Growth Imperative

baby ChristiansThe Christian faith is about growth and maturing.  In recent posts, I’ve talked about “mature” faith, and the response has been interesting.  Many frame the term “mature” as judgmental, exclusive, and unkind — when compared to “less mature” or “immature.”  But developmental and qualitative growth — improvement, strengthening, seasoning, evolving — is best described in terms of maturing.  Indeed, there is a value judgment in assessing one behavior as mature against another as immature.  Yet, we are all aware of the differences between a mature and an immature response to disappointment, failure, pain, or loss.  The more mature response is generally very clear.  It doesn’t mean an immature response is bad, it is simply… less mature.

And spiritual maturity is essential for a healthy spiritual relationship — with God, in Christian community, and with those we seek to serve and love.  I have yet to find a congregation torn apart by maturity.  The most toxic and destructive behaviors come from the least mature spiritually.  Where a process for maturing is not provided, the less mature rule.  And when the less mature call all the shots, it is amazing how “the mature” often respond — more often than not, like the spiritually immature.  It seems that immaturity exerts a greater influence on maturity than maturity exerts in reverse.  But this actually make sense — there are way more less mature than mature.

Maturity has little to do with age or tenure.  My grandfather, a lifelong Christian, was a selfish, pushy, demanding, caustic, pouting elder in his Presbyterian church until the day he died.  In the last church I served, a twenty-five year old woman was one of the most spiritually mature, theologically grounded, and philosophically balanced people I have ever had the privilege to know — much more mature than either of her parents, both who held key leadership positions in the congregation.  Her maturity was often ignored or dismissed because she was chronologically young.  Pity.

Part of this dilemma is cultural.  Loosely borrowing from a variety of developmental theorists, I believe we all pass through four developmental phases:  dependence to independence to local interdependence to global/universal interdependence.  Babies are totally dependent on others for their survival, comfort, care and safety.  From birth — and radical dependence — we all move through stages of independence: pulling away, pushing limits, breaking rules, developing personal tastes, preferences, beliefs, desires, habits, etc.  We become individuals — unique, autonomous, self-actualized.  To grow, it sometimes has to be “all about us” as individuals.  But heaven help us if we get stuck here.  As we are declaring our own independence, the world demands we play nice with others.  We learn to share, to compromise, to negotiate, and to accommodate.  We develop coping mechanisms that allow our self to engage with other selves.  Now, some do this from an awakening that together we are greater than the sum of our parts, while others learn nothing more than there’s a sucker born every minute.  Emerging from the independence phase we divide into two basic orientations — givers and takers.  Givers see relationships as opportunities for mutual benefit, strength, comfort and security.  Takers live by one guiding principle: “what’s in it for me?”  Local interdependence occurs when people forge relationships.  And this is where the clearest distinctions of maturing emerge.  The less mature are still governed by the guiding values of independence — they seek to get their own way, they value their own opinions above those of others, they frame most encounters in “win-lose” terms, and they tend to take everything personally.  The more mature are guided by a value of “the common good” — what is best for everyone is more important than what is best for me.  Maturity shifts the focus from “me” to “we,” from “I” to “us.”  Maturity at the local interdependent level moves us from “me and mine” thinking to “us and ours.”

As we grow in our maturing, our circle of “us” expands.  Our worldview opens beyond family, friends, and tribe to community to state to nation to planet to cosmos.  Local interdependence can sometimes look like nothing more than collective independence — communal selfishness, irrational patriotism, geographic parochialism, or fanatical factionalism (think school cliques, sports allegiances, any given civil war…).  Global/universal interdependence gets us close to the vision that Jesus and Paul offer in Christian scripture.  Dividing walls are knocked down, hostilities abate, distinctions between male/female, slave/free, Greek/Jew, rich/poor, etc. disappear.  We become “one,” not just with those who agree with us or whom we like, but with all creation.  The fruits of maturity in the Spirit are evident in the way we love, in how kind and forgiving we are, in how patient and considerate we are, in the basic joy, hope and grace with which we live our daily lives.  By its fruits, maturity will be known.

Selfishness, hostility, bullying, arguing, derision, contempt, slander, gossip — no one ever makes a case for these as evidence of maturity.  Christian discipleship is a movement away from such characteristics and practices toward compassion, grace, mercy, unconditional love and healing.  Is there a value judgment here?  Certainly.  Love is better than hate; mercy is greater than vengeance; kindness is preferable to violence; and sharing is superior to selfishness.  Were maturity not of greater value than immaturity there would be no reason to be Christian — bad enough would be good enough.

It is time for the church to lift a high standard and hold each and every person to it.  If we are no better than the rest of the world, then we dishonor Christ and disgrace the gospel.  If we allow immature, toxic, selfish behavior to flourish and thrive in Christian community, then our witness to the world is that Jesus was wrong and the Holy Spirit has no power.  It is not enough to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” if we refuse to define a disciple as one who “must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15b-16).  There is no such thing as an independent Christian — if we’re not interdependent (think: body of Christ) then we are merely deluded.

10 replies

  1. This is the very reason why I have taken a hiatus from the Catholic church, after 12 years of receiving my academic education from it. There must be a transformation, led by mature Christians, who are led by the Holy Spirit, rather than by monetary or political gain. Dare I say thousands of peers my age feel similarly and seek a center not bound by the confines of this selfish means of existence. Is the Church truly committed to nurturing others, or weighed down by worldly means? I tend to feel the latter is true. Thank you for writing this!

  2. As usual, your observations and argument are spot on. This post hits close to home for me as my work is focused on providing resources and training to congregations, districts, and conferences designed to foster the Christian maturity the church so desperately needs. However, more often than not the hardest part of my job is convincing leaders they need to implement practices grounded in our Wesleyan heritage that are proven and effective means of Christian formation maturity, and leadership development. Experience tells me that most pastors operate by the general rule of pastoral prudence: “The absolute minimum in responsibility in order to keep the maximum number of people.”

    Keep up the good work.

  3. So how does one convince an immature church leadership that they need to grow and mature?

    • One doesn’t. Convincing someone else that they are not mature is an exercise in futility. Less mature thinkers always believe they are mature because they are functioning at their own highest level at the moment. Children think they are acting like grownups because they don’t really know or understand what being grownup is. When someone says “Act your age,” they generally mean, “act the age I think you should be” or “act my age.” A clear mark of maturity is understanding where everyone is in their own journey and not demanding they be somewhere else.

    • Pray for them. Lead by example. Understand that the church will reflect the leadership. If nothing ever changes, unless you are the Pastor, seek another body.

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