The other day, I found this on the counter—my middle child’s latest work of art.
Of my three kids, she, by far, is the most spunky and sassy of the group. She’s not yet in school, but is five years old and learning to write and draw. If I told you I received this from my 10-year-old, you might be a little worried. And if I told you my wife gave it to me, you’d be really concerned. Our expectation is, as we mature, our written and verbal communication skills improve.
Good teachers know how to challenge us appropriately for our age and developmental season at each grade level. The same goes for our spiritual growth. We mature when someone helps us see our next step and encourages us to take it.
The problem with spiritual growth is that most of us see it similarly to my five-year-old’s creations. We say, “Look at all of these things I’m doing!” We equate activity with growth. But unfortunately, the “picture” of our life of faith is anything but coherent. It often lacks real depth and maturity.
This is what makes life difficult for those we lead in our local churches. We get on stage and tell people to join a group if you’re going to grow. And while you’re at it, make sure you serve on a team, invest in the next generation, read your Bible, pray, tithe, worship Jesus consistently, go on a mission trip, take a class, and mentor someone. Oh yeah, don’t forget to share your story with lost people, go on a marriage retreat, and lead a nightly devotion with your kids.
Talk about decision paralysis. Most people in our congregations can barely keep up with their email inboxes, much less the litany of things they’re commanded to do in the announcement time slot on Sunday mornings. “Which one am I supposed to do?” people ask. When everything is important, nothing is, which leads the rule-followers to try to do them all, losing sense of margin and boundaries. It often leads the rule-breakers to not doing anything.
So how do we help each attendee know which step is the right step in his or her unique stage of spiritual development? How do we help the guy struggling in his marriage, yet has never admitted it to a soul, consider our marriage enrichment class? How do we help the lady who thinks she’s thriving in her faith, yet is really not as spiritually mature as she thinks, take our basics of theology track?
Isn’t this the issue in so many of our churches? We find ourselves in one of two categories:
- We have great, life-changing ministries that aren’t easily accessible.
- We have easy pathways into our ministries, but they don’t match the needs of those we’re called to lead.
This is the disconnect between spiritual formation and assimilation, which is the process of fully engaging a new church member into the life of your church.
We struggle to connect people to ministries that are going to spur them on spiritually in a way that matches their stage of faith, past and current struggles, and unique personalities. A study done by Willow Creek Church showed us that participation in church activities alone "does not guarantee or drive long-term spiritual growth.” In other words, activity alone doesn’t produce growth .
A Way Forward
Let’s start this process by asking ourselves two questions:
- What does thriving spiritually look like in your context? Jesus said these words: "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) What does abundant life look like in your church and specific setting?
- What things (activities, disciplines, relationships, service opportunities, trips, etc.) have influenced you as you’ve personally progressed through the stages of spiritual growth? Don’t just think about where you are right now in your faith. Think about where you’ve been, and what has helped you get where you are now.
These two questions help us close the gap between assimilation and spiritual formation by putting the right steps in front of people—this is where growth begins.
At the church where I’m on staff, we’re launching a new ministry to do just this. We’re calling it Thrive Track. We have people take an initial spiritual assessment where they answer faith questions, note challenges they’ve faced in their life, and uncover passions and personality drivers. Then over the course of four weeks, we talk about what thriving in Jesus looks like. At the conclusion, we put a personalized spiritual growth plan into their hands for them to begin more intentionally owning their faith walk.
-Ben Reed is the Adult Ministries pastor at Mission Community Church in Gilbert, AZ, overseeing groups, missions, care, and Next Steps. He’s been on staff at various churches of widely different sizes. Ben and his wife, Laura, have 3 kids, and love being active together as a family.