In my last post I encouraged Christians and church leaders to say no to the false choice offered to us today when it comes to what drives a church–or an individual Christian. I ended that blog post with a promise to come back with a follow up on Spiritual Health and why it is different from the approach to discipleship–even the church–than what we see today.
May I illustrate why this is important? See if any of these scenarios resonate with you?
John is 55 and has been a Christian all his life. That’s not to say he is particularly committed to “going to church”. In fact, he has found it to be almost irrelevant to his life. As his kids grew up, the lifestyle that they saw in John and his wife was focused on activities and using weekends for recreation. John’s kids grew up very accomplished, and very involved in sports and special interest projects–but not the church. In fact, they wouldn’t even identify themselves as Christian, and they reject many of the moral values John and his wife hold dear because they see them as rooted in their generation–in the culture of their age group–and therefore not applicable to him.
Theresa grew up in the Church–in fact in several churches. Her parents disagreed on which church they should be involved with, but both agreed they should “attend”. So, she grew up thinking that was important. But when she became an adult and faced a series of problems in her own life–divorce, her kids acting out, loss of job, cancer–she turned to the church she was attending for help. She didn’t get any. Instead she was told to just pray about it and they would pray for her and everything would work out. Except it didn’t. At 45 she has been divorced several times, has numerous emotional problems and, while she believes in God and in Jesus, no longer is part of a church because she doesn’t trust them.
Dave and Chelsea came to the Lord and joined a church shortly after they married and moved to a new city. They were in their late 20s, thinking of starting a family, and knew that they needed something “more” in their life. So, they started attending worship services at a large church near them. They loved the excitement, the encouraging sermons and the fact that no one laid any heavy expectations on them. After making a profession of faith, they even went through a discipleship class, and “passed it” with flying colors. They continued to attend worship services and even joined small groups (10 week sessions) a few times. A few years after coming to the Lord, Chelsea became involved with a man she met at work. They saw each other secretly for about six months, meeting every other week or so for a sexual encounter. Then Chelsea became pregnant. Dave was thrilled but couldn’t understand why Chelsea was so upset. They turned to their church for help and were directed to a counselor. At the counselor’s office Chelsea broke down and admitted her infidelity, and the fact that she wasn’t sure who was the baby’s father. The counselor offered help, but made it clear that his counseling wouldn’t incorporate any “faith” issues they were struggling with. When they told the minister who had made the referral that they were really seeking spiritual guidance in making the decisions they were facing, they were simply referred back to the counselor.
Eddie had been a Christian for 20 years. He had gone through his church’s discipleship program and graduated from it, becoming a “discipler” himself. So, when he was approached by the minister of the church about an “attitude” the minister said he was seeing in Eddie’s life, he couldn’t understand it. He even got angry, telling the minister he had no right to confront him because he was a mature discipler himself now. The problem escalated, and Eddie left the church.
Damon is a minister. Like every other minister in this country, he feels the extreme pressure to “grow” the church–meaning increase the attendance, the giving and the size of the buildings. Like other seasoned ministers he has seen the situations described above over and over, but he doesn’t know how to meet their needs while simultaneously doing what is necessary to “grow” the church. He wants to be faithful, but he has come to the fork in the road we discussed in the last blog, and doesn’t know what to do (see “When you come to a fork in the road…” in the list of previous blogs.
Each example above is about real people (though identifying information has been changed for obvious reasons). Ministers and church members alike encounter these situations daily. But there is one more scenario related to these stories we need to understand. One more person we need to consider: Sherry.
Sherry is a 40 year old, successful business woman who never had anything to do with the church. She is married and relatively happy, though from time to time she wonders if maybe she isn’t missing something. Something in her marriage. Something in her work. Something personal. Something that would make her life more meaningful as she realizes she isn’t a kid any more. Sherry has a friend at work who had invited her to several church functions over the last few years. But Sherry knows John, Theresa, Dave and Chelsea and Eddie. She watched each go through their own crisis and decided that whatever might be missing in her life, it certainly had nothing to do with “church” or Christianity.
The approach churches take toward discipleship doesn’t just affect the leadership or the church structure–it affects every church member, and everyone who knows that church member.
Each of these stories illustrates the need for the church to be able to work with their own members in a meaningful way–a way that is personal, and helps the individual Christians to understand what Jesus is telling them in a given situation.
That doesn’t happen with the vast majority of discipleship programs.
There are a number of reasons for this. Most of them have to do with the competing demands of time and programming for larger and larger numbers of people. So, every year a new program with a new “distinctive” becomes popular, and churches across America try to make it work for them.
It almost never does.
I suggest a different perspective on discipleship. Instead of emphasizing a program that processes people through steps of growth (which invariably fails since people are never at the same “step” as each other), we need to focus on spiritual health. For the purpose of this discussion I define spiritual health as the state of a person whose life includes certain healthy practices (when they are also protected from injury or poison). A person is spiritually healthy who is protected from injury or poison (attack from the outside or false teaching) and who practices the Essentials (worship, prayer, Bible study, service, healthy relationships, giving and sharing faith). This isn’t mechanical, it is organic. It isn’t about a program, it is about being healthy as God created us to be. In 45 years I have never met anyone who practices these Essentials and isn’t spiritually healthy.
There is no such thing as a mature Christian who is not spiritually healthy, or a spiritually healthy Christian who is not mature.
This explains why so many who see themselves a “Christians” are so spiritually unhealthy–because they aren’t practicing healthy habits (whether by choice or because they have never been taught to do so.)
This explains why so many Christians are unable to maintain their faith over the years–because the absence of the Essentials creates a spiritually weak person. But they aren’t aware of that weakness until they are attacked by life. And then it is often too late.
This is why so many who aren’t Christians roll their eyes at those of us who embrace loyalty to our King–because all they see are the church’s failures, and instead of understanding that this is due to the immaturity–the lack of health–of many in church leadership, they simply blame the King Himself.
And this is why it is so important that the Church–its leaders and its members–abandon the endless search for the right “program” and simply focus on getting and staying spiritually healthy.
This is the focus of the non profit I lead, The Essential Faith Project. We don’t want to argue with or blame churches for what they aren’t doing. Church leaders have enough to deal with without another attack from brothers and sisters. Instead, we want to come alongside churches and provide them with tools that will help them assess spiritual health, and then respond to specific people in the specific ways they need.
If you are a non Christian who would like to understand spiritual health, a Christian who would like to assess and strengthen your spiritual health, or a church leader who would like to talk about how to do this effectively and consistently within your church, I would love to talk with you. Please feel free to contact me.
Know Jesus and Be Faithful.