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.

2005’s Fifty Most Influential Churches?


What say you all about this list conducted by The Church Report covering (what polling of 2,000 church leaders showed to be) the top 50 most influential churches in America?

First of all, I find it disheartening that by their own definition influential = big + fast-growing. Hmm….

{For long-time readers familiar with my personal history and some of my blog entries detailing my experiences at this church, it will be interesting to note that #21 was where I attended from 1989-1997, 2000-2004. }

Calvin Declines


Excerpted from The Houston Chronicle – 7/21/04:

“As early as this year and certainly, if the projections hold, within the next two years, the majority of American adults will not be Protestants for the first time since the founding of colonial Jamestown,” said Tom W. Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey.

“We were always at least a majority Protestant country, and that is about to change.”

The survey, which was released Tuesday, has studied various aspects of American life, including its religious dimension, for 32 years.

From 1972 to 1993, it found that Protestants constituted 63 percent of the national population. But the total declined to 52 percent in 2002.

The study mirrors results from a recent Harris County survey. Protestants decreased from 56 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in 2004, according to the Houston Area Survey directed by Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor.

One reason for the national decline, Smith said, is a failure to keep youths and young adults within the Protestant fold.

From the ’70s through the early ’90s, Protestant churches retained 90 percent of young people, but that dropped to 83 percent after 1993, he said.

Another reason: Once-nominal Protestants are more open to stating that they are no longer affiliated with any denomination, he said. In the survey, the number of people saying they had no religion grew from 9 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2002.

And, some people who once identified themselves as Protestant now call themselves “Christian,” which would put them in the survey’s growing “other” category. Latter-day Saints, Muslims and Eastern religions are also in the “other” category, which grew from 3 percent in 1993 to 7 percent in 2002.

I guess you can say that the Reformation is essentially dead.

Folks are unpacking these numbers various ways. Non-Protestant immigrants are thinning the ranks as the United States struggles to maintain its borders. More Christians are failing to self-identify as “Protestant,” choosing a more generic title of “Christian” (a category that grew slightly.)

But with the rise of Islam in America, as well as the unabated hemorrhage of people who are weighing the Church in the scale and finding it wanting (the “no religion” crowd), there are serious problems the Church in America must face.

The first is obvious: We simply are not leading people to Christ. I believe that if every self-confessed “Protestant” led one person to Christ every five years, we would see those numbers dramatically shift. Just about a dozen people pointed to Jesus in a person’s lifetime. I have to wonder how hard that is to do. The numbers do not lie, though—every measure of Christian life out there shows declining or stagnant numbers. We simply are not leading people to Christ.

Nor are we reproducing. God’s people have been encourage by the Lord Himself to be fruitful, yet our birthrates in the Christian community are hovering in the low single digits, at best. We are barely replacing ourselves. Meanwhile, Muslim families are experiencing birthrates more than twice what ours are. Most futurists are speculating that Islam will overtake Christianity as the primary world religion sometime between 2025 and 2035. And much of that is simply through birth rates.

We have been asleep on our watch. We need to be telling people about Christ and raising Christian children. It is God’s desire that everyone be saved and that none perish. But we have to do something about it.

I understand the family issue is huge one and that not everyone can have a half dozen kids. But there is no reason why we cannot adopt or foster children, raising them in the fear of the Lord.

No reason at all exists, though, to justify why we are not out there bringing people to Christ.

Turn the TV off. Throw out the XBox. Unplug the iPod. Then let’s all get out there and work to bring in the harvest. The laborers already are few; let’s not let them become nonexistent.