unless pastoral and lay leaders are themselves engaged in daily opening God’s Word, applying it prayerfully to their life and responding obediently, it is unlikely that their congregation will do so. Leaders must model this spiritual discipline in their own lives. And do so with authentic transparency, sharing appropriately with people how God is renewing their mind and reshaping their choices. If people don’t sense that leaders take their own spiritual growth seriously, why should they?
· Make the Bible the main course of every message. A friend of mine, who has coached preaching for years, talks about three-part sermons where preachers “Take a text, leave the text and never come back to the text.” It doesn’t matter whether we start with life and move to Scripture or start with Scripture and move to life, what matters is whether we weave together God’s Word and our world in creative ways that help people hear Christ’s voice with poignant relevance. The message should be a time when we hear God speaking into our lives with both clarity of application and an unequivocal challenge to take our next steps obediently.
· Take away people’s excuses. Find creative ways to make it easier for people to get into the Word throughout the week. Have Bible readings in the bulletin for each day that either develop Sunday’s message or prepare people for it. Email people devotionals daily. Encourage the use of Bible-reading applications, such as YouVersion. Text people links to devotional readings on your website.
· Shine the spotlight of attention on Bible engagement. What receives the light of leaders’ attention grows over time. Teach people how to read their Bible. Talk about establishing a daily discipline of prayerful, reflective Scripture reading. Encourage group leaders to ask people what they are hearing God say to them and how they are applying it. Tell people regularly that daily engagement with Scripture needs to be a personal discipline of every person that wants to grow spiritually. Remind them that their spiritual growth is in their hands. As Wayne Cordeiroputs it: “I can’t your Bible for you!”
· Embed the Bible in everything the church does. Make the Bible less a resource than a defining characteristic of the congregation’s culture. Root everything the congregation does in Scripture so that it becomes the gauge and mirror for everything that is said or done. Spend time at meetings hearing from God’s Word and seeking to apply it obediently in your life together, your vision, values and goals. When struggling with decisions, ask, “What does the Bible have to say about this?”
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence