Bill Easum told me years ago that church transformation always starts with spiritual leadership. The sad thing is, many churches do not choose leaders based on spiritual maturity. In fact, in a lot of mainline churches, you cannot discern a clear path to spiritual maturity, because discipleship is not the core practice of the church. Somehow the main thing is no longer the main thing. I think there is a strong correlation between churches on a plateau or in decline and the spiritual vitality of the congregation. Put another way, I think God blesses the churches that are following the leading of the spirit and making disciples of Jesus. Where spiritual leadership is lost, churches also get lost. As go the leaders, thus goes the church.
As we began the pilot class of our Transforming Leaders Initiative, we wanted to measure what progress came to the fifteen churches that began our three-year learning journey. As we researched the question, “What are the healthy indicators we should measure?”, we discovered the work Willow Creek was doing with the Reveal Spiritual Life Survey.
Willow brought together some of the best minds in the secular world of market research to put together a survey that would measure the spiritual vitality of churches. As the research to create the survey was done, they made some profound discoveries. They describe it this way:
After five years of studying 280,000 in-depth responses from congregants in 1,200 churches across a wide variety of denominations, we have learned:
Church activity IS NOT a blueprint for spiritual growth.
A person’s love of God and love of others increases along a SPIRITUAL CONTINUUM defined by their relationship with Christ.
KEY CATALYSTS trigger movement along the continuum.
Churches that know how their people stack up against these catalysts have a CLEAR ROADMAP to guide their spiritual growth.
As this research unfolded, Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Willow Creek, realized that they had invested millions of dollars in programs under the premise that getting people involved in activities in the church would help them grow towards maturity. The research found very little correlation between church activity and spiritual growth. The one thing that moves us along the continuum towards maturity is our relationship with Christ. Only those church activities that draw us deeper into the spiritual disciplines, that help us into a deeper relationship with Jesus will help us grow. Willow has totally restructured their approach based on these findings.
Based on the initial research, Reveal team found four stages of maturity in Christ described as follows:
Exploring Christ-I believe in God, but am not sure about Christ. Faith is not significant in my life.
Growing in Christ-I believe in Jesus and am working on what it means to get to know him.
Close to Christ-I feel really close to Christ and depend on Him daily for guidance.
Christ-Centered-My relationship with Jesus is the most important relationship in my life. It guides everything I do.
Each of these four stages can be recognized by the Spiritual Beliefs & Attitudes, Organized Church Activities, Personal Spiritual Activities and Spiritual Activities with Others common to each stage. In addition, they have identified catalysts that move us to the next stage. Their work also identified a significant number of people who called themselves spiritually stalled, and what these people did to get unstuck.
Further, the research showed a significant number of the most mature were dissatisfied with their church. Most learning experiences in our churches are designed for those in the early stages of maturity. Things like small groups, which are very helpful in the first two stages no longer help in the third and fourth stages. So, these people struggle to find church environments which continue to encourage growth. The other source of dissatisfaction is that they are not recognized for their gifts and maturity and struggle to find satisfying ways to serve in the congregation.
This research is documented in three books that have been published since the beginning of the work. They are very readable, many charts and graphs and detailed appendixes for those wanting further detail. A good start is to ask your leadership team to read the first book.
We partnered with the Reveal team to take our churches through the survey at the beginning, the midpoint, and the end of our three year process. As we implemented this plan, we learned something profound. Most people in the churches joining our initiative did not understand or easily embrace the idea of a spiritual journey through life.
We shared with our participants the findings of Robert Wuthnow, from his book, After Heaven, Spirituality in America since the 1950’s. Wuthnow describes two ends of the spirituality continuum, Spirituality of Place, and Spirituality of Journey. Tracing the arc of history back to the time of Exodus, Wuthnow tells of a people of God who swing back and forth, oscillating between these two extremes. As Moses led his people out of Egypt, they went on a 40-year Spiritual Journey. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the focus shifted to Spirituality of Place. God was in the Holy of Holies. Then, the temple was destroyed, and the people went into a time of exile to Babylon, and again the emphasis was on Spiritual Journey. Later, the temple was rebuilt, ushering in another time of Place.
Wuthnow suggests American Christianity after World War II represented a return to Spirituality of Place, as the church built buildings across our landscape. This was not a time of deep spiritual introspection. God was in the building on Sunday morning. Rarely did He seem to come to work with us on Monday.
With the emergence of the postmodern generation, Wuthnow claims that we have now moved into a time of Spirituality of Journey. This helps explain why the vast majority of existing denominational churches are struggling mightily to attract this generation. Data we gathered in developing our Transforming Leaders Initiative showed that only 1 in 10 Lutheran (ELCA) churches had managed to add one person to the weekly worship attendance in five years. 90% of the churches were on plateau or decline. See my article on Spirituality of Journey vs. Place here.
The Reveal research showed one bedrock belief without which the move towards spiritual maturity is not possible. That belief is core to Lutheran Theology, Salvation by Grace through Faith. Until I at my very core believe that there is nothing I can do to earn my salvation, I cannot begin to grow. It’s counter intuitive, but as long as I persist in doing ‘good’ things in the hope that I am OK with God, we cannot grow spiritually. I have found many Lutherans who do not seem to truly understand this basic point of Lutheran theology. Tim Keller makes the point in his profound book, Prodigal God. I unpack Keller’s sentiments in this article.
We shared Wuthnow’s ideas with the Pastors in our cohort at the beginning of our learning journey, and found it took a year for that idea to take root in these churches we were serving. I think this is typical of many Lutheran churches, and is why the lowest characteristic when ELCA churches take the Natural Church Development survey is Passionate Spirituality.
Once we had conducted the Reveal Survey, the churches got a picture of reality that showed them their Spiritual vitality index as well as the norm across all churches that had taken the survey. This index is a composite of three things: Personal Spiritual Practices, Faith in Action, and the Church's Role in spiritual formation. Unpacking the implications of this survey with the leaders of the churches was an enlightening experience. Being confronted with real data forced leaders to examine their assumptions. And, one of the assumptions that was tested was the strongly held notion of Spirituality of Place.
By taking an unflinching look at reality, the leaders began a dialog about how they could respond. This became the starting point for a healthy movement towards the notion that we each are on a spiritual journey, and our relationship with Christ is the only thing that will help us grow. A new emphasis emerged on the marks of discipleship, reading the Bible, praying, worshiping, and acts of missional service.
The average age of Lutherans is approaching 60. Gray hair predominates in churches and gatherings of leaders. If you hope to buck this trend, pray that the Spirit might open your people to the idea that we haven’t arrived when we join the church, we are just joining others in an intentional commitment to a spiritual journey into discipleship.
Even though Reveal has been around for several years now, I find very few in denominational churches are aware of what is being learned through this incredible work. Instead, they continue to build programs to attract consumers of religious services, and ignore the lost art of multiplying disciples. May the Spirit lead you on the hard path, but the one that offers hope of becoming a community of believers that makes God smile.
Taking the Reveal Survey in your congregation is a great first step on this journey. It will tell you how far you are from the promised land. May God give you the courage to begin this spiritual journey, it is the ride of your life. To download a Reveal Sample Report with details on all these matters, click here.