Aug. 24, 2009
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.
Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Office of Congregational Transformation