What can a congregation do to help people grow spiritually? The third most important thing – and implicit in each of the other four things listed in this series – is to help people take responsibility for their own spiritual growth. In other words, remind them that the church can’t do it for them, any more than a doctor can make someone healthy. Now, a doctor can inform, prescribe, challenge and encourage, but ultimately a person has to follow through with what the doctor suggests to get healthier. You don’t lose weight because you go to the doctor’s office; you lose weight because of what you eat and how you exercise between doctor visits. Likewise, a person doesn’t grow spiritually just because they go to church; they grow spiritually because of the choices they make during the rest of their week. How can a congregation help people own their spiritual health?
No church can take responsibility for the spiritual vitality of its members. But a church can come along side to teach, coach, encourage and celebrate as people assume responsibility for their own spiritual growth. Here are three specific ways to do that.
· Teach people that church activity alone will not make them more like Jesus: Sometimes you see people who first come to Christ try to get so involved in the church that they are there every time the doors are opened. The truth is, however, that church activity alone isn’t a great predictor of spiritual growth. This was one of the surprising findings of the Reveal study of over 1,000 congregations (See Move: What 1,000 Churches Revealed About Spiritual Growth (published by The Willow Creek Association). In fact, a much more predictive catalyst for continued spiritual growth is maintaining daily times of prayer, Bible study and reflection. Just coming to church regularly and perhaps going to Sunday school will not help people keep growing spiritually. To keep growing, people will have to make space for connecting with God every day. How are your congregation’s leaders coaching people to take responsibility for growing in their love of God and neighbor?
· Help people learn to feed themselves spiritually: What church leader hasn’t heard someone say, “I’m not being fed here”? It is disheartening to have some of your more spiritually mature persons become frustrated with their congregation for not feeding them. Truthfully, most congregations are organized around feeding more spiritually immature persons. Just as infants can’t feed themselves, new Christians need to be bottle fed, too. But they also need to be taught to feed themselves. People need to be taught to read the Bible for themselves: to understand what God was saying originally and prayerfully to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to them now. People need to be taught to pray for guidance, to seek the counsel of Godly friends, to see the hand of God at work in the world. No parent wants to be spoon feeding their ten year old. Why should church leaders expect those who have been members for a decade to still be as dependent upon preachers and leaders feeding them as they were when first joining? How are your church leaders helping people learn to feed themselves spiritually?
· Help people see clear next steps and challenge them to take them: One of the “Aha!” moments for me in reading Move was hearing that people want to be challenged to take clear next steps toward spiritual maturity. In fact, except for those just beginning their walk with Christ, over 3 out of 4 people, in this survey of over a quarter million church goers, marked that they wanted their church to challenge them to take clear next steps. What does that mean? It means moving in our preaching and teaching beyond “platitudinous, feel-good generalities” (as a friend of mine once put it). It means that we make specific applications of Jesus’ teaching to our daily living – even if it means stepping on toes. In short, we have to help people see how being a Christ-follower isn’t “normal;” it’s better than what goes for “normal in our culture. In the great commission, Jesus told us not only to go make disciples, but also to “teach them to obey all that I have taught you.” We can’t do that without being clear what obedience means in real life . . . and challenging people to step up.
The congregation where my wife and I often worship is one where the preacher walks the line of assuring us that God loves us just as we are, but too much not to challenge us to learn to live life His way. Most weeks, when I come forward to take communion following the sermon, the preacher has dared to get up in my face a bit, saying, in essence, “If you are serious about following Jesus this week then this is what that will look like.” As I knell, with the taste of grape juice and bread in my mouth, I am clear what following Jesus faithfully this week will mean. And most weeks, I commit to doing it . . . and I believe Jesus smiles.
If you find the CE Blog thought provoking,
even if at times irritatingly so, consider forwarding it to
other leaders in your congregation and encouraging them to
sign up at www.congregationalexcellence.com.
Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence