Churches: nurseries or training camps?

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.

Discouraging.

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.

6 Comments

I first want to thank you for your testimony, and want to also say that it was well put. I myself has felt that very way about the church I attended, and to be honest it drove me from the church as well as God. It drove me to ask, was that really all there is to this? and why does it feel like i am learning the same thing year in and year out? It wasn't until I found myself doubting God that God spoke to me and asked me when was I going to realize that this is a personal journey? and that the church was not established to teach me everything but rather to give me a foundation as well as steps to follow for when he {God} is ready to teach. It wasn't until than that I decided to use church for what it was designed, and to view my walk with God as MY! walk with God and allow HIM! to teach me what he will through personal studies.

God bless.

Hi Dee,

Thanks for your comments. I can appreciate your situation. There is one thing, however, that I would point out, a sort of a word of caution.

To see the church as a place for training or nurturing is seeing it correctly. The church is to make disciples. But there's much more. The question is, why make disciples? Why encourage growth? And the answer lies in the reason for being of the church.

The church does not exist for my sake or for your sake. It does not exist for its own sake. The church exists for the sake of the world. Jesus (John 20) and Paul (II Corinthians 5) both say that we are sent into the world as the Father sent Jesus, to bring to the world the message of reconciliation. It's as if, says Paul, God is making his appeal to he world through us.

That makes the church of profound importance. And, in my opinion, makes it impossible to say I am a follower of Jesus, loving him and serving him, and not be in the church. I recognize that for those who hunger for depth and more than just being a good, compliant worker, many churches are very difficult places. I am in one such church.

Nevertheless, God works into the world primarily through his people, the church. And there is no one who can singlehandedly carry out the mission God has entrusted to the church. We all have different gifts and abilities, and all of them are necessary to the healthy functioning of the people of God.

So I encourage you, don't give up on the church. Don't become just another isolated, private Christian, who makes little difference in the world, and who cannot say he or she loves God. Jesus said, after all, if you love me, keep my commands. Make disciples. Together.

This is a really good posting Avi...

I guess I see the church establishment as being a pretty good place to get people started on the right path, so to speak. But I do not think it is necessarily equipped to handle the discipleship of believers that are more mature in their faith.

I am thinking that maybe that type of discipling is best conducted in smaller, more personal or intimate settings...like 3 or 4 people to an instructor (with these meetings occurring outside of the church building and in a private home or other similar setting).

And maybe have different levels of disipleship. These 3 or 4 people would stay with an instructor for a specific period of time or through a particular course of study. And then be handed off to the next level and instructor as warranted.

I know it is alot of structure, but maybe that would be a good thing as one progresses and explores what it really really means to live a life devoted to G-d and devoted to the teachings of His Messiah.

I am thinking of how Messiah taught his 12...and how he taught the throngs who followed him about. The masses were given a certain type of teaching in a broader sense...while the 12 typically received deeper teaching in more intimate and private settings.

Again...great post.

Hi Brook.

Thanks for the comments. Good to hear from you again.

You are right, I think, in the general thrust of your comment. The problem is that in the early stages of growth, structured classes work pretty well, and are easiest for churches to do. But, as in our emotional and social growth, in spiritual growth the "older" we get, the less amenable we are to simple classes. It's less about simply learning information and more about intimacy with the Father, which is, of course, the point from the beginning. So there is a point at which growth occurs best in relationships, partially through teaching in the traditional sense, but more through mentoring. Here small groups can be important. I agree that much good can occur in small groups, but those groups must be intentionally designed for that purpose. Most groups don't cut it.

The larger problem, I think, is that most churches don't even recognize the problem. Those seeking meat rather than milk are branded as malcontents. And of course, they should be discontented, because they are starving. In some churches, the leadership is becoming aware of this matter, and recognizing that they have been doing only half the task. Those churches are encouraging, but are, sadly, the exception.

L,

Is it more knowledge you seek, or more maturity? I want as much knowledge as I need to be mature with Christ. Mature, as in Telioos, sometimes perfect, finished, etc...

If knowledge is how you think we get maturity, then it's a good thing to want more. But how much knowledge do we need? I know atheists that could teach any level of seminary course with the knowledge they have. I know other's with tons of knowledge; puffed up knowledge.

So I"m going to assume that in your heart, like mine, it's maturity you want. A more mature relationship with God.

So the question becomes HOW is that supposed to happen?

Clement gives a great explanation of how the church is set up in 1 clement 40ish -55ish... God appoints Christ, He the apostles, they the bishops, and them the bishops in expansion and succession going forward. Eph 4 says that HE established people in roles to prepare the people for............ WORKS of service. Through those works of service maturity is gained.

Remember the movie Karate Kid? Teach me Karate mr. Miyagi!
Ok Daniel-san, here is a paint brush, stroke up... stroke down.... That's not learning karate.

Daniel son, Wax on, Wax off.

That's not karate.

However he is being taught a new discipline. He's being trained and doesnt' know it. (heb 12 discipline/training) What he's learning while waxing on and off applies to karate.

Thru the works we were saved to do, God teaches us things we need to learn in LIFE not in our head. You can reason that parachuting is safe. But you hesitate before you jump. After my fourth jump, I didn't hesitate anymore, I knew it worked. No amount of reason would give me what I learned thru life.

Eph 4 talks about LIVING our faith in these verses.
Thru works, we learn things that help in our maturity with Him.

How mature? Read it... Find any place that studying, or reasoning, or rationalizing is even hinted at bringing this maturity.

It's in the application, not the reasoning.


Eph 4:11 And He gave some {as} apostles, and some {as} prophets, and some {as} evangelists, and some {as} pastors and teachers,
Eph 4:12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
Eph 4:13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
Eph 4:14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; (NASB)

Hello Brad,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I seek knowledge, but only as a means to better know God. The central focus of life, I believe, is to know him as intimately as he may be known, and to serve and enjoy him. The most important part of growing in that relationship is time spent together, as in any relationship. However, there are special conditions here, knowing someone we can't see.

The primary source of knowledge of God is the Bible. Yet, most of the people who claim to worship him don't read the Bible, and have little understanding either of what the Bible says or who the God is that the Bible presents. There is a foundational role for knowledge, I believe. And I believe further that greater knowledge in the context of an intimate relationship with God permits him to use us in different ways in his Kingdom. An example would be the apostles Paul and Peter.

So I seek knowledge as a means to relationship and service, not as an end in itself. At a more basic level, that knowledge might come from study and teaching. At a more mature level, it may come from mentoring. But it has to come.

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  • Larry Baden said:
      Hello Brad, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I seek knowledge, bu...
  • Brad.dickey said:
      L, Is it more knowledge you seek, or more maturity? I want as much ...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Hi Brook. Thanks for the comments. Good to hear from you again. You...
  • Brook Hayes said:
      This is a really good posting Avi... I guess I see the church establi...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Hi Dee, Thanks for your comments. I can appreciate your situation. Th...
  • Dee said:
      I first want to thank you for your testimony, and want to also say tha...

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