Our last blog post told amazing stories of radical, unconditional love. However, what was missing from those stories was how they began. Rich Mullins, Alissa Parker and Andrew Brunson didn’t develop earthshaking faith overnight.
The path to unconditional love begins as the Lord leads us to accept Jesus as our Savior. The road to our conversion may be long or short, but it doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s only the beginning. The sanctification process that follows our justification could last a lifetime and will be filled with speedbumps and potholes along the way. Each challenge we face is meant for our good, intended to mold and shape us into Christ’s image as we’re refined in the fire of life. Yes, it is our holiness and not our prosperity that God seeks and speaks of in Romans 8:28, one of the Bible’s most oft-quoted yet widely-abused verses.
In God’s immense love, He lays out and pushes us down a path to maturity in Christ through His Holy Spirit. Many believers never move very far down that path, opting for “cheap grace” by repeating the Sinner’s prayer but not following the Lord’s commands to obey, love and make disciples. Many churches permit congregants to persist in that disobedience to the Great Commandment and Great Commission (GC2) by not illuminating the full path to Christian maturity. In the name of church growth, afraid to push congregants outside their comfort zones, church leaders put members at risk of standing to Jesus’ left with the “goats” on Judgment Day.
Only pastors truly involved in building disciples who worship the Lord unreservedly and serve others compassionately (possibly at the expense of short-term church growth) do their best to ensure those entrusted to their care will stand to Jesus’ right with the other faithful “sheep”. Unfortunately, pastors mischaracterizing God’s love as a one-way street of grace and forgiveness with little expectation of reciprocity or accountability may grow their headcount but aren’t counting (proverbial) “sheep”.
Yes, we are saved by God’s grace – but how we act, particularly toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, demonstrates the sincerity of our confession. Christ loves us, literally to death, but the Lord is a righteous and jealous God. In His righteousness He had to pass judgement on sin; in His love He made a way for us through the sacrifice of His own Son. In His love He provided the path to holiness though His Holy Spirit; in His righteousness He judges those who choose not to pursue that path and cheapen the price He paid for our forgiveness.
First Steps on the Path to Maturity
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
Those are not the lifetime batting averages or career rushing yards of those enshrined in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. Those are not descriptions of the radical, unconditional love we illustrated in our last blog post. Those are the essentials, or baby steps, down the path to Christian maturity. Those are what “sheep” do – evidence that a new believer is beginning to move past milk and ready for solid food. Those who haven’t yet begun intentionally caring for fellow believers are not ready to graduate to the next steps on the lengthy path toward the Hall of Faith.
Often the early part of that path involves a small step of faith. Although some do come to know Jesus, sell everything and head immediately into the mission field, most on this journey of sanctification start by doing simple Sheep-like things. As they take that first step, they see Jesus show up in powerful ways, blessing their work to bear fruit. Like Elijah, who obeyed and saw God perform miracle after miracle, we must continue taking steps in our walk with the Lord if we want to see God’s hand at work. If we march ahead in obedience, gradually our love and faith will grow to the point where we’re willing one day to challenge the prophets of Baal like Elijah, give away the clothes off our back like Rich Mullins or endure years of persecution like Andrew Brunson.
Few Churches Light the Whole Path
Why aren’t there more Rich Mullins, Andrew Brunsons and others worthy of the Hall of Faith today in America’s churches? Those individuals were willing to trudge down the path against seemingly insurmountable obstacles and odds, undeterred because they were always looking up at the Lord and looking ahead to their heavenly reward.
Yet most churches in America today don’t equip or empower members to move beyond the first “baby steps”. Nearly all emphasize the Matthew 25 basics of caring for those inside the church. Every church pushes “church chores” like serving as greeters or ushers. But they overemphasize internal tasks, rarely pointing out external opportunities farther down the maturity path. Therefore, our gaze becomes fixed inward, only seeing immediate needs within the 4 walls of a church and not upward and outward (like those in the Hall of Faith).
By limiting outlets for leveraging our spiritual gifts, lay leaders often develop a false sense that they’ve completed the entire path to spiritual maturity by faithfully serving on church committees. Yes, some have the gift of administration, but we are all called to the Great Commission. I fear many elders and deacons have served at a church for 20+ years but never led someone to Christ. I fear many churchgoers hardly miss a Sunday but have not once told a non-believer about Jesus. Of course, serving our church and fellow members is commendable and biblical, but if the objective of that work is building an institution versus building disciples, then we remain stuck at the “baby steps” stage.
But the road doesn’t end there…
Illuminating Hidden Steps on the Path
Churches that do not highlight and encourage pursuit of the full path to Christian maturity (i.e. making disciples who make disciples) may be liable for laying out a path that leads into a ditch. It’s easy to grow complacent and self-righteous as we spend more time around church people doing church things. We can become less thankful for grace than when we first believed as we cuss less and serve at the church more. As time goes on within churchdom, many become less prayerful and less inclined to take the Gospel out to non-believers, losing touch with the desperation they once felt for a Savior (back when they were in that same position). Instead of driving down the path to maturity, they gradually disconnect from unconditional love, throwing their cars into reverse.
The rest of the path to Christian maturity beyond confession and basic “Sheep-tending” is rooted in obedience. Obedience, love and discipleship are joined at the hip. Jesus states plainly in John 14 that “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.… Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching”. His greatest commandments are to love God and all of mankind. For a church to help members move along the maturity process, its leaders must abandon catering to church consumers and challenge them to love unconditionally and obey recklessly. We are all called to surrender our lives to Jesus like Rich Mullins, Alissa Parker and Andrew Brunson. Anyone content with cultural Christianity must be presented with the reality that Jesus expects much more of them. He demands personal growth and not just church growth. Believers ARE the personification of church, so they bear responsibilities between Sundays for BEING the Church. Yet only a small percentage of churchgoers serve actively in external ministry or share their faith regularly.
The decision to stop catering and start challenging a congregation to obey GC2 risks a mass exodus of fence-sitters and “goats”. Although the road to long-term church growth runs through disciple-making, few pastors can stomach the short-term loss that it brings. Being the first out of the gate is scary, particularly for an established church with high fixed costs, when there are alternatives down the street that still demand far less of their members.
So as a result we have far too many “elementary school” and “high school” level churches in America offering only “milk” and not the full path to Christian maturity. Few churches provide a “collegiate” or “masters” level education. Those in “high school” aren’t ready to be effective in the workforce. The occupation of a Christian is GC2 , but how can those who aren’t yet disciples make disciples?
For those mature enough to move down the path past “high school”, remedial churches typically cling to those individuals rather than “graduating” them, providing limited options for growth and service beyond internal ministries. However, truly transformed individuals likely will not repeat Christianity 101 over and over again, soon seeking a richer experience once they hit a church’s “educational” ceiling. Those worthy of the Hall of Faith, who would die for their faith and endure torture before renouncing it, won’t leave higher levels of spiritual maturity to full time church workers. Yet they struggle to find a church illuminating the full path to Christian maturity because programs, facilities, staff and amenities cater to seekers and immature believers, diverting valuable resources away from potential investments in starting “college” and “graduate” level programs for discipleship and (external and internal) service.
It’s Your Turn
Are a high percentage of your church’s members so on fire for the Lord that would leave behind their careers and wealth if called into local or international missions?