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Longevity Doesn’t Equal Spiritual Depth

Last week I shared with you the first of two statements that Dean Kevin Martin made in the workshop that he led at St. Thomas Anglican Church in St. Catherines.

“The spiritual depth of a church will never exceed the spiritual depth of its leadership.”

That one statement should be sufficient for most of us to work on for the next year but there is a second one.

“Studies show that there is no relationship between the length of time someone has been in a church and the depth of that person’s spirituality.”

That is a scary statement from several perspectives. It is scary because of what it says about church attenders and it is scary because of what it says about our churches.


What it says about church attenders

When I was a young pastor just starting out I served in a church that was very unresponsive to my preaching. I don’t mean that they didn’t tell me it was a good sermon but nothing that I said seemed to impact their lives.

After what seemed to me at that point in my life to be a long time but was in reality only a few months, I became totally frustrated with the lack of response. I decided that I was going to preach a sermon that either generated some response or got me fired. I was going to preach from one of the discipleship passage in Matthew and I was going to put everything I had into challenging them on the need for greater commitment.

I prepared the sermon and preached it with all the passion that I could muster. At the end of the service I went to the door to shake hands with people as I always did. I was all geared up for some kind of response but they did the worst thing that they could possibly have done to me.

They all paraded out, shook my hand and told me that it was a nice sermon. I would have taken anger. I would have gone through the roof with happiness if someone had expressed a desire for deeper commitment. I would have even settled for a tear of two.

What I couldn’t handle was the same apathy that greeted me every Sunday.

The people in that church had developed a tremendous ability to remain apathetic towards anything that a preacher might say.

It wasn’t that people couldn’t get upset. I almost got fired a short time after my uneventful sermon but it was because I tried to change some of their traditions, not because of anything I said in a sermon.

The fact that people can be part of a church for long periods of time and still remain spiritual babies speaks to the human ability to become indifferent to the teaching of God’s word. It isn’t that they don’t enjoy the sermon. It is that they don’t allow the sermon to penetrate into the depths of their lives where real change happens.

As I speak to pastors, as I visit churches, as I read books and attend workshops, I am convinced that this problem is getting worse rather than better.

People want to learn more facts from scripture. They enjoy a well-crafted and well-delivered sermon as part of the worship experience but they don’t want anything that might make them uncomfortable and they especially don’t want anything that might radically change their lives.

The result of this is that churches are filled with infant Christians whose lives are being molded largely by the culture around them rather than by the Word of God.


What it says about our churches

The primary job of any church is to make disciples. It is not to add new seats into the pews.

The God-given challenge for every church is to produce mature believers. It is not to produce large buildings for more and more people to participate in more and more programs.

The measure of success in any church should be changed lives. It is not larger worship services.

You get the idea. Churches do not exist for the purpose of numerical growth. They exist for the purpose of spiritual growth.

The fact that people can attend churches their whole lives and still be spiritual infants says that in far too many cases churches are failing to do their job.

In some cases the leaders in these churches are spiritual infants themselves which as I said last week means that they are incapable of carrying out their God-given tasks.

The question that too many leadership teams are asking is how do we grow our church numerically so that we can compete with the church around the corner.

The question that they need to be asking is how do we grow the people whom God has entrusted to us already so that they become spiritual adults who are capable of helping others towards maturity.


The Question

When I was a young man in my twenties I was introduced to the Church Growth movement. I took a course that outlined what that movement taught. I began to read books written by men such as Donald McGavern and C. Peter Wagner.

One of the suggestions that came out of that movement was that if churches were going to reach people they needed to find out what their needs were and then meet those needs.

The church that I was pastoring at that time tried to do that. We went door-to-door asking people what their greatest needs were. We ran seminars that were designed to meet those needs. We planned services with those people in mind.

We saw a measure of success. Our primary goal at that time was numerical growth and we did see some new people start to attend but it didn’t last.

The problem was that we were focused in on the wrong place.

People need to know that God can meet their needs but they also need to know that the God who meets their needs is the sovereign, all-knowing, holy, all-powerful God to whom they must surrender their lives.

Discipleship is all about surrender to this God. It is not about this God meeting our needs.

The former produces spiritually mature disciples who will change the world.

The latter produces spiritual infants who see Christianity as a me-first belief system.

A focus on people’s needs might give us an initial contact point but it will never produce disciples.


The challenge

I mentioned last week the friend who suggested to me that the idea that it is all about numerical growth is “hogwash.”

I love that description.

Numerical growth should be a result of what we do, not its goal.

I would encourage you to stop looking for programs that you hope will produce growth and rarely do and start looking at the people you already have and asking what you need to do to turn those people into spiritual disciples.

I’d love to hear your feedback so take a couple of minutes and respond in the comments section below.

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