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).