By Mike Baker
I am unashamed to tell you I want my church to grow! I want it to grow numerically because every person counted on a Sunday morning is a life that matters, a story of redemption, and a person in need of a Savior.
But numeric growth is not the only growth God desires for his church. With increased attendance and baptisms come the responsibility of encouraging spiritual growth in those God has entrusted to our care.
Early in my ministry, I was easily impressed. I often thought, Cool, our numbers are growing, naively believing our work was done. Now, I look at numerical growth and think, Oh no, are we ready to help all of these people grow spiritually? How can we inspire, encourage, teach, and lead the people who come to faith in Christ grow in that faith? And how can we motivate those who regularly attend our church to mature in their faith? In other words, what can we do about the spiritual formation of our people?
About a year ago our leadership team began to pray about an all-church study that would encourage across-the-board spiritual growth in our congregation. Over the years, a culture of small groups had been firmly established here. That and our emphasis on weekly preaching the Word of God gave us the vehicles to move our people. But what would we move them to? As senior pastor, my desire was to use my voice to accomplish three objectives.
A Higher Call
First I emphasized the need for every person to grow spiritually. This is more difficult than it sounds for two reasons:
1. Many people are convinced that coming to faith in Christ is only about being saved. For them, faith in Jesus is a spiritual “ticket to Heaven” and baptism is physical proof they’ll get in. In fact, it is “by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Ephesians 2:8), but we are also “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Just as we want to see a child grow up after it is born, God wants us to mature toward the Christlikeness he’s created us to experience.
2. Without discipline, most of us default toward comfort. After following Jesus for decades, most Christians are susceptible to spiritual ruts. Without continual exhortation to grow, many believers will end up giving, praying, studying, serving, and worshipping in the exact same way and at the exact same level for decades. The biggest challenge for pastors is not convincing baby Christians to grow, but motivating seasoned people of faith to move forward in their spiritual journey.
So, for the better part of six weeks, we encouraged full participation from all of our people, even the great saints of faith among our older generations. In the end, we had small group participation that equaled our average Sunday morning adult attendance. Either by conviction or guilt, we had convinced our church to sign up for spiritual formation. But what next?
A Clear Definition
My second objective was to define exactly what a person maturing in Christ looks like. Although I’ve encouraged Bible study, prayer, and Christian community for years, I decided that wasn’t enough. All three are powerful growth accelerators for faith, but people need to see a clear picture of spiritual growth.
A physical trainer at the gym must do more than advise, “Lift some weights, hit the treadmill, and eat less.” This instruction simply isn’t enough. The person in training needs to know why certain exercises work, what he can expect from these exercises, and how he can tell if actual progress is being made. The same is true for spiritual exercise.
Our church staff is fortunate to have a seasoned pastor of spiritual formation who has dedicated his adult life to studying, practicing, and teaching how spiritual growth occurs in Christ followers. We adopted his biblical definition of spiritual formation, dividing it into six understandable segments for our study. Members of the congregation now know how to see their spiritual formation, and we’re hearing their testimonies:
“Maybe a job change is the means the Spirit is using to grow me right now.”
“I never knew there were so many biblical spiritual disciplines I could practice to cooperate with the Spirit’s work in my life.”
“Getting more spiritual is not the goal; giving glory to God is.” For our people, knowing this definition has made the difference.
A Shared Process
The success came in walking through this process together as a congregation. Our “Walk” was not a solitary trip. Many believe serious spiritual formation is for the lonely few, the monks and contemplatives who grind out a life of spiritual discipline. In fact, it is a journey of fellowship.
I reminded our church early in this study of the famous “let us” phrases from Hebrews 10 (I’ll paraphrase verses 22-25): “Let us draw near to God.” “Let us hold to our hope.” “Let us spur one another on.” “Let us meet together.” “Let us encourage one another.” If the spiritual journey is a walk, it is a walk with others.
And so we walked for six weeks this fall, and we have grown. Yes, by God’s grace we continue to grow numerically, and for that I am grateful. But perhaps more importantly, by God’s design we have grown spiritually, and that for me is a bigger blessing still!
Mike Baker is senior pastor with Eastview Christian Church in Normal, Illinois.