In American churches from Dayton, Ohio to Tempe, Arizona ‘discipleship’ has become the Swiss Army Knife of Christian words. It wasn’t always that way. It's consumed with rust and dead in the water. To recover what rust has destroyed, we must replace 'discipleship' with...
I've been blogging now for four months! Each month, the posts have grown in readership and breadth of influence. Thanks for reading! Here are my top posts of 2016, according to number of hits. Did you miss one? Perhaps it’d encourage you to revisit a couple of your favorites, or share with your friends...
Aren’t you glad you’re not a baby? Don’t get me wrong, being a parent is tough. Right now my wife and I are in the depths of waking up multiple times a night to baby’s wails and feeling the tiredness that seeps into the bones. It’s no picnic, I can assure you!
But being a baby must be even harder. Think about what babies go through. A baby can’t sit, stand, roll over, understand the language around him, or even gesture with any part of his body! Sometimes when they’re tired they don’t know to sleep and when they have to poop they don’t know how to let it out!
Fortunately, God has designed it so that every baby has a Mom and a Dad. Parents are so important that God made it impossible for a baby to NOT start out next to its Mom. Often, Dad isn’t far away either. It’s the perfect environment for the baby. The mom is there to protect the baby from harm and to help her grow. It’s an essential relationship that keeps the baby from dying.
Recently I’ve been wondering, what would happen if a child was born to an organization? I recognize, this takes some imagination. But imagine that an organization could have a baby. Nine months after the first notice, a newborn shows up at the office, restaurant, or church. What would happen?
I think initially there would be great excitement! They’d heard she was coming, but still weren’t quite sure she’d make it. The baby would be passed around. The boss would feel a sense of pride. He’d report the birth to his superiors and then plan a celebration for this organizational baby! But soon, the end of the workday would come, and as the baby peacefully napped the workers would kiss her goodbye and go home to their families. But soon, she would wake up alone and hungry, and cry.
The next day, the workers would return to work to see the baby napping. The crying they'd never heard had stopped. She’d learned that there was no one to respond to her cries. The office smelled horrible though, since she’d made a mess in her diaper. The boss called HR and realized they didn’t have anyone on staff whose job it was to change diapers or feed the baby. Immediately, two new hires were made. They’d each work ten hour shifts, while the current staff would be trained to fill in during the middle of the day.
When more organizational babies were born, the office relocated them to an adjacent building and hired additional staff to care for them. They called it an orphanage and referred to the babies as organizational orphans. They babies grew, but their growth wasn’t on par with non-organizational babies. They were learning what we already know.
As a society we know that institutional care harms babies. Studies have shown that babies raised in institutional care are damaged, often irreparably. For every 2.6 months in an institution, babies fall one month behind developmentally. They also have significantly lower IQ’s and brain activity. In addition, they are far more likely to have social and behavioral abnormalities such as aggression, hyperactivity, inattention, and traits that mimic autism. It’s not that the babies basic physical needs aren’t met, they are. But institutional care can’t provide the eye contact, physical and visual stimulation, and play that parents naturally provide. In short, institutional care damages infants (Source).
So what does this have to do with the church? For decades now, perhaps centuries, spiritual infants have been born to and cared for by spiritual institutions, not spiritual parents. The infant has arrived into the organization through baptism. "The Boss" felt pride in a job well done and reported the birth to his superiors. The organization has celebrated, cooed, and gone home to their families.
Some infants, seeing they’ve been left alone, have cried and cried, but upon recognizing there was no one to hear, died. Most however, remain alive in institutional care, neglected, bored, and stunted.
Years pass and though they should be mature, most look like two-year olds. Some have grown to the maturity level of an eight-year old or ten-year old, and a very few have even found their way into puberty. Though by now they should be married to Christ and thinking about having kids of their own, the thought of becoming a parent is literally a foreign concept to them.
“What’s a parent?” they say. Since institutional care is all they’ve known, being a parent has never really crossed their mind. When they learn the call of Christ to have kids (make disciples) they respond, “I do love Christ, but I don’t see why I should have kids. I’m happy with my life the way it is. I don’t have time for that, anyway. Besides, how could I even be a parent when no one parented to me?”
And so it goes, the institution continues to have kids. And virtually all remain immature. The solution is easy to see, but difficult to reach: find parents to adopt the orphans that they too may grow up to be parents themselves.
Part 1 -Greater Need
Growth is easy to recognize in a newborn, but harder to discern in a grown-up. In his first seven weeks of life, our newborn son slept three or more consecutive hours only twice. To be clear, that's two times, day or night! To say that we were tired would be an understatement! Day and night, he woke up every two-two and half hours to eat. Jared was hungry and growing fast! Each week his body lengthened and he added some baby rolls to his elbows and ankles. His growth is fueled changes in him that were difficult not to notice.
But, suppose I use the spiritual bullet of growth on myself, how can I recognize that I've grown or that another person has grown? How do I know it’s real growth and not just an illusion of growth? What’s a sign of growth that can be trusted and is consistent with the life of Christ?
It is true that the physical provides a window into the spiritual (Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 3, et al). In other words, the physical world is meant to help us uncover spiritual realities. With four kids between the ages of six and 4 months, Kristen and I have a front row seat to observe physical growth.
Sitting at the dinner table the other night, I noticed the plates of our daughters. Each one had the same food on it, but the amounts were different. Our four-year old needs to eat more than our two-year old, and our six-year old needs more than both of them. My wife is 5’4” and needs to eat more than the kids. And I, at 6’2,” need to eat the most.
In some ways pointing that out is painfully obvious, but it illuminates a spiritual truth I hadn’t thought of before: those who are more mature need more nourishment. A sure mark of growth in a mature disciple is increased NEED for spiritual nourishment.
Looking at Jesus as our example, He clearly had a high need for spiritual nourishment. He was known for “withdrawing often to lonely places to pray". As spiritually mature as Jesus is, it’s no surprise that He was known for this need to be with God. So close was Jesus’ association with spiritual nourishment that he said that doing God’s will was His food.
For many, this is counter-intuitive. We tend to associate growth with strength and independence. Indeed, as children grow they become more independent, but as any parent of teenage boys know, their bodies do require more nourishment. This increased need connects more easily with us as we think about plants. Without enough sun, rain, and nutrients they wither and eventually die. One of the first signs of a deficiency is the inability to reproduce. It’s no wonder that Scripture compares us to plants in John 15, 1 Corinthians 3, Mark 4, John 4, et al.
One primary indicator of my own growth and development as a disciple is my need for spiritual nourishment. As I grow spiritually, so too will my need for spiritual nourishment from God. Specifically, I can look to my need to be with Jesus, the bread of life, my need to be in Scripture, and my need to do God’s will.
What about you? Perhaps you’re a pastor who regularly helps nourish others, but have neglected your own nourishment. Maybe you're young in your faith and have never really noticed a need to be nourished by Jesus. Wherever you are, assess the trajectory of your spiritual growth over the past six months, one year, or five years. Are you stagnant? Do you lack fruit that grows and develops into its own reproducing tree? Or are you encouraged by what you see?