Quality Over Quantity

I recently came across this quote from discipleship writer Peter Scazzero:

“We must change the scorecard in our churches for success from great services and large gatherings, to a deep transformational discipleship for every single person in our church.”

Many of us subscribe to the idea that bigger is always better.

This is no surprise, as such thinking is deeply woven into the fabric of our culture.

We like big.

And the appreciation of big doesn’t stop at the doors of the church.

If the crowd is large, we must be successful. If the building is big, we must be doing things right. If the church calendar is jam-packed, we are ringing the bell

Now, some really good things can happen in large settings.

But big isn’t the only way to get things done.

And there are, in fact, some things that cannot be accomplished in a big, broad ministry setting.

My fear is that we might fall into the thinking that God can’t do much in small settings like he does in large settings.

In reality, God does some amazing things in settings that are small and obscure.

Think John the Baptist small and obscure.

John didn’t carry out his ministry in the city, but rather in the desert. Which made it fairly difficult to get to him. Plus, John was a pretty odd character. He dressed weird and ate strange foods.

Also, John’s message was really challenging. He didn’t mince words or try to make people feel good. No, John preached a message of introspection and repentance.

On paper, one might read about John’s ministry and wonder how it succeeded. But God typically uses the weak and unlovely to carry out his ministry, not the slick and polished.

I went to a small Bible school that barely made a blip on the screen. Classes were small, and we met in an old elementary school that was barely functional. The desks, left over from the school, were small and we had no A/V resources. Everything about the school facilities was austere.

But those stark conditions were no match for the level of instruction and discipleship I would receive. Because of class size, the professors were available to us for extended conversations and counsel. In spite of the condition of the facilities, God did deep work in my heart and soul.

And that’s what matters.

The church is not really in the business of gathering crowds or constructing buildings, but developing disciples.

We can only say we are successful if people are turning to and following Jesus. That’s the measure of our success.

Think about Jesus’ discipleship strategy. Yes, he did speak to large crowds. But he spent the majority of His time with 12 disciples who followed Him around the countryside of Israel. Here, Jesus was committed to quality over quantity. And the results of Jesus’ efforts speak for themselves.

Scazzero offers this perspective on getting our priorities mixed up:

When we define success wrongly, it means our best energies will be invested in cutting-edge services, cultivating our brand, and preparing captivating messages. Little is left for discipleship – our own or that of others – especially when it produces what appears to be such a small and slow return. With little time to invest in the slow, messy work of discipleship, we do the next best thing. We standardize discipleship and make it scalable. Our approach resembles more of a conveyor belt in a manufacturing plant than the kind of relational discipleship Jesus modeled for us. We like standardization. Jesus preferred customization. (From the book EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY SPIRITUALITY)

It seems to me that the words “mass produced” and discipleship have little in common. But mass production can be very tempting to us. We can be drawn toward quantity, while Jesus is much more concerned with quality.

Priority #1: The Pursuit of Church Health

Almost weekly, I receive emails, phone calls and mailers trying to sell me ideas on how to make our church grow.

Most often, these ideas are wrapped up in various forms of marketing.

It seems the idea is to get as many people into our church building as possible…by any means possible.

I’m not anti marketing. I think there are some good ideas for how a church can get the word about regarding their existence, identity and mission. We live in a media age, and there are some helpful tools to help churches get on the radar of the community.

But here’s my take: church leaders should not be primarily preoccupied with boosting church numbers. Church leaders should be most passionate about church health.

See, numbers can be a sign of church health. That was the case in Acts 2. The very first church was busy doing healthy things like worshiping, learning, praying, sharing and loving. And as result, the Lord added to their numbers daily.

But numbers can also simply indicate the presence of a crowd. They don’t always reveal the well-being of a congregation.

I’d also add that it’s much wiser to grow a church from a place of health, than try to gather a crowd and try and make that crowd spiritually healthy. Typically, people drawn to “big splash” churches will only stay if the big splashes keep coming.

So what does church health look like?

There are several metrics that help us identify the well-being of a church body. Here’s a list of 12 marks of church health:

  1. An overall presence of love among the people. Jesus said the mark of his followers would be love (John 13:34-35). Do God’s people sacrificially care for one another?
  2. Church ministry departments appreciate each other and cooperate as an entire team, not individualized silos. Every ministry is valued for its individual contribution to accomplishing the church’s mission.
  3. The energy, ideas and passion of younger believers is celebrated. Youthful vigor and enthusiasm should be seen as an asset to the body. A wise church seeks ways to leverage younger generations.
  4. The wisdom, lessons and experience of older saints is valued. The seasoned saints have much to contribute to church well-being. 1 Peter 5:5 says: Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
  5. People of the church serve outside the walls of the church. To miss out on global or local missions results in an insular, myopic church.
  6. People are more excited about the future than the past. The past his its place, but it ought not be the driver of the church. God is active in the now, not just days gone by. The church that ceases to remain a movement will in time become a museum.
  7. A spirit of grace floods every aspect of church life. Because we are rescued by grace, we should display grace to those we serve. Harsh legalism and condemning judging are the very things Jesus railed against.
  8. People look forward to meeting on Sundays and engage in every aspect of the worship gathering. In a healthy church people come to sing, listen, learn, pray and fellowship.
  9. The church navigates times of grief and loss just as well as it navigates seasons of joy and blessing. Solomon wrote, “There’s a season for everything.” A fit church seeks to minister well in all seasons of life.
  10. People are being discipled – then discipling others. Christianity is all about passing on the baton of faith, seeking that all might be presented before God as equipped and complete.
  11. Newcomers feel welcome and are able to discover on ramps into church life. An attitude of hospitality marks a church that is on course.
  12. People understand the importance of prayer. Prayer is the ultimate expression of dependence and faith.

Now, this list is not complete by a long shot. It’s just a start at thinking about ways we can seek to help our churches grow in health.

Please note that this list is not designed to add pressure to an already overtaxed church leadership. It’s not a you-must-do-all-these-to-be-healthy list, as much as a here-are-some-other-ways-to-look-at-health list.

Every church has its strengths and weaknesses. But perhaps we can shore up some of our weaknesses by being honest about them.

The bottom line is this: Great churches aren’t built on bigger numbers, but on better ministry.

Lyle Daggett Memorial Service Message

Last Sunday was the memorial service for Lyle Daggett. Here’s what I shared as my part of the service:

Although we all know about the certainty of death, we are often still surprised when it occurs. I imagine some of us are still dealing with feelings of surprise – perhaps even shock – to think that Lyle hasn’t been with us for the past few weeks.

Lyle was the type of person who left a sizable void. To say he will be missed is an understatement.

The goal of our gathering today is to dig deep into some rich memories of Lyle’s life. And, along with remembering the impact of Lyle’s life, we also gather to think about the God that Lyle loved, and that Lyle served. Because if you knew Lyle, Lyle was a man of strong faith. Not a perfect man. But a man who placed his trust in a perfect Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

When I sat down to think about what to share about Lyle, it didn’t take long for a singular word to come to mind.

It’s the word HANDS.

As Viki shared, and many of you know, Lyle was good at working with his hands. The way God wired Lyle’s brain, he could not only envision a project, he could make that vision become a reality. For Lyle, working with his hands was a way to serve God and serve others. And, like many people who are handy, it gave Lyle great pleasure to step back from a completed job and just enjoy what his hands had created.

When we think of the teaching of Genesis that we humans are made in the image and likeness of God, I believe one way that is displayed is through CREATIVITY and CRAFTSMANSHIP.

See, God is the ultimate creative and craftsman! One of the verses I read at the beginning of this service goes like this:

Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.

Because this Psalm was written by David, I wonder if he was inspired by long nights of shepherding where he would have hours of quiet to stare at the wonder of the stars.

Regarding the creation of human beings, the apostle Paul wrote these words in Ephesians 2:

Ephesians 2:10: For we are his workmanship (handiwork), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Interesting, as God crafted us, he intends us to go out and do good works on his behalf! We may not be good with our hands, but we may be good with math, or business, or our voice. Whatever the case, God wants us not to waste the hard work he put into us!

One thing I really appreciated about Lyle was the fact that his faith was not contained in just his head, but his faith flowed out through his hands and feet. Lyle was one of those highly valuable people who put their faith into action. Which is how its supposed to be for anyone who claims the name of Jesus as their Lord!!!

We might say that Lyle was the poster child for what was written in the book of James about true faith being alive and active.

Lyle had a lot of gifts. He was truly talented. But by God’s grace, Lyle determined to use the abilities that God gave him and use those abilities for God’s glory. And really, that’s God’s goal for all of us.

Rather than live our lives independently form God, God’s desire is that we work in partnership and relationship with Him. That’s what we were made for! And the way that relationship is made possible is by trusting in and following after Jesus Christ, God’s son.

Lyle made that decision and it shaped so much about his life.
• It impacted his marriage.
• It impacted leading his family.
• It impacted his work,
• It impacted how he used his time.
• It impacted how he poured into those around him.

One thing we must understand about life is that we don’t have as much control over it as we might think.

Proverbs 19:21 reminds us of an undeniable truth: Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.

Another passage of scripture that always humbles me is found in James 4:

It’s found in verses 13-14:

James 4;13-14: Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes.

That’s why it’s vitally important that we listen to God when he tells us what to do with our life while we still have our life.

If I could boil down what God wants us to do with our life…the stuff that really matters…then I would offer these three keys:

  1. Love and obey God
  2. Trust and pursue Jesus
  3. Serve and share with others

This is, as Lyle called it, THE GOOD LIFE.

• A life of faith-informed worship
• A life of faith-based trust
• A life of faith-driven action

Presently at our church, we are going through a sermon series through the Sermon on the Mount, a message given by Jesus that speaks to how people can find life and purpose and peace in a relationship with Jesus.

And, at the end of his thought-provoking sermon, Jesus concluded these words of challenge:

Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. It collapsed with a great crash.”

As many here will attest, Lyle built his life upon the solid foundation of Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ power.

And, because of that, many have been the blessed beneficiaries of that relationship between Lyle and Jesus.

May Lyle’s tribe of Christ followers increase.

Pressure Helps Us Grow

As part of my son’s post-chemo physical therapy, we’ve been taking him to a local gym that has a large “lazy river” in its pool area.

In the early morning, this concrete river is essentially empty of people, which gives Aaron the opportunity to stretch out and get his body moving. At this point, any bodily movement is beneficial, as his body was essentially sidelined for 4 straight months.

A lazy river is typically meant for people to go with the flow of the current. You jump in the water or get on an inner tube and let the river carry you along. It can be really relaxing. But it won’t do much for your conditioning.

The quickest way to engage one’s muscles in a lazy river is try and walk or paddle against the current. It’s amazing how a little pressure causes the muscles to work way harder!

I think the same principle applies to life. A life that never faces any resistance rarely gets stronger. Going with the flow and avoiding any pressure means we will miss opportunities.

Now, I don’t think we need to go out looking for pressure. The way life is designed, pressure will find us. Job challenges. Health challenges. Relational challenges. Financial challenges.

Sometimes we attempt to avoid the pressure these challenges bring about. In his book EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY SPIRITUALITY, Peter Scazzero writes:

“Our culture routinely interprets trials, challenges and losses as alien invasions that interrupt our “normal” lives. We numb our pain through denial, blaming, rationalizations, addictions and avoidance. We search for spiritual shortcuts. We demand others take away our pain.”

But when don’t face challenges with courage and perseverance, we miss out on the lessons such trials offer us.

One may ask, “What type of lessons do trials provide?” Two scriptures provide some answers:

First is James 1:2-4: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

The takeaway of these verses? That we can become more steadfast by facing our challenges. I picture a tree with deep roots being able to endure storm after storm.

The second passage is Romans 5:3-5: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Beyond endurance, pressure can build character and hope! These our two qualities that our vital to a person’s well-being.

Regarding trials, theologian Edmund Clowney said: “Trials should not surprise us, or cause us to doubt God’s faithfulness. Rather, we should actually be glad for them. God sends trials to strengthen our trust in him so that our faith will not fail. Our trials keep us trusting; they burn away our self confidence and drive us to our Savior.”

It’s easy to go with the flow. But there’s little growth gained by floating along with the current.

Life’s trials are not easy. But in God’s will, each has a purpose. Allow the pressure to do its work in order to make you stronger, wiser, and more humble.

How I Felt When I Heard Aaron’s Good News Cancer Report

Last Thursday, Aaron had his post-chemo PET-Scan. The purpose was to scrutinize his body in order to spot any cancer that may still be lingering after treatment.

The next day, Sara, Aaron and I drove over to the Cancer Center at Kootenai Health to hear the results.

All of us were nervous. After 3 months of brutal chemo, the only thing we wanted to hear was that Aaron was in remission. We wanted to be hopeful and positive, but perhaps as a way of cushioning any blows, we kept our feet on the ground.

Thankfully, we got to hear the world “remission.” There were no cancer markers picked up by the scan! (The only side-effect of chemo was that Aaron’s lungs are a bit inflamed.)

As the news sunk in, I found myself processing a few emotional responses to the good news as the day went by.

I was first struck with relief. Since March 8, we’ve all carried a burden. Aaron had to carry the biggest load by far, but with all the side-effects, Sara and I found ourselves as his full-time caretakers, trying to figure out how to solve his numerous wild and crazy responses to chemo. Truly, a weight was lifted off my shoulders. Sometimes you don’t realize how much stress you are carrying until it the burden is removed.

As we walked out of the Cancer Center, my eyes filled up with tears. Mainly on behalf of Aaron. This was his “win.” He had the most to lose, and I felt so happy for him that his treatment was effective. Throughout his treatment, I felt the need to be strong rock for him. But with his favorable report in hand, I felt the freedom to release some unfiltered empathy. Before we got to the car, I gave him a big hug, full of thanks for his unique, precious life.

As they day went on, I felt more and more joy well up in my spirit. Over the past 4 months, joy has been in short supply. Its as if I haven’t had permission to be happy, due to Aaron’s dire situation. Cancer has a way of making one very sober about life and death.

Finally, I processed emotions of humility. Life is fragile and we have no guarantees of how long it will last. For all our bluster and bravado, we humans are like dust. The Bible reminds us of our feeble frame when it says:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business, and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes. – James 4:14 CSB

We’re all so vulnerable. In the scope of the universe, we’re mere specks. We may feel invincible at times (particularly in our youth), but the reality is we are frail and fragile.

I think my feelings of being humbled by this whole “Aaron has cancer” experience were an internal form of worship. Rather than raise my fist in the air and give out a victory cry, I felt more like bowing my head in awe and wonder to the creator of everything. Such feelings made me think of the doxology written by Paul in Romans 11:33-36:

Oh, the depth of the riches
and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments
and untraceable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
And who has ever given to God,
that he should be repaid?
For from him and through him
and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.

As the days and weeks go by, I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts and feel more feelings. But this is how I felt on July 2, 2021. The day Aaron was told his cancer was in remission.

Book Summary: Deep Discipleship (Part 2)

Some more thoughts about J.T. English’s book, DEEP DISCIPLESHIP

After using the first 2 chapters to lay a foundation, chapter 3 kicks into the meat of the book. In a nutshell, this is basic outline of for the last 5 chapters of the book. The author’s goal is to provide a template for shaping a discipleship strategy:

Chapter 3: The SPACE of Discipleship

Chapter 4: The SCOPE of Discipleship

Chapter 5: The SEQUENCE of Discipleship

Chapter 6: The SENDING of Discipleship

Chapter 7: The STRATEGY of Discipleship

CHAPTER 3: SPACE: WHERE DOES DISCIPLESHIP HAPPEN IN THE CHURCH?

In chapter 2, the author sought to make the point that the primary place for discipleship is within the life of the church. In chapter 3, he seeks to be more specific about how discipleship happens best in local churches.

Early in the chapter he shares how he realizes community is an important part of church life, but then states that “while small groups are great at a lot of great things, the are not that great at creating learning outcomes.” He also acknowledges that when groups turn into larger gatherings for learning, community diminishes. Basically, he brings up a tension that many churches struggle with. They are, typically, either good at creating fellowship and connection, or they are good at teaching and training. The challenge is for each church to figure out which spaces work best for building disciples. In the author’s words, “We need to have spaces in the local church in which learning, in the context of community, is the highest stated value.” Another thought-provoking quote was this: “community is indispensable to discipleship, but community is not discipleship.”

Much of this chapter focused on the author’s observation that Christians of our current day are woefully lacking in discipleship. He write, “Study after study shows that Christians do not know their Bible, the basics of the faith, or how to practice spiritual disciplines. We are basically illiterate when it comes to the Christian faith, yet we are adopting philosophies of ministry that deemphasize of learning about the Christian life. For some reason we have grown skeptical of learning and education in the church.”

There is “no one size fits all” approach to discipleship; each church must figure out what works best in their context. Some churches develop core classes on Sunday mornings while other churches create a year-long institute model. Whatever the case, the author encourages our leaning spaces to be active, always searching for ways to avoid learning that is too passive. Our learning spaces  should also be challenging and pressing participants toward transformation and submission to Christ

Book Summary: Deep Discipleship (Part 2)

Some more thoughts about J.T. English’s book, DEEP DISCIPLESHIP

After using the first 2 chapters to lay a foundation, chapter 3 kicks into the meat of the book. In a nutshell, this is basic outline of for the last 5 chapters of the book. The author’s goal is to provide a template for shaping a discipleship strategy:

Chapter 3: The SPACE of Discipleship
Chapter 4: The SCOPE of Discipleship
Chapter 5: The SEQUENCE of Discipleship
Chapter 6: The SENDING of Discipleship
Chapter 7: The STRATEGY of Discipleship

CHAPTER 3: SPACE: WHERE DOES DISCIPLESHIP HAPPEN IN THE CHURCH?

In chapter 2, the author sought to make the point that the primary place for discipleship is within the life of the church. In chapter 3, he seeks to be more specific about how discipleship happens best in local churches.

Early in the chapter he shares how he realizes community is an important part of church life, but then states that “while small groups are great at a lot of great things, the are not that great at creating learning outcomes.” He also acknowledges that when groups turn into larger gatherings for learning, community diminishes. Basically, he brings up a tension that many churches struggle with. They are, typically, either good at creating fellowship and connection, or they are good at teaching and training. The challenge is for each church to figure out which spaces work best for building disciples. In the author’s words, “We need to have spaces in the local church in which learning, in the context of community, is the highest stated value.” Another thought-provoking quote was this: “community is indispensable to discipleship, but community is not discipleship.”

Much of this chapter focused on the author’s observation that Christians of our current day are woefully lacking in discipleship. He write, “Study after study shows that Christians do not know their Bible, the basics of the faith, or how to practice spiritual disciplines. We are basically illiterate when it comes to the Christian faith, yet we are adopting philosophies of ministry that deemphasize of learning about the Christian life. For some reason we have grown skeptical of learning and education in the church.”

There is “no one size fits all” approach to discipleship; each church must figure out what works best in their context. Some churches develop core classes on Sunday mornings while other churches create a year-long institute model. Whatever the case, the author encourages our leaning spaces to be active, always searching for ways to avoid learning that is too passive. Our learning spaces should also be challenging and pressing participants toward transformation and submission to Christ

Book Summary: Deep Discipleship (Part 1)

I recently read through the book DEEP DISCIPLESHIP by J.T. English. Over the next few days, I’ll offer an overview of the book’s contents, along with any commentary I think might be helpful.

The premise of the book (as described on the back cover) is that “the majority of Christians today are being discipled by popular media, flashy events and folk theology because churches have neglected their responsibility to make disciples. But the church is not a secondary platform in the mission of God; it is the primary platform God uses to grow people into the image of Jesus.”

In the first few chapters of the book the author lays the foundation with these teachings/observations/declarations:

CHAPTER ONE: A GOD-CENTERED VISION FOR DISCIPLESHIP

  • Discipleship in the evangelical church is too deep, but it is far too shallow. We have tried to treat our discipleship disease by appealing to the lowest common denominator, oversimplifying discipleship, and taking the edge off what it means to follow Christ.”
  • Instead of asking “What do disciples want?,” we should ask “What do disciples need?” Instead of asking “How do we maintain disciples?,” we should ask “How do we grow disciples?”
  • Success in ministry is not found in building programs but in building disciples.
  • Ministry that is not oriented to the presence of God is dead. The why behind the what of deep discipleship is God. The source of true discipleship is not better programs, better preaching or better community. All of these, and more, are hugely important tools, but the source of discipleship is God Himself.
  • God is not interested in creating an audience; He wants participants.

The author identifies 2 challenges to deep discipleship:

Challenge #1: Self-Centered Discipleship. We have replaced the transcendence of God for the transcendence of self. In this turn toward self, the church has, perhaps both intentionally and unintentionally, tailored its discipleship strategies to accommodate, and even perpetuate, the cultural shift toward self. According to Jesus, discipleship is not about self-actualization or self-preservation; it is about self-denial.  We will best know ourselves when we are carrying our cross. In summary, discipleship is not a path to autonomous self-improvement that leads to a throne; it is a path of self-denial that leads to a cross.

Challenge #2: Spiritual Apathy. In the church we are more concerned about apostasy than we are with apathy, but both are deadly to a vibrant walk with Christ. IA domesticated Jesus will never produce deep disciples; a domesticated Jesus is not worth following. If our excellence in ministry is keeping people’s attention rather than the beauty of Jesus, then we have failed. That’s because becoming bored with the true Christ is impossible. One of the reasons our people have grown bored with Jesus is that many church leaders have as well. We have settled for a cultural Christianity that is anemic and will not sustain disciples of Jesus.

CHAPTER TWO: THE CHURCH: WHERE WHOLE DISCIPLES ARE FORMED

Many people believe they have to leave the church to find deep discipleship. But let’s be clear: the church is called to make disciples and it is time for us to stop delegating our responsibility. The local church is meant to be the primary spiritual guide for disciples who are on the journey of growing deeper in the love and knowledge of God. Virtual discipleship cannot create deep disciples because deep discipleship is intensely local. Formation is meant to be personal, embodied and incarnational. The  local church is able to supply a place, people and purpose for growth. The local church is uniquely appointed, in God’s providence and wisdom, to make disciples. Thus, it is a responsibility that ought not be delegated or out-sourced. Simply put, churchless discipleship is aimless discipleship.

A few questions posed by the author at the end of the first few chapters:

  • Is your church raising or lowering the bar of discipleship?
  • How is a God-centered vision for discipleship different from other discipleship paradigms?
  • What do you see as a greater challenge in your church: self-centered discipleship or spiritual apathy?
  • Do you agree that the local church should be the primary vehicle for discipleship?
  • Why does the church sometimes pass the responsibility of discipleship off to other people and ministries?

Discipleship is a Partnership

Some people like to say, “Let go and let God.” Which essentially means, relax, sit back and let God do all the work.

Other people seem to be of the mind that spiritual development rests solely on the shoulders of the disciple. In other words: God does the saving, but its on us to do the growing.

I find both views to be extreme. Instead, I believe that discipleship is a holy collaboration between Creator and the re-created.

We can’t grow without God’s help. At the same time, we won’t grow if we refuse to put forth any effort.

In John 15, Jesus stressed the importance of consistently abiding in Him, to the point that he declared, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” As we abide in Christ and keep in step with the Spirit, God works through us to produce lasting spiritual fruit that will remain forever (John 15:4-5; Galatians 5:25; John 15:8).

If we leave God out of our “spiritual growth equation,” its a sure sign of hubris. Simply put, “no God, no growth.”

Yet, in contrast (but not in contradiction), Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 5:7, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” Paul used an athletic analogy to convey to Timothy that effort will be involved. The Olympic athlete dedicates himself to countless hours of rigorous training, all the while refraining from otherwise acceptable enjoyments to maintain discipline, all for the sake of achieving his goal. So, too, the follower of Christ must engage in certain activities and refrain from others in order to achieve the goal of increasing Christlikeness.

Paul also told the believers in Philippi, “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:12-13)

So, although we are completely dependent upon God to mature spiritually, we have an indispensable role to play in the process.

Perhaps we might look at it like this: God provides all the tools we need to grow (which is backed up by 2 Peter 1:3-8), but its our responsibility to pick up the tools and put them to use.

Those who farm know that they, on their own, can’t make a single plant grow, But, the wise farmer also knows that if he doesn’t plow, plant, water and cultivate, no crop will sprout from the ground.

Spiritual maturity is a divine work of God and a miracle to watch. Yet, God calls upon us to join Him in this amazing work. We are called to listen, learn and obey. We’re also called to study and meditate upon God’s Word, pray, worship and serve.

Scottish Bible teacher Alexander MacLaren once wrote: “We may have as much of God as we will. Christ puts the key of the treasure-chamber into our hand, and bids us take all that we want. If a man is admitted into the bullion vault of a bank and told to help himself, and comes out with one cent, whose fault is it that he is poor?” So we see, then, that the choice is ours. May each of us desire increasing godliness and use the keys we have been given.”

Get Thee to Church!

In years to come, sociologists will have a field day looking back at the effects of the pandemic/quarantines of 2020. Why? Because whether for reasons large or small, culture has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. Did you know that during COVID, the divorce rate skyrocketed? At the same time, loneliness became a huge societal issue. And the birth rate dropped. Because of COVID, many of us shop, travel and work differently than we did before the pandemic.

One area that’s concerning to me is how people engage in church life. Sadly, some Christians have decided church attendance and involvement isn’t a priority anymore. Churches across the nation report that more people are returning to church, but the numbers of in-person attendees is still way down. The big question is: “will they ever come back?”

The Christian life was never meant to be solitary. All of the biblical metaphors for a church indicate a plurality, never a singularity: we are a body, a flock, a building, and a holy nation. There are no “lone wolves” in biblical Christianity.

Church engagement is a discipline, but the pandemic threw a wrench into something many were in the habit of doing. Going to church was part of the normal flow of the week, but once that flow was interrupted, some found it difficult to re-engage. But gathering consistently with other living, breathing human beings is something God wants us to do!

But why?

First, we gather on Sundays to worship God corporately. Yes, we can individually worship God throughout the week. But there is something unique and special when people worship en masse. Corporate worship is a gathering that anticipates the worship believers will experience in heaven. In eternity, believers will worship with all of God’s people before the Lord. Corporate worship on earth allows us to participate together in a way that looks forward to this time of eternal glory.

Second, we gather to practice community with other believers. I appreciate the people in our church who come on Sunday mornings with a intentional, purposeful mindset. They make it their aim to visit and pray with people as well as greet newcomers. When we practice community, we seek to encourage one another in our walk with Jesus.

Hebrews 10:24-25 gives us this exhortation:

And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

I think it’s significant to note that the recipients of the Hebrews letter were under the threat of persecution. Public church attendance could open them up to abuse. The command indicates that the benefits of attendance outweigh any possible threat.

The Hebrews passage mentioned above reveals that one of the purposes of gathering together is to “encourage one another.” We all need encouragement. Corporate worship provides that for us. Church attendance also helps prevent drifting, backsliding and apostasy. Without regular participation in corporate worship, one tends to meander spiritually.

When we attend corporate worship, we hear the public preaching of the Word of God. Substituting a media ministry (like radio or television or an internet streamed service) not only removes the immediacy of public preaching, but can foster a sense of isolation, effectively privatizing our Christianity. This was never God’s plan for us.

Corporate worship is a vital part of our spiritual growth. When we regularly gather with other believers, we can encourage others, be encouraged, and grow together in our common faith in Jesus Christ.