Why We Are Losing At Spiritual Formation

By Dick Loizeaux

I just read another one of those depressing surveys that show Christ’s church is failing spectacularly at spiritual formation.  Lifeway Research identified 21 functional characteristics of a disciple.  They then surveyed 2500 Protestant churchgoers and found only 17% received a decent discipleship or spiritual formation score against those 21 characteristics.  You read that right -17%.

What is the problem?
Well, there are lots of reasons, but Brad Waggoner in “The Shape of Faith to Come” (B&H Publishing) identifies a primary one as “cultural seepage – the incipient invasion of ideas, perspectives, and beliefs that are contrary to a biblical worldview." 

I can understand that.  Weeds creep into my yard and kill the grass if I’m not vigilant and even ruthless with them.  And when I am surfing the net corrosive images and thoughts can seep into my mind if I’m not vigilant and even ruthless with them.  So it makes sense the same thing can happen to the people in
my church. 

If that is true, then one reason for our failure at spiritual formation may not be that we don’t have enough good ministries and programs but that we are not vigilant and even ruthless against the cultural seepage that is polluting people’s hearts and minds.  Maybe our people are being polluted faster than they are being spiritually formed so it is one step forward and two steps back. 

How big is the problem?
We have all heard the frightening statistics about how cultural seepage has made truth relative, even among evangelical Christians.  Pew polls tell us only half believe the Bible is totally accurate or that Satan and Hell are real.  The majority of Christians now say many religions can lead to eternal life.  I know a 150 year-old Presbyterian Church where a denominational leader recently declared belief in Jesus’s physical resurrection is not essential to be a good Christian.  You probably have horror stories of your own. 

But let’s move past beliefs to see how cultural seepage affects the lifestyle choices people make because true spiritual formation shapes behaviors as well as beliefs.  Listen to Lifeway Research: 

  1. Question:  “How much do you agree/disagree:  I desire to please and honor Jesus in all that I do?”  Response:  Only 54% strongly agreed.
  2. Question:  “How much do you agree/disagree:  A Christian must learn to deny himself/herself in order to serve Christ?”  Response:  Only 28% strongly agreed.
  3. Question:  “How much do you agree/disagree:  When I come to realize that some aspect of my life is not right in God’s eyes, I make the necessary changes?”  Response:  Only 23% strongly agreed. 
  4. Question:  “How much do you agree/disagree:  When I realize that I have a choice between my way and God’s way I usually choose my way?”  Response:  Only 19% strongly disagreed. 

Are you groaning yet?  Cultural seepage results in beliefs that are relative, obedience that is optional, and disciples who are half hearted at best.  And those responses represent people in your church and my church.  Cultural seepage is spiritually mis-informing people and mis-forming people faster than our ministries can form them.  We need to get vigilant and ruthless.

What are the ways we allow cultural seepage into our churches?

Here are a few possibilities.  See if any apply to your ministry. 

1.  We let the goal of spiritual formation get fuzzy.
Dr. John Killinger, in “The Changing Shape of Our Salvation,” observes that religion is now often seen as a quest for self-fulfillment and self-realization.  “It has to do with being so comfortable with the presence of God and the world around me, that I am already in a kind of heaven, even in this highly imperfect world.” Spiritual formation is then about me feeling good about myself, good about my relationship to God, and good about my ability to cope with the world, not necessarily for me to be confirmed into the image of Christ even if that includes suffering and self denial.  (see survey question #2 above). 

Why does the goal get fuzzy?  Maybe it happens when our church marketing tells people to “Come find the satisfaction you have been looking for.”  That is a true statement.  I have used it.  But cultural seepage can cause “satisfaction” to be interpreted as self-actualization more than divine grace and acceptance.

Coaching Questions:  How well do you communicate that real satisfaction only comes from an obedient and submissive or surrendered relationship with our Creator?  That it comes from serving him, not from serving ourselves?  That the goal of life is to glorify God, not the good life?  That the Path of the Cross is self denial?  How well do you personally model those characteristics of a disciple and require them of your leaders? 

2.  We let our teaching get unbalanced.
How does our teaching get unbalanced?  Perhaps when most of our sermons are about how Jesus meets our felt needs (overcoming stress, winning over worry, finding peace and joy, etc.).  Once again, these are all true and important lessons.  But when they become the bulk of my sermons I may be inadvertently communicating that God exists to meet my needs and ensure my happiness. 

Coaching Questions:  Are you ensuring a balanced diet of Old Testament sermons, Bible book series and doctrinal messages?  Do you have places in your church where people can dig deeper than the sermons can go?  Do you have a place where you teach doctrine and a biblical worldview?  Do you have a clear and accessible spiritual formation path?  Are you successful in getting people to follow that path? 

3.  We let our view of God’s holiness slip.
How does our view of God slip?  When we teach our people to stand in awe of his beauty and love, and fail to call them to fall on their faces in reverent awe of his holiness and power.  When we rephrase verses that call people to the “fear of the Lord.”  When we are afraid to proclaim that he is the great judge and his punishments will be horrible beyond imagination. 

Coaching Questions:  How do I ensure that my people have a holy fear of the terror of sin?  How do I instill a love of God’s holiness that makes them hungry to be holy themselves?  How do I call them to reverent fear of the Lord?  How do I personally model fear of the Lord to them? 

4.  We make confession small, private and optional.
The only starting point for spiritual formation is confession of our sinfulness.  Not just once but repeatedly, fervently, and specifically every day of our lives.  Only confession makes us formable. Only confession keeps us dependent, humble and teachable. 

Coaching Questions:  Do I teach about personal and corporate confession?  Do I publically model confession?  Do I call people to practice confession with accountability partners and in small groups?  Do I plan times of corporate confession such as the Old Testament Solemn Assemblies?  Is our church ever brokenhearted before the Lord?

5.  We fail to practice confrontation, correction, and church discipline.
When the polluted behavior and beliefs of cultural seepage is not confronted and corrected, it grows unmolested.  The weeds (tares) overtake the wheat. 

Some of you are thinking, “Why bother?  They will just leave the church if I try to correct or discipline them.”  Well, you do it to stop the weeds of their life from seeping into other people’s lives ruining the harvest.  By the way, we at Converge MidAmerica recommend you put a statement in your Membership Covenant where people agree they will not leave the church during any discipline proceedings.

Coaching Questions:  Do you have clear guidelines in your By-laws for correction and discipline processes?  Are you following them consistently?  When is the last time you actively protected your church from cultural seepage in beliefs or behavior by confronting it clearly regardless of the
potential fallout? 

6.  We fail to protect ourselves from cultural seepage.
We don’t see it in others because we don’t see it in ourselves.  We have gotten used to a certain amount of pollution and compromise.

Coaching Questions:  Do I sometimes soften hard doctrines doctrine and fail to call for hard choices so as not to offend people?  Am I watching movies or TV shows or going places I would have avoided 10 years ago?  Do I sometimes laugh at jokes about things that should break my heart?  Are there addictive tendencies in my life (like food or envy), which I am not controlling?  Am I one of the 54% of pastors who admit they have viewed porn in the past year?

What now?
How did you do?  Has the Lord pointed to one or two areas where you can be more vigilant and ruthless both for your sake and the sake of your church?  My guess is seepage happens to most of us at some point, I must confess that there were times when my pursuit of reaching lost people, of serving our community, and of growing God’s kingdom left me blinded to my need to be vigilant and even ruthless against the cultural seepage that was robbing my people of spiritual health.  In that way I failed them.

What other causes of seepage are you seeing?  What other ways are you practicing vigilance against seepage?  Shoot me an email at dick@convergemidamerica.org and if there is enough interest we will do a follow-up article with your observations and recommendations.

 

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Church Planting Articles, Coaching, Spiritual Formation, Dick Loizeaux