Thursday, January 20, 2011

Growing Out of Churches

Last Friday, I wrote a post on the need to look at people's spiritual progress developmentally. A while ago, my friend, Cal, published a post on how some churches are good at "matching" people with Jesus (i.e. conversion), but not so good with the follow-up spiritual formation.

I was thinking of another analogy of these ideas recently that in some ways combines them. American schooling is broken into primary (elementary) and secondary (high) school (not sure where junior high fits in). Then there's "higher" education. Elementary schools meet the needs of little ones, as does high schools for the teends.

No one would expect a 14-year-old to attend an elementary school unless there were significant developmental delays or he or she missed a lot of school. Even then, the student would likely have a specialized plan in the high school.

Similarly, an 8-year-old would be significantly out of a place at a high school or college (unless he was Doogie Howser). Even an intellectually bright 8-year-old is not emotionally as mature as a 16-year-old (all sarcasm aside). At my work, we address very similar issues with kids of all ages. Yet we separate them based on age because they do not process the same way.

Why would spiritual development be any different?

Could it be that some church institutions are meant to be elementary schools (or even pre-schools) to introduce students of God to the basics? As they grow, maybe they are supposed to grow out of one church, into another. The latter church focuses less on conversion and more on theological development. Still another emphasizes spiritual formation.

All of these elements are important. And I don't know what order they might go in (I, of course, have my biases, but they are just that--biases).

Of course, we need mature Christians in the elementary churches to teach the little ones (just as our teachers should be mature). An elementary school teacher is no less qualified and amazing and mature and smart as a high school teacher. Or even a college professor. Believe me, I know many in each category! :) They are all called to different contexts.

Yet we often assume one church will, can, and should all developmental levels of Christians. One could look at the apostolic church, which probably ran that way. We also have to remember that they were pretty much all baby Christians, though. It was also a fledgling institution, like the one-room schoolhouse. And there is also 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, in which Paul talks about speaking to different developmental levels of Christians in different manners.

Perhaps modern churches can manage multiple levels of development. That would be awesome. I'm not sure many really do that. Maybe we need to be open to the idea of "moving up" from one church to another. Not that that truly says anything negative or positive about one versus the other. They're all vital.

I just wonder if churches focused more on a particular developmental level of Christian and were willing eager to "graduate" Christians, helping them move on when necessary, would we see more spiritual growth in the overall body of Christ?

And just as people graduate out of school and no longer pursue formal education, is there a point at which formal spiritual education is no longer needed?


  1. Hmm, that's an interesting way to look at it. I've never thought about that, but you're right...some churches seem to cater more to one or the other, and sometimes the people who need other things suffer if there's not a place for them to learn and grow, or if they don't feel like they fit in.

    At the same time, I can also see how it might be helpful for "baby Christians" to learn from the more "mature Christians," and vice versa (there's a lot we can learn from their strong initial faith and commitment). The hard part is finding a balance, and there aren't a lot of churches that have figured out the correct mix yet. I think no one just knows exactly HOW to meet all the needs!

  2. I think that while here on Earth formal spiritual education will ALWAYS be needed. We are sinners, meaning we aren't acing this test. Passing, maybe. Sticking with the school analogy, if you aren't getting an A+ then you study harder until you do. As Christians we accept that we can never get an A+ without our Savior. Fortunately though, through repentance and the atonement we can get closer and closer to being perfect like Him. Hence, the need for constant study for both “baby and mature” Christians on all levels.

    Some churchgoers just like going to church on Sunday to hear the kick butt music while others dedicate part of their week and all weekend to scripture study, prayer, and fasting. There are a lot of churches set up in a manner where in addition to the church meeting there are supplemental classes to aid in your progression towards understanding and building a relationship with God. So, I think you might be right in that as your level of spirituality increases, there will come a time to change churches based on your desired level of growth.

    29 “Wo be unto him that shall say: We have received the word of God, and we need no more of the word of God, for we have enough!”

    30 “For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.”
    2 Nephi 29-30

    No matter what spiritual stage you are in, there will always be more to learn. I’m really not trying to go off into the depths of being Mormon, but one little more tidbit…This is just another reason why I believe in a living Prophet, because like Laci said, we can learn a lot from a Christian’s “strong initial faith and commitment”. Whether you are Mormon, Buddhist, Catholic, or Baptist, we turn to those who are on a higher level of understanding for help and guidance towards our own progression.

    One of the most amazing educational tools are the scriptures. You can read the same verse when you are 8 that you do when you’re 28 and it can say two completely different things depending upon your level of understanding. The scriptures speak to us all differently, so it is important that even if you are a Prophet of God you continue to read and study and educate yourself.

  3. My observation is that a lot of the "entry level" churches that focus on conversions of the unchurched try at some point to "take it to the next level" (to borrow a phrase from "The Bachelor") by lengthening the sin list and tightening up on their beliefs in order to reduce diversity.

    There may be good reasons for doing both, but any student of psychological and spiritual "stage development" will quickly see that these are not about moving people to a higher developmental level.

    I had a church "home away from home" that I particularly loved a number of years ago. It was a "move up" church in the best sense of the word. The pastor was a passionate Christian and deep Bible scholar. His sermons were incandescent with the presence of the risen Christ and deep truths from the Bible. But they were complex--they clearly had greatest appeal to people with a fairly well developed Biblical literacy and capability for geappling with big ideas.

    The pastor, who was a good friend and prayer partner of mine, said that he had come to realize that a lot of the members of the church had become Christians through more "basic" churches and had moved their membership at some point because they were hungry for more depth and complexity.

    Maybe you can have both in one church but my experience suggests that no one church will be entirely effective at reaching people at significantly different developmental levels.

    Just as there a diverse gifts among individuals in the body of Christ, I suspect that there are diverse gifts that define whole churches. And that's a sign of strength in the body of Christ, not a sign of weakness.


  4. I think that's where good small groups come in. Because if everyone attends church simply seeking teaching that challenges them, you're going to have problems and here's why - the churches that are seeker-friendly need wise, mature Christians to counsel, mentor, and disciple new Christians. If each of the "mature" Christians moves on to a new church, you lose a lot of the chances to develop meaningful mentoring relationships, which benefit both the student and the mentor. A pastor's teaching on Sunday is never going to be able to hit all of the different "stages" of Christians - although God does tell us that His Word doesn't return void...and it's not always that we need to hear something we've never thought of before - sometimes we need to go back to the basic truths again and again until we begin to put them into practice in our lives.

    I think that if you can find a group of believers in a similar stage to you, you can benefit from small group study in addition to regular attendance at whatever church God is calling you to be at. It's not always about the Sunday teaching - we need to be serving others in the body of Christ, not just reducing things down to whether the message that week challenges us enough or if we should move on to the next preacher. Often, that small fellowship of believers may be just what you need to make sure that you're being spiritually fed. Besides, following the line of thought that you could ever "grow out of" church - why would pastors continue to preach and serve their congregations, since they (in this hypothetical case) would probably be the most likely group to be at that top of that pyramid. I don't think God will ever call us to be done with Church, since that is the tool that he uses to be the "body of Christ" on earth.

    Hopefully all of that made cohesive sense - the comment box is small so it's hard to read the whole thing back at once! :P

  5. Thanks, everyone, for all your great comments!

    I think one of the things I've noticed is that while we would assume (and hope) that the pastors and administrators are mature Christians, they often are not. They may have been Christians for a while, but get stuck in a lower stage.

    So while adjunctive classes and small groups are definitely a way to address the needs of more mature Christians (I have long agreed and argued that Sundays are one of the least important parts of the institutional church), I find they are rarely used this way. Instead, the immature leaders create an environment that does not promote growth. Sometimes they insist that all small groups and adjunct classes relate to the "seeker-sensitive" message, which does not promote growth.

    In this type of environment, the more mature Christians quickly self-select out, moving on, leaving a group of people in lower stages. If those are the most mature, then they see no need to continue to grow and therefore propagate continued limited insight into their faith.

    So I completely agree that the ideal is for mature Christians and immature Christians to be together. The ideals, as in so many cases, are not always possible, especially when an institution is stuck in a certain pattern.

    Finally, we have to remember that lower-case "church" is the institutional organization, while upper-case "Church" is the people. God uses the latter to do his work in the work. We put together organizations to try to make that happen more effectively.

    Fellowship and connection with other Christians is critical. However, this can take several forms, including parachurch organizations and house churches. In many ways, I've been more drawn to house churches lately because of their ability to really meet the needs of the people. And it creates a greater sense of community pretty quickly (that's obviously definitely possible in a megachurch, as I've experienced first hand, though, too).



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