When I first started, I was pastoring a small church that would rank as a marginal failure on the ecclesiastical scoreboards.
I always struggled with the pastors’ conference within our denomination. I didn’t mind the conference itself; it was the coffee afterwards. It didn’t take long to realize that the conversation was always “Can you top this?” We would go around and talk about giving and church size and buildings. I knew it was going to come around to me eventually. The first couple of years, I just lied about it, but then I began to realize that this isn’t what the church is about. That’s when I started to think about the heart.
People have various ideas about spiritual formation, and usually they revolve around some kind of legalism or some kind of program of doing this or that. But those things have nothing, essentially, to do with spiritual formation. Being with Jesus—being formed into his image—that’s the key thing. The moment we center on programmatic stuff, we’re doomed to failure.
The metrics and the calculations, those are all programmatic things. That’s not what we’re after. We’re after the life. So we learn to walk with people in their daily lives. Spiritual formation always has a local address. It has to do with the work people do, the families they’re in, the ways they think.
I’m not against programs; I just don’t want us to center on them. For a pastor—let’s just take the pastor of a small congregation, 50 to 100 people perhaps—it’s not a bad thing to invest a few years into the lives of a dozen folk and see some real progress forward.
I’ve got a test for spiritual growth: Read Romans 12—that’s a great tool to measure spiritual formation. I’m all for growth in numbers. I don’t mind those things, but I want to stay focused on the real center of what we’re doing: Are people moving forward in love, joy, peace, gentleness?
I’m for churches of all shapes and sizes, but we must always focus on the heart and on the life with God. So, if you develop a program, you just need to be sure you don’t focus on the program as the thing. And every now and then, every six months or so, you should stop, take a look and ask: Does this program produce what we really believe is essential?
It doesn’t matter if they’ve memorized 20,000 verses. That isn’t what we’re looking at. The essential thing is this: Are people really growing into the life of Jesus? If they’re not, we better take a very close look at what we’re doing. The results show themselves.