Many churches evaluate spiritual maturity solely on the basis of how well you can identify Bible characters, interpret Bible passages, quote Bible verses, and explain biblical theology. The ability to debate doctrine is considered by some as the ultimate proof of your spirituality.
Underlying this approach is the conviction that all anyone really needs to grow spiritually is the Bible. I call churches with this emphasis - "classroom churches." Classroom churches tend to be left-brain oriented and cognitive-focused. They stress teaching Bible content and doctrine, but they give little - if any - emphasis to believers emotional, experiential, and relational development.
If you have "doctrine in your frontal lobe - as one well-known classroom church says - thats all you need to be spiritually mature.
The truth is that it takes a variety of experiences with God to produce true spiritual maturity. In addition to Bible study, it takes worship experiences, ministry experiences, fellowship experiences, and evangelism experiences.
In other words, spiritual growth occurs by participating in all five purposes of the church. Mature Christians do more than study the Christian life - they experience it.
Because cults and emotional extremists often place more value and trust in spiritual experiences than in Gods inerrant Word, many evangelical churches have downplayed the role of experience in spiritual growth. They have over-reacted to other groups glorification of experience by removing any emphasis on experience. Every experience is to be viewed with suspicion, especially if it moves the emotion.
Sadly, this denies the fact that God created human beings with emotions, not just a mind. God has given us feelings for a purpose. If you remove all experience from the Christian growth process, youll have nothing left but a sterile, intellectual creed that can be studied but not enjoyed nor practiced.
Deuteronomy 11:2 says, "Remember what you have learned about the Lord through your experiences with him. (TEV) Experience is a great teacher.
In fact, I believe there are some lessons we can learn only by experience. I love the paraphrase of Proverbs 20:30 (TEV) - "Sometimes it takes a painful experience to make us change our ways.
Genuine spiritual maturity includes having a heart that worships and praises God, building and enjoying loving relationships, using your gifts and talents in service to others, and sharing your faith with lost people. Any church strategy to bring people to maturity must include all of these experiences: worship, fellowship, Bible study, evangelism, and ministry.
So many Christians are fooling themselves by thinking that all they need to do to grow is attend Bible studies and take notes.
Evidently, this myth has been around since the first century. James had to warn those first Christians - "Do not deceive yourselves by just listening to his word; instead put it into practice! (James 1:22 TEV)
God expects us to be doers of the Word.
I once heard the well-known Bible teacher Gene Getz say, Bible study by itself will not produce spirituality. In fact, it will produce carnality if it isnt applied and practiced. I have found this to be true. Study without service produces Christians with judgmental attitudes and spiritual pride.
If Christianity was simply a philosophy, then our primary activity might be studying. But Christianity is not a philosophy, nor is it a religion. It is a relationship (John 14:20-21) and it is a life (John 10:10).
Jesus didnt say, I have come that you might study. In fact, the word study only appears a couple of times in the New Testament. The words that are used most often to describe the Christian life are love, give, and serve. Yet the schedule of most churches indicates that they believe the sole duty of a Christian is to study.
Honestly, the last thing some believers need is another Bible study. They already know far more than they are putting into practice. What they need are ministry and evangelism experiences where they can apply what they already know, relational experiences (like a small group) where they can be held accountable for what they know, and meaningful worship experiences where they can express appreciation to God for what they know.
The old illustration of the pond that becomes stagnant because it takes in water but doesnt give any out is appropriate here. When any Christians schedule consists completely of receiving biblical input but has no outflow of ministry or evangelism, his spiritual growth will stagnate. Impression without expression leads to depression.
I honestly believe we do our members a great disservice when we keep people so busy going to the next Bible study that they dont have time to apply what they learned at the last one they attended. Lessons are quickly filed and forgotten before they can be internalized and put into practice. All the while people are thinking they are growing because their notebooks are getting fatter. This is foolishness.
I dont want you to misunderstand and think that I dont value Bible study. Actually the opposite is true. I wrote a textbook on the subject, Personal Bible Study Methods, which is printed in six languages. We must continue in the Word to be Christs disciples.
All Im saying is that it is a mistake to assume that study alone will produce maturity. It wont. It is only one component of the maturity process.
People need experiences - in addition to study - in order to grow. That is why you need to think through a balanced strategy for developing disciples.
Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and best-known churches. In addition, Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, which was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th Century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for ministers. Copyright 2005 Pastors.com, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Adapted from Rick Warren's Ministry ToolBox, a free weekly e-newsletter for pastors and church leaders, available at Pastors.com.