As human beings, we like to count time–and on the basis of that count, assume certain things. For example, we tend to assume that a 30 year old will be more mature than a 10 year old. Someone who have been a sober alcoholic for 10 years is probably doing better than a person who has been sober for ten days. A Christian who have been a believer for 40 years is likely more mature in the faith than a believer who started in the faith 4 days ago.
In some cases, our assumptions based on time passage are true–yet there are enough exceptions that I have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue. For example, in working with families in crisis, I have seen 10 year olds who are much more mature in their handling of the crisis than their 30 year old parents. Almost any alcoholic will quickly say that the struggle to stay sober is just as difficult after 10 years as it is after ten days. And, honestly, some Christians have less spiritual maturity after 40 years than some who have been followers for 40 days.
The thing we have to realize is that the passage of time indicates the passage of time, not the development of character and wisdom and things like that. Character, wisdom, understanding and spiritual growth take more than just time.
One of the first requirements of spiritual growth is a clear understanding of exactly what spiritual growth is. And that is where I think we often run into serious trouble because many believers don’t have a clear idea of what spiritual growth really is. In fact, many of us whose roots are in conservative groups like the Baptist may not even be aware that spiritual growth takes more than just the passage of time.
I grew up during the age of Billy Graham. One of the ways the Billy Graham organization used to reach people for the faith was through film. There were a great number of professional quality films that churches and Christian groups could rent as part of their evangelistic outreach. I faithfully attended many of these films when they were shown in our building.
The movies were well made but somewhat predictable after the first one. The central character wasn’t a believer and the movie followed his/her life and the issues and difficulties and plot twists until that character ended up as a Billy Graham crusade and walked to the front in response to the sermon. Everyone involved with the central character would rejoice, the credits would roll and the group watching would be given an alter call as well.
After the first one or two, I began to feel that something was wrong with the movie and eventually realized that I was dissatisfied with the ending. For me, the movie ended in the wrong place. Becoming a believer should be the beginning, not the ending.
But for many conservative churches and their leaders, becoming a believer is the end. We tend to be focused almost exclusively on evangelism. But once people make a commitment, are baptized and counted in our annual report, we seem to forget them and move on to the next evangelistic event, hoping to bring even more in.
We generally don’t have plans and procedures for helping people understand their new faith and its effects and implications on their life. There might be a Bible study in the church but no real effort is made to encourage people to attend. There is likely some sort of training class for new believers but once they are baptized, there is nothing.
The end result is that a high percentage of people who are brought to faith end up drifting away from the faith. A few end up in other congregations but most simply drift out of the church. Those who stay are often faithful but not always faithful to Christian truth, mostly because they don’t really know what the faith stands for.
I remember growing up in the 60s when long hair for males was just beginning to become a cultural trend. Many in the church were convinced that long hair on men was a serious sin and churches and families had major battles over hair length–good Christian males sported a military style haircut, just like Jesus did. The historical fact that Jesus, like almost all men of his day, had relatively long hair was totally overlooked.
We do need to spend time as believers seeking to understand what Christian growth actually is and how it happens.
May the peace of God be with you.