A reader wrote me a thoughtful note in response to the post “What Constitutes Spiritual Growth?“. I started to write her an answer privately, but I thought I would instead share my answer with everyone.
Her question was the same one I asked six months ago: “How can we measure spiritual growth in people?”
This question is a profound one. I have asked many people how they measure spiritual growth and largely get blank stares and shrugs, and yet everyone agrees that it is critical. What is true discipleship if we cannot put a frame around it and how it should function? How can we teach or hope to train up people in righteousness without some defining standards? The fact that the comment section on that posting went empty was troubling to me.
Is spiritual growth measurable? Personally, I don’t believe you can measure spiritual growth like one measures IQ. Not all answers are found in pure science. A “scientific,” quantitative measure will always elude us.
Still, I believe the signs of growth are there:
1. Reproduction—I have had arguments with many Christians over this issue, but I cannot escape it. With spiritual maturity MUST come reproduction. We move from childhood to adulthood. Children do not reproduce, but adults do. We show people who do not know Christ who He is and ask them to come to Him. We teach the new in the faith so that they may grow up into adulthood, too. A parent can have a child, but part of parenting is raising that child to adulthood. So it is with the spiritually mature and the young in the Faith.
Some people are better evangelists and some are better teachers. I do not believe that one or the other is superior when it comes to reproduction. But we Christians must side on one of those two. I think a hockey analogy works here. In hockey, both the player who shoots the puck into the net and the player who passes the puck to the player who took the shot get credit for the goal. In our case, both the sower and the reaper rejoice together.
Growing Christians reproduce.
2. Fruit of the Spirit—Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Are they deepening in a person’s life as time goes on? We should be able to note this.
Stuart Briscoe of Elmbrook Church in New Berlin, WI is a prominent evangelical pastor. Briscoe once said something startling to me. He does not call anyone a Christian unless that person has demonstrably walked with the Lord for at least five years. Five years may be more than I would go, but I think it is a wise belief nonetheless for us to take care and to observe the fruits of repentance. A real conversion will “take” but a phony one will not.
Growing Christians progressively exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.
3. Gifts of the Spirit—I consider myself a charismatic, but a careful one. I think much of the modern charismatic movement has gone off the deep end. That said, I still believe that the gifts of the Spirit are an indicator of God actively working in a person’s life.
Now we know from Acts that many brand new Christians exhibited the charismata at their moment of conversion. This should not keep us from understanding that a mature Christian wields those gifts in a mature, wise way. You would not give a howitzer to a ten year old, and neither does God bestow true charismata to those who cannot handle them wisely. The Spirit of the Prophets is still subject to the prophets.
(A side note: Leonard Ravenhill, the great British revivalist, once said that a dove cannot fly without both wings. And just as a dove has nine primary flight feathers on each wing, there are nine Fruits of the Spirit and nine Gifts of the Spirit. I believe this is great wisdom and why I put both “wings” here.)
Growing Christians flow in the charismata with grace and humility.
4. Mirroring Jesus—If we know Jesus, then we know when people are becoming changed daily into His likeness. One of Jesus’ own will grow up to look like the Lord. We should be able to see that in the lives of people who are reaching maturity. He must increase as we decrease.
Growing Christians grow to resemble Jesus, their Lord.
5. Loved and Hated—People who are growing in Christ will be progressively loved by the true Church and hated by the World. This is a promise the Lord made to us. They hated Him and so they will hate us (see #4.) If we do not engender increasing opposition from the World as we live out the message of Christ, it is a sure sign that we have instead slept with it. Being a Christian costs something, and growing Christians cannot escape being hated for what they proclaim.
Likewise, the Church loves its own and recognizes its own. A person growing deep in the Lord will be loved by the saints. We Christians must also not fear being eclipsed by a younger generation if they are more vital than us in their love for Christ. Our body is not one of division, but wholeness, and we are always called to love the brethren.
Growing Christians will be loved by the Church and hated by the World.
So why do we do so poorly with this?
I believe that in large part the fault rests with leaders within the local church. I know that leaders are always an easy target, but ultimately the blame cannot go anywhere else.
We are failing in growing people to maturity largely because leaders are not actively watching their flocks. It is the responsibility of church leaders to guide the less mature. If we church leaders and are not involved in the active duty of watching to see if these five growth indicators are increasing or decreasing in our charges, then we have failed.
Deep calls to deep and the Spirit to the Spirit. Only the Spirit can discern growth in people; He is the measure of all things. But we leaders cannot do that discerning if we are not paying attention to the lives of our charges and the Spirit’s attesting to their growth (or lack of it.) It is not enough to preach a blistering sermon if we are not following up on how it affected people in their inmost Man. It is not enough to teach the Bible with authority if we do not take the time to ask the Lord to reveal the growth in the lives of our students.
With maturity comes responsibility. One of the responsibilities of the mature is to be actively involved in the spiritual growth of the less mature and to evaluate that growth against the Bible and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. If we do not do this, then we should not be shocked when so little comes of our ministry. The Church of Jesus Christ is a transformational entity charged with raising up the next generation of saints. We must know the standard and bring people to that point, drawing alongside to ensure the successful transition from childhood to adulthood in each believer. That calls for effort and discernment.
God help us all if we do not take that seriously.