In our last blog post, we debated how the Lord views the importance of behavioral change after accepting Christ as Savior. Since we are saved by grace alone (which is not up for debate), is growth in Christian maturity: 1) completely necessary, 2) absolutely expected, 3) strongly encouraged, 4) definitely preferred or 5) entirely optional? If your church does not have a personalized, intensive discipleship program in place with mandatory participation by all members then, whether your leadership knows it or not, it subscribes to either #3, #4 or #5. But the Lord advocates #1 and #2…
Why Maturity is Not Optional
“Those who are in the realm of the flesh CANNOT please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they DO NOT belong to Christ.” (Romans 8:8-9)
“Whoever tries to keep their life WILL lose it, and whoever loses their life WILL preserve it.” (Luke 17:33)
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple MUST deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16:24-25)
The words CANNOT, DO NOT, WILL and MUST are not indefinite. Accepting the challenge of overcoming self-oriented tendencies (by the power of the Holy Spirit) is not a matter of choice.
Scriptures like 2 Peter 1:5-7 also describe dying to self not as a one-time event, but as a process. “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.” Few go from self-centered living and old ways of thinking to adopting all of the fruits of the Spirit outlined in Galations 5:22-23 overnight.
Yet how could believers not embark on that journey, realizing the magnitude of what Christ endured on the cross on their behalf? There is no good work or ritual we can perform to ensure (or lose) our salvation, but we have to wonder if someone was ever really saved in the first place if there is no personal transformation. How could they go on living for self when dying to self is the required response of a disciple? Discipleship involves discipline – which Hebrews 12 says our Father lovingly doles out to bring His children into obedience in their obligatory struggle against selfishness.
There is also the danger of launching into that process, only to stop at superficial changes. Jesus issues repeated and disturbing warnings in Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 25:31-46 about the dire fate awaiting those who acknowledge Him as Messiah and perform religious acts, but do not follow His commands. Their shallow, legalistic alterations in external actions and behaviors did not involve a genuine change of heart. A Christian may cuss less and volunteer at church more, while pointing at all the “sinners” outside the 4 walls. Could that be who Jesus considers a modern-day Pharisee, who washes the outside of the cup but inside is full of “self-indulgence”? The answer is likely yes if that person’s surface-level transformation took place from the outside-in, not the inside-out.
What Does Maturity Look Like?
An objective of any parent is to lead their children to maturity. In discipling my own son, I’ve plotted a roadmap not just to maturity as a young man but as a Christian. My 11 year-old loves the Lord, but is still shedding self-centered habits, a process that Paul describes in Romans 7 as a battle that can only be won through Jesus Christ. This biblical roadmap to Christian maturity applies not only to children like mine, but to any new or even long-time believer:
- Pursues Evil – Arrogant, Hypocritical, Selfish, Defiant, Abusive, Vengeful
- Unintentional Sin – Unwise, Aimless, Lazy, Obstinate, Closed-Minded, Misguided
- Avoids Evil – Recognizes right/wrong, Develops a conscience, Makes better decisions
- Desires Change – Seeks to know the Lord, Decides to be obedient, Accepts responsibility
- Begins to Care – Concerned and prayerful about the welfare and salvation of others
- Discovers Love – Worshipful, Compassionate, Respectful, Authentic
- Pursues Good – Loving, Humble, Joyful, Patient, Peaceful, Kind, Gentle, Self-Controlled
A chart outlining this path is posted in my son’s room. My hope for him is the same as it is for myself and for all Christ-followers – that we would each grow in our appreciation for what Christ did for us and respond accordingly in our actions. Rather than gradually losing touch with God’s immense grace as we hang around more Christians and begin to “sin” less, that our love for Christ and for others would increase as discipleship enhances our understanding of His love for us.
But unless pastors, seminaries, consultants and other church leaders restore personalized, intensive discipleship within America’s congregations, that understanding and appreciation is more likely to fade than escalate…
Why is Maturity Seen as Optional?
If we adopt the biblical definition of “Church”, then Christians are “insiders”, much more like employees than customers (“outsiders”). When a company hires a new employee, training is the first priority. Would a company consider a 30 minute presentation each week to be adequate training? What if it added weekly group discussions with fellow employees for a few months each year? Would the combination of those two be enough? Of course not. Companies know that proper training for employees entails 1-on-1 mentorship, group classes and on-the-job (OJT), in-the-field experience.
Pastors understand that 1-on-1 and group training classes led by professionals work best in business but consider those too demanding to require of all congregants. The vast majority of churches draw the line at hoping churchgoers will attend weekly 30 minute sermons and optional small groups rather than training them properly for their role as Christ’s hired workers. Churches provide few OJT opportunities, instead pitching “chores” that build the institution and acquiesce to the busy schedules of members who have little time for living out Jesus’ model for discipleship and evangelism (i.e. compassionate service as the door opener to sharing the gospel).
The fundamental flaw is not seeing church members as “employees” (i.e. workers engaged by Jesus to live out the Great Commission, paid in heavenly wages and not earthly salaries). So pastors instead inadvertently treat congregants as “customers”, voluntary participants in “church” who are not on the payroll and therefore must be enticed to return the following week.
Since discipleship is hard work, costly and risky, pastors are reluctant to require it of those they mistakenly view as “outsiders” to attract and retain. No company can make customers read the owner’s manual (Bible) or share the “good news” (Gospel) about new products as prerequisites for making a purchase – but that’s exactly what churches should be doing. Companies are careful not to burden customers with excessive demands and must provide excellent customer service. Likewise churches have become hesitant to impose stringent (discipleship) requirements even on long-time members for fear those “customers” will start looking for another church down the road that will expect less of them.
Lacking proper training, few churchgoers understand the commands of Jesus for personal transformation and are unprepared to be effective ambassadors for Christ – instead, they leave that responsibility to trained professionals (i.e. pastors). The Church in America is feeling the effects in terms of diminishing attendance, influence, impact and public perception – collateral damage from pews full of believers under-equipped to fulfill the Great Commission (i.e. to pursue the real “customer”, the lost out in the community).
It’s Your Turn
Are too many churches today enabling and content with superficial outside-in changes versus inside-out transformation?