3 Ways to Help Church Members Grow
A student in one of my online classes asked a great question:
How do I encourage members to reflect and think theologically?…
I’m having a hard time coming up with an example of what that would even look like in a church setting.
I know it’s important, and I use the practice myself at times, but I can’t figure out how to transfer it to a congregation or group setting. Could anyone offer me some insight?
Her question hints at a phenomenon I’ve observed.
Clergy do many things for their own spiritual growth.
Some they learned at a seminary and retained (amazingly, given how much students forget!) as spiritual formation practices.
Other ways they learn at seminars, retreats, continuing education events, during the course of their ministry if they’ve become lifelong learners.
They take these things they have learned, apply it to their own lives to good benefit, then, fail to teach these very things to their church members!
There seems to be a failure of “transference of learning” at work, and perhaps some odd hidden assumption that laypersons grow in the faith different than clergy!
Church members grow in faith the same as clergy: through practices of discipleship, engaging faithfully in those practices that actually help faith grow, and being open to the Spirit to change them.
In answer to my student’s question as to how to help church members grow spiritually, there are three ways: experience, practices, and intentionality.
The Experience of the Deeper Life
My student was correct in her insight that theological reflection is key to helping church members grow spiritually.
In order to do so, we must provide opportunities for reflection on the experience of the life of faith.
- Bible study. By this, we don’t mean studying “about” the Bible, or hearing someone else share about the results of their study (“teaching by telling”), rather, actually studying the Bible.
- Prayer. Not singular prayer from the automatic, concrete-projection stage of faith (“Dear Jesus, I just ask that you….”), but prayers that touch upon and help foster growth in other and multiple dimensions: centering prayer, contemplative prayer, meditative prayer, writing prayer meditations, etc. Simply put, it’s not so much the act of prayer that is transformative, it is the experience of praying that fosters spiritual growth.
- Acts of Obedience. Engaging in acts of discipleship obedience: informed and intentional stewardship, witness and proclamation, service, fellowship, and those that reflect and foster the fruit of the Spirit.
- Spiritual friendships. Of all the dynamics that foster spiritual growth, there is none greater than that of spiritual friendships. Whenever I’m asked to define the term “formation,” my response is, “Relationships mediate spiritual formation.” Ultimately, it is our relationship with God and with others that shape our souls.
The Intentionality of Practices
Paul’s admonition in Phil 4:8 is good curricular advice: “And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
Teaching theological reflection includes helping Christians set their minds on these higher enabling things.
The daily mental and spiritual diet of most of our church members tends toward the trivial, prurient, and toxic as they are inundated with popular culture’s media and messages.
Those are formative too, in perverted ways.
Again, the formative dynamic is experience: some experiences are ennobling, others diminish the spirit.
The Necessity of Programming
It is common to denigrate “programs,” however, opportunities, forums, and venues for theological reflection must be planned, offered and accommodated.
That is, they must be programmed.
If church educators (pastors, staff, and others) do not plan for theological reflection it likely will not happen.
Given the many ways that theological reflection can happen, there’s no end to creative ways to program them: modeling from the pulpit, testimony sharing, small support groups, intimate conversations, spiritual friendships, spiritual direction (individual and group), dialogical learning groups, reflective educational experiences, critical Bible studies, devotional Scripture readings, etc.
The Practice of Reflection
Finally, we need to remember that theological reflection is not just about thinking lofty abstract thoughts about ephemeral concepts.
Theological reflection is the reflection on one’s experience of faith––paying attention to the living of our daily lives, then asking questions of meaning about what we are experiencing: What just happened? What am I experiencing?
Where is God in this?
Is discernment required of me here?
What is going on within me–-my thoughts and feelings–-with this experience?
What is my redemptive response?
What am I called to do?
What am I learning about the relationships I have? etc.
Theological reflection is pretty nitty-gritty stuff.
To learn more about leadership and church growth, visit https://www.ctsnet.edu/lifelong-learning/.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.