Can spiritual maturity be achieved in a one-way lecture-based environment? School teachers grimace at the thought of teaching children in a large classroom in which one lesson is expected to apply to everyone. Speaking without listening is not communication if it lacks a feedback loop. Just as each student has a unique learning level, each follower of Jesus has a spiritual growth story. How can a preacher or small group leader know what is being caught no matter how deep theologically he may expound upon the Word? The words are there, but is it caught?
Spiritual growth can come through instruction from pastors, interactions with godly church members, and through the reliance upon Scripture either in printed, storied, or verbatim media formats. Ultimately, spiritual growth comes from the Holy Spirit. Pastors that insist on controlling biblical theology and becoming the sole authority on communicating God’s truths run the risk of interfering with God’s work in their midst. There’s a biblical need for proclamation, but there’s a command Jesus gave us to make disciples. And at the heart of the issue is trusting the disciple-maker to get it right.
Jesus knew this would be a concern for His disciples and instructed them.
When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth . . . He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you (John 16:13a–14 NIV).
As the late Avery Willis and I asked in our book, what makes truth stick? How do you communicate Velcro truths in a Teflon world? Hearts and minds are coated by learning preferences that just don’t match up with what pastors are typically trying to do in sermons or small groups leaders are doing when they just teach the lesson.
Avery, who taught seminary students how to preach, even went so far to say in a book we co-authored, Truth That Sticks, that “trying to make disciples through preaching is like spraying milk over a nursery full of screaming babies just hoping some of it falls into their mouths.”
Yet, spiritual growth will come through paying attention to individuals who mature from being dead in their sins to a spiritual infant, into a spiritual child, into a spiritual young adult, and then a spiritually-reproducing parent.
Disciple-makers need to listen and pay attention to the progression of spiritual maturity. This requires constant interaction and intentionality. They listen to the “phrase from the phase.” Here are some general categories to consider:
• Spiritual Infants are asking basic questions like “Why do I need to pray?” “How can I be fed spiritually to grow?”
• Spiritual Children are expressive: “Hey, here’s a great study we should try!” “What do you mean break up my study group to branch out and start a new one?”
• Spiritual Young Adults look beyond themselves: “What can we do to help Mary? She just lost her job.”
• Spiritual Parents intentionally want to multiply themselves. “There’s a new class needed.” “Who will go with me to reach that group of people?”
Develop a confidential list of every member of your church. Where are they spiritually? Small group leaders that create an interaction in their Bible studies should quickly identify levels of spiritual growth. Jesus interacted with His disciples and held them accountable. Making disciples requires regular feedback and support.
Are you making disciples that are spiritually maturing? How can I help?
Mark Snowden is the Director of Missional Leadership (DOM) for the Cincinnati Area Baptist Association.