I just heard a fascinating podcast from the Exponential Church planting conference. It was a discussion with Greg Hawkins of Willow Creek Church. Greg was sharing the results of Willow Creek's Reveal study.
The Reveal study sought to answer the question, "what role does the local church play in helping people become disciples of Jesus Christ?"And, "how does the local church help people in that journey?" They surveyed 700 churches of all different denominations and styles and 175,000 church goers.
The summary of the study is that Christ forms Christians, not churches. Sometimes Christ forms Christians in spite of the church! Hawkins stated "the path people take toward intimacy with Christ is amazingly consistent!"
In their research, they discovered 4 different stages of spiritual development.
1) Exploring Christ - belief in God but wondering about Jesus.
2) Growing in Christ - New to faith and exploring a personal relationship with God.
3) Close to Christ - Christ is important and they rely on Him for daily guidance and help.
4) Christ-centered - Christ is everything to these people, they are truly aligning their lives/ values/ actions around Jesus' teachings.
Reveal found that the differences among these four groups are huge. The differences in attitudes about God and others are obvious. These attitudes then translated themselves into behaviors: how they spend their time, how they serve others, how they invest in those who don't know Jesus, how they manage their money.
So the main question of Reveal is "how did people get to the place of being Christ-centered?
Organized church activities seemed to help people move through the early stages. Small groups, weekend services, classes, organized service opportunities, etc. Early on in the spiritual journey people seem to have the same needs and similar questions. As a person matures however, their needs and questions become more nuanced and specific. It becomes less likely that a church can meet those needs. So what happens is a more mature believer begins depending less on the church and taking more personal responsibility for their spiritual growth.
The stats pointed to one specific practice that determined whether a person moved from stage 2 to stage 4: engagement with the bible! Moving from an occasional reading of the bible to deeper reflection to daily study. Christ-centered people became Christ-centered through an increased engagement with scripture. They move from "I don't even know how to read the bible, it intimidates me" to "it's the most indispensable aspect of my life."
A close to Christ person is enjoying how a relationship with Christ benefits and transforms their life. A Christ-centered person is saying "It's not about me, it's about Christ." I become aligned with the will of Christ by immersing myself in scripture.
The second most important aspect of moving closer to Christ is prayer. The closer we move to Christ the more frequent our communication with God. Confession of sin, prayer for lost people, prayer for the needs of others, prayer for guidace.
The third most important aspect was relationships. Accountability and living life in community. Organized community such as formal small groups were more important earlier in the journey and mentoring relationships and close spiritual friendships (non-structured) become more important as a person moved closer to Christ.
Fourth in importance was serving. This is most important early on and then later on. The pattern moves from serving at the church to serving those in need through a church ministry to taking personal initiative to serve those in need outside of a church-organized opportunity (they find a way to serve others whether the church has organized it or not). I'm thinking that a Christ-centered person is more attuned to the needs of those around them. And what's amazing is that the more mature a person becomes the more likely they are to serve in the church because they want to support the organization that's helping other people take first steps. Again, this comes under the category of "it's not about me, it's about Christ."
Jesus was a servant so it makes sense that a Christ-centered person would follow in his footsteps of being a servant.
To summarize: read your bible, pray, serve others and you'll grow closer to Christ.
This is why SOAP matters! To learn more about SOAP, click here.
To see this week's SOAP reading, check out the blog Derin Beechner put together. link
As I was writing this I realize it will fit perfectly with my message on February 24th. So I'll be preaching this soon.