Spiritual Juveniles

In 2007 Diana West wrote an interesting book entitled The Death of the Grown-Up. In it she bewailed the fact that adults just don’t want to grow up. Elsewhere I said this about her incisive volume:

“This book asks the question, Where have all the grown-ups gone? America seems intent on creating a generation of adult adolescents: men and women who refuse to grow up, to become responsible and productive citizens, but who instead seek to perpetually remain teenagers. Modern marketing, cultural relativism, multiculturalism and the youth culture have all combined to entice adults into never leaving childhood. This wide scale case of arrested development, and the mainstreaming of adolescence, spells bad news for the West, making it unable to withstand threats from without, or poisons from within.”

I believe the same problem can be found in the Christian church today. Throughout much of the West, we have believers who are in an arrested state of development. They have never grown up, and are mere spiritual juveniles. Indeed, Scripture paints a bleaker picture: they are babies who should in fact be mature believers.

The proof of this is all around us. Let me mention just one rather famous example of this. In 2007 the second largest church in America, Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Community Church, released the results of a detailed analysis of how well it was doing.

The results were devastating. The whole mega church, seeker sensitive, marketing-orientated strategy was found to have been quite counterproductive. And one of the most alarming findings was the fact that many believers had “stalled” in terms of their spiritual development.

Hybels admitted that “one out of every four people at Willow Creek were stalled in their spiritual growth or dissatisfied with the church – and many of them were considering leaving.”

He continues, “It gets worse. Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put that much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for. If you simply want a crowd, the ‘seeker sensitive’ model produces results. If you want solid, sincere, mature followers of Christ, it’s a bust.

“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

I have written up this revealing report in much greater detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2007/10/31/a-major-rethink-on-church-growth/

If one of the most “successful” churches in the world can get things so very wrong, then what about other churches? If our leadership is failing big time here, then no wonder we are in such a mess. A good part of the problem seems to be emanating from the pulpits. If we preach a me-centred gospel, should we be surprised to find me-centred Christians?

If we think gimmicks and techniques and methods will do the trick, should we really be surprised when we find believers in various stages of retarded growth? Sadly this lack of growth is not a new problem. The early church had to deal with this issue as well. Followers of Jesus who should have been mature were still in spiritual infancy, or at least spiritual adolescence. A number of texts speak to this.

In 1 Cor 3:1-3 for example Paul says this about the immature Corinthian Christians: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly.”

While this passage refers to spiritual infancy more in terms of Christian behaviour, other passages speak about Christian beliefs and thinking – doctrine in other words. For example, in Eph 4:14 Paul longs for the day when believers “will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.”

In Hebrews 5:11-6:3 we find a similar exhortation. The writer laments, “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity”.

Thus spiritual immaturity can come in the form of both belief and behaviour. We can be spiritual pygmies in terms of our character and in terms of our creed. Both areas are important, and Scripture emphasises both. We are to concentrate on both orthopraxis and orthodoxy.

So how do we turn things around? It won’t be easy. But part of the change must come from our leaders and from our pulpits. What sort of word is being preached each Sunday? And what do we model our churches on? The Forbes 500 top corporations, or the man who gave his life a ransom for many, and who came to serve, and not be served?

It seems that we need to get back to basics here. Teaching people about how to study Scripture, how to pray, how to meet together, and so on must again become a major emphasis. We are in such a spiritually anaemic condition that getting back to square one is sadly the first step forward.

But we must do something. If we are not making spiritual progress, then we are simply making spiritual regress. And one of the worse things God can say about his people is what he said through Jeremiah concerning wayward Israel: “They went backward and not forward” (Jer. 7:24).

[1033 words]

12 Replies to “Spiritual Juveniles”

  1. One very experienced priest I know, who was actually vicar general of an archdiocese said he once mentioned abortion in a homily and was excoriated afterward by a mother. She said it wasn’t appropriate for children to hear about such things. That kind of encounter is enough to put priests and pastors off for life, they have a hard enough job as it is. They can’t help but fall into the temptation to be immediately approved of. Unfortunately they don’t realise that if we don’t take responsibility Satan will and its goodbye Christian churches and goodbye civil society. The 1000 yr Reich will have nothing on the bureaucratically enforced libertinism being built as we speak.
    Martin Snigg

  2. I have looked at many Christians and spoken to many and have often been perplexed as to why they under value the benefit of their relationship with Christ and limit Him to being a vending machine, where you pay the spiritual ‘price’ and Jesus shoots out a prize. In my interaction with Christians it seems to be a worldview issue.
    Whatever worldview the person has before accepting Christ, it remains the same with the exception that Jesus is slotted in somewhere. For the Nihilist or post-modernist, the empty void of meaninglessness is replaced by the all powerful, all forgiving Jesus, so in order to gain meaning you must do what Jesus says – do Christian things, you are a Christian – hence solution to the meaninglessness issue. Obedience is valuable but if the heart is not converted then Christian ‘do-ism’ is useless legalism.
    I asked a Christian once why should you not have sex before marriage. The replay came back, ‘because it’s wrong’, I asked ‘Why is it wrong?’ and the replay came ‘Because it’s in the Bible.’
    In this answer there is still no meaning in the behavior/choice, its simply associating via ‘doing’ with something that has the reputation of meaning.
    Doing without understanding or knowledge is mindless. The command comes from Proverbs strongly ‘GET WISDOM’, ‘GET UNDERSTANDING’.
    Jesus did not just say ‘DO!’ he also said ‘RECOGNIZE!’ and ‘UNDERSTAND!’. Up until Pentecost the disciples had no idea what was going on or why things were happening, and so it is with the Church in Australia. Most Christians have no idea what is going on or why these things are happening.
    Joshua Ferrara

  3. Bill I call it the perpetual babyhood of the believer. It is a big problem. If one is truly born again the bible tells us the Holy spirit will lead us into all truth, it also tells “us” to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. So it is up to us.

    I seriously think there are far to many insecure pastors who want their congregations to rely on them instead of weaning them away from babyhood. so they can stand on their own two feet.
    I think when people start standing on their own two feet they often then become a threat to the pastor and his position by asking too many hard questions. In the early church the pastor was just another member of the fellowship. The idea of separate Laity and ministry has done untold damage, for one it has made the laity lazy and even dependent of anothers faith.

    With Willow Creek the foundation of pragmatism has been faulty right from the start and the influence of new age pastor Robert Schuller (Who says such things as we have to positivise sin, and that he would be quite happy if his grand children worshiped Allah and whose kingdom is now in collapse) who was a important mentor to Bill Hybels and Rick Warren certainly hasn’t helped. What was it that led WC into building golf courses, having Yoga lessons and other new age practices in an attempt to keep the peoples interest? No wonder it failed! It ministered to the flesh not the spirit. Right from the start.

    I believe there is a link between the new way of thinking that has gripped the church and adolescence. I know Dean Gotcher of authority research comments somewhere about the practice of keeping people at their adolescent level where the new way of thinking works best. The whole modern purpose driven thing is built on this very idea, despite what they claim. You mentioned the Forbes Top 500 companies. Who do you think designed The purpose driven thing? Not RW he simply used the top corporate adviser in the world communitarian Peter Drucker.

    What a contrast to generations gone by. I like the stories (though secular) about this from 90 year old educator extraordinaire John Taylor Gatto who came to Australia last year. He tells the story I think from the civil war of this “man” his officers dead he took command of the men, defeated the enemy, captured a battle ship and used it for a great victory. He was all of 13 years old! Or try reading the story of a young poverty stricken Texan, Audie Murphy. His grave is the second most visited in the USA after JFK for good reason.

    Rob Withall

  4. Thanks guys

    I just reread this from Tozer: “Probably the most widespread and persistent problem to be found among Christians is the problem of retarded spiritual progress. Why, after years of Christian profession, do so many persons find themselves no farther along than when they first believed?” (A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous, p. 4)

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Paraphrasing St. Therese of Avila: for 20 years I made no progress in the spiritual life – to be not of heaven nor of earth is the worst fate. Not until I began to love God with all my heart, mind, soul and strength did I begin to make progress.

    [Where I take her to mean – heart: seat of virtues, courage being the chief of these; mind: intellect/judgment; soul: where spirit, body and mind meet in the imagination; strength: physical exertion]

    Martin Snigg

  6. I read with interest the article posted by Josh Ferrara and I have 2 questions for you
    1.Tell me in your own words, what must one do to become a Christian?
    2. Why should you not have sex before marriage?
    Please understand Josh, that I am not trying to be sarcastic or disrespectful but I think that Christians sometimes tend to (without malicious intent) intellectualise the simple Gospel message with a myriad of fancy terms and arguments that sometimes can confuse the living daylights out of people – as an example, that person above who said “because it is in the Bible”, what was so ineffectual about that statement? Especially if that person is a committed Christian who believes all of the Bible, then he/she is simply stating the truth! If the Bible is the final authority by which Christians live their lives then what other answer can you give? Believers should not have to give a doctoral dissertation on why they give simple answers like that! The Bible is a rock in that it is given by God to mankind to help them live lives that are pleasing in God’s sight. Of course we are saved by God’s grace and through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross but the Bible is the book Christians should read every day in order to keep themselves in the faith and to ensure that their doctrine does not get diluted with worldly trends. One thing Christians can be in danger of doing is discussing simple Christian facts and concepts in needless and overcomplicated terms and this can lead to confusion as it certainly did in me when I read Josh’s article. I am all for healthy discussion about the Gospel facts but for the sake of everybody who reads these discussions, let us keep it simple. Just because the Gospel and its aspects are discussed in simple terms, this does not in any way detract from its power to transform the lives of men.
    Steve Davis

  7. Yeah it does seem there is a cultural aversion to personal responsibility these days.
    I think one of the traits of adolescence is the need for constant excitement and when things aren’t this way it is assumed that there must be something wrong. Part of growing up is learning to accept that life isn’t always exciting. This is not to say that life cannot be deeply fulfilling and satisfying on a daily basis. But in my experience satisfaction and peace isn’t something that happens automatically. It comes as part of the commitment to grow.
    A lot of Christians today are looking for that ultimate buzz, so they chase any new idea, whether it’s church growth movement, emerging church or any other ‘solution’ to our frustrations. We are sure that there is some secret that we have to discover in order to acheive vital christianity, but this is just a recipe for more and more frustration. The real key to spiritual growth may seem boring and predictable to some but it is the way that has sustained the church for two thousand years of history. And it’s not rocekt science really, it’s simple daily disciplines such as prayer, scripture, fellowship and evangelism amongst others. As one of my friends says, you eat your meat and potatoes not because it’s ‘sexy’ but because you need it to grow. Likewise with spiritual disciplines.
    And I believe the waves of spiritual fire and excitement will come, but the other stuff has to be in place first, otherwise there is likely to be mainly frustration born of impatience.
    Conor Ryan

  8. Hey Joshua, that’s the first time I’ve heard someone brought up the worldview of the Christian before and after conversion. Thanks for the comment, it made Bill write another interesting column! I’m going to use that comment as a basis for the beginning of a smallgroup I am leading.
    Best, Keith Jarrett

  9. Bill,

    Thanks for another excellent post. You stated: “In Eph 4:14 Paul longs for the day when believers ‘will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming'”.

    In this context, we find part of the solution to the spiritual infancy we see in so many churches. The roles of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12).

    In 50 years as a believer, I cannot think of one pastor, teacher or evangelist who took seriously this emphasis of equipping the believers in the local church. Yes, we do Sunday School and mid-week groups, but a serious emphasis on equipping believers seems to me to be basic to spiritual renewal that leads to growth of spiritual infants.

    In my view, the pulpit has too much focus on a popular level of communication and too little on equipping the saints. I’ve written a recent article on, “It’s a sin to bore God’s people with God’s word” (http://spencer.gear.dyndns.org/2010/01/13/its-a-sin-to-bore-gods-people-with-gods-word/), that particularly draws attention to some of the poor communication from the pulpit. I see it especially in regional areas.

    Spencer Gear

  10. Thanx Keith, I have a book by David Noebel called ‘Understanding the Times’ and it contrasts the four main worldviews in the west today. There is another book called ‘Thinking like a Christian’ which was intended (I think) for home school and small groups. Might be worth your while having a look. David Noebel is part of Summit Ministries.
    Joshua Ferrara

  11. For those who are not afraid to admit to the truth, the reason why organised religion is going nowhere fast is that it has organised God out of the system. Man is in charge and if God shows up via the Holy Spirit he had better not disrupt the programme otherwise everything won’t be done decently and in order.

    I get material from all over the world about the church and there is a recurring theme. Give up your kingdom or else God will give up your church.

    Church leadership has this strange notion that if they don’t crack the whip, nothing will get done as it is obvious that Jesus is not capable of building his church without them.

    They are in for a big surpise when God steps right over them and engages with little nobodys and builds the kingdom with them because they offer their availablity, not their ability.

    Most leaders that I have experienced and read about, don’t want the average Christian to have a relationship with God. They want him to have a relationship with God through them and they have this idea that anything they don’t approve of is not from God.

    I look forward to the day when dedicated church buildings lie empty and unused because those who are serious about their faith have left them to do what the scriptures says. To meet in homes without any interference from people who are paid to be christians and who are clogging up the works.

    Roger Marks

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