Thursday, December 16, 2010

Beginning Critique of A New Paradigm for Organizational Theory

Margaret Wheatley has written a fascinating book, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (Berrett-Koehler, 2006), in which she employs insights from the "new" science (post-Newtonian physics and so forth) to posit organizational theory change. Using chaos theory and quantum physics as well as self-organizing living eco-system theory, she says that disequilibrium and chaos are good qualities that reveal creativity and organizational life and health. Organizations are unchanged, she believes, by applying mechanistic models that are outdated and don't work anyway. "There is no objective reality out there waiting to reveal its secrets. There are no recipes or formulas, no checklists or expert advice that describe 'reality.'" (p. 9) The earth itself, she posits, has an amazing ability to right itself, to "respond to change and disorder by reorganizing itself at a higher level of organization" (using a theory developed by Ilya Prigogine, p. 12). And, "ethical and moral questions are no longer fuzzy religious concepts but key elements in the relationship any organization has with colleagues, stakeholders and communities." (p. 14) Organizational vision and values may be "unseen but real forces that influence people's behavior" rather than the traditional "picture of a preferred future" produced by a "charismatic leader." (p. 15)

One of the recommendations for Wheatley's book came from a pastor in Canada who was very "encouraged that there is still reason to believe ardently in the great resilience of the human spirit to re-invent itself over and over again, whether we view it fractally or as the first signs of a dawning and long awaited millennium of harmony and happiness for everyone." I have just started reading through this book with my accountability partner. I am interested in new leadership initiatives and organizational theory as well as scientific insights given my background and training in mathematics, philosophy and logic. So this blog is about "first impressions."

First, I am encouraged that this "new" approach to leadership and organizational theory has jettisoned the old mechanistic materialistic science where the human, relational, and even faith elements were forbidden territory. Our old trust that "science [industrial, Newtonian science] has all the answers" has certainly failed us, and failed us miserably. We do live in an interdependent world, and there are forces that cannot be materialistically understood that affect everything. I do church organizational work, and the old paradigms of "adding" faith to organizational theories and structures are wanting. They do not work well, if at all, in many cases.

But I must reserve judgment here. Will this "new" science in organizational theory and life simply "replace" the old science, with all of its anti-faith restrictions? Will the foundational evolutional theory so infuse this new approach that God and faith have nothing to say to us about organizations? Will this simply be another trumping of the "new" realities of the new science over faith? It seems so at first sight.

Second, the internal earth replenishment theories that say the earth and its environment can handle chaos and simply rejuvenate itself without any outside force or help from a providential God places humankind or "mother earth" squarely as the "master or god" of this world. These relational "forces" between people can then be seen as mere evolutionary development of the human spirit, and we have the power, the knowledge and the ability to right a chaotic world by our own intelligence, wisdom and know-how. We don't need faith or God at all in this newly defined world order. That reasoning and perspective should trouble the Christian greatly.

Third, to suppose there are no universal truths or laws and that everything depends "on its context" defiantly goes against divine biblical revelation that says there is a Creator God who has pre-defined everything and orders this world and universe according to His unconditioned and unconditional will. Our "discoveries" are but the unveiling of truths given by God Himself to be found and unlocked for use by creaturely humankind. We don't "create" in these sense of "create out of nothing."

Fourth, the "forces" that Wheatley talks about existing between matter I see as the sustaining power of Jesus Christ as the One who "holds all things together" by His command and fiat (Colossians 1:17, where a very technical term is used). This is not swamp gas or ethereal evolutionary societal understanding or undefined particle forces. This is God-at-work.

I am happy that Wheatley is debunking the old science. What remains to be seen by Christians and people of faith is where she places our hope as we investigate the applications of the new science to leadership and organizational dynamics.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Works in Church Growth

In an interesting article by Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, he proposes that the reason why churches do not move out of the 100-300 attendance category is due to a lack of renewal--personal, relational, missional, cultural, and especially structural renewal. He also strongly maintains that to break out of this smaller attendance block requires "exponential thinking" ( /CampaignTraining/Pastor/PastorsIdeaExchange/Exponential+Thinking.htm) and a radical change in structure that involves championing small groups rather than the classic smaller church organizational structure. 

The "exponential thinking" precept he rallies for is problematic for me. Of course, once that is said the charge of "little" faith comes creeping into the discussion. Little faith gets little results; great faith gets great results, he would say. Really?! What troubles me in particular is that he hangs the principle of exponential thinking on Bible verses that have little or nothing to do with church growth, church size, and ministry expansion. For instance, just because the Israelites "multiplied" in the desert (Ex. 1:7,12) does not imply God loves large numbers and desires everything to so multiply, especially church attendance!

The issue of "faith" comes up a number of times. The principle he draws from passages such as Matthew 9:29 is "according to your faith, it will be done to you." Thus great, expectant, out-of-the-box faith will produce astounding church growth results. And, he would say he has the stats to prove it and the testimonials to support it. I wonder if Jesus Himself would agree with Rick's use of these verses for numbers of people in church! 

In my consulting with scores of smaller churches in the 100-300 range, especially in the northeast, I have found that men and women of significant faith and hope pastor these churches. I have found pastors that "believe God for great things" only to be faced year after year with churches that do not significantly grow, do not significantly change and people who remain content with where they are. It is too easy to blame the lack of growth on "little faith." And it, in fact, angers me that a megachurch pastor has the audacity to say so! No matter how many testimonials to the contrary.

So what does work in church growth? Here's the answer -- Nothing and anything! "Nothing" means that WE cannot make the church grow. No matter how many "40 Day" Campaigns and programs one has, there is never a "guarantee" for significant growth, or even little  and lasting growth. GOD alone is the One who sovereignly gives or withholds church growth, no matter how much or even how little human effort is expended. While Rick pays lip service to this precept, it really is an overriding precept for any church leader and for any church. I have seen weak and below average pastors with very little programmatic savvy grow their churches, and I have seen very gifted and talented pastors set grand objectives and never see growth. GOD gives the increase, no matter how much seed we plant!

"Anything" means church growth does not in the end hang upon a well-tuned program or campaign or thrust. If we do a campaign and God grants growth we tend to think it was our hard work, sweat, tears, prayers and so forth that produced it. (Oh. come on! Sure it is!!) If we preach sermons that barely hang together, have administrative nightmares in church programming and yet love people and the church grows, we end up amazed. And, if the church really grows we are asked for our "secret." There is NO SECRET. "Anything" means God often uses weakness for His own glory and purposes.

So then, do we enmesh ourselves in passivity? Do we do nothing about church growth? Do we do away with all the campaigns? I'm not saying that at all. But before we get our heartbeat going on "exponential thinking" we need to understand that God and God alone will either bless the campaign, ignore the campaign, diminish the campaign, or go around the campaign to accomplish His objectives for His church, of which we are just "managers" for a season.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Moral Problems and High Profile Christian Leaders

In the Atlanta area Bishop Eddie Long has recently been charged with sexual misconduct. Pastor of the burgeoning New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, reports of sexual misconduct and even wife abuse have surfaced. This is just the latest in a series of high profile Christian pastoral leaders succumbing to moral problems. Added to the Protestant problems have been a continuing issue of Roman Catholic priests committing and confessing to moral and sexual misconduct. This blog is not about Eddie Long or any particular pastor or priest. It IS about what happens in high profile Christian leadership and megachurches.

First, we should not be surprised or jaded by such revelations. It is assumed that pastors and priests are a notch "higher" on the moral ladder than others. Not true. Everyone is permeated by a sinful nature and gravitates toward sinful, God-defying or God-denying behavior. Everyone has a tendency and proneness to moral character flaws and transgressions--including church officials. Ordaining men and women doesn't grant them a moral "pass" from their nascent sinful nature and cast. Redemption by Jesus Christ doesn't free anyone totally from sinful tendencies and moral lapses. We still make choices, and many of those choices are not godly, not right and not pleasing to Jesus.

Second, we should not excuse moral failings of high profile pastors and priests. Just because we have a sinful nature does not give license to give in to that nature and commit sinful actions. Eddie Long's statement about his "not being perfect" does not cut any ice or give him a free pass. Choosing to sin, deciding to transgress is inexcusable and denies the grace of God in Christ in us as Christians.

Third, the old adage is unfortunately true--"absolute power corrupts absolutely." Some megachurch leaders do feel that somehow they are granted "extra latitude" from God because of their success and position. This is the result and price of power--in any field, any vocation, any job and any position. Adulation is a most difficult form of temptation, and many succumb to its tendencies to corrupt.

Fourth, EVERY public church official in EVERY position, no matter the amount of people he or she leads, can fail and stumble and fall into moral lapses and worse. I have worked in smaller to midsized churches all my life and have been on boards and committees investigating pastoral transgressions and moral problems. All churches of all sizes have similar problems to high profile megachurches. They simply do not get noticed as much or reported by the press.

Fifth, most congregations and especially megachurch congregations, have little to no idea of the personal and moral life of their leaders and pastors. No report is given on a regular basis to them. No accountability system is in place for many of them. And, sad to say, many "sheep" really act like sheep -- dumb, blind, and fiercely loyal no matter what. It is no surprise that Eddie Long's congregation stands behind him. Not all, of course, but many. Followers follow, without much critical examination or ongoing questions about their leaders. Otherwise they would not be there. They would have left long ago. The early church Bereans in the book of Acts were of "noble character" because "they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Acts 17:11) Where does that happen in church work today?? Not much and not often.

Sixth, EVERY pastoral leader of whatever church size and stature will one day stand before the Perfect Judge, Jesus Christ, and give an accounting of his or her actions and life vocation. Wrongs will be eternally righted. Judgments will be rightly given. Let all of us in those positions therefore serve with "fear and trembling" knowing that the Judge of all the earth will do right!!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Christian Without Christianity?!

Anne Rice, the famous author of Complete Vampire Chronicles (1993) and The Witching Hour (1993), has claimed to have made a personal faith turnaround more recently. Her profession of Christian faith is recorded in Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession (2010). She even rejoined the Catholic Church. So far, so good. 

In July 2010, however, she formally announced her departure from "Christianity" because it is "quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous." (See her Facebook postings, and The WiredWord, August 8, 2010 edition) She claims to have Christ as central to her life but eschews the Church (capital "C"). She says that "following Christ does not mean following his followers." She claims to be "an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God." 

So, can a person be a Christian while denying Christianity? Obviously, people have already weighed in either with sympathy (Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity) or scorn (Timothy Merrill, pastor, member of WiredWord editorial team). This blog seeks to expand the discussion.

First, Anne Rice is not alone. There are a growing number of "Christians" who have forsaken the Church as an institution. This has been shown by The Barna Group in recent surveys ( People are tired of the hypocrisy, in-fighting, legalism, sillyness, structural denseness, apathy and so forth of many churches. As a church health consultant, I must say that I have seen my share of such things, and I am both embarrassed and ashamed of my fellow believers. Consequently, a growing number of both self-proclaimed and church-baptized "Christians" have forsaken churches, opting for a more personal expression of faith. So, her actions are not new.

Second, a person can be a Christian without the institutional trappings of Christianity. You can be a true believer even if you have never been baptized in a church, never celebrated Communion (The Lord's Supper) or participated in a regular worship service. You can be angry at a local church, a local pastor, local church politics and antics and still be a Christian. You can live alone on a mountaintop isolated from other Christians and still be a Christian. 

IF, however, what we mean by the term "Christian" is one who personally, with his or her whole being, believes in the risen Lord Jesus Christ, has repented and confessed his or her sins, and is seeking to live as a Christ-follower according to the biblical mandate, then problems arise, don't they? If a Christian is not merely an emotional, subjectivistic person who "feels" close to Jesus, and he or she actually READS the Bible, one cannot get away from those passages that command Christians not to "give up meeting together" (namely "church") (Hebrews 10:25; cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). And, it doesn't help remonstrating that the modern church is corrupt, full of hypocrisy, has moral problems, argues with one another, and so forth, since all of these qualities were plainly evident in the early church and the early Christians. Thus, the New Testament letters of admonishment, rebuke, encouragement and censure.

Third, SAYING I am a Christian does not mean I REALLY AM a Christ-follower. Even Jesus Himself warned us of people who SAY they are Christians and will end up being rejected by Him at final judgment and accounting (Matthew 7:21ff). Plenty of so-called "Christians" are so in name only without the reality in life and walk. Obedience to the Lord and His commands still marks out the true follower of Jesus, the true disciple. We are so very careful of "judging" people who "say" they are Christians that we never confront them. I do not know Anne Rice, and even if I spoke with her and knew a bit about her journey I would not still know the reality and truthfulness of her faith except by her life and whether it evidenced obedience, submission, and reliance on the Scriptures.

Fourth, Anne Rice and others who take her stance miss or neglect or are ignorant of the ravages of sinfulness we humans, even Christian humans, carry around with us at all times. The old saying, 'Except for the grace of God, there go I" can be attested to by every single Christian who has ever lived on this earth. I sin daily in thought, word and deed, and my fellow believers daily sin likewise. What I and they need to do is daily turn from these sins, confess them, and seek by the grace of God and love of Jesus and power of the Holy Spirit to live more consistently, more godly and more closely aligned with the example of Jesus Christ. That doesn't come automatically or easily to sin-permeated beings.

Fifth, true Christians WANT a Christianity that is true. That's why I am a churchgoer, a pastor and a church consultant. I WANT churches to practice the love, grace, and power of Jesus. I want churches full of people with genuine love for one another and their world. I want local assemblies where faith is practiced, loved and kept pure and noble. 

If Anne Rice really follows Jesus, so would she.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Aberrations in Belief and Practice

Aberrations. The term comes from a Latin word meaning to "stray." Aberrations can be dangerous, even deadly, if you are driving a car down the road at 65 mph. Going off the road at that speed can be deadly. It's the same with beliefs and practices. I am a Christian minister, a pastor and church consultant who has seen and heard of aberrations in fellow ministers and churches. I received a call the other night about a church I once pastored which went through a number of aberrations resulting in dozens of people leaving. Then a few years ago, two pastors I knew left (the church word is "forsook") the faith and joined another religion altogether. What's going on? Why do aberrations happen in belief and practice? How can we be sure to "finish well" without going astray?

Temptation to be "novel." This is the first reason why people stray from tried and true faith and practices. We have a human, too often sinfully laden, itch to try new things and practice new venues. While this may be looked upon as exciting, stimulating, refreshing and so forth, in faith and practice, aberrations here can be deadly--eternally as well as right now. Humankind's earliest encounters, though novel, were deadly. Adam and Eve stepped out of the tried and true way of God, listened to the master of temptation, and plunged themselves and the human race into sin. This "hankering" may release creativity in us, which can be good and useful, but can also be evil and deadly. Jeremiah 6:16 tells us -- "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls."

Faith for "academic" exercise. The second reason for straying has to do with some theologians and other ministers I have known who have a bent for the academic, the heady, the studious way of viewing the Scripture and faith and practice. Don't misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with theological studies and rigorous study of the Bible. But there are groups of people who have no "faith-gates." That is, "anything goes" in the study and practice of the Word of God. So, for instance, the resurrection of Jesus becomes a myth, or a good story, or a religious encounter, but not true, historical fact. If we can find enough people who say that something "weird" is not weird, then it becomes normal and acceptable. Or, if we can find an obscure scholarly article or paper or book that differs greatly from a tried and true way of viewing and interpreting the Bible, the temptation to be novel and the sometimes itch to be "different" trumps what we may deeply know to be true and right.

So, what's the cure for aberrations? Several helps include: (1) know God as He has revealed himself in His Word and world. Not just know about God, or dabble with the knowledge of the divine, but deeply, really, personally and in a transformational sense, know Him who is your Creator and Redeemer. God will lead you into all truth. (2) Test all things. That's what the Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21. Don't accept what may be out of the ordinary, tantalizing and different as true and right and healthy. God has placed "faith-guards" in the Bible to help us discern right from wrong and good from bad. (3) Be careful of headiness. Someone once commented that some Christians are "too heavenly minded to be any earthly good." Added to your study of the Bible and the faith, practice that faith deeply, rigorously and sincerely. Get around others who will help you do this. (4) Get someone you respect and trust off of whom to bounce your new ideas. Accountability partners are good not merely for lay people, but also for ministers and theologians. I have been kept from many bad paths by friends, co-workers and fellow ministers and theologians who have helped me stay on the straight and narrow.

Just some thoughts. Don't stray, but instead finish well!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Understanding Your Church's Culture Grid

Brett Selby, Leadership Development Specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma ( along with Eric Wann from Performance Advantage, Inc. ( have provided some excellent thoughts and tools for assessing a church's culture. That's right--culture. Every church has a culture--a distinct, well-defined and often misunderstood way they go about thinking, perceiving and doing ministry. For instance, a church I attended in college had, and still has, a well-defined, doctrinally-centered, Calvinistic-oriented, Baptistic culture. To be part of that church, and especially to serve in the church, your understanding of the Bible and its doctrines had to be assessed and approved by church leadership. You had to "fit" their culture. Otherwise, though you could attend services, fellowship times, Sunday school classes, and so forth, you could not even think about vital participation without whole-hearted commitment to their culture of Reformed Baptistic orthodoxy.

As Eric Wann points out, "The three most important elements of culture are the people, the policies and procedures and the organization's value structure. Your people define the organization and communicate your culture to others outside the organization. Your policies and procedures provide the guidelines and structure of what can and should occur. Your values describe the behavioral playing field of your organization." He goes on to say that "it is always much easier to make a culture adjustment when an organization is small and growing. It becomes much more difficult, though not impossible, when an organization is large and the culture is fully ingrained."

Nothing is "wrong" with church culture, unless we are talking about anti-biblical models that violate clear Scriptural mandates and standards. Culture is culture. It is what it is. Failure to understand a church's culture can end up in the dismissal, sometimes sudden, as Selby points out, of a staff leader or even senior pastor. Churches operate out of a very foundational cultural sense of being. They can stand some conflict in competing personalities, differing ways of understanding the Bible (except in the above case), different dress styles and habits and so forth. What they cannot and will not stand for long is violation of their (sometimes unconscious) cultural preferences and conventions. 

The Culture Grid above is an example of a church in the Northeast that I would say is more or less typical of many churches I have worked with as a consultant. This church's culture is people-oriented, inwardly driven, with an emphasis on fellowship and unity. Their structures reflect carefulness, orderliness and lack of risk-taking. No, they are not averse to SOME change, as long as it is well-defined, given enough process time, and doesn't upset too many people. But they greatly dislike high impact, flexible ministries that are highly risk-taking and focused on results. Unity among the people trumps outward, results-oriented, creative and innovative ways of doing ministry. While they TALK about sharing their faith, they choose safe, conservative ways of doing so or don't do it at all. The problem is not that Christians are disobedient or sinning against God and His command to "go and make disciples." They simply want to  do so in a way that reflects and obeys their cultural norms and proclivities.

Yes, this is an "older" church with well-established boundaries, ministries, patterns and ways of thinking and doing. This is why many church growth people would say the solution for change is to avoid or ignore churches like this and instead plant new, younger churches that are open to change, flexibility and innovation. However, churches like that in the diagram are often then by-passed and dismissed in gospel work. I don't believe this severe dichotomy has to exist. In fact, churches like that described in my opening paragraph and like that in the diagram can serve God and the gospel well with the right kind of leadership, direction and care. Here's a few notes on culture and ministry effectiveness.

Resistance is futile! The words of the Borg to their conquered space foes (Star Trek Generation fans understand) echo in the halls of thousands churches to would-be change agents. Leaders that take a crusade-like attitude of conquering the culture are more than likely not only not to succeed, but to lose their ministry in that place. Books and articles that talk about "changing the culture" often miss this point. It is assumed that church culture can change. My experience tells me such change comes only through a wholesale change of congregants--and that takes generational change or a brand-new church work or a miracle-work from God that touches the very core and definition of church life. And, it's not a "generational" thing. The children of the churches cited in this blog have adopted the conventions of their parents and former, well-respected leaders. In fact, the children of the opening church example are even more severe in their doctrinal examination of potential church leaders and teachers! Pastors and ministry staff coming into a church culture situation need to get to know, really know, their cultural grid. The "getting-to-know-you" one year is often NOT enough time to understand and feel comfortable with that grid. And, if you are a directive, high change agent type of pastor, don't go to either of these cultures!! You will be always frustrated, always discouraged, and maybe always angry. 

Not everything that should be done can be done. There is an unwritten "law of the lid" (a John Maxwell phrase) operative in every church culture. If we take a scale of 1 to 10, and 1 is "Our culture is an absolute and will not ever change" to 10 ("Our culture is highly flexible and always open to innovation and change") then in the above two examples their culture "adaptability" would be very low, say 3 or 4 at best. So, advancing the culture to a more flexible, innovative environment will only get to a 5 or 6 maybe. That is still far from a 9 or 10, and it will never be a 9 or 10. A pastor or church leader has to understand what a "5" or "6" culture looks and feels like and be satisfied with that scope of change and growth. If he or she wants an 8 or 9, then they had better go elsewhere to minister.

Remember C & N. No, not the TV network, but "Compromise" and "Network." Before the objections come, I'm not talking about biblical truth or absolutes here. Most of cultural conventions fall within the "gray" area of allowable practice biblically. Thus, a church that requires the pastor to use a certain translation of the Bible because "that is the pew Bible and everyone who attends carries that translation" is a cultural convention. (We might argue here about translations, but for the majority of biblical text, this is not a real problem among good translations.) To "force" a translation change smacks against the church culture, and is not really necessary. "Compromise" here is necessary. Perhaps in a number of years working with the church leadership and carefully and patiently explaining why a certain translation may be "better" will work, but the Word can still be proclaimed there. 

"Networking" refers to getting to really know the stakeholders and church "old guard." And really love them and show them you care. The old adage, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," is still true, especially in the cultures described above. There are a lot of breakfasts (very early in some church cultures!!), lunches, visits, social gatherings, hospital calls and caring events that pastors need to attend and be "happy" about. Again the motivation is NOT to change the church culture, but to love the people for Christ's sake.

Small gospel victories are still victories. What I mean here is that God sovereignly distributes spiritual gifts, talents and churches in His harvest field. Not all of them will reap great numerical or "marketable" results. Not many of them will be published in books and magazine articles. Not many of them will conduct "training" conferences for other churches and ministries. And much of this may be due to the church culture. The first church cited above ministers to a very small slice of Christendom. The second example church does not attract many high energy, directive leader-types. Their cultures limit the type of people they attract, and the kind of programs and ministries they do. God is pleased if a two-talent church doubles to four and not to ten! 

Working with your church's culture grid and within that grid is the key to successful and satisfying, God-honoring ministry. You may access a free Church Culture Assessment (4 page PDF 73KB), courtesy Brett Selby and LifeWay.

Friday, January 15, 2010

How To Grow Spiritually

How does a seeker after God, after Jesus Christ, and the life of faith actually GROW? I'm not talking about an "automatic" procedure whereby we enter a "cup" of verses, add a spoonful of commentary or our Daily Bread, and then mix in a brief prayer, stir it all together and . . . poof!-- we somehow grow. Actually, hundreds or maybe thousands of Christians do this everyday or every other day and get weary of the regimen because they see no life-change. You may be one of these folks waiting and waiting for that one day you will wake up and be "mature."

I'm also not talking about a legalistic study routine, where we set aside x-amount of minutes, or even hours, spend a lot of time looking up terms and concepts, pour over commentaries and say our prayers, hoping again that God will somehow make the "work" work! This type of regimen does become laborious and fruitless after a while. Very little progress in the faith results. If you are one of these very tired people, you know what I mean.

Let's back up a bit and see what the Barna Associates team said about spiritual growth and maturity in their May 2009 survey. They noted (1) a strong majority (81%) of self-proclaimed Christians believe spiritual maturity is just "following the rules;" (2) most churchgoers (50%) are not clear as to what their church expects in terms of spiritual maturity; (3) most Christians offer shallow, one-dimensional views of personal spiritual maturity; and, (4) most pastors in America struggle with what spiritual maturity should look like. Interestingly, 90% of those pastors claim that such maturity is a national problem--except in THEIR church! (If this is enigmatic to you, join the crowd!)

In addition to this dire national problem of spiritual immaturity and illiteracy, many Christians track spiritual maturity using WRONG categories. Thus, Bob Logan and Tom Clegg* noted that spiritual maturity typically is measured by tenure (how long someone has known the Lord), education (perceived knowledge of the Bible), presence (attendance at church and ministry activities), busyness (participation in programs), compliance (agreement with the pastor or leaders), variety (more and different experiences), giftedness (ability to perform), and contribution (how much they tithe or financially give). Instead, the Bible measures spiritual maturity as hating evil (Prov. 8:13), loving the unlovely (cf. 1 Peter 2 & 3), sharing Jesus with others (Matt. 28:18-20; Col. 4:5,6), teachability (1 Tim. 3:2), patience and forbearance (Eph. 4:2; Phil. 2), peaceability (Mat. 5:9), contentment (Phil. 4:6,7, 11, 12), simplicity (Rom. 13:8-14), and joyfulness (Gal. 5:22). Or, just list the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-24, or follow the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.

So here's what I believe really gets us growing toward spiritual maturity. First, don't trust your own assessment! Most of us dislike honest, deep and revealing character assessments from others. Even from our closest friends. Why? Simply because we are selfish, self-motivated and self-centered most of our lives. Yes, that's right--and our pious attempts to say otherwise betrays our true natures. Few of us are really God-centered. Few of us are really selflessly concerned about others. Thus, the first thing we need to really grow is self-awareness given by someone(s) we really and deeply trust has our best and God's interest at heart. This person may not SEEM like a friend. He or she may actually be quite severe on us and our character qualities. But we know the truth when God speaks through that person into our lives. Such an assessment needs done often, rigorously and carefully. Find a spiritual assessor if you really want to grow spiritually.

Second, throw away your "Morning with God" books, pamphlets, tapes, CDs, DVDs and so forth. If you have not graduated beyond these "helps," you will never spiritually grow or mature. The old Puritans understood that maturity takes patient, God-seeking, in-depth pouring over the words of Scripture to hear God speak. This is not primarily an experience, though it may have experiential marks. Weeping, laughing, a feeling of exhilaration and so forth may or may not happen, and if they do, growth is NOT in the experience but what comes THROUGH the experience. Spiritual growth is much deeper than our subjective experiences. When we begin to see more of God than of us, more of what He says and wills and wants, and less what we think He wants, then we are growing spiritually. Consequently, Scripture reading may be limited to a passage, a verse, a word--until God burns His truth into the depths of our minds, hearts, bodies and souls. Yes, you may need to do an in-depth word or passage study, using the tools you have learned up to now. But never mistake the tools and the study for the growth. 

Third, forget the pablum in our Christian bookstores and search out and read the spiritual biographies of men and women of faith a century or more ago. Their stories of in-depth searching, praying, studying the Word, life practices and so forth will give you a taste of what spiritual growth looks like. I personally like the old Puritans and their descendants, people like Horatius Bonar, Robert Murray McCheyne, Thomas Brooks, Octavious Winslow, Samuel Rutherford, John Owen, Charles Spurgeon and so forth. Many readers of this blog have no idea who these men are, but they have drunk deeply of God's well of spiritual riches and have understood spiritual maturity.

John Wesley gave four questions for weekly small groups that probe the spiritual depths of our being: (1) What known sins have you committed since we last met? If there is such, what shall we do about it?; (2) What temptations have you faced?; (3) How were you delivered from these temptations?; (4) What have you thought, said or done of which you are uncertain whether it was a sin or not? Additionally, he gave a scheme of self-examination asking oneself such questions as, Have I prayed with fervor?, All the time I am engaged in exterior work in private?, Have I at the beginning of every prayer or paragraph owned I cannot pray?, and so on and so on. Spiritual growth flows out of spiritual depth. And spiritual depth comes from shamelessly seeking God to examine, probe, transform and make us into the likeness of Jesus Christ in our deepest being.

Fourth, track your spiritual fruitfulness on a monthly basis. Are you more loving, more gentle, more self-controlled, more joyful and so on this month than last. How do you know? (Remember the first point!) Has God shown Himself to you more glorious, more awesome, more loving, more faithful this month than last? How so? In what ways? Do you sense God in worship more "closely" (an old Puritan word)? Do you increasingly find Him as your "all in all?" Is your expectancy of heaven increasing? Is your prayer life deepening, expanding, growing? Are you praying less words but praying more powerfully?

These are a few hints. There are more but this is enough to chew on for now. Let me know what you think.

*Robert Logan & Thomas Clegg, Releasing Your Church's Potential, ChurchSmart Resources, 1998.