“D”evolping A Model of Spiritual Growth


Over the last few years I have been trying to develop a “model” of spiritual growth. Basically it started with me thinking about what kind of sermons I would need to preach to help a congregation grow spiritually. I wanted to avoid the trap of just regurgitating those “commit more, pay more, do more” styles of sermons when it came to encouraging spiritual growth. I shared the way I was thinking and a few people encouraged me to actually preach a sermon series based on the model rather than just use it as an aid to sermon planning. Over the years I have had some positive feedback from some people saying it has helped them understand better and nurture more effectively their spiritual growth

So here is what the model as it currently stands and in fact right now I am introducing it to Gateway Community Church in Perth.

“DESIRE”: Philippians 3:2-14. Desire must be the starting point of all authentic spiritual growth, unless we really desire more than anything else to know Christ more intimately and reflect his character with greater clarity, all we have in truth is a mild interest in spirituality.

DECISION”: Ephesians 4:17-24. In Holiness For Ordinary People Keith Drury remarks: “The cause of my spiritual complacency is my decision to remain complacent. If God is not the complete Lord of my life the reason is that I have decided to be my own boss.” Drury puts his finger on the crucial role of total consecration: the decision about who will be boss of my life, in spiritual growth. Desire is not enough, no substantial progress can be made in becoming the people the Lord wants us to be unless, He is in fact Lord over our whole life, and that requires a decision. Some people make that decision when they first become Christians, the NT suggests that many others have to be challenged to make it subsequently. I don’t want to get caught up in the chronology of when it happens just emphasise that it must happen.

“DISCIPLINE”: 1 Timothy 4:7-8. Twenty-first-century Christians seem almost allergic to the concept of discipline, but there can’t be spiritual growth without it. Physical health isn’t possible without a regular program of exercise., neither is spiritual health. To use John Ortberg’s helpful analogy spiritual growth doesn’t come from trying harder but through training better. Spiritual disciplines help us connect and harness the power of the Spirit in a transformative way.

DEPENDENCE”: Galatians 5:16-26. It would be easy to conclude from the points so far that spiritual growth is just about personal grit and determination, a sort of vaguely Christian self improvement scheme. Now I am sure that spiritual growth does indeed require personal responsibility and work,( see the points above.) However, its not within our capability to become more like Jesus by our own efforts, Christlikeness is only within reach of all who will “walk in the Spirit.” We can only develop desire for God, make the decision to relinquish control to God and spiritual habits will only be of help to us in our spiritual development if we are dependent on the Spirit of God.

DEPENDENCE” Ephesians 4:1-16 Originally I ended the model with dependence on the Holy Spirit. That decision of course revealed my own western European individualistic upbringing and bias. Unconsciously, I had portrayed spiritual growth as a very individualistic effort, maybe I had sung that Sunday School song about spiritual growth once too often. You know the one “like a little candle” in which living for Jesus is all about “me in my small corner and you in yours” After too many years of theological study the penny dropped on my somewhat dull mind, that God has designed spiritual growth to be a community effort. We cannot grow to be the people God has designed us to be and wants to empower us to be without other people and other people who are actively connected to, contributing to and receiving from each other. This is what church is about, a community where empowered by God’s Spirit, God’s people inspire and enable each other to grow. Christianity as the cliche puts it, is always personal but never private. To me this is why the idea of a Christian “hermit,” a person who withdraws from Christian community to concentrate on their spiritual development is fundamentally a contradiction in terms. How can you become more like God, who is love, and become more loving, if you choose not to live with people who are a challenge to love?

OK that’s the story so far BUT

I recently introduced this model of spiritual growth to some students I was teaching at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester. In preparation for that class I had to read quite widely and one of the books I looked at has been making me think that this model needs another development. I am going to outline that addition below but I would like to hear your feedback as to whether you think the addition is needed and whether you think there are any other blind spots that need addressed?

DEPLOYMENT: John 20:21. Thinking about this model again for my work at Gateway Community Church in Perth I saw something I had missed before, a disconnection between my understanding of spirituality and missiology and ecclesiology. Over the last ten years there has been a huge change in my understanding of missiology and ecclesiology as I have been introduced to what is now called missional theology. In essence I realised the importance of the Kingdom of God. In ecclesiology, the role of the church is not simply to help people grow spiritually, organise worship services and grow numerically. The Church exists to embody, express and serve the Kingdom of God, its mission is bigger than its own growth, it exists to join God in the restoration of all things. In the same way I came to understand that when it comes to mission, the aim of mission is not just to increase church membership here and now and the population of heaven in the here after. Mission is about the Missio Dei, God’s mission of restoring all of creation to his intended purpose and we are called to join Him in that great task.

The problem as I see it now is that the model I had developed of spiritual growth made personal spiritual growth an end in itself, the ultimate goal. It would be easy to understand from this model that spiritual growth has no higher purpose than making our own lives better. To use theological jargon, I had developed a merely pietistic spirituality, an inward looking, individualistic perspective. A book by Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson called “Missional Spirituality” gave a “shape” to my misgivings about my model of spiritual development. They pointed out that there are twin dangers around spirituality. Its all too easy to do what I had done and conceive of Christian spirituality as being pietism, about private spiritual development and growth. They pointed out the other danger is that some want to make a Christian spirituality that focuses on the world and mission and that too easily can become little more than another expression of human social activism. Neither personal pietism nor social activism do justice to or express true Christian spirituality.

They have two quotes which have helped me see that DEPLOYMENT, deployment in the the Mission of God, is essential to authentic, transformative Christian spirituality.

“There is ultimately no justification for a private piety that doesn’t work out in actual mission, just as there is ultimately no justification for people who use their activism in the social, cultural or political sphere as screen to prevent them from facing the same challenges in their own lives, the challenge, that is, of God’s Kingdom, of Jesus’ Lordship, and the Spirit’s empowering. If the gospel isn’t transforming you, how do you know it will transform anything else” NT Wright

“God calls the church to be a sent community of people who no longer live for themselves but instead live to participate with Him in His redemptive purposes. However, people will have neither the passion nor the strength to live as a counter cultural society for the sake of others if they are not transformed by the way of Jesus. If the Church is to “GO and BE” then we must make certain that we are a Spirit formed community that has the spiritual capacity to impact the lives of others” Brad Brisco

What I know understand is that the development of authentic discipleship is indispensable to effective mission and involvement in effective mission is indispensable to authentic discipleship. We cannot bring the transformation of the Kingdom of God to our world if we personally are not being transformed by the King and we cannot be transformed by the King unless we are living in, and for, His Kingdom, a life which inevitably will be expressed in mission.

So what do you think?

Is this new “D” DEPLOYMENT needed? Do you understand why I think it is?

Are there any other blind spots in this model of spiritual development?


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2 Responses to “D”evolping A Model of Spiritual Growth

  1. Rosalyn says:

    What occurred to me when I first saw the model is that grace is missing. We desire, we decide, we are disciplined all because He has reached out to us first.
    I guess the same principle as Missio Dei – it’s His initiative. I was conscious during a period of illness that although I didn’t have the energy or motivation to find God, He was finding me.

    • jamespetticrew says:

      Roalyn … I think you have a point. Part of the problem is of course that this is short wriiten summary of what I develop and in the fuller develop I make the point that grace is the oxygen of Christian Spirituality and that its only God’s initiative at each of these points which makes our response possible.

      So I have made the mistake in this represenattion of not making overt what my underlying assumptions are.

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