These are exciting times in the life of our church. Our church is growing. Our Sunday attendance numbers have practically doubled in the past couple years, to the point where we are currently seeking a bigger place. But real growth isn’t just about the numbers. It’s about the quality in those numbers.
For example, my son Mark has grown about 20cm in those same two years. But what good would it be for him to just be physically tall, if he were not to grow spiritually or in his maturity in that time? Actually, it would be a shame if he were, as he is now, a 176-cm 14 year old, and yet if he still had the immaturity of the less-than-160-cm little boy that he was two years ago.
Or consider little baby Moku! He’s so cute, toddling around in his little diaper as a 1 year old should. But when he grows up to be 10 years old and if he’s still running around in diapers, it wouldn’t be so cute anymore, would it? Actually, it would be downright embarrassing.
And it’s the same for us as Christians. How long have we been Christians, and yet how long will we continue to be spiritually immature? Pastor Andrew addressed this topic this week in his e-mail to us, quoting Pastor Jim Cymbala as saying, “Our fear should not be that people might leave our church, but rather that they stay in our church and remain unchanged.” (Pastor Jim Cymbala) We, as Christians, should be constantly changing. That is, we, as Christians, should be constantly growing in our faith.
What does that mean, “growing in our faith?” It means gaining more knowledge of the Word. It means becoming more Christlike in our speech, our actions, our character, and our attitude. It means producing more and more fruits of the Spirit in our daily lives.
If any of us thinks that spiritual growth just automatically happens with time, we’re wrong! Let’s not confuse it with such natural processes of maturation that take place over time, like the aging of fine wine or Mark hopefully becoming 180cm by the time he’s 18. Spiritual growth will NOT just passively happen with the natural passing of time.
No! It is quite the opposite! Like physical fitness or juken benkyou, spiritual growth requires constant and consistent effort, discipline, and heart. It requires a desire on our part to grow, and willingness and resolve to overcome the challenges to growth.
These days, I’m trying to become more physically fit, because my body is turning into an unsightly blob of middle-aged flabbiness. But it would be silly of me to think that I could become fit by simply desiring it and just flexing in front of the bathroom mirror every day. No! Physical fitness requires working out and exercising (effort), eating right (discipline), and having a goal (heart). If I want to look like Jason, I have to overcome laziness and my penchant for eating ramen in becoming more physically fit.
Both my kids are working hard this summer for the American version of juken benkyou, especially Hannah as she will be applying for college in a few months. But it would be silly of them to think that they could be ready by simply desiring it and just writing up a list of schools they would like to ideally attend. No! Getting into a prestigious school requires lots of studying (effort), advanced planning and preparation (discipline), and motivation to do one’s best (heart). They have to overcome laziness, the inclination to take the easy way, and the temptation to make excuses if they want to get into a good school.
As for spiritual growth, the Holy Spirit will convict us through the Word and prompt change in our hearts and attitudes. Moreover, we may have the desire to grow. BUT, if there is no willingness or resolve on our part to overcome the challenges to growth, if we will not embrace God’s will for change and growth in our lives, then we will not grow. In other words, if there is no action to follow up the desire, then we will not grow.
It would be silly of us to think that we could grow spiritually just by desiring it. Don’t get me wrong. The desire for growth is a great thing. It’s better than not having the desire and just being comfortable in our own skin and complacent in our actions. But there’s a component to spiritual growth that’s more than just desire. It needs to be complemented with action.
James wrote, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? … In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. … Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith BY my deeds.” (James 2:14, 17, 18)
James wrote this, because he was bothered by his fellow Christians running around professing their faith, and yet their actions lacked evidence of such faith. His conclusion was this. Yes, your faith will save you, but show me and the world that you have such a saving faith BY your actions. In other words, don’t just say that you have faith; show that you have faith! Make sure your actions match your words! Your actions are proof that you have faith. And like faith, with spiritual growth, it requires the same.
As I said earlier, spiritual growth requires constant and consistent effort, discipline, and heart. It requires a willingness to get uncomfortable—whether it be swallowing our pride, getting ridiculed, getting rejected, facing persecution, doing something we don’t want to do. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave us the perfect example as he endured the cross and faced all of those things.
It’s not good enough to just say that we want to grow spiritually. That desire needs to be followed up by actions that reflect that we’re serious about what we want. Spiritual growth doesn’t happen out of comfort and convenience. Sacrifice is neither comfortable nor convenient. Effort is neither comfortable nor convenient. Discipline is neither comfortable nor convenient. But spiritual growth requires such actions. So, are we willing to become uncomfortable for the sake of spiritual growth? Are we willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of spiritual growth? Here are some examples.
We know that we need to read the Bible if we want to grow spiritually. That’s easy if we like to read, or if we have a lot of free time. But what if you don’t like to read? What if you are busy and don’t have the time? Are you willing to become uncomfortable by reading the Bible, even if you don’t like to read? Are you willing to become inconvenienced by making time in your busy schedule to read the Bible?
We know that we need to pray if we want to grow spiritually. That’s easy if praying comes naturally to us, or if we have a lot of free time. But what if you don’t feel confident in your praying? What if you would rather spend your free time doing other things that you enjoy more? Are you willing to become uncomfortable by praying until you become more confident? Are you willing to be inconvenienced by choosing to pray instead of watching YouTube videos?
We know that we need to change in our character if we want to grow spiritually. That’s easy if you’re already a great guy like Pastor Andrew, or if we are secure enough in our identity as a beloved child of God. But what if you have a lot of character faults? What if it hurts too badly or it’s too damaging to your ego to admit that you have many character flaws. Are you willing to become uncomfortable by changing your character through, which is often a very painful, lengthy, and difficult process? Are you willing to become inconvenienced by changing your character, thereby having to admit to yourself that you’ve been wrong and you have to do what’s right?
We know that we need to bear the fruits of the Spirit if we want to grow spiritually. That’s easy if you’re already a magnificent fruit-bearing tree of a man like Pastor Andrew, or if you’ve already born enough fruits of the Spirit in your lifetime. But what if you have issues in your heart such as hate, depression, enmity, anger, bitterness, jealousy, negativity, recklessness, and rage. What if you’ve come to accept your shortcomings as a part of who you are? Are you willing to become uncomfortable by fighting your natural tendencies? Are you willing to be inconvenienced by choosing to do what doesn’t come naturally to you?
You get the picture, right? I hope that at least one of these specific action examples was something that you could identify with. Because if we can honestly identify and accept our shortcomings, that’s when we can take that first step toward change, and ultimately toward spiritual growth.
In conclusion, I want to go back to this week’s e-mail quote, “Our fear should not be that people might leave our church, but rather that they stay in our church and remain unchanged.” Now, it’s curious that he mentions “people leaving the church” and the “need for spiritual growth” in the same breath. I believe it’s because the two are intricately connected.
Like what MIC is experiencing right now, 15 years ago my church in the States experienced a very similar time of fresh new growth during our third or fourth year as a new church plant. We hadn’t experienced much growth in our first two years as a church, but shortly after, God started sending a steady wave of new people. Non-believers were coming and getting saved, people were spiritually growing; it was an exciting time in the life of our church.
But with growth also come new challenges. I was discipling and mentoring a group of young guys, college freshmen who had started attending our church. They were a big part of the new growth, and they brought a lot of much needed energy and excitement to our church. But they were also very young in their faith. Some of their actions, especially with the girls in the church, were questionable and needed to be addressed and corrected. I prayed about it, felt convicted that it was the right thing to do, and consulted my pastor and other church leaders for confirmation. Everything pointed to the fact that it was the right thing to do, and so I confronted the guys about their improper interactions with the girls.
The result? Some took the correction really well, while some did not take it so well. Those who struggled with the confrontation ended up leaving the church shortly after, and that really hurt and depressed me. I felt like I had let them down. I felt like I had let the church down. I felt like I had let God down.
After that, I also started becoming afraid, afraid of more people leaving the church, at a time when God was growing the church. Here I was, a leader, a mentor, a discipler at the church, and I didn’t want to feel personally responsible for more people leaving, and thereby interfering with God’s plan for growth in the church.
I became gripped by fear, fear of people and how they might react to what I said and how I ministered to them. I became immobilized. I was no longer boldly following and saying what God placed on my heart. I became overly sensitive to trying to say what the people wanted to hear, out of fear that if I upset them, they might leave the church. As a result, my ministry became watered down, compromised, weak, unfulfilling, and ultimately fruitless.
I think this is exactly what Pastor Jim Cymbala was talking about when he shared those words. Will we speak God’s Words of truth because we love the people and care about their spiritual growth? Or will we only speak comfortable words that tickle the people’s ears, because we’re afraid of losing numbers in the church?
After much personal toiling and wise counseling, teaching, and receiving correction of my own from my leaders, I resolved in my heart to always care about people’s spiritual growth over the numbers of the church. This was very difficult for me, because I don’t like confrontation, and because I like to seek the approval of people. There was an insecurity in me that wanted people to like me. But I was convinced that I needed to overcome this character flaw if I am to spiritually grow and mature as a Christian.
In hindsight, it was a simple and obvious resolve, really. It’s our job to love and care for the people of the church, including sometimes speaking the hard truth in love if we truly and genuinely care about their spiritual growth. It’s God’s job to grow the church as he sees fit, and according to his generous grace and mercy. If we faithfully focus on and do what we’re supposed to do, God will faithfully do what he has promised to do. “I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)
And as for those who took the correction well? They have gone on to become spiritually mature men of God, many of whom are now respected leaders at the church and very dear friends of mine. As for those who didn’t take the correction well? Some are still my friends, but sadly, most of them are still struggling mightily in their faith, unable to find any sense of stability and direction in their faith.
My prayer is that we, as a church here at MIC, would be the type of church that is concerned with the spiritual growth of people. My prayer is that we, as a church, can collectively say that we love and care about each other enough to challenge and encourage one another toward spiritual growth. As God’s good Word says:
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)