Over recent years, I have been disturbed as I have noticed myself becoming increasingly impatient with churches I have belonged to. I have been frustrated for a couple reasons. First, I have felt like I was becoming anemic, trying to live and grow to maturity on spiritual and intellectual baby food. Then, second and perhaps worse, I felt like I was the only one, that there was nobody else who felt as I did.
I am not one who enjoys going about criticizing and stirring up trouble. I try not to be a "professional gadfly." I respect the importance of the biblical principle of not attacking those in authority, since all authority comes from God. So I have gone privately, talking with pastors and church leaders with whom I had an established relationship, telling them of my desire for more depth and meat in teaching.
The response has been discouraging.
One time I asked questions about a specific ministry of the church, one that was not going well. "Are we sure that God called us to this ministry? Are we sure that we have the right people leading it?" I was told that if I was asking these sorts of questions, I might be in the wrong church.
Another church leader, after we listened to two small group leaders tell about people in their group who were frustrated with lack of content, and who had even left the church, responded that he had been doing church for many years, and every church has dissatisfied people. Afterward, I privately told him of my own frustration with lack of depth and substance in teaching, and I was told, again, that every church has its malcontents. "Larry, I hope you find what you are looking for." End of conversation.
It seems that the efforts of the typical evangelical church are oriented toward spiritual infants and children. Those who are older and perhaps in or near adulthood - and, incidentally, who have a great deal to offer the church - are being starved to death. But to point this out is most often to be branded as a troublemaker.
This raises the question: What is the proper role of the church? Is the church intended as a nursery or a place for training up a spiritual army? Are we to live our lives as dependent babies, or as the representatives of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings?
I heard a conversation some years ago, where a pastor expressed frustration that the most mature and most productive members of his church were also the ones most likely to leave the church.
Someone suggested a book, The Critical Journey (Janet Hagberg & Robert Guelich), about stages of spiritual growth. I had an earlier book by Hagberg, and was intrigued, so I found a copy.
One of the things I noticed was that people in the "more developed" stages of growth (stages 4-6 on a scale of 1-6) were often unsupported by their churches, and were met, even, with criticism. They felt very much alone.
Then, more recently, I encountered new and fascinating research by Willow Creek Community Church, in which they surveyed thousands of people in many different congregations. They used a different scale to describe the stages of growth, but their findings were the same: The most mature people - the most productive and valuable people - were also the most dissatisfied and most likely to leave the church.
What's going on here? This is a serious matter. It seems evident that I am not just another malcontent, not the one troublemaker in the otherwise smoothly running church.
Here's what I think is happening, following the stages of Hagberg and Geulich. First, people become aware of God, and are somewhat in awe of him and all that he represents to them. They come into a church, newly born into God's kingdom, hungry for nourishment. They take classes and suck up knowledge of their newfound faith like sponges. Every teacher loves having these people in class. Then after a time, they start giving back: working in the nursery, teaching children, giving money, or any of an array of other ways to be involved.
Then this happens, the church rejoices and considers that they have one more mature member, on the way to becoming a pillar of the church. There are no further expectations, except that the person continue on at that level: working.
However, these are only the first three stages. It's like celebrating when a child reaches adolescence, then giving no more support and having no expectation of further growth.
There is more. Much more. The first three stages, while very important, deal only with knowledge and activity. They do little to foster inner change and deep intimacy with God. These stages are essential to healthy growth, but they are only the foundation, not the finished structure. The end goal is not merely people who work hard. The goal is people who are fully committed, reproducing followers of Jesus, whose activity comes out of an intimate relationship with him.
But this is a foreign language to most churches. It's a foreign language to most church leaders. And it seems there is only the slightest interest in moving deeper. Why? Well, a pastor friend once told me his denomination reports the number of people baptized, not the number of people born again, and especially the number of people actively growing in their faith. Counting baptisms - an emphasis of this bunch - is easy. Making disciples is not. Especially for churches whose leaders have never grown beyond stage three. In fact, they don't know there is more.
So what to do? I could walk around, bitter at the church that has failed at a fundamental purpose. Indeed, I could be bitter at a church that has failed me. But that wouldn't help me or anyone else.
Maturity. In addition to reproduction, another mark of maturity is the ability to feed oneself. To be responsible for one's own life and wellbeing.
So, I take responsibility for my own growth. I seek out others who are likeminded and seek opportunities to meet together for the purpose of mutual blessing and growing. I understand that things might be much easier in a church that recognized its responsibility in making disciples at all levels, but that doesn't excuse me from either discipling myself or from being active in a church, taking advantage of whatever opportunity might present itself, either to take in or to give out.
Church leaders who are irresponsible in the care of their people will answer to God for their actions. My task is not to be outraged at them, blaming them for the impact of their actions on my life. My task, rather, is to be faithful. It is to say yes to God - yes to as much of God as I know with as much of me as I control.
And I pray that above all, young or old, childish or mature, I would be found faithful.