Growing in Christ BannerPerhaps you’ve heard the story of the birth of Athena (part of ancient Greek mythology). Zeus had a splitting headache—literally! Calling in Hephaestus (the craftsman god of fire and forge), Zeus asked Hephaestus to swing his axe, split Zeus’ head open, and relieve the terrible tension. When Hephaestus obeyed, however, out leapt Athena from the forehead of Zeus—fully grown and dressed in armor!

armour of GodSometimes, it seems, that’s how we think spiritual maturity happens. Mature, wise, Christ-like disciples leap from the waters of baptism (or, at least, from the pews of our churches)—fully formed and clothed in the armor of righteousness. No training required. No mentors or modeling. No rigorous schooling in Scripture. No rooting in how the Spirit works. No instruction in the ethics of the new community. Instead, a few verses of Just as I Am (repeated interminably!), a brief orientation to the way we do church, and presto-chango—a fully-grown disciple is born!

The Laws of Growth

Any kind of growth and development—in any sphere of life—takes place according to certain “laws of growth.” Think of physical, emotional, and intellectual growth:

  1. Everyone begins at the baseline: immaturity. It is the common and necessary starting point for all people in all spheres of life. No one is born “fully-formed.” No one steps from the womb six feet tall, talking in complete sentences, and balancing their check book.
  2. Growth happens slowly, incrementally. Significant growth never occurs “overnight.” No matter how gifted, privileged, or talented someone might be, growth is still a gradual process. One individual may grow faster than another, but everyone’s growth is measured in years rather than moments.
  3. Certain conditions, particular environments, are necessary for any kind of growth to occur. Physical growth requires food and shelter. Language growth requires modeling and feedback. Mental growth requires stimulation and teaching. Though we are programmed for growth in many ways, the absence of an appropriate environment can stymie growth and prevent its occurrence.
  4. Which means, in turn, that someone has to be intentional about creating an optimal environment for growth. Parents do this characteristically, expending large sums of time, money, and effort to create conditions where growth can occur in their children. Where there is no one to create those conditions, there can be no consistent growth.
  5. Growth can be traced through certain “stages of development”—predictable, normative phases that immature people pass through on their way to greater maturity. Not all these phases are “pretty.” Sometimes they require patience and tolerance from others (think of the teen years!). But we all go through stages on the way to something better.
  6. Finally, only progress through all stages can be considered a “success.” Getting stuck somewhere before complete maturity is a tragedy. Failure to fully “grow up”—physically, verbally, socially, intellectually—is something to mourn and to “fix” if possible.

The Laws of Spiritual Growth

If we take the above “laws” and apply them to the spiritual realm, we are lead to some shocking conclusions.

  1. Everyone begins at a spiritual baseline: immaturity. It doesn’t matter what age someone is when they are born again. Doesn’t matter how much they know or how spiritually privileged their upbringing. No one is born “fully-formed.” No one steps from baptism’s womb six feet tall, talking in King James English, and balancing obedience with grace. Everybody starts the journey as a spiritual novice.
  2. Spiritual growth happens slowly, incrementally. Whatever our beliefs about the work of the Spirit and the efficacy of obedience, spiritual growth never occurs “overnight.” “Growing in the Lord” is always a gradual process—often two steps forward, one step back. A particular Christian may grow faster than another, but every Christian’s growth is measured—ultimately—in years rather than moments.
  3. Certain conditions, particular environments, are necessary for spiritual growth to occur. Maturing in Christ requires an environment where Christ is honored, taught, emulated, and  modeled. Disciples grow best under conditions of love, unity, harmony, acceptance, holiness, and joy. Disciple grow only in conditions where the Spirit is welcomed and trusted. Though we are programmed for spiritual growth in many ways, the absence of an appropriate and healthy church environment can stymie that growth and prevent its occurrence.
  4. Which means, in turn, that the church has to be intentional about creating an optimal environment for growth. Church leaders must take seriously their responsibility to build churches that provide conditions in which disciples can grow up. Not just teaching (though teaching is important). Nurturing. Patience. Tolerance for the immature. Intolerance for habitual immaturity. A peaceful environment. A loving environment. Where there is no one to create those growth conditions, there can be no consistent maturing of disciples.
  5. Spiritual growth can be traced through certain “stages of development.” These stages are not mysterious and convoluted. Far from it. They are clearly laid out in Scripture—the predictable, normative phases that spiritually immature people pass through on their way to Christ-likeness. Not all these phases are “pretty.” Sometimes they require patience and tolerance from others (think of knowledge that puffs up!). But all of us go through stages on the way to something better.
  6. Finally, only progress through all spiritual stages can be considered “success.” Getting stuck at some stage before complete spiritual maturity is not a “partial victory.” It is tragic. Failure to fully “grow up” in love, in gifts, in knowledge, in joy, in the Spirit, in Christ-likeness is something to mourn and to “fix” if possible.


Spiritual Growth and Your Church

If there is any truth to the thoughts above, we are forced to ask some hard and searching questions:

  1. Does your church believe that everybody starts the spiritual journey as a novice? Do they see new Christians as “babies”—helpless, vulnerable, in need of constant and intensive care—even if they are forty years old?
  2. Does your church believe that spiritual growth happens slowly, incrementally? Do they expect overnight maturity? Or are they willing to patiently, lovingly guide disciples through the gradual process of growing up in Christ?
  3. Does your church believe that certain conditions are necessary for spiritual growth to occur? Do your church leaders understand that the absence of an appropriate and healthy church environment can stymie spiritual growth and prevent its occurrence? Do they understand the kind of environment that is most productive of healthy, mature disciples?
  4. Is your church intentional about creating an optimal environment for growth? Do your leaders must take seriously their responsibility to build the kind of church in which disciples can thrive and develop? Are they ensuring that immature disciples are being taught, nurtured, cared for with patience and tolerance? In a peaceful, loving environment?
  5. Does your church understand and appreciate the “stages of spiritual development”? Have your leaders seen in Scripture the predictable, normative phases that spiritually immature people pass through on their way to Christ-likeness? Can they identify where people are on their spiritual journey and how to help them make progress towards higher stages of development?
  6. Is your church committed to helping members grow through all spiritual stages? Are your leaders unwilling to condone “stuckedness”? Do they love your people enough to challenge and teach them to “grow up” in love, in gifts, in knowledge, in joy, in the Spirit, in Christ-likeness? Or have they decided to let sleeping spiritual dogs lie?

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