By Rick Lawrence
Vibrant Faith Executive Director
Do you know how to measure spiritual maturity in those you’re serving? It’s one of those “know it when you see it” things, right? In my experience, creating a set of metrics of faith formation to gauge maturity is always inherently flawed. Attendance at church? It’s tempting, but no… Signing up for a retreat or a workshop or a small group? Nope. Serving others on a mission trip? Not a slam-dunk. Memorizing Scripture passages? Well, the Pharisees were great at that, so… nope. A determination to avoid sin? Again, the Pharisees practiced a version of this false metric…
Even though our common metrics can’t be trusted to give us a true sense of spiritual formation, we can get a sense of what a growing disciple looks like, because we experience maturity relationally. The only way to mark maturity in a person is to be in relationship with that person. And relationship requires conversation—it’s how we really get what’s inside a person, outside that person. So, making conversation a part of everything we do is key in ministry. No matter what the setting (including the “message” or sermon time) conversation must be happening.
How do we plant seeds in our relationships that will sprout into maturity?
Here are five suggestions for creating a “growing environment” for measuring the metics of faith formation…
1. Pay attention to your definition and practice of grace. Not long ago I told my college-grad daughter Lucy that I’d had to deliver some very painful discipline to a person in my life who’d really screwed up. After I told her some of the bare details, she said: “Dad, I thought grace meant that we give people second chances—couldn’t you have given grace in that situation?” I told her that was a great question, but: “What if you had cancer and you went to your oncologist, and he told you the cancer was aggressive and could threaten your life. And then he told you that the most aggressive treatment combined chemotherapy and radiation, but that would be like taking poison into your body, and would make you really sick—even bring you to the point of death. So, instead, he recommended simply changing your diet and then waiting to see what would happen. What would you say?” She smirked a little and said, “Well, of course, I’d want the chemo.” And I said, “Grace is always kind, but it’s not always nice. It’s intended to rescue us, not placate us.” In ministry, we’ve often limited our definition of grace to “nice”—but grace is much more than that, and it often looks like chemotherapy.
2. Never frame faith formation or discipleship as a “should.” Toward the end of a devotion I was leading during a service trip, I looked out on a sea of eager college-age faces and suddenly got choked up. “I want to apologize to all of you on behalf of the church,” I said. The room suddenly got very quiet. “I know most of you have grown up in the church, and your whole life you’ve been told you should love Jesus because… you should love Jesus. Well, I’d like to apologize for that—Jesus isn’t trying to should you into loving him. That’s our misguided strategy, not his. He wants to invite you to know him much more deeply, then let’s see how that impacts your love for him.” Shoulds try to push people into religious imperatives, and that’s why we’re so exhausted in ministry. Instead, a “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) approach is invitational, and takes a fraction of the energy.
3. Never diminish Jesus. If we simply slowed down and listed everything Jesus said and did in the gospels, breaking it all down into categories, we’d discover a Jesus who shatters our common misconceptions. So try this exercise—limit it to a five-chapter section of a gospel, for starters. You could use categories like “Healed People” or “Called People Out” or “Destroyed Expectations”—make up your categories as you go. Then look at your list and ask yourself a hard question: “Is this the Jesus I’m helping my people to know and love, or would this be a foreign Jesus to them?” It’s a heresy to propagate the myth of a “merely nice” Jesus, but that’s the Jesus most people today have heard about.
4. Avoid using “work” language to describe our relationship with God. My friend (and former pastor, now retired) Rev. Tom Melton has thrown so many “Tom-isms” at me over the years that have changed the way I think about my relationship with Jesus. One of them is a real scalpel of a sentence: “We don’t really believe Jesus is beautiful; otherwise, we wouldn’t describe our relationship with him as so much work.” Let that one cut through one of our favorite lies about faith formation—we subtly treat a day-to-day relationship with Jesus as essentially a hard, thankless slog through a landscape of bite-your-lip obedience. It’s better to frame our faith as play, not work.
5. Refuse to co-mingle the message of the “American Dream” with the message of the gospel. It’s hard for us to think outside of the prevailing “success narrative” of Western culture. The American Dream tells us that our birthright is a middle-class life—a house, two cars, two kids, a vacation or two every year, and a comfortable retirement. This is such a deep-seated collective promise that we have a hard time seeing our relationship with God as anything other than transactional. What will following Jesus do for me? But Job and Peter and Paul all learned something the hard way—God longs for romance, not a business transaction. The goal of our relationship with Jesus is intimacy—to abide in him as a branch abides in a Vine—not an American Dream transaction.
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. His new book is The Suicide Solution: Finding Your Way Out of the Darkness. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily. He created and hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus https://soundcloud.com/pay-attention-to-jesus