As a child, I was usually the smallest of any of the students in my class. This sometimes made me a bit of a target, so I was quite happy when I shot up about six inches in a year (despite the pain) and caught up to everyone else. It has been a long time since I have grown in height, although I have grown a couple of extra chins and a larger forehead.
My focus for growing now is to grow in my roles as a Christian, a husband, a father and a pastor. I don’t want to plateau and I definitely don’t want to diminish. One of the things I have noticed is that none of this happens by accident. I have to work at it, seeking to learn and putting what I learn in practice. I’m far from perfect.
What about us as a church? We want to grow as a church. I’m sure that everyone here would agree that is a good thing. We have the word “growing” in our mission statement and so we must mean it. But what will that growth look like?
One of the most important aspects of meeting a goal is that of measurement. We need some way to determine if we we are hitting what we are aiming for. In terms of growth, there are two very easy measurements. They are attendance on Sunday mornings and money in the offering plate. These are things that we can put numbers to and observe trends either up or down.
I need to tell you that neither of these aspects of growth are my primary focus as a pastor. Don’t get me wrong, I would not be disappointed if both the size of the congregation and the amount of the offering doubled next week. However, I believe that they are more the outcomes of what our primary focus should be. What we need to focus on and the aim of this part of our mission statement is spiritual growth.
We should never see emphasis on spiritual growth as taking the easy way out, as filling the pews is so difficult. The truth is that spiritual growth is a much more difficult path than that of numerical growth. There are gimmicks that can lead to numerical growth, but there are no short cuts to spiritual growth. If we take spiritual growth seriously, we better prepare ourselves for a lot of work.
In case you are still thinking about the importance of filling the church with people, I want to say that of course we want as many people to be worshiping and serving God as possible. I am convinced that if we put our energy into growing spiritually, of becoming better followers of Jesus, that all of the other things will fall into line. Spiritual growth will lead to a numerical growth that lasts.
Who are we as Christians? There are plenty of descriptions of our identity in Christ, everything from saints to servants, priests to children of God. But there is one identity that started it all off, one that is required for us to even understand those aspects of who we are.
We are disciples of Jesus. Even the apostles were not apostles until they were first disciples. But what is a disciple? A disciple is a learner or a student. The idea of being a student either excites you or bores you. I understand that different people react in different ways about this. But the truth is that we are all students, we are always learning something from someone. It just comes down to the quality of what we are learning. We need to make intentional choices about how we are going to learn and what we are going to learn.
We are looking at the mission statement of Queen Street Baptist Church, but there is also a mission statement for the Church as a whole. It is called the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). In this commission, Jesus calls the church to go out and make disciples. Not converts. Not tithers. Not pew warmers. We are called to make disciples. We are charged with the mission to help other people learn what it means to be a follower and student of Jesus. This is a high and noble calling and one we need to take seriously.
I love to learn. I’m on my fifth university degree. I read nine or ten books a month. I listen to twenty podcasts on numerous subjects. I also know that I’m not normal. Not everyone gets so excited about learning.
When it comes to our relationship with God, there might be concerns that growing in knowledge might lead to a diminishing in love. We have to choose either our head or our heart, God can’t have both. But why? That is not how we treat other relationships. We can be passionately in love with a person and still want know more about that person.
I really appreciate what Paul says to the church at Philippi. Apostles shouldn’t have favourites but when we read Paul’s letters, we see that Paul probably had the best relationship with the Philippians and they look to be the healthiest church. Paul praises them for their love, which is what he would expect. Look at the prayer Paul has for them. He wants their love to abound but abound with what? He speaks about knowledge and depth of insight. He talks about being able to discern what is best. There is no indication that Paul had any separation between the head and the heart. Love and knowledge are to go together perfectly.
When we say we want to grow spiritually as a church, we are not suggesting that we only fill our heads with information. Rather we are speaking about a growing in the knowledge of the Lord that draws us into a deeper relationship.
How Do We Grow?
There are two basic ways that we can grow as Christians and grow as a church. This is not an either/or option but rather is just a description of the way things are.
Stretching Our Mind
The first is by learning more information. This might be what we traditionally think of as being a disciple. I understand that this comes easier for some than for others but it is essential for all. When we say we have a faith, we need to remember that there is content to that faith. When we say we believe in God, we should have something specific in mind by that God. When we say we believe in Jesus, we should have some understanding of who he is and what he has done. If we don’t know what we mean by God and Jesus, then our faith does not mean very much.
What I’m talking about is theology. Theology doesn’t seem to make many people excited and yet if done right, it should not be boring. Theology is literally words about God and if we love God, we should want to know as much about him as possible.
This is particularly important today in our information age. The internet is wonderful as we have more good quality Christian content available today than previous generations could ever imagine. The flip side of this is that there has also never been as much bad content. There is abundance of inaccurate descriptions of God, Jesus and the Bible out there. If we do not take our role as disciples seriously, then we will have no way to sort through the garbage and come to the true knowledge that Paul talks about.
How do we do this? There are plenty of opportunities to grow in knowledge. The first step should always be studying the Bible. Join a Bible study but do personal study as well. Take a course on the Bible or some subject related to the Christian faith. We are looking at what learning opportunities will look like in the fall, but it will only be successful if you see discipleship as important. Read good books. We have books in our church library and there all sorts of books you can purchase. Some authors are betters than others but it is not difficult to discern the difference.
My gifts are in teaching and discipleship and I will try to provide as many opportunities as I can. But it always comes down to what people are willing to do to learn and grow in the needed knowledge.
Stretching Our Lives
One way to learn is through reading books and listening to speakers. But it is not the only way. We also learn by studying at what is sometimes called the school of hard knocks. We are all in the school of life, but how much are we learning?
How do we learn from life? It is all about noticing what is happening, being willing to see it as a lesson and letting it inform our actions. Unfortunately, these lessons usually come in the difficult circumstances of life. When I look at the events that have shaped me, they are not things that I would have chosen. I think about the miscarriage of our first baby. I think about autism. I think about being out of work and not knowing where the next groceries were going to come from. I think about being sick and fearing I was dying. I think about the loss of my parents.
The temptation is to never get over the anger of the circumstances enough to actually learn something. It may come down to how we think about this theologically. Does God intentionally make our life difficult and painful so that we can learn a helpful lesson? Or is the life we lead the natural result of a fallen and broken world, one in which God works in and through to teach us? However we see God’s role, we need to open our minds and hearts to learn from the situation. What do we learn about God? What do we learn about us? What do we learn about prayer? What do we learn about joy? What do we learn about peace? School is always in sessions, but are we learning?
We as a church need to be a growing church. The focus on that growth needs to be spiritual growth, that is we need to grow as disciples of Jesus and we need to to disciple others. I have a dream for this church. This dream is that as we as a congregation would be both deep and wide. I want to see a church that is hungry for God’s Word, seeking every opportunity to learn. I want to see a congregation that understand the Christian faith so well that false teachings instantly recognized and rejected. I want to see a congregation that wants to know God so bad that they deepen their knowledge of prayer, worship and spiritual disciplines.
We have the resources already to make this happen. There are gifted people in this church that we all need to learn from. Do we have the desire to learn? Have we embraced our role as disciples of Jesus? Are we willing to commit to growing spiritually in such a way, that all the other aspects of growth come naturally? I pray that we are.