In my last article I wrote about the need for every local church to have a plan for discipleship. If the goal is to see people be transformed to Christlikeness, to go from being lost and cut off from God in their sin to born again believers who become maturing ministers who go out on mission to others, the church must have a way to move people through that process. Although it would be nice if there was one, sure-fire plan that every local church in every community could apply and have instant growth and vitality, that is not the case. Spiritual Growth plans must be formed and tweaked to fit the community you are sent to and live in. Having said that, there are principles that go into every discipleship plan that effectively see people become transformed to Christlikeness.
I mentioned in my last article three principles: A spiritual growth process must be Intentional, Incremental, and Incarnational. Since no one becomes Christlike automatically without any self-effort put in, there must be a plan for them to follow that they can intentionally apply. No one becomes Christlike instantly, a plan must allow for people to grow incrementally over time. And since no one becomes Christlike just by imitation of Christ but rather through inhabitation by Christ, the plan must include the person’s being filled with and renewed in the Holy Spirit. It’s His work in a disciple’s heart that transforms as they/we work hard at staying in close relationship with Him.
Here are three more principles that every effective spiritual growth process should include:
- Spiritual Growth is Scriptural. Much has been appropriately said and written this week about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation’s emphasis on the Word of God and its accessibility to all people was critical to the revitalization of The Church. The Word of God is just as critical in the revitalization of an individual’s heart as it is in the revitalization of any local church. I remember in seminary (a wonderful experience overall) hearing a professor talking about preaching, make a dismissive comment about not having every sermon’s application be to read the Bible more. Although the point was no doubt that there is much more to applying our Christianity, I remember thinking, “why not make that application every time?” Over the years I found myself almost weekly adding that somewhere in the sermon. I likened it to the classic joke about the new priest who on his first Sunday preached a good sermon. Everyone complimented it. The next Sunday he preached the exact same sermon. Everyone figured it was just a fluke and didn’t say anything. The third Sunday he preached he same exact sermon again! Finally, someone asked him if he knew he preached the same thing three weeks in a row? He replied, “Yes, and when you get that one down, I’ll move on to the next one!” No matter how often I challenged people to regularly read the Bible on their own to deepen their relationship with God, most people struggled to make it a habit. Yet it’s so necessary to our transformation to Christlikeness. Whatever your church’s spiritual growth plan is, it must include teaching on how and why to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Word of God.
- Spiritual Growth is Relational. We only really grow in community. One of the marks of Christlikeness is producing the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” You can think you are super loving alone at home reading the Bible. But it’s only when you’re around unlovable people that you find if you really love well! The same is true of the others. Patience is the classic one. You can be absolutely confident you’ve grown in patience until you pick the wrong line in the grocery store…again. Then you find out for sure! It is in community that we put into practice our transformation to Christlikeness. Therefore, any effective spiritual growth process must include relational components. Small groups are a very effective tool. God often puts “EGR” people in every group to help us grow. “EGR” stands for Extra Grace Required! Some people just irritate us and you irritate some people. It’s how we grow! Some other relational tools are retreats, mentors, and ministry teams. As we approach Advent, Hebrews 10:24-25 applies here, “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”
- Spiritual Growth is Experiential. So often we limit our discipleship thinking to just classes. Things like Sunday school, Bible studies, a series of classes to move people to maturity and missions are all good and important parts of people’s transforming to Christlikeness. People have to get the content somehow. Yet if that is the extent of the process it can lead to a lot of “head” knowledge only. It’s often in the applying of what you’ve learned in the classroom that information finally “clicks” and gets into the heart. Early on in my ministry in my last church I was trying to move the congregation to be more missional in our local community. I was preaching about it, teaching classes on it, but it was when we did a 40 Day Campaign on it that missions really took root in the church. In the campaign, the whole church was aligned on that one topic for six weeks. Everyone was in a small group and each small group participated in a major outreach project. I was amazed (and pleased) to watch the members experience the joy of putting other’s needs ahead of their own. After that campaign, there was no turning back. The church had a taste for mission in the community and it got into the DNA of the church. More spiritual growth took place in six weeks of experiencing Christlikeness than a year’s worth of sermons and classes could do. The relational component was also at work. I watched all sorts of conflicts pop up and people quickly forgive and make amends because they had to get back to the outreach project. The mission became too important to let conflicts derail it. Campaigns are only one way to include an experiential aspect into a spiritual growth process. What ideas do you have?
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching for the AAC.