Is the Church for You?


The promise of our modern churches to attenders has been something like this: We promise that if you practice certain disciplines and do it here in our church, you will become a mature Christian, which will bring glory to God and the church. Who can argue with this?

Well, I do, for one. My dislike of this promise is similar to Karl Bonhoeffer’s dislike of the teachings of Sigmund Freud. Bonhoeffer characterized Freud’s psychotherapy as “the bad fruit of people who like to busy themselves with themselves.”* My problem with the contemporary approach to discipleship is its teaching that spiritual maturity is largely about the church. It’s a grand vision, to be sure, but few ever say that they have reached maturity. Who do you know has “become mature, attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13)?

The Real Question

Part of the problem is that our focus is largely on ourselves. In our gatherings and small groups, we often ask, “How are you doing?” Or we might want accountability and ask others, “How am I doing?” While these questions have their place, they tend to divorce our discipleship from our mission. The real question in spiritual formation is not introspective—it is a concern for the welfare of others. If the well-read words of Philippians 2:5–8 tell us anything, they teach that Jesus lived for the sake of others. He maintained the attitudes of humility, submission, and sacrifice, and his purpose was serving others.

So while “How are you doing?” is not wrong to ask, the question doesn’t go far enough. The real question for a disciple is this, “How are you doing loving the people God has put in your life?” The goal of spiritual maturity is not self-improvement. It is transformation into people who live to love others.

This is a necessary corrective to the common way of thinking of spiritual disciplines. We practice spiritual disciplines so we can become the kind of people who love and live for others. We study the Scriptures so we to gain the knowledge, perspective, and guidance to help others. We become Christ to others in all the domains of our life. And in the process of living for others, we end up becoming mature people in Christ.

Maturity is not an end in itself. 

It is a byproduct of following Jesus. We keep our eyes fixed on him and follow him, and as a result, we grow. This focus rescues spiritual exercises from becoming self-focused, meaningless activities and is consistent with the teachings of Jesus. We never find what we are looking for by grasping at it directly. We find our purpose and joy in giving up our life, and by doing so, we save our life (Luke 9:23–25).

*Quoted in Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 384.

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This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.

Image credit: Unsplash.