Bringing our first child home from the hospital was a joyous event. But after a few days of sleep deprivation, my wife and I were teetering on the edge of insanity. After a particularly difficult night, I called my mother to apologize for my selfish teenage years. "Now I understand why you were so angry with me," I told her. "I'm finally beginning to understand how much you invested in me. Until a few days ago, I had no idea." I could tell her laughter was tinged with a deep satisfaction.
My daughter turned eight this spring, and watching her mature, along with her two younger siblings, has been bittersweet. Soon we will be leaving the joyful baby-phase of our life, but it also means we'll be leaving the midnight-feedings-and-exploding-diapers phase as well. As one author put it, "It kills you to see them grow up. But I guess it would kill you quicker if they didn't."
Spiritual infants present a similar paradox. New believers and young congregations are a source of great joy, and churches experiencing numerical growth are right to celebrate. But immaturity has a downside. Churches filled with juvenile believers are prone to shallowness, conflict, stagnation, and sin. (They can also be the source of sleepless nights for their spiritual mothers and fathers.) We love churches filled with baby Christians, but we don't want them to stay babies forever.
A few years ago, Leadership editor at large Gordon MacDonald wrote a column questioning our collective ability to nurture mature believers. ("So Many Christian Infants"). He admitted that we are "pretty good at wooing people across the line of faith in Jesus." And he gave evangelicals a passing grade for communicating the rudimentary elements of the Christian life. "But," MacDonald added, "what our tradition lacks of late is knowing how to prod and poke people past 'infancy' and into Christian maturity …. What's been going wrong?"
He's not the only one asking that question.
Earlier this year I visited a group of pastors at a retreat and listened to their stories. One shared how his perception of his congregation—a community he'd served for 15 years—had been shaken by an internal crisis. Before the controversy erupted, he believed the church was comprised of healthy, biblically-rooted disciples. But the heat of the conflict revealed far more impurity than he expected among those he considered most mature. "Was I really that unaware of their true condition?" he asked.
Another young man entered his first pastorate longing to be mentored by an older, wiser leader in the church. But after a few months, he concluded that there was not a leader among the elders who exemplified the values he desired for his life. Instead he turned to a denominational figure outside his congregation.
To be fair, there are mature, godly disciples to be found in many congregations and not just among the recognized leadership. But the apostle Paul's desire was to "present everyone mature in Christ" (Col. 1:28), not just a few exemplary individuals.
What does it mean to nurture our whole church toward maturity; to spiritually form a community of disciples? That is the challenge addressed in the current ("Got Maturity?") issue of Leadership, which will be your first issue if you subscribe here in the next few weeks.
We will also be reprinting some of the material from that issue in future issues of this newsletter.
Skye Jethani is managing editor of Leadership.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
Click here for reprint information on Leadership Journal.