By: Rev. Craig Shepperd
Often the Christian life is approached as if it is an individual pursuit. There is very little thought given as to how the body of believers might enhance one’s spiritual well-being. Furthermore, the Church (like God) has been demoted in the life of the Christian, functioning as some institutional Santa Claus. It’s as if the average Christian believer has concluded: The church should not be too close, but never out of reach just in case we need to make a request. For many, church is merely Santa’s little elves making dreams come true. We, as pastors have failed to instruct our people regarding how church shapes us into the people God desires us to be. The Church has spiritual value in allowing us to live like Christ every day.
“Spiritual maturity is not complicated or mysterious; it simply is neglected.” The interesting thing about the Pandemic is; it has provided us time that we supposedly did not have. There were meetings to attend, band concerts, ball games, practices, and the list goes on. Our faith has been something we try to fit in as opportunity presents itself, or a means to simply present our wish list to the Lord on Sundays.
Sociologist Christian Smith has invested years studying the religious habits in the U.S. He has coined a term that comes across very academic but has an unbelievable amount of practical implications pertaining to spiritual maturity. This term is “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” He concludes that American Christianity has diluted scriptural teaching to that reality. I will not completely cover what Smith means, but let me highlight the implications:
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Just be good.
Smith and others maintain that this is not spiritual maturity. More importantly, neither does scripture. God desires us to move on from milk and the life of a Christian infant. God desires for us to bite into solid food and bear the Fruit of the Spirit. In order to move away from an individualistic approach to God and church, Thomas Bergler suggests three things we must do together so we can grow in Christ:
- We need to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news of spiritual transformation.
- We need to be captured by a vision of spiritual maturity that is desirable, attainable, and has clear content.
- We need to understand the process of growth to maturity so we can actively participate in it.
To accept the gospel requires more than simply being good and creating a list for God and the church when we need intervention. The gospel calls us to die to self in order that we might truly live. This is something that often gets in the way of our agenda, so we simply do not choose it. We settle for less.
This work must occur in community. Ephesians 4 instructs us to “become mature together so that together you can more and more accurately reflect the perfect image of Christ.” We devote our self to more than a one-time gift. We give ourselves to a process of sanctification by which God is making us morally and spiritually pure. The spirit’s work of sanctification is the maturation process we need in order to grow in love for God and neighbor. “The ultimate goal of this process is perfect conformity to the image of Christ who is the perfect image of God. Thus, for Christians, holiness is a current status, an ongoing process, and an ultimate goal.”
Perhaps people lack robust Christian identities because the Church of Claus that we have bought into offers only a stripped-down version of Christianity that no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualities like Moral Therapeutic Deism. We have toyed around with American individualism and national identity to the point that we have confused Christianity with self-preservation, which is the very opposite of Jesus’ own witness, and the antithesis of his call to his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him.
“By contrast, the God portrayed in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures asks not just for commitment, but for our very lives.” This will never be the case if we settle to use God and the church as something purely to fulfill our personal requests. God desires more of us personally, and He desires more for the Church. God desires His best for us. This best can only occur when we give ourselves to growing in Christ.
 Thomas Bergler. From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2014. XIII.
 Christian Smith. And Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. (New York, NY: Oxford), 2005. 162-164.
 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; Hebrews 5:11-13; and Galatians 5:22-23.
 Bergler. 27.
 Bergler. 47.
 Kenda Creasy Dean. Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. (New York, NY: Oxford), 2010. 37.