“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.” (I Corinthians 13:11)
Yesterday, filling the pulpit for a pastorless church near my home, I told the congregation, “The best thing that can happen to your new pastor is to discover that the leadership of his new church is made up of mature and godly adults in the faith. He’s going to get some good work done here.”
“And the worst thing that can happen to him–something that will frighten him as badly as anything imaginable–is to learn that the leadership of the church is immature. Getting anything done is going to be slow and difficult and at great risk.”
A friend was telling me about her parents. “I had the misfortune,” she said teasingly, “of being raised by two adults.” That is, as opposed to immature parents who were still working out issues of their own identity and life-purpose. Such a child is blessed indeed.
Every church needs a healthy portion of immature members. After all, new believers start out as spiritual babies with a world of learning and growing ahead. No one is born fully grown.
What your church should never do, however–what no church should do–is to place spiritual babies in positions of leadership. Do that, and the news is all bad. The pastor will grow old before his time, the congregation will be in a constant turmoil from the bickering of these refugees from the church nursery, and the church’s outreach ministries will grind to a halt.
Never elect a spiritual baby to anything. If you must give him or her an assignment, see that they are surrounded by a team of godly and mature members who will keep the ship on course.
What spiritual immaturity looks like
A spiritual infant looks and acts a lot like human infants. They’re self-centered, cry-babies, impatient, helpless, noisy, and messy.
1) Spiritual infants are self-centered. They arrive at church thinking, “What can I get out of this?” Then, they sometimes leave saying, “I didn’t get a thing out of that today.” Church is all about them.
2) Spiritual infants are noisy. They cry a lot, particularly when they don’t think their needs are being met. The church leadership presents a plan for reaching young adults in the community and the senior adults immediately complain that the church plans to abandon them. That’s immaturity on display.
The leadership asks the church to fund a mission project and someone complains that the girls’ bathroom needs remodeling with that money.
The story of the Israelites in the wilderness is one instance of griping and complaining after another. Poor Moses had to babysit hundreds of thousands of God’s infants for a full generation. No wonder pastors admire Moses so much and identify with him so readily.
3) Spiritual infants are messy. Toddlers do not clean up after themselves. That’s someone else’s job. On Sunday night after everyone has vacated the premises, walk around the church building and you’ll know in a heartbeat whether the congregation is mature or immature.
4) Spiritual infants are impatient. The crying baby cannot be told that the milk is warming and should be ready in a few minutes. He wants what he wants and he wants it five minutes ago.
“Why did you leave that church?” “We were not having our needs met.” Ever heard that? This is the customer/provider approach to Kingdom work. The church is there to provide services which members pay for with their offerings; if the services are inferior, they withhold their money or even leave. Such is the nature of carnal devotion.
5) Spiritual infants are defined by what they cannot do. They cannot cooperate, cannot submit to others, and cannot understand deep things. They are unable to apologize and mean it, and resist sharing.
They cannot see far away. Suggest the church join the local association or send money to missions, and they respond, “Why? What does it do for us?”
6) Spiritual infants are explosive and can “go off” at anything. They were in the hospital and the pastor did not visit them, so they drop out of church. They worked hard on that project and got no recognition from the pulpit so they are ready to quit.
7) Spiritual infants are irresponsible. They’re great at expecting a lot from others and nothing from themselves. They always know who is to blame for all that’s wrong in the church.
It’s the nature of the immature to be childish. It’s the natural order of things for babies to be infantile. We’re not saying otherwise. We love babies.
Babies can love and laugh and add a great deal to any gathering. The biggest huggers in any church and the ones most likely to call out a hearty ‘amen’ to the sermon are the newer members, those “fresh in from the cold.” They add a lot to the church.
But we don’t want to keep our children as toddlers forever. They should grow.
We’re not against spiritual babies; we just say don’t turn over the church to them and that everyone goes through that developmental stage.
But to remain a baby forever is unnatural.
Growing into maturity is the natural order of things. “By this time you ought to be teachers,” the writer of Hebrews said to some unnamed disciples. “But you need to return to the first grade and start over with the basic truths of the kingdom” (Hebrews 5:12; my paraphrase).
We don’t tell our babies to grow. It’s the natural order. If we feed and nurture them, protect and care for them, they will grow.
Spiritual growth is a choice.
We grow spiritually into Christlikeness by the choices we make–whether to read the Bible and pray, to obey the Lord in a particularly difficult situation, to give our tithes when finances are tight, to share our faith when doing so might be uncomfortable, to resist temptation when its pull was so strong.
We choose to grow by making right choices. And, when we make the wrong choices we choose not to grow. We feel lazy on Sunday mornings and decide to sleep in; we are deciding not to grow. We decide to spend God’s money on ourselves rather than give it in church; we decide not to grow. We go a week without serious attention to the Word of God; we are sentencing ourselves not to grow.
To use Eugene Peterson’s phrase, spiritual growth takes place as a result of “a long obedience in the same direction.”
“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).
Discovered: a human growth hormone for Christians!
Athletes get in trouble for taking HGH, artifically created chemicals designed to speed up the growth of new tissues, bones, and muscle. The football player weighed 185 pounds a year ago, but now he tops out at 265. Something is bad wrong; look for HGH in his system. This is bad and does serious injury to his longtime health.
However, there is a way for God’s children to speed up the maturity process, to grow at a much faster clip than is normally the case.
But you won’t like it.
It’s called persecution.
When believers are persecuted for the faith, when they are harassed and tormented, and some even killed, when being identified as a follower of Jesus Christ subjects one to all kinds of opposition and humiliation, the Lord’s people decide in a hurry to what extent they believe Him and believe in Him, and how important He is to them.
The faithful who persevere in difficult times grow much faster than those who live in safe societies where serving Christ costs them little or nothing. They have to.
But I wouldn’t want to volunteer for persecution. There are easier ways–not to say more survivable ways!–to grow in the Lord.