The goal of being like Christ will never be completed. Until we take our last breath, we will struggle in our desire to be the person Jesus calls us to be. Despite our best intentions, and even with noticeable progress, we will still fail in acts of omission and commission with attitudes, thoughts, words, and deeds.
What is true for the individual believer is true for the community of faith. To move a congregation toward Christlikeness is a perpetual challenge that will never be mastered and tends to produce as many failures as successes. As our church wrestles with this, we are learning some things, and even though we don’t yet have it figured out, here are some conclusions we’ve reached.
There is no formula.
Early on in ministry, we were always on the lookout for the newest book, curriculum, or resource that would make discipleship easy and successful. After several years, we have come to see there are many excellent resources and programs, but none is ideal. And what may seem ideal for certain individuals or a segment of the church is not ideal for everyone.
People are at various stages in their growth, and they have different needs. It’s been freeing to realize there is no secret sauce or one-size-fits-all program for discipleship. Therefore, we keep our eyes open and try different things, but we’ve learned to do so with a realization that every program has its limitations.
True spiritual formation is complex.
The process of spiritual growth is not easy or instantaneous, yet many individuals and churches reduce spiritual maturity to simplistic outcomes, such as how much information people learn, what kinds of experiences they are having with God, whether they are following the “rules” of piety and living a moral life, or whether they are engaging in missional activity.
While all of these are good and biblically justified, they are insufficient indications of spiritual maturity in and of themselves. Mature Christ followers will consider all these things, and yet they will be careful to prioritize the areas that are often left out of most people’s understanding of spiritual formation—the importance of relationships and the internal renovation of the heart.
Sometimes we are tempted to narrow our definition of Christlikeness to something that comes naturally to us, or something we feel we can achieve. As a church, we have come to see we must give people a vision for what it means to be like Jesus, but that vision is much larger and more complex than we can master.
To be honest, we are still struggling with this. We have yet to find a definition for spiritual formation that is large enough to be worthy of Jesus, and yet not so overwhelming that people check out. Nonetheless, we know that growing in Christ is complex, and when we try to simplify it, we are cheating people and God.
The deepest growth can’t be measured.
Part of the curse of our culture is we feel the need to measure everything. This is not always bad because when we track things, we are able to have objective data that helps us honestly evaluate how we are doing. Yet, when it comes to spiritual formation, we’ve learned that trying to run metrics can be impossible or even counterproductive. For example, how do you measure the comforting of a grieving widow? How do you evaluate the condition of a heart?
When we overemphasize the measurement of spiritual growth, we end up monitoring things we have no business tracking, and we are tempted to devalue things that can’t be quantified. Jesus said that when we are truly serving him, our left hand should not be aware of what our right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3), and yet the tone of our modern world is to be hyperaware of everything we’re doing. This feeds a performance-based spirituality that can lead to self-righteousness and a naïveté about the deeper workings of God’s Spirit. Therefore, we’ve come to understand that measuring too much can stunt spiritual growth rather than empower it.
Growth is circular, not linear.
Most of us want to believe spiritual growth is a sequential process, which is why we love to read books that talk about roadmaps, tracks, and steps. We think that if we take the right pathway or follow the right process, growth and maturity will naturally occur.
We want spiritual growth to be straight, predictable, and controllable, yet true growth is more circular than linear. It occurs in cycles where we move forward, then find ourselves moving backward. It’s the old “three steps forward, two steps back” mantra. Much like a baby who is learning to walk, we develop spiritually through a process of forward momentum, followed by failure, pain, and stumbling. If we don’t get discouraged and bail, but stay with the process, we will find that the backward loops often result in the greatest growth.
It can’t be done in a vacuum.
To truly become the people God desires, we must put ourselves in environments that are conducive to growth, and those environments must include relationships where we receive encouragement and are challenged. This means corporate worship, classes, groups, individual friendships, mentoring relationships, and more. The temptation to turn inward, believe we can do it ourselves, and keep our relationships safe by keeping people distant leads to arrested development.
Jesus says branches cannot grow apart from the vine. He is the true vine, and we are the branches (John 15:5). As branches, we are supposed to stay rooted in him, but we are also supposed to grow together as one plant. Paul also says the church community is Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:12), and, like the branch apart from the vine, the individual parts of the body cannot function or grow without the other parts. In order to grow spiritually, we must grow together.
Spiritual formation is a process of heart change that happens within individuals as they grow and struggle in relationship with God and others, slowly becoming more like Christ as they help others do the same. There is no formula. There is no easy path. There is no quick, quantitative way to measure progress. There is only a complex, awkward kind of failing forward in the beautiful, but messy, circular process of living, learning, and loving together with each other and the Trinity.
Jim Powell is senior pastor with Richwoods Christian Church in Peoria, Illinois. He provides coaching and consulting to multiple church leaders through the “95 Network” and leadership resources through his blog, JimPowellonline.com.