Stalling or Loving
Over the last several posts, I’ve been walking through four steps of spiritual growth or discipleship. The four steps are one way of viewing the disciple-making process.
Assuming that Christians easily stall out in step two, as I’ve observed, they never quite make it into the third step where their focus substantially shifts to investing themselves in others. They remain, then, in a step focused intentionally on helping them take care of themselves spiritually. Spiritual progress benefits everyone until a person stalls out, as if his or her current spiritual state is the destination.
The Bible instructs saints to love one another, among the list of individuals who should be targets of their love. The list ranges from enemies to a person’s spouse. But, focus on love for “one another,” for other saints. Love inherently demands a focus on another person. If saints stall out in step two, focused intentionally and intently on their own well-being, where is the mental focus and energy for loving others? How does one care for others, when their whole spiritual realm focuses them on themselves?
Stalled out spiritual growth is one reason people don’t perceive the love that Christian’s claim to extend. While well-meaning Christians claim to love everyone, some of them are so focused on themselves that they don’t do the things that actually demonstrate love. Love requires doing. Here’s what I mean. The biblical “agape” love described in the Bible is utterly selfless. It consists of five powerful components - I’ve mentioned them before. To love, one must have a genuine desire to be with the other person, a real affection for the other person, unshakable loyalty to the other person, a rousing concern for the other person’s needs and burdens, and a lavish generosity to the other person. Love means giving, sacrificing, and inconveniencing one’s self for another person with no expectation of return. It’s exhausting. It’s demanding. It’s costly And, it’s utterly selfless.
As long as we’re still working on our own spiritual walk, we’re too inwardly focused to focus on others. At some time, every Christian must come to a point where they realize salvation is more than being saved from the wrath of sin. It also means helping others make progress along the journey. If a disciple is a person who trusts Jesus, lives with God, build’s saints and expands God’s kingdom, then every Christian needs to plunge into the last two steps: building saints and expanding God’s kingdom.
Moving on to step three matters. Much of Christian ministry depends on step three and four spirituality. Maturity demands that we keep on growing. If you don’t know what steps come next, grab your pastor or enlist a spiritual mentor. But, don’t settle for stalling out. I’ve not conquered steps three and four, but I’m enjoying seeing how my growth in both of them affects others. Remember, whether we grow or stall out, we’re having an impact. Each saint needs to ask himself or herself if his or her impact is the impact God intends.
Previously, I have (1) explored defining a destination for the task of disciple making, (2) proposed a four-step process for the task, and (3) described the first two of those steps. Basically, those editorials covered the part of disciple making during which a disciple remains spiritually self-centered. In the paragraphs that follow, I venture farther, covering two more ideas. First, a discernible and definitive shift splits the spiritual growth process into two segments. Second, churches cooperating to make disciples must practice flexibility with each other. Ministers and church members need to practice humility, learn from each other and not disagree too heartily when plans differ. So, here goes.
Idea one. At some point, growing believers shift from limited concern about their own godliness to concern for the godliness of others. I see it happen in a sequence, others see it occur organically, but we both see it. Somewhere within the growth process, growing believers add spiritual concern for others alongside their spiritual concern for themselves. They never stop caring about themselves. But, establishing healthy spiritual habits enables them to devote attention to helping others along the journey. In the shift, they discover evangelistic burdens and abilities and increasingly desire to help other saints grow. The shift marks a believer’s transition from being a consumer Christian to being a producer Christian.
Before the shift, believers respond to opportunities saying, “I can’t,” or, “That’s not my skill set.” I send back a hearty, “Not yet.” I know God’s intentions and where He is taking them. Eventually, they will master caring for themselves at a level that yields extra spiritual attention they can invest in others. Failing to make the shift can happen without a good mentor or without solid spiritual assistance. Churches must purpose to guide believers past the realm of “me” into the realm of “others.”
Idea two. Cooperating together necessitates addressing the “humility” component of disciple making. I’m not right, and neither is someone else. Only Jesus is right. Some pastors see disciple making sequentially, like I see four steps. For others, the process is circular. Still others describe disciple making as an ad hoc process whose organization resembles a bowl of spaghetti. Essentially, we must agree that disciple making has to occur and that churches must pursue it. People, somehow, must become more and more conformed to the image of Jesus. Evangelism meshes inseparably with disciple making. The two are a single journey. How churches do disciple making will vary, but facilitating that journey is the Church’s assignment.
I like my four-part definition of a spiritual champion. Yet, I recently heard a three-component, very different and theologically compelling description. Was four more right than three? I don’t think so. Yet, ministers and churches easily argue over such things. I discovered my approach thoughtfully, like others discovered their approaches. Each of us is committed to having a plan and doing something. That is God at work!
My approach consistently produces disciples. I also watch other disciple makers do the same task very differently with similar consistent results. Some churches create grand, detailed programs. Others feel their way along with each new believer, seeing what works for him or her. The litmus test of disciple making is Christlikeness. Every disciple-making plan must produce disciples or be discarded. Talon Noh, Mountain Valley Baptist Church’s pastor, describes disciples as believers who submit to the word of Christ, reflect the character of Christ and engage in the mission of Christ. I would say it with four pieces; he uses three. But, we’re both talking about the same thing. However we do it, sameness of approach isn’t as important as effectiveness. Disciple making must produce disciples!
As I learned to guide individuals from spiritual infancy toward spiritual maturity, the differences between the steps and the implications of each step grew. Helping new Christians progress from being fed, to feeding themselves, to feeding others, and, finally, to coordinating feeders, calls on disciple makers to teach information, to model skills and to nurture others' spiritual responsibility.
Guiding individuals into growth also explained the situation from which my former church family launched the process. Before the launch, no pathway or mechanism existed by which individuals could intentionally grow. No one had identified the destination of spiritual growth, nor provided a method to measure progress along the journey. And, though not always correct, many church members saw themselves as spiritually mature. In the absence of the destination and measurement benchmarks, individual Christians developed their own standards, ones reasonable to them. Often, their standard of maturity described their current spiritual state, not something farther along.
That pre-launch situation is natural. People want to succeed. So, when given no pathway or standard for success, they develop their own. Who can fault a believer for desiring spiritual success? Who doesn’t want to be a mature Christian? Every true saint wants to please Jesus. So, every saint charts his or her own way when no one provides direction.
Most church members that I pastored gravitated to the second step (where individuals begin spiritually feeding themselves) when no plan was in place. It’s a step to which every saint aspires, but there’s more, too. It’s both easy and comfortable to reach step two and stall out. In fact, many saints see feeding themselves as the pinnacle of taking spiritual responsibility for themselves. It is the pinnacle of the first part of the journey.
During those early days, I made the mistake of asking people in step two to take on responsibilities in church ministry that required a greater level of maturity. I lacked any way to see the mismatch. I became frustrated with their performance in their new role and they became disillusioned. They concluded, “I can’t do this.” I kept pushing, but people kept failing. I blamed them. When I realized what was happening, I took the blame back on myself. I hadn’t helped them know how to grow. I had not helped them develop the maturity new areas of service required. I gave them assignments beyond their spiritual ability and development. Essentially, I was asking new swimmers to dive into the deep end of the pool. They were not ready, yet.
During the second step, quiet times grow exponentially in value. Personal Bible study claims a more prominent place. Step two saints devour Bible studies. They take attendance and consistency seriously. Worship becomes a meaningful personal expression to God. In this step, saints discover their own spiritual personality - they find out God wired them and what they need to thrive. Step two really is about personal thriving. Until a believer becomes personally stable and significantly self-responsible, charting more of the journey serves little purpose.
The end of step two, where a saint is ready to reach “beyond,” becomes evident as believers master the art of caring for themselves and begin yearning for additional responsibility. They discover an indefinable “itch.” Up to that point, perfecting their mastery of themselves has satisfied their longing for “more.” Upon reaching the far side of step two, they begin desiring more than taking care of themselves. Others' needs begin to intrigue them. They begin noticing how their own walk with God could benefit others, too.
Step two may be the broadest step of spiritual growth, covering the most ground. Step one stirs a person’s interest in the Bible. Step two gives them tools to understand and apply it to their lives. Step one introduces basic spiritual disciplines. Step two relates those disciplines to the routines and rigors of daily life. Step one introduces concepts and ideas. Step two attaches those concepts and ideas to a solid and immoveable foundation. Yet, despite its breadth of content and skill training, completing step two only completes half of God’s journey. He has more in store. He still sees room for us to grow, a lot.
Crossing the Lines
The ideas behind this blog emerged from my study and preaching of a message I titled "A Single Step." It was an unexpected message out of Philippians 2:12-18. I'm the one who was surprised. I had a whole different idea of where the sermon would go. Then, I got into the text and followed it. That led, eventually, to the response by individuals after the message. God worked in me and in our congregation. He's still at work.
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