Spiritual growth not simple, easy

Curtis Shelburne

DO YOU WANT YOUR CHURCH TO GROW SPIRITUALLY?” queried an item in my e-mail in-box today.

I can be a little contrarian, and since the only option given for me to click on was a “Yes,” my first reaction was, “No, not really, but thanks.”

Well, duh! Aside from the fact that it’s God’s church and not mine, what pastor would not like the church he serves to grow spiritually?

Of course, all church leaders would answer the question, “Yes!” But for more than a few, the honest answer would be, “Well, spiritual growth would be good, but what I really want most is for my church to be really, really large!” Most respondents wouldn’t say that. They’d do a much better job baptizing their kingdom-building, so that no one—not even them—could be sure whose kingdom, theirs or God’s, they most want to grow. By the deft use of religious lingo and slippery reasoning, they would easily convince themselves that physical growth and spiritual growth go completely hand in hand and that numerical growth is a sign probably of spiritual growth and certainly of God’s blessing.

The Apostle Paul warned long ago that those who are greedy for money “pierce themselves with many griefs.” Healthy churches come in all sizes, but when church leaders become so greedy for numbers that they’ll run their poor sheep through any hoop, and when they forget that sheep have faces and are not just a flock to fleece, they do indeed “pierce themselves” and those in their care with “many griefs.”

I wonder how many young pastors have gone off to the latest church growth seminar, bought a program from someone marketing what Eugene Peterson (in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant) calls “spiritual monkey glands” to toss into the pot, mix properly in the caldron with all the other recommended ingredients, and produce enormous growth—and end up poisoning the flock or running their poor sheep into the ground? If it sounds more like an idolatrous mixture of witchcraft and today’s “success” dogma than real spirituality, well, there’s a reason for that.

The cross, as Peterson notes, is “conspicuously absent” and real community and genuine relationships are devalued. All in the name of “growth.” As Peterson warns, instead of God’s Spirit working on large numbers as Peter preaches about Christ, what we get is a multitude dancing around a golden calf built by a religious consumer marketer ahead of his time named Aaron.

The ad insists that with their product spiritual growth is “simple.” Forgive me if I doubt that and opt to skip the slick video. Spiritual growth has never been simple or easy. But I can already name some of the ingredients. Prayer. Time in God’s word. Non-glitzy, unselfish Christ-centered cross-centered living. And that means sacrifice. And that means even suffering.

Their plan, they say, is based on “who YOU are.” God’s plan is based on who HE is.