Can you help with a riddle? How is it possible for someone to go to church year after year, listen to great sermons, read the Bible, absorb Christian classics, find ways to serve, and even attend ministry conferences—and change very little?
Strange question, I know, but not hypothetical. In fact I ask it with someone specific in mind, someone whose minimal spiritual progress I've watched with mounting frustration.
That person is me.
Don't get me wrong. The activities above have spurred growth in my life, especially early on. It was reading through the Gospels as a teen that fueled my nascent spiritual journey. Great Christian literature has deepened my faith. And preaching has profoundly shaped the way I see God.
But in recent years I've detected a troubling phenomenon, a sort of law of diminishing returns. The Christian life isn't a self-improvement program; it's all about God, not us. I get that. Still, as we examine ourselves, shouldn't we see a pattern of increasing maturity, less selfishness, fewer besetting sins, and more and more resemblance to Christ? So it's unsettling to see practices that once produced growth now seem to be less capable of creating change, leaving those garden variety yet serious foibles—envy, sloth, apathy, pride—hanging around like unwanted houseguests.
What's going on?
I think I've been overly reliant on certain modes of spiritual transformation. It happened innocently enough. I'm a verbal person; I love the written and spoken word. So naturally I gravitate to spiritual practices that center around verbal engagement. For instance, I'd rather read a great book about community than participate in one. I'd prefer to listen to (or deliver) a sermon about service than get off my butt and serve! Theory is clean; people are messy. But lately I've sensed God showing me that I need a bigger toolbox, filled with more tools than the verbal ones so that he can shape me into the likeness of his Son.
Pastor Peter Scazzero recalls a similar experience. Early in his ministry, he felt spiritually stunted, even though he was disciplined about Bible reading and prayer. For him finding a bigger toolbox meant examining his emotional health and integrating spiritual disciplines from the monastic tradition into his life and the life of his church.
What about you? And how about the people you lead?
We all have preferred methods of connecting with God. But if we're not careful, we can lean too heavily on those methods and end up shortchanging what the Holy Spirit might do through other avenues. Scripture and history provide us with a rich diversity of spiritual disciplines. Take a look at your toolbox and ask what may be missing. Are you, like me, relying on too few tools? Could it be that God is prompting you to seek out other ways to grow in him?
If we allow God to enlarge our toolbox, we just might find that we, and the people around us, start looking and living differently.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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