Part 7: Spiritual formation is not attractional.
The entire model of the contemporary American church is centered upon attraction and motivational appeals. I grew up in this church culture so I know it well. The contemporary churches of today are merely adult versions of the youth groups of yesterday. My “youth group” experience simply followed me into my adult life.
And the tactics are the same: attract them and then hope you can motivate them.
How well has this “American marketing strategy” for spiritual growth worked out for us? Considering nearly 85% of teenagers leave the church after going off to college…you might say not so well (Click Here to listen to a podcast about this problem between minute markers 19:21 and 21:15).
The problem is spiritual formation is ultimately not attractional. I mean, what’s attractional about a cross?
Calling, not Comfort
And so if our strategy is attraction, at best we are playing a bait-and-switch game in order to get someone to grow spiritually. At worst we are intentionally lying to them upfront and hoping they forgive you on the back end. And most of all we start to look far more like American salesmen than we do little-Christs.
Jesus was never concerned with attracting people. He was concerned with calling people.
It’s fascinating because we can see all of the negative side effects of this sort of model at play in our churches today, but then are scared to do anything different. It’s easier to boast about numbers on the front end than deal with how many are leaving the church on the back end after they find their experience lacking.
When someone is attracted to something, as soon as that attraction goes away they have no reason to stay. However, when someone feels called to something, lack of attraction doesn’t factor into their decision to stay.
Attraction may have brought crowds to Jesus. But calling is what led Jesus to the cross.
Good Growth, Bad Growth
Our over-fascination with numbers has led to all sorts of problems in our understanding of spiritual formation. Not only is the attractional model not producing long-term results, but it’s causing us to quantify spiritual growth or discipleship in odd ways: like offering sequenced classes (as if spiritual growth happens in a straight line), like not taking our time in someone’s spiritual growth but just throwing them into roles of leadership, or like assuming whatever is numerically growing must be healthy.
The reality is that things in nature that grow the fastest and get the biggest are not always healthy and fruitful. Two examples: weeds and tumors.
Yet the narrative in the American church is unmistakable: if your group is not big and does not experience fast growth at some point, you’re not healthy or fruitful.
That’s a tough standard to meet. Even Jesus after 3 years with his disciples was struggling with numeric growth…should make us wonder what the experts today would say about him…
Spiritual formation ultimately is not defined by the measurements and strategies of man. This is why Jesus wasn’t offering his disciples a business plan (as if discipleship is a multilevel marketing scheme) but rather relationships. He knew that spiritual formation only truly happens in the context of relationships forged over long periods of time.
In fact, it was Paul who pointed this out in the life of Timothy when he reminded him of how he had been spiritually formed by his grandmother and mother (2 Timothy 1:5).
It’s long past time that as Christians in America we jettisoned these Americanized understandings of spiritual growth and return to the model Jesus lived out and the early church multiplied.
As we close out Lent together and set our trajectory to the cross, death, and resurrection of Jesus, let us read a story that best exemplifies the depth of spiritual growth we see in the life of Jesus that we desperately need in our lives today:
“And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. When He arrived at the place, He said to them, ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation.’ And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, ‘Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.’ Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:39-44)