How Do We Respond to the Spiritual Lethargy of the People Entrusted to Us?
By Michael C. Mack
Even the greatest Christian leaders can become disheartened, and perhaps exasperated, with the people under their care.
An obvious Old Testament example is Moses, who had to deal with the wayward Israelites over and over again for 40 years. A New Testament example is the apostle Paul, who had to write letters to whole churches because of his frustrations with their lack of spiritual growth, their disagreements, disorder, and distractions from the gospel.
Even the world’s greatest leader became exasperated with his followers. Once, during a storm at sea, Jesus asked his disciples, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” (Matthew 8:26). Another time, Peter asked him to explain a parable to him and the other disciples, and Jesus responded, “Are you still so dull?” (15:16). Eugene Petersen translated this as, “Are you being willfully stupid?” (The Message). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked three of his closest followers, “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour? . . . The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (26:40, 41).
The writer of Hebrews faced a similar frustration with some of the Christian recipients of his letter. Like Jesus, this writer told his listeners they were too dull to understand the theological truths he was trying to explain to them. You can almost hear the exasperation in his words: “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (5:12).
When our kids were newborns, they completely depended on Heidi and me for their nourishment. But as they grew, they slowly yet progressively were able to hold their own bottles, maneuver spoonfuls of baby food into their mouths, make their own sandwiches, and cook their own Ramen noodles. In fact, with four kids six years apart, the older ones learned to feed their younger siblings. Mealtimes became a team effort.
The Hebrew writer’s frustration, and many other Christian leaders’, and mine, is when believers don’t grow up and learn how to feed themselves or others. The saddest six words uttered by longtime church members are these: “I just need to be fed.” If any of my 20-something-year-old children said that, I’d know something was seriously wrong with them . . . or with their parents!
In my Letter from the Editor in our December 2019 print edition, I mentioned something Becky Drish wrote in her article in that issue: “Parents sometimes fail to lead because they do not believe they have what it takes or do not think it is their responsibility.” In other words, by now they ought to be able to teach others, at least their own kids, but they can’t; someone needs to teach them the elementary truths of God’s Word all over again, or just bypass the parents to teach the kids. Somehow, there are people in our churches who are physical parents but unable to be the spiritual parents they should be. They’ve gone to church and heard hundreds or thousands of sermons. They’ve attended Sunday school classes as kids and small groups as adults. They’ve been involved in church discipleship programs. They’ve been educated to a certain degree. But they have not been discipled.
The call of the Hebrews writer is the same call today: “Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity” (6:1). The question is, How will people be taken forward to maturity—enough maturity that they “have what it takes” to teach others, especially their own children, about Jesus?
If some of the greatest biblical leaders, including Jesus, were frustrated with people’s lethargy in becoming spiritually mature, I suppose we should expect the same kinds of frustrations in our ministries. But, like Jesus, we should never give up on people. I have to remind myself that those “dull” disciples, those “willingly stupid” followers, became leaders who somehow changed the world.
I don’t believe new and better church discipleship programs are the answer for the spiritual immaturity in the body of Christ; if they were, we would not be where we are today. I don’t think we can manufacture spiritual growth. Truthfully, I don’t know exactly what it will take, which itself is frustrating to me.
I believe, however, that what must happen in the church today is what happened to those first disciples. We may need to give up our own human ideas and understanding about what God’s kingdom and his church are really all about. It may involve painful loss, repentance and restoration, and the hope of resurrection. It will occur only by the power of the Holy Spirit, with the presence of Jesus, and for the purposes of the Father. It will not depend on our own strength or intellect. It will involve a profuse amount of faithful and fervent prayer in an ecosystem of genuine, unconditional, tangible, and sacrificial community.
I’m suggesting something that should be natural for Restoration Movement churches . . . and that must start, I believe, with more than just doctrine, practices, and ordinances, as important as they are; it must start with a restoration of the heart, attitudes, and spirit of the first-century church—a church made up of “unschooled, ordinary” people who “had been with Jesus.”