Growing in faith begins obviously enough with our decision to put our faith in God through Jesus Christ. We become believers–but I have discovered that there is a lack of real understanding of what it means to be a believer or what faith in Christ means. It seems like the church as a whole has developed several different ways of looking at what faith is and there has several different understandings of how to grow in that faith.
Because I am part of the conservative side of the church, I see one understanding of faith and how to grow in it on a regular basis. It is the understanding that I learned during my early faith years, the approach that many of my friends and colleagues in ministry and the faith grew up with and which many accept as the full truth.
The conservative side of the church has tended over the years to see faith in terms of the words that we use. How we express our faith verbally has become the indicator not just of our acceptance of faith but also our growth in faith. Many within the conservative church have made saying the right words the “narrow gate” into the faith. I have known pastors and evangelists who insist that unless a new believer repeats the “Sinner’s Prayer”, the salvation process really isn’t complete.
This idea of faith as words affects how we expect people to grow in faith. Growing in faith consists of accumulating the right words and using them in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, the words are organized into a statement that we need people to accept to show their faith. Getting the words right becomes a sign of a real and growing faith.
I believe it is important to be able to put words on our faith. We are verbal beings and communicate at least partly with words. But the problem the conservative church runs into is that our insistence on faith as words doesn’t really lead to a growth in faith.
While in Kenya, we worked with the Africa Brotherhood Church, a strong and growing independent African denomination. The churches have a strong program for new believers. Before a believer can be baptized, he/she must attend a long training class that generally runs for two to three hours every Saturday morning for months.
But as my students and I studied and discussed the class process, we discovered that all that was really required of the students in the class was that they be able to repeat the words contained in the class study book. When I asked if the students had to understand the words, the students shook their heads. When I pushed it a bit further and asked if the teacher of the class needed to understand the words, the answer was a reluctant no as well.
And the ABC isn’t alone in that. Many conservative believers have the words memorized. They can tell you they believe in the virgin birth, the inerrancy of Scripture, the substitutionary theory of atonement and so on. They will defend, debate and protect these words but if pressed to explain what they mean, they are in trouble.
A deeper problem arises when we look at life and practise of faith. The shotgun wielding deacon I mentioned yesterday knew the words of the faith–in fact, he told me one day he really didn’t need to listen to my sermons anymore because he already knew it all. In his view, he was a mature and strong believer–he had the right words and could quote them and discuss them and defend them from all comers, perhaps even with the shotgun if it became necessary.
Somehow, that doesn’t really seem like spiritual maturity to me. While I love words and have a deep appreciation for the power of words (I wouldn’t write or preach otherwise), the words alone don’t seem to be enough. Having a perfect grasp of the right words is important but doesn’t seem to be enough–there needs to be more. That more is what distinguishes a man with the right words and a shotgun from a believer whose faith has a positive impact on other lives and the world.
Spiritual growth needs to be more than just the accumulation of words, no matter how well put together and true those words are.
May the peace of God be with you.