Training. Sending. Serving. Joining Globe

My wife has been after me to write another book. She didn’t suggest subject or title. Her assertion is simply that it is time for me to write again. Perhaps my lifelong partner detects the creative angst and subtle depression that are familiar harbingers of this writer’s muse. At any rate, the pressure is on. So, “What do I write about?”

Ironically, the answer to that question is easy: Christian maturity and Christian service. I have a lot of pent up angst on the subject – a “Don’t get me started” kind of issue. Like, we really short-changed ourselves when we traded “church-as-prep-for-service-school” for the current trending of “church-as-self-improvement-center.” When the church should be a Bible college with a large body of committed students and few difficult ones, it now seems we have become a wartime hospital, overflowing with wounded victims and overworked staff.

Perhaps it is a reality of our times. Whatever the cause, we are doing church differently today. It is not an improvement, not in the long-term view of Christian goals and leadership. Field hospitals are necessary in wartime, but ultimately the goal is to win the war and get back to some semblance of normal living and community building.

Field hospitals are necessary in wartime, but ultimately the goal is to win the war and get back to some semblance of normal.

I don’t believe we have lost sight of the goal – I fear we have simply given up on getting there. Perhaps battle fatigue has affected us more than we know. A ward filled with critically wounded souls can do that to a doctor. Like it or not, we have been at war for decades. Our leadership methodology has changed from preparing soldiers for battle through discipline and hard training to keeping ICU patients alive with gentle care.

We’re pretty good with gentle care. Our “come as you are,” “belong before you believe” gregariousness to inquirers seems like Gospel on the surface. Jesus was a friend to sinners and outcasts. But there is a vacancy here. It is the difference between unmerited favor as a demeanor of God for the sick and downcast, and His call to holiness and service as an end game for His people. It is the difference between the evangelist’s welcome at the beginning of faith, and pastor/teacher training and leadership that grows children into adults.

The compassionate Jesus of the Gospels also told people to forsake all and follow Him. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood” was one of Jesus’ more severe moments. Early church leaders did the same. Repentance, separation from the world, radical obedience, holiness, even a call to perfection – with lots of grace and kindness along the way – were the hallmarks of early Christian calls to faith… and this message was delivered to pagan Gentiles in the licentious cultures of Rome and Greece.

The apostle Paul seamlessly served these multi-functions in message and leadership. He preached the Gospel of Salvation by grace through faith alone all over Asia Minor. Then he followed up with letters, and dealt with all the disturbing issues common to young Christians – with sometimes gentle, sometimes tough, instruction – prodding followers to depart from a paradigm of sin and walk forward toward the goal of Christian maturity and service.

After thirty years of ministry at Willow Creek Community Church, Pastor Bill Hybels, the father of the seeker-sensitive church model, confronted a troubling fact, exposed by the 2007 Reveal: Where are You? study: “You can imagine my reaction,” Hybels confesses, “when three people whose counsel I value told me that the local church I’ve been the pastor of for more than three decades was not doing as well as we thought when it came to spiritual growth. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they said this wasn’t just their opinion. It was based on scientific research. Ouch.”

Cally Parkinson, one of the authors of the Reveal study, said the initial findings really caught them off guard: “Involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth.” It was disheartening to learn that people attending Willow Creek loved the spiritual “meal” and the affirming environment that the church served every week. But, sadly, many of these seekers were not changing their lifestyles! Bible knowledge wasn’t increasing and biblical, Christ-centered living wasn’t happening. At least, not like Hybels assumed. In short, seekers were not growing up spiritually, and the idea of discipleship-by-affirmation-alone was a bust.

Bluntly speaking, it is disingenuous to young Christians when we do not teach them what we intuitively know about the road to Christian maturity. Maturity takes time and effort! Repentance, study, prayer, reflection, surrender, and selfless living are both counter-intuitive and essential for growth. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul lamented. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). He challenged the Philippian believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12). Maturity happens when a person is determined to change, and when he or she is fully aware of the dangers waiting outside of Jesus.

It is disingenuous to young Christians when we do not teach them what we intuitively know about the road to Christian maturity.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We grew up by external prodding and encouragement, hopefully at home first but certainly from church leadership, followed by determination and discipline as we internalized our faith in Jesus. How many mentors and pastors have coached us into growth? How many have spoken the truth to us? How often have we been brutally honest with ourselves about our weaknesses? How much time have we invested in Bible study, prayer, books, seminars and conferences, and daily routine disciplines that are necessary for growth in Jesus that eventually brings us to stability and maturity?

I ask God to “Accept me as I am” while in the same breath I’m begging Him to “Make me more like Jesus!” Growth happens intentionally. It is NOT a casual, breezy walk on the beach. It is a brutal fight to the death – the end of one life so another can spring forth by the power of God.

This goal of maturity must be clearly set before us, and we must be expected to pursue it with determination! This is the job of every Christian leader – in our message and our model.

As a mission leader, I pray every day for the emerging generation to find Jesus Christ in this way. I do not pray for them to become church attenders. I pray for them to become radical followers of Jesus who are passionately pursuing their own growth and the ultimate goal to serve others in Jesus’ name. But before they can effectively lead – and you, dear leader would never hire anyone that doesn’t meet these requirements – they must become mature in Jesus. Their character, their knowledge, their selfless living – with internalized, self-nurturing disciplines that equip them to serve the needs of others – are the marks of maturity! This kind of maturity does not happen without loving leaders regularly and clearly communicating the goal – the positives (“Start doing this”) and the negatives (“Stop doing this”) – through our speech and example.

If I can figure it out, my next book will be on THIS subject.