Over the next few weeks we’re going to be exploring the subject of things that we can do – each one of us – to help our church grow. Last week I introduced the subject, and I made the comment that I’m not just talking about growing numerically; that’s important, but it’s not enough. For us to grow with integrity, we also need to grow as disciples of Jesus, we need to grow in the quality of our community life in the church, and we need to grow in our influence on the world around us for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is what I mean by ‘church growth with integrity’.
I’m going to suggest to you that there are five things every one of us can do to help our church grow with integrity, and we’ll look at them over the next few weeks. The first thing is this: each one of us can make a commitment to our own spiritual growth.
Over my years as a Christian I’ve been involved in a number of different churches; some of them grew and some of them didn’t. It would be really nice to be able to look back on those churches and discover an infallible formula for numerical growth. Lively music with a worship band? Coffee in the foyer? Bible-based preaching? Small groups? I could probably make a lot of money if I came up with the four infallible things to do to make your church grow; I can see the book contract even now! Reality, however, is a lot messier than that.
However, there is one thing I’m pretty sure about: it really helps if the members of the congregation are excited about their own spiritual growth. If people in the church have a sense that each year they’re getting closer to God – getting to know God better – learning more about putting the teaching of Jesus into practice in their daily lives – feeling more confident in prayer and Bible reading – learning to be more patient and loving – getting better at talking about their faith with other people – if that’s happening, it’s a big help when it comes to church growth. People who are growing as disciples are far more likely to have a contagious faith than those who aren’t.
So that’s what I want to talk about this morning: making a commitment to our own spiritual growth. Or, to use a gospel term, a commitment to discipleship.
Discipleship was a common practice in the time of Jesus. In those days, most people learned things by mentoring. If you wanted to learn about the scriptures or philosophy or something like that, you found yourself a teacher and you went and lived with him. You listened to his teaching, yes, but you also watched the way he lived his life – the way he handled his money, the way he treated his family, the way he paid his employees and so on. The goal of discipleship wasn’t just learning information: the goal of discipleship was to become like your teacher.
Jesus spells this out clearly in his teaching, even in incidental, throwaway lines. In Matthew 10:24-25 he says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master. It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master”. In John’s gospel, after he washes his disciples’ feet, he says to them, “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:13-15). Peter uses the same idea in his first letter; he’s teaching his readers about the importance of loving their enemies, and he says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
“Leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps”. That’s a pretty good description of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus today. Peter and James and John and the rest could literally follow him around; when he said “Follow me”, it wasn’t hard for them to figure out what he meant. He walked off down the road, and they followed after! But of course there was more to it than that; they followed so that they could be with him, listen to him, watch what he did, and learn to imitate him. Later generations of Christians aren’t able to watch and listen as those early disciples did, but as we read the gospels and pray, and listen for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we also want to learn to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our everyday life.
Why do we want to do this? Why are we excited about doing this? Let me suggest two reasons to you. First, it’s because we believe that Jesus is God come to live among us. He is God the Son; he shows us what God is like, and he also shows us what God designed humans to be like. When we watch his way of life, we’re watching the blueprint that we were made for. As we learn to follow that blueprint we’ll be discovering the life we were designed for in the first place.
Jesus says that the one who hears his teaching and puts it into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock: “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:25). So in other words, we’re excited about learning to live as disciples of Jesus because it’s good for us: it’s how we learn to live as we were meant to live. It’s how we build our lives on a strong foundation that will stand us in good stead when the storms of life come our way.
But there’s a second reason too: it’s because this is how the kingdom of God spreads in the world. In Matthew chapter 4 Jesus comes into Galilee at the beginning of his ministry with a kingdom announcement: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17). Most of his hearers would have expected that announcement to have been followed by some kind of political or military campaign, but that’s not what Jesus did. The very next thing he did was to call Simon and Andrew to become his disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (4:19). They were soon joined by James and John and a few others, and in the next chapter Jesus takes them up the mountain and gives them the Sermon on the Mount, a summary of his teaching about how to live as his followers.
This was how Jesus planned to change the world. He wasn’t planning a political campaign or a military rebellion; he was changing the world one heart at a time, as people became his followers and learned to live the new life of the kingdom of God in their homes and families, at work and at play, with their money and possessions and everything they had. God has one plan to change the world: discipleship. If we won’t go along with the plan, we’re missing the heart of God’s call to us.
So how’s that going for you and me? Are we growing as disciples of Jesus? As I said last week, I fear that for some people, this isn’t even on the table. They think about reading the Bible and they feel intimidated by it; they try to pray but they don’t feel anything, so they give up. But they never ask themselves “Why won’t I put time and effort into learning to do this better?” Most churches have members who’ve spent years of their lives and thousands of dollars getting a university education to help them with their career, but they won’t make the effort to attend a simple course about prayer or Bible reading to help them grow in those areas of their lives. Why is that? Is it because spiritual growth really isn’t that important to us?
Let me suggest to you some areas we might like to think about in terms of our spiritual growth.
First, familiarity with the Bible. In the time of Jesus, even though many people were illiterate, most Jewish folk would have been very familiar with the Bible story. They knew the stories about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and his twelve sons. They knew about how God sent Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into their promised land. They knew about the ten commandments and the covenant God made with their people at Sinai. They knew the stories of Samuel and David and Solomon and the prophets, and they heard the writings of those prophets read each week in the synagogues. That biblical story of Israel formed their view of the world, and the book of psalms in the Bible shaped their prayer lives week by week.
How about you? How familiar are you with the Bible? The Bible isn’t always an easy book to read. In fact, it isn’t really a book at all it’s a library of books, written over a period of over a thousand years, in three ancient languages. It includes poetry and song and saga and political commentary and biography and doctrine and practical teaching about daily life. And the people who wrote it looked at the world very differently from us. So yes, it’s not like reading the latest John Grisham novel! But it’s important; I’m pretty sure John Grisham would agree that it’s much more important to know the Bible than to know his thrillers!
So one way we can grow is just to read the Bible and become familiar with its story. A couple of years ago when we had our diocesan centennial Bishop Jane gave us the challenge of reading the Bible through in a year; I know some of you did it. She gave us a system of daily readings – psalms, Old Testament, New Testament. There are other ways of doing it too; you can actually buy editions of the Bible divided into daily sections – the One-Year Bible – with daily readings from Old and New Testaments, Psalms and Proverbs. I’ve often used this system myself and really appreciated it. Yes, we’ll run into things we don’t understand, but let’s not worry about them. We can mark them, come back to them, ask questions about them if we want to. But sooner or later we’ll find something that really speaks to us – and then we can take time to meditate on it and apply it to our lives.
So we could become familiar with the story of the Bible. Secondly, we could grow in prayer. When I gave my life to Christ as a young teenager, one of the first things my Dad did was to give me a little booklet teaching me to have a daily time of prayer. That booklet changed my life. Before I read it, my prayers had been rote prayers at bedtime, or formal prayers in church. But after I read that book – it was called ‘Seven Minutes with God’ – I began to take a few minutes each day to pray, using four kinds of prayer, which I’ve sometimes heard summarized as “Thank you”, “Sorry”, “Please”, and “You’re Awesome!” I started with a few minutes, but at the years went by, my prayer times grew.
What about you? What is your habit of prayer? Jesus assumes his disciples will pray. In the Sermon on the Mount he doesn’t say “If you pray…” but “When you pray”. Many of you are my Facebook friends. I know you take time each day to check Facebook, read your friends’ posts, maybe comment on them. But do you take time each day to pray and draw closer to God?
You might say, “I don’t know how to do that”. Fine, that’s an honest answer. What are you going to do about that? Are you going to be content to stay there and make that excuse for the rest of your life? Or are you going to say, “I was made to know God. Prayer is one of the most important ways of knowing God. So I’m going to ask for help so I can get better at it, and learn to pray in a more meaningful way”?
We can become more familiar with the Bible, we can learn to pray more meaningfully and more regularly. Thirdly, we can learn to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice.
A spiritual writer called John Ortberg makes a helpful distinction between trying and training. Marathon runners don’t try to run marathons; they train for them. They would never think of starting with a marathon; they’ll start with much shorter distances, pushing their bodies, yes, but then having times to rest so that their bodies can build up strength again. Slowly, as they train, their bodies become capable of longer and longer distances.
Last week after church Jason Durance and I were talking about this, and he told me about a time when he heard John Ortberg speaking on this subject. Apparently John gave the example of growing in patience; he said that if you want to grow in that virtue, you have to practice it! For instance, you have to intentionally go to the longer checkout line in the grocery store, or steer toward the lane of traffic with more cars in it! In other words, you have to intentionally put yourself in situations where patience is called for; that’s how your patience muscles grow!
Think of the different virtues Jesus calls us to: loving our neighbours, loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, turning the other cheek, generosity to the poor and needy, telling the truth at all times, and so on. If you read through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7, you can find them all laid out. But don’t be intimidated by them; don’t grit your teeth and try to do them. Instead, pray about them, and ask God, “God, how can I train for this virtue that I need to grow in my life? What situations can I put myself in where I can have the opportunity to learn this character trait you want to grow in me?”
So which aspects of the teaching of Jesus do you most need to grow in this year? And what’s your plan to grow in them? That’s the third thing.
Finally, let’s remember that God never designed this Christian life to be lived alone. Jesus never intended that his followers would practice do-it-yourself spirituality. He assumed we would gather together at least once a week, worship together, reorient ourselves to the priorities of the Kingdom of God, and come to his table to share his bread and wine. “Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me”. Not “Do this unless you’ve got a better offer this weekend”.
Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching”. That’s what church is meant to be: an opportunity for followers of Jesus to come together, learn together and encourage each other, in a world where we don’t get much encouragement to be faithful to Jesus.
You and I have been called to follow Jesus. This is the most important thing we do. We’ve been enrolled in a school of discipleship that lasts until the day we die. We never get to the end of it; there’s always more growing and learning to do. So let me ask you to think carefully about this. How are you going to grow as a follower of Jesus in the next twelve months? What priorities do you need to set? What do you need to learn to help you grow? Who are you going to ask to help you do it? And who will you be accountable to for your growth? One thing I’ve learned from hard experience is that if I don’t make myself accountable to someone, the growth doesn’t usually happen.
Let me close by saying that if any of you want to have some more conversation about this, we’ll gather together for a few minutes after the service is over; maybe grab a coffee and a chair and come back to my office, and if it gets too crowded we’ll move somewhere else. But also, if you want to have a one on one conversation about this, please don’t hesitate to call me. Conversations about discipleship are absolutely the most important part of my job as a pastor, and I’d be delighted to take the time to talk and pray with you about it. But whether you talk to me or not, talk to God: ask him to help you set some goals and make some plans, and then start working on them. That’s what it means for us today to be followers of Jesus, and that’s also the best way to be a joyful Christian. And believe me, the presence of a few more joyful Christians will definitely help our church grow!