I'm from the Northeast, a part of the U.S. where roads and highways are generally named for what they are: The Mass Turnpike, The New York State Thruway, The Long Island Expressway. But now I live in the Midwest near Chicago. And while streets here tend to be more organized than in New England (no cow-paths-turned-superhighways or evasive signage just to confuse visitors), there is one notable exception: The Elgin-O'Hare Expressway. You see, the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway goes neither to the town of Elgin nor to O'Hare Airport.
The vision for the highway was clear—join the western suburbs of Chicago, as far west as Elgin, with the airport. But somehow that goal got lost along the way. I read about the difficulty of connecting to existing roads near O'Hare, and something about tax money running out. Whatever the reason, the project was abandoned on both ends, but the misleading name hasn't changed. It really should be re-named "The Elgin-O'Hare Partway."
Recently as I drove the ill-named expressway, I felt a pang of conviction. Almost every ministry I've been involved with began with a clear and well articulated vision. In every case we wanted to reach out to the lost and nurture believers into mature disciples. But the truth is that the ministries we've built serve people on part of that journey, but we never really reach either end.
Most recently I've been working with the Willow Creek Association discussing the findings from more than 1,200 churches that have taken the REVEAL survey. We've discovered that most churches are very effective at helping their congregation grow for a portion of the journey—and that's wonderful news! Thousands of people are being served every day.
But the same research makes me wonder about the edges. Are we really connecting with those far from God? And at the other end of the road, are we deepening the spiritual maturity of those who are committed to Christ? If we were to re-write our mission statements according to what's actually happening, how would they read? Do our mission statements describe a Thruway when the reality is a Partway?
I'm not suggesting ministry is a conveyor belt of programs that move people automatically from disbelief to maturity. That would be incongruous with an authentic spiritual life. But we must still ask ourselves how intentional we are about helping people at all stages of the journey. There is a lot of excitement about reaching the lost, and many ministries work hard on these early miles of the road. But based on the research I have seen, my main concern is for those further along on the journey. The evidence suggests that churches are only helping believers get so far, and then they're on their own.
Who will pave the way for the rest of the journey? Who will teach the critical truths and practices necessary for maturity in Christ? What new pathways need to be created, and what's our strategy for helping our congregations walk these roads? I'm convinced that if we are to lead people all the way to maturity in Christ, then we must begin by developing the spiritual health of the leaders.
Not long ago a pastor told me: "Mindy, we have a lot of young leaders. Most of our staff is under 40. We've launched two new campuses, finished a building campaign, and are making inroads into serving the marginalized in our community. The staff has been running hard and fast for a long time. I'm wondering what the trajectory of our ministry will be two years from now if we don't intentionally focus on the well-being of our souls. Which marriages are likely to collapse by then? Which young leaders will be run over and left for dead?"