How do you know if a “church” is “spiritually mature?” Here are a few thoughts & suggestions on the matter…

Last month on New Hope Digital, I suggested 3 questions to challenge us to rethink our understanding of spiritual maturity. You can read the post by clicking here. I promised that this month I would offer a few suggestions about how a spiritually maturing local church might gather, live, and love together.

Let me start with a disclaimer.

The church matters. It clearly mattered to Jesus. Nothing in this article suggests otherwise. What I am suggesting, however, is that we may need to rethink how we understand spiritual maturity in the context of the local church.

First, I would suggest that Jesus did not intend for His church to speak of people’s maturity in terms of being “in church” but rather in terms of being “in Christ.”

I have heard too often people declare maturity over someone with such descriptions as “look how much she is in church” and “he is back in church.” But did Jesus intend that people be connected with His bride or with the Groom?

The real issue stems from our typical understanding of church. Church is not a place or event. Church is not a list of religious practices. Church is the restored-by-love, now-compelled-to-love people of Jesus. Those people together are His bride. He is our Groom. We live by His love, in His love, and for the sake of giving His love.

In John 13:35, Jesus said the world would know we are His disciples by our love for one another. Loving one another and loving our neighbors puts on display the near love of Emmanuel. God uses those daily, interactive, learning relationships to help the lost and lonely see how loved they are by Jesus. In relating with the church (the bride), they often then are moved to relate with Jesus (the Groom).

That is the burning question, then. Am I only relating with the church through its activities, or am I—in Christ—relating with the church and loving as the church in all my daily activities?

People are not spiritually mature because they are back in church. They are exhibiting evidence of spiritual maturity when they are daily living as the church.

Next, I would suggest that Jesus does not intend His church to cater to spiritually mature consumers but rather cultivate spiritually mature caregivers.

People argue with me on this one and accuse me of thinking in extremes. But read me through here. The common argument I get is that it is more than OK for the church to have programs and events that encourage and serve their own families. I agree.

The problem is that we reap what we sow. If we sow for people to be given into through events and programs, then we reap people with an appetite for that. If we sow for people to be givers first, then we reap people who give into each other as we together give ourselves away. That’s the issue. It is OK to have programs and events for church families. But is it OK if the emphasis and purpose of those events and programs are not to equip and encourage the church to live sent? Otherwise, people will constantly expect to be given into by the pastors and the programs.

The “given into” mentality results in a self-absorbed strategy that strives to keep people coming back. This certainly must be questioned when Jesus said on more than one occasion that He has sent His church as He was sent. Furthermore, that self-absorbed strategy results in attempts to make church events and programs more and more attractive to those in the church.

However, we cannot make the bride prettier than the Cross already did; and our catering to consumers is not what Jesus intended. The sick mattered too much to Jesus to focus all of our attention on the healthy (Matthew 9:9–12). Instead, may we equip compassionate caregivers who daily are living to make disciples.

Finally, I would suggest that Jesus never intended that we measure our spiritual maturity with a mirror, but rather by how we relate in community.

John recorded that Jesus commanded His followers to love one another as He loved them (John 12:34–35). John then, in his three letters, expounded on that command.

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old command that you have had from the beginning. The old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command, which is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
(1 John 2:7–11 HCSB)

This is how God’s children—and the Devil’s children—are made evident. Whoever does not do what is right is not of God, especially the one who does not love his brother.
(1 John 3:10 HCSB)

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.
(1 John 4:7–11 HCSB)

The person who “has been born of God and knows God” loves. Our maturing in Christ is evidenced by our love. Our love cannot be on display when in front of a mirror, sizing up whether we were good enough that day or whether our efforts were “holy” enough. Our love is only put on display when walking with and in a community of people.

For far too long, the American church has measured spiritual maturity by personal goodness on display rather than God’s goodness on display. Jesus avoided a compliment about His own personal goodness (Luke 18:18–19). So should we. God’s goodness, however, is displayed when an otherwise selfish group of people unify to daily grow together becoming, by His Spirit, a transformed, selfless people.

We must be very cautious to consider the church-attender and Bible-toter and fish-on-the-car-displayer with all good appearances as spiritually mature. May we remember how loved we are, live secure in His love, and let His goodness be on display as we love generously daily.

Don’t forget. We will never be spiritually mature this side of heaven, but we can certainly be spiritually maturing. And that journey of becoming will be characterized by grace, belief, confession, trust, learning, and love. A group of people becoming in those ways and giving themselves away together—now that would be a spiritually maturing church.

Cultivating Daily for Unity: here’s an awesome story of one local church putting the needs of another local church above their own.

It was their first Sunday for a public worship gathering. This new church start had been preparing for this day for some time, already having walked together and grown together and served together during what most call a “core group” phase. But this Sunday they would start a weekly Sunday gathering for the people of the community they had been already loving.

One of their goals was to be a new local church that helped to start other new local churches. But for most leaders, that day will come. It’s not something you do in your first year, right? It’s not something you do at your first Sunday gathering, right? Not when you have so many needs yourself, right? Well, not unless you value generosity toward and unity around mission with other local church families.

Only if you believe that “put the interests of others above your own” stuff applies to the 2nd person plural “you,” too.

And it does. It’s the only way for we as His church to actually be the church that He intended and prayed for in John 17:18-23.

“As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. I sanctify Myself for them, so they also may be sanctified by the truth. I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent Me. I have given them the glory You have given Me. May they be one as We are one. I am in them and You are in Me. May they be made completely one, so the world may know You have sent Me and have loved them as You have loved Me.” (John 17:18-23 HCSB)

On that first Sunday, an offering was collected, as does happen in many Sunday gatherings around the world. But on that first Sunday, this new church start did not keep a penny of it.

Visiting with them was another leader whose family and a few friends would be cultivating for another new local church expression not too far away. And without having told him it was going to happen before, the offering collected on that first Sunday was given in totality to the visiting leader of another local church family in order to help their ministry begin.

And that’s love – caring more about what someone else is becoming than what you are becoming. That’s love – being willing to give everything you have denying yourself to help someone else.

And that kind of love among local churches is what cultivates for unity in a community, is what becomes an answer to Jesus’ prayer, is what ushers in the work of God in a city.

The near love of Jesus on display, that the world might believe in the One who was sent.

May we go and do the same.
-jason