Rethinking Spiritual Growth


Measring growthI’m part of a closed group of Vineyard and ex-Vineyard folks who discuss theology on a Facebook page.  Someone there raised the age-old question:

How do we measure spiritual growth?

For too long this simple question has baffled evangelical Christians. I think there’s a reason for that, but it’s not what it appears on the surface. But then, this is Cerulean Sanctum, so when do I ever approach things from a surface perspective? 😉

Measuring anything demands we agree on what we are measuring and the tools and terms we use in the measurement. Talking measuring spiritual growth in an evangelical church immediately runs into a wall because we make poor assumptions about those bedrock criteria. Ask the wrong questions and get the wrong answers.

For me, the elusiveness of measuring spiritual growth occurs because the focus has always been on the individual Christian in the individual church. It’s a bedrock principle that what we’re measuring is how a lone Christian in a lone Church grows.

But I wonder if we’re getting this all wrong from the first step.

I go back to two posts from 2013:

No “I” in “CHURCH”–How American Evangelicalism Gets Its Pronouns Wrong

God of the Group

What if we commit a fundamental error in checking for spiritual growth by focusing on the individual rather than on the collective church?

The language of the New Testament, again and again, is the collective you, not the singular. And the New Jerusalem at the close of the age isn’t a loose collection of people, but a unified Body—or more appropriately, a complete city.

I think one reason that leaders on the local church level burn out on growth issues is because all the emphasis is on the individual Christian. But shouldn’t successful growth be centered on what that local church is accomplishing?

Even more, the tendency to focus on the individual removes the collective church from its role as Body. Paul’s metaphor depicts health not as one organ functioning alone but as the organs in the body working in harmony, which has a secondary effect of wholeness for each part. In other words, when the eye is doing what an eye does, the foot and hand don’t end up falling off a cliff along with it.

For too long the assumption has been…

IF the individual is functioning well, THEN the church will be well.

That thinking puts everything on the back of the individual, though. The onus is on him or her to perform. Legalism and moralism can be the only result.

What if we reverse that assumption?

IF the church is functioning well, THEN the individual will be well.

I think that second equation has gone unexplored for too long. And because it has not been explored, it’s not at the forefront of how we think about church, the individual, and spiritual growth. I believe that second statement, though, is closer to the heart of the Gospel.

Shifting toward measuring church growth rather than individual growth makes it far easier to gauge genuine growth overall. The Body metaphor makes more sense and lends a better basis for measuring growth.

We can chart some growth elements from the perspective of an organic Body or organism. Two obvious aspects of a living organism that we can then examine:

How well is the organism feeding itself?

How well is the organism reproducing?

Starting at the second question also answers the first. Healthy organisms reproduce, while unhealthy ones do not. If disciples are not being made and the church is not growing itself, then it is not healthy. At this point, examining reasons for ill health can take us back to the first question and to others associated with it.

Here’s the thing: Measuring the growth of individuals will always have periods of mixed analysis. If you wish to measure an individual’s activity but do so while he is sleeping, bad analysis may result. What may look like slacking off may actually be recovery from a day’s strenuous work. This analytical mistake is why charting individual growth is so hard in the church and may not be a viable source for an accurate assessment. Our results depend on something that is too variable. Stepping up to a broader measure may be a better way of charting the real growth info we need to examine, and it provides us a way to work backwards and make general statements about the growth in the individual.

The main problem is that we’re not used to thinking that way, so many of our tools, questions, and interpretations will need to be recast to look more at the collective church rather than the individual Christian. Once we start thinking differently, I think we’ll have better results for making accurate statements about spiritual growth in American churches.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Spiritual Growth

  1. Heartspeak

    Good questions! A couple random thoughts follow.

    The ‘ability to feed itself’, the ‘ability to reproduce’ are quite thougt provoking no matter whether at the individual or the macro ends of the spectrum.

    As much as I advocate self assessment and measuring progress, I still continually hear ‘man looks on the outside but God looks on the heart’ ringing in my ears. I’m suspcious that while we can sense spiritual maturity in someone, the moment we break it down into observable details and try to replicate it in either ourselves or others, we miss the point.

    Neil Cole points out that growth comes from God. We can water, cultivate and provide an environment where it’s more apt to happen, i.e. prepare the soil. (don’t rely on me to explain this, rather read his own description).

    I think there’s also a difference between maturity and health. Nonetheless, you’ve got me thinking—thanks!

  2. Stu

    Your comments on measuring spiritual growth remind me of the work of Titus Coan who though not as well known; was, judging by all measures, one of the most successful missionaries and hardest working pastors this country has ever known. In the two year period 1837-38, so many converts were added to Coan’s church in Hawaii that it became the biggest single congregation in the world – larger than Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle. By 1870 it had 13,000 members. No one was admitted to membership until he or she proved over a period of several months that their repentance was sincere.
    Perhaps in these modern times with our large immaculate facilities and a varied and assorted menu of spiritual programs to choose from we overlook the fact that shepherding a church requires a shepherd’s commitment. Through the Great Hawaiian Awakening, we are able to take a peek at Coan’s methods and strategies in making sure coverts went on to become true disciples via Coan’s own writings – quoted from
    It seems, from what I can gather, that Titus Coan went on tour often times each year attempting to personally touch for Jesus every person in his parish. In fact, he had a unique and thorough follow-up system in order to keep track of his converts and new members. Coan states, “I had a faithful notebook in my pocket, and in all my personal conversations with the people, by night and by day, at home and in my oft repeated tours, I had noted down, unobserved, the names of individuals apparently sincere and true converts. Over these persons I kept watch, though unconsciously to themselves; and thus their life and conversation were made the subjects of vigilant observation. After the lapse of these, six, nine or twelve months, as the case might be, selections were made from the list of names for examination. Some were found to have gone back to their old sins; others were stupid, or gave but doubtful evidence of conversions, while many had stood fast and run well. Most of those who seemed hopefully converted spent several months at the central station before their union with the church. Here they were watched over and instructed from week to week and from day to day, with anxious and unceasing care. They were sifted and re-sifted with scrutiny, and with every effort to take the precious from the vile. The church and the world, friends and enemies, were called upon and solemnly charged to testify, without concealment or palliation, if they knew ought against any of the candidates.”

    Coan goes on to tell how on his numerous tours he would take his book with him and call the roll of church members in every village. “When anyone did not answer the roll call, I made inquiry why. If dead, I marked the date; if sick, visited him or her, if time would allow; if absent on duty, accepted the fact; if supposed to be doubting or backsliding, sent for or visited him; if gone to another part of the island, or to another island, I inquired if the absence would be short or perpetual, and noted facts of whatever kind.” This personal care even extended to his parishioners who became sailors. When they returned he would check as to whether they lived for the Lord or not. Even while in Honolulu once a year he would put up a public notice and 50 to 100 people who were his parishioners that had moved to Honolulu would show up for a meeting.
    A real-life sheep herder would testify that keeping watch over the flock is hard work and may even require that one give up his life for the sheep. One must ask if Coan’s methods have any implications for us today.

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