The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People
“Now we are only halfway pure and holy,” says Martin Luther in his explanation of the Spirit’s work of sanctification. “Holiness has begun and is growing daily.” (Large Catechism, Third Article). So many of us in today’s world are trained to measure and assign numbers to what we are working with. Wouldn’t it be great if we could quantify sanctification? Then we could measure progress. If I am halfway there now, what will three-quarters of the way look like?
Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a classic. There is an animated movie version. The Grinch’s problem is that his heart is two sizes too small. His experience in Whoville proves life-changing. His heart grew three sizes. The video version has a magic X-ray screen that shows Grinch’s heart growing inside his chest.
Imagine if we had a magic X-ray at the entrance to the sanctuary so we could get a measurement of how big each person’s heart is that day. We could put those measurements into a big data bank along with other measurements of that person’s involvement in the congregation.
But be careful what you wish for. Our human nature would want to turn those numbers into competition for who is holier than someone else. Thus we could end up feeding pride, whereas basic to the progress of sanctification is growth in humility.
Research on Moving Closer to Christ
But what if some numbers could be put in the service of improving the ministries of a congregation? That possibility is attractive to me, as a former business school professor. What could we do better to help participants move along on their personal journey to becoming closer to Christ? We all have the basic data on church attendance. But can attendance reflect things other than spiritual maturity?
A research team associated with the Willow Creek Association tackled the issue of what can be measured in church life so that a congregation can improve its ministries. Their publication is Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth. They carefully developed a questionnaire that 1,000 churches distributed to their participants.
Among their conclusions: “Yes, there actually are ways to know whether the people in our congregations are truly growing more in love with God and extending that love to other people. Yes, there are churches among us that are experiencing significant authentic spiritual growth within their people. Yes, there really are ways to measure changed hearts. Yes, there are lessons we can learn, attitudes we can incorporate, successes we can emulate, and spiritual-growth milestones we can help our congregations reach.”
Their questionnaire sought feedback from church participants in the areas of Spiritual beliefs and attitudes, personal Spiritual practices, organized church activities, and Spiritual activities with others. The researcher divided the respondents into four groups: Those Exploring Christ, Growing in Christ, Close to Christ and Christ-centered. The question is, what attitudes, practices and activities were associated with the movement of growing closer to Christ?
The researchers clarify that spiritual growth is not linear and predictable. It is determined by each person’s circumstances and the activity of the Holy Spirit. But there are patterns.
Differences Between Exploring Christ and Christ-Centered
For spiritual attitudes, less than 30% of the church participants in the first stage of Exploring Christ reported that “I exist to know, love and serve God, I desire Jesus to be first in my life, and I love God more than anything else.” For those in the fourth stage of Christ-Centered, those attitudes go up to eighty to ninety percent. That’s a three-fold increase.
The spiritual practices surveyed are: reflecting on Scripture, daily confessing my sins, studying the Bible to know God praying daily for guidance, and setting aside time daily to listen to God. Ten to twenty percent at the first stage do these practices. At stage 4 two thirds pray daily for guidance and study the Bible. Half pray daily to confess sins. That’s roughly a four-fold rate of growth.
The data show a five-fold rate of growth in willingness to risk everything in my life for Christ, feeling fully equipped to share my faith with non-Christians, and recognizing that supporting God’s work is my first priority in spending money.
What do answers to these questions reflect? They are as close as we can get in measuring progress toward becoming Close to Christ and then Christ-centered. Basic is the belief that such growth is driven by the Spirit interacting with individuals in their various life situations. The responses are reflections of hearts that have grown three (or five) times bigger.
Church Support for Personal Spiritual Growth
Another part of this Spiritual Life Survey inquired what kind of help each respondent wants from their church to support them in their spiritual growth. Appreciate the boldness of this approach. The basic challenge of church leadership today is improving the help we can offer for individual growth.
For those who are at Stage One (Exploring Christ), the five most wanted helps are: Development of a personal relationship with Christ, Compelling worship experiences, A feeling of belonging, Help in understanding the Bible, and Church leaders who model and reinforce how to grow spiritually.
For those moving toward Stage Four (Christ Centeredness), the importance of the worship experience and a sense of belonging drop out of the top five. They are replaced by seeking encouragement to take personal responsibility to grow spiritually and being challenged to do so.
Note that for those who are starting their spiritual journey, the worship experience and a sense of belonging are very important. Both are at the core of being a congregation that reaches out to others.
For established congregations with long-time church members, see the basic challenge as highlighting the importance of making progress in sanctification and why this is important. That’s a big step forward. Then would come the creativity of developing and presenting specific challenges for greater personal spiritual growth.
Church Leadership Take-Aways
Here are several more of the researchers’ conclusions about what leaders can do to support spiritual growth of those in their congregation:
- Realize that church activities themselves do not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth. They have the greatest influence in the early stages of such growth, but then personal spiritual practices become more important.
- Nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than reflection on Scripture. Make the Bible the main course of the message. Help participants commit to fitting Bible and prayer into their busy schedules. Model Scripture as the church’s foundation.
- The key attribute of the pastor is an unrelenting, uncompromising drive to help people grow into disciples of Christ.
- Make the destination clear.
- Make participation in spiritual growth basic to the church’s purpose.
- Make the senior pastor the champion.
Note how the pastor(s) is key to helping believers grow in sanctification. They can and should develop programs that challenge members to grow in the Spirit. But most effective for the growth of others is what they personally model in their own spiritual life.