My hunch is that most church leaders have heard this said at some point in their congregation — usually as someone was getting ready to worship elsewhere.  I know that hearing this would certainly cause me to reflect on my effectiveness.  But, how might a congregational leader most helpfully unpack this statement?

Two entwined questions have helped me make sense of this comment.

• Whose responsibility is spiritual growth?
• What does spiritual growth require?

This week, we’ll tackle the first question.  Next week, the second question. 

“We’re just not being fed spiritually.”  It feels like and, honestly, is probably intended as an accusation: “You’re not doing your job. . . and so we are leaving.”  When people come to a congregation, they are looking to grow spiritually.  There are a lot of places in our society to make friends and lots of activities to keep one busy about town.   No place but the church, however, promises to help people connect and walk with Christ.  These days, people want to experience God afresh and to receive the guidance and strength and purpose that comes from a living relationship with God.  When people come to church, they may not say it that concisely or in those exact words, but at some level that’s what they are looking for: help growing spiritually closer to God.  And when they say, “We’re just not being fed spiritually,” they’re really saying, “It’s just not happening for us.”

What spiritual leader doesn’t take pause when someone essentially accuses us of not being effective at the one thing every congregation is called to do: helping people mature as disciples of Jesus Christ?  But let’s be honest.  Can anyone make someone else grow spiritually?  The answer, of course, is, “No!”  So what can a congregation do to help their members grow spiritually?  Generally speaking, I think there are four things:

• Congregational leaders can keep the congregation’s main focus on spiritually growth. 

This is not always as easy as it may first sound.  Lots of things can crowd in and shove spiritual growth out of the spotlight: raising money, caring for church members, programmatic busyness, taking care of the facilities, continuing the congregation’s traditions.  There are all sorts of good things that crowd out ‘making more and better disciples’ as the congregation’s primary agenda.  

Saturday, the pastor of the congregation where I worshiped said, “Our congregation is about spiritual transformation.  We’re all about being on a spiritual journey.  The journey involves each of us responding to Christ’s call to come closer to him – without fear, knowing that he loves us no matter what – and then – because he loves us too much to leave us just as we are — to learn to live life his way as we join him in ministry to others.” 

Is your congregation’s main thing helping people grow up as disciples of Jesus Christ?  There are lots of ways to word-smith this.  (“A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.”)  But in all honesty, if someone came to worship a couple of times in your congregation, would they know that your congregation is above all else committed to helping people transform through opening up to and obediently following Jesus?  Would they know that your leaders’ desire – even expectation – is for people to be moving forward in their spiritual journey?

• Congregational leaders keep spiritual growth central in their own lives. 

As one church leader puts it, “Speed of the leaders, speed of the team.”  Unless the key leaders are persons of spiritual maturity who continue to cultivate their own spiritual lives with discipline, obedience and expectant joy, this will not be normative for the congregation.  Faith is caught as much as taught.  People won’t commit in a congregation to something they don’t sense is a genuine priority in the personal lives of their leaders. 

If it is one thing that the younger generations are looking for it is authenticity.  They have grown up being sold everything imaginable through every media.  They are discerning and can spot phoniness pretty quickly.  They want something real, something authentic.  And unless they sense that there is genuine spiritual vitality in the leaders, they will eventually move on disappointed.  And they should.

• Congregational leaders can provide people in their congregation with the tools that are needed to support and encourage their spiritual journey.

I’ll be more specific about this next week, but for now what I want to say is that it is the responsibility of congregational leaders to provide the tools and opportunities that make spiritual development most likely.  Most of these are no mystery to any of us.  People need fresh experiences of God in worship.  People need to be in the nurturing community of a small group.  People need to learn how to read Scripture listening to God’s voice.  People need to learn how to keep their own spiritual life alive and alert throughout the week.  People need to discover how God has prepared them uniquely for ministry and have opportunities for living this out.  There isn’t one set way of helping people make progress on their spiritual journey.  People are different; generations are different; congregations are different.  The important thing is not offering a certain set of traditional or denominational programs, but, learning from the experience of the Christian tradition, discovering what is actually effective in your context to help people become more like Jesus and join him in Kingdom ministry.  A congregation’s leaders must constantly be looking at the tools for spiritual growth that they are offering their people and asking, “Are our people really becoming more like and acting more like Jesus?”

• Congregational leaders can help people understand that ultimately their spiritual growth is their responsibility.

A piano teacher can show a student how to play and give her feedback, but the teacher can’t practice for the student.  A doctor can teach a patient how to lose weight, but the doctor can’t exercise for him or make him eat more sensibly.  It is the same way in the spiritual journey.  A small group leader can help someone know how to read scripture listening for God’s voice, but then it is that person’s responsibility to actually read their Bible regularly with open obedience.  A preacher can eloquently and creatively communicate Jesus’ teachings, but only the person in the pew can choose, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to put those teachings into practice day by day.  The fact is that most congregations have educated people far beyond their level of obedience. 

That’s in part the discovery Willow Creek leaders share in Reveal: Where Are You?, co-authored by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church.  In the long run, congregational leaders desiring for their people to move forward on their spiritual journey need regularly to remind them that while their church can provide them with the tools to grow spiritually, it is up to each person to assume responsibility for their own spiritual growth by taking advantage of those tools.   Reading this thin book helped me realize that for many years I didn’t help people recognize that their spiritual growth was up to them.  We could support, encourage, invite, confront, educate, and provide opportunities and tools – but, the bottom line is: we can’t do it for them. 

Blessings,
Jeff

Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Office of Congregational Transformation

Posted by Jeff Stiggins in Getting Started, Leadership Development

14 Responses to ““We’re just not being fed spiritually.””

  1. Nate Boles on August 24th, 2009 3:15 pm

    ‘We are not being fed spiritually’ too often reflects the capitalist-materialist-consumerist mindset of modern American society, i.e. ‘Here we are, feed (entertain?)us.’ Jesus said we find our lives in losing them; that we best follow Him in serving the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. God told Abram to go in faith and He would make of him a blessing. He was not told
    to simply wait around for the ‘blessings to flow.’ When people say they are not being spiritually ‘fed,’ I ask them what service are they performing in Christ’s name? Only as we decrease does Christ increase; only as we move from egocentricity to Christ-centeredness through meaningful, heartfelt ministry
    does His grace abound. In a Laodicean society built on selfishness and greed, it is hard to promote the Christian ideals of selflessness and sacrifice, but we must keep trying. We must take the focus away from ourselves and place the focus on Christ and a suffering world .

  2. WC on August 24th, 2009 3:44 pm

    This is a concern of mines too, however when you are getting the word out but still no one listens to what is being said. It is like it goes in one ear and out the other with nothing to absorb this new information. The church I serve is a small rural church and they prefer I believe a more charismatic type service and delivering approach. I even have a fair showing of people coming to bible study. When I asked them what is the problem they usually tell me nothing is wrong with you but it is some of us that is not receiving the message. I try to take my time to deliver God’s message but I am not getting through to them. The bible teaches that the Lord word shall not return back void. I hope this discussion is continued. Feel free to e-mail your answer.

  3. WC on August 24th, 2009 6:44 pm

    Not being fed spiritually. I am reminded of the Methodist founder of when Wesley first started in ministry how he had a problem with preaching out in the open air. It wasn’t until he was invited by his friend George Whitefield to preach and what success Wesley had. Wesley wrote it was like Jesus preaching to the 5000 on the side of a mountain or if you believe Luke version out in the plain. The song Lift Him Up: “How to reach the masses, men of every birth, for an answer Jesus gave the key: And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. Lift him up, Lift him up, Lift the precious savior up, Still He speaks from eternity: And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, Will draw all men unto Me.” Beloved we must lift up the name of Jesus. For that is the key to solve all of the problems of the world today. This world have grown secularized and the only remedy is to preach and proclaim Jesus!

  4. Brinda LeBleu on August 24th, 2009 9:42 pm

    Well said! I am looking forward to the second question. Many thanks. Brinda LeBleu

  5. Emilio Chaviano on August 25th, 2009 11:42 am

    Great discussion and much needed. Let’s make sure we do not confuse “spiritually feeding” with catering to whetever a congregation or individual members want to hear. The gospel of Jesus is very counter-culture and the most radical message people need to hear and act upon. Many will be driven away by the “demands” Christ places on us. I agree that we can find out how other congregations/denominations bring people to engaged discipleship. However; let us not dismiss our Methodist heritage and how it addresses these matters. We should not diminish “the Methodist Way” in favor of more generic expressions of disciplined Christian living.

  6. Nate Boles on August 25th, 2009 12:08 pm

    Well said, Emilio! Visiting recently in the home of a church member, I noticed one of those paperweights with an insect embedded in lucite.
    He looks like the other insects; wings, legs, etc., but is imprisoned in the clear resin.
    Too often the radical message of the Carpenter from Nazareth is like that: visible, but encased in American culture, and often powerless.
    The authentic Gospel is, and has always been counter-cultural, and is diametrically opposed to our’s, preoccupied as it is with the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and political power.

  7. Dan Casselberry on August 25th, 2009 12:09 pm

    I agree with what is being said.
    And while it is always pause for self-evaluation when someone says something like that or leaves the church for similar reasons, it is usually a reflection of their expectations as much as it is of our performance. Sometimes persons get attached to a certain style used by a radio or Tv preacher who will tell them “If your preacher doesn’t preach just like I do (verse by verse for example)he is not preaching the Bible.” This is not necessarily true and it is shortsighted but it does happen occasionally. I tell them that I disagree that I am not preaching the Bible and I am sorry I am not meeting their needs, but I wish them well at finding someone who does. It still hurts especially when it someone for whom you have shown support and caring or has been involved in leadership for a little.

    Sometimes criticisms come simply because said complainer is not getting enough attention from pastor or church leadership.

    On the other hand, if the preacher is enthusiastic about what God is saying in His Word and to our church today and allows that enthusiasm to come through in the message, people will usually take notice and pay attention.

    As one seminary professor put it: It takes both fire and light. The light is the scripture and the fire is the Holy Spirit. I highly recommend the book Preaching in the Spirit by Dennis Kinlaw. If you can’t find a new copy buy an old one.

    I find it helpful to review the verses God used to pull at my heartstrings to do pastoral ministry: Isaiah 61:1-3. Then ask myself: Am I doing what God called me to do? Do I rely on His Spirit to help me or do I try and do it in my own strength? If the Lord reassures me I am doing what He called and equipped me to do, then I can rejoice and give thanks for those who have been encouraged to grow spiritually.

  8. WC on August 26th, 2009 12:30 am

    We are just not being fed spiritually but read on what James the brother of Christ say about it in James 1:17-27.

    As I traveled along the way talking with people that I meet and meditating on that still voice that come to me while I travel on this road to glory. This text begins by James acknowledging that he is a servant of God first, and of the Lord Jesus Christ. James teaching in vv 2-3 to count it all joy when you fall into temptations and lusts of your heart being deceived night and day because we are living now in some evil times. James warns us not to have two natures within us as v. 8 describes it. What James was saying you are either going to love the one and hate the other (Luke 16:13).
    Beloved for the people of God in ancient Israel, it was life giving to live in accordance with the statutes and ordinances that the Lord commands. There was and is life in the Torah, that is, the Torah provides the guidelines that are necessary for a person to live in responsive interaction with God. Beloved the primary emphasis is on the commandments and ordinances that are in the Torah, the stories about the responsive interaction with God and often times of the lack of responsive interaction (communicating) with God of the people as portrayed in the Torah are also vitally important. We can and should point this out as “gospel” not just this Sunday but it should apply to your lives daily.
    James continues in this teaching mode in v. 13, by telling us that God does not put any of His creation to the test. God is aware of what is happening but God does not cause it. The God I serve is a good God and a father a trusting friend in the time of need. Since God is involved in human destiny, can God be blamed for human failure? God is a good God; although He is aware of what is happening but He is not the cause of your calamities. Beloved critical to this discussion is the shift in the Greek word “peirasmos” in v.13 meaning “testing” contrasts to “tempting,” what James deals with is not things that befall upon from the outside, but it is the result of our own selfish lusts and desires. There is an old saying an “idle mind is the devil workshop.” Although wrong thinking on our part can lead to Satan’s control but in this case Satan is not the cause of bad things when it happens to us.
    This is why the “bad news” of the text is v.20, “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God”. Beloved we have a lot of stuff that is bottled up on the inside of us. Sometime we are our own worst enemies. In order to combat v. 20 all of us must put on the qualities of meekness and hearing that will enable them to be reshaped according to the word of truth. It is like the story of the potter in Jeremiah 18:1-4, “I went down to the potter’s house. Behold! He wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that was made of clay was marred in the hands of the potter. So he made it again, another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make.” God want to remake us into the type vessel that we need to be and only God can do it.
    The problem with this picture returns to the thesis are we being spiritually fed? Or I should ask the question what are you coming here for? Are you coming to receive God’s word or are you coming for a show? God forbid the latter. The bible teaches that when God word goes out it shall not return back void. A lot of public theologians impress you with fancy words or quote from other theologians and the Bible. I do not know about you but my theology is of simplicity. I try to make it plain and simple for a baby to understand. I preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen and His saving grace. Amen.
    This is why the good news of this text is v.25, “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed”. The late Michael Jackson sung about it in his song, “Man in the Mirror”. “I’m gonna make that change for once in my life, it’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference, got to make it right”. Beloved before you can change the world or the church you must first change yourself. Reinhold Niebuhr a modern theologian said in order for one to “Change the World is through Empowering and Equipping the People of God”. Are you one that hears the word but fail to live by it? Then you gain no benefit from instruction. In contrast the person who gazes into the perfect law of liberty (torah) is the one who learns from the examples presented by the teachings (Abraham, Rahad, Job, Elijah) on how to turn faith into deeds and is blessed (vv. 24-25). In otherwords, “So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself” (James 2:17). Listen let me clarify because we know that we are saved by the grace of God through Christ Jesus. But in order for faith to work we must do some work. What I am saying the perfect law, the law of liberty (v.25) is virtually synonymous. In this composition, faith, word, law, and wisdom are not dialectically opposed, but are seen as mutually reinforcing gifts from God.
    The million dollar question is how can the bad news in v. 20, “For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God”and the good news in v.25, “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed”, be reconciled? I am glad that you are asking that question because v. 27 teaches by a pure and undefiled religion that resists the measure of the world and shows its authenticity by giving gifts to the poor, and marginalized individuals in the same way God gives to all His creatures but more through His giving of His beloved Son Jesus Christ. Vv. 20-25 can be reconciled if we all walk together and not divided. No one person runs God’s church but we all work, pray, and keep the faith together. We are a part of the body of Christ. Bless is the Man or Woman that can walk blameless before the Lord.
    Once again in closing the late Michael Jackson and other singers challenged us in the song, “We are the World - There comes a time when we heed a certain call, When the world must come together as one, There are people dying, And its time to lend a hand to life, We are the world, we are the children, We are the ones who make a brighter day, So lets start giving”… Wisdom literature such as the “Song of Solomon and Proverbs” challenges the listeners and hearers-to do more than just listen but challenges us to become doers of the Lord’s word.
    In James letter God is the main attraction and His name appears eight times, not as someone who is far from us, but as the One who is most real and defines reality. God has created us, He listens to our prayers, rewards us when we keep His fidelity laws. God gives us all generously and without reproach (v.5), because God is the source of every good gift that comes from Him (v.17).
    Our response to the gospel therefore is to receive that word of God not merely as hearers but as doers of it by providing care for those who are in need, especially for orphans and for widows, and by keeping ourselves unspotted by the evils of the world, restraining our tongues from speaking evil.
    I asked: “Do we really believe this? Is this the understanding of reality to which we are committed”? Did you receive spiritual food or is our spirituality so difficult that we have to hide it in a mirror. Beloved that image that you are looking at is you. It is time to make that change by doing the right thing. Amen!

  9. Don Bolinger on August 26th, 2009 8:06 am

    Well put. It is a great load on the congregational leaders to walk the walk. Unfortunately I find more and more fellow church goers watching and waiting for a leader to slip up than to respond to what they try to convey. Too often when we talk to others whom we see only on Sunday they feel that that one hour full fills their requirement to being a Christian. Courses like Refocused Living, and Beginnings certainly have made me look at myself and the areas I can serve as an example. Too many folks of the bygone era find themselves stuck in “Rote” religion and cannot break the mold. That is not working today in a predominately contemporary society. Wesley would really be taken aback with the I,WE, ME attitude that undermines our purpose for being a member of a church body. Jesus did not give up and neither should those of us who believe that “Fully Relying on God”, and find JOY (putting Jesus first Others second and Yourself last) is the road to spiritual fulfillment.

  10. Paul T. Machtel Sr. on August 26th, 2009 11:22 am

    Jeff,
    Thank you for your article. For years I have felt the responsibility to feed myself by being grounded in the Word daily, so I can come to church on Sunday to worship our Lord God.
    We also can and should enrich our walk with corporate study, i.e. Sunday school, small group and then share that knowledge with others.

  11. Martha Clark on August 27th, 2009 10:06 am

    We are appreciating and sharing your blogs on discipleship. Our TTUMC Discipleship Team is clear about our mission and working toward identifying and providing learning experiences which fit into specific stages of faith development.
    NOW — you are SO Right about the person needing to/wanting to grow in his/her relationgship with Jesus Christ/God/Holy Spirit — just as a person has to make their personal response to accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. Please give us some insights into this “how” — if possible!
    Thanks for your interesting and helpful blogs.

  12. Lana Siak on August 28th, 2009 5:03 pm

    Rev.Dr. Jeff Stiggins

    How true. We can only drive the horse to the river but we cannot make him drink.

    I am blessed because in my Sunday school, one lady in particular keeps telling me that she is uplifted and spiritually fed by my teaching. The last thing she told me before leaving for vacation is that when she returns next Sunday she will bring a friend to the Sunday school class.

    I am so happy and blessed, I can never do without the Lord. I need Him and He provides.
    Servanthood is an honor.

    Lana

  13. Dan Casselberry on August 29th, 2009 9:31 pm

    There is a difference between being fed spiritually and growing up spiritually which carries with it not only the connotation of maturing in faith and love but also assuming responsibility for others and service in community and witness to the world.

    Our challenge is to set a right example.
    Our comfort is that the Spirit gives us power and grace to do it.

  14. sandra742 on September 9th, 2009 10:24 am

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

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