Raising boys has given me a great appreciation for the concept of transformation. My wife and I raised three sons. They are all followers of Christ. They have all married godly women. Two have children, and the third will grace us with another grandchild this fall. We watched them move from toddler to preschooler to adolescent to teenager and then to adulthood.
There are times when boys stall out in their maturing from one stage of life to another. Content with the level of care they receive in one stage, it is difficult to see the need to mature. In reality, it is not just little boys who get stuck in one stage of life—we all do it.
It even happens in the life of individual believers and entire churches. We know that when Christ gets hold of a life or church, transformation occurs. Scripture teaches that sin is forgiven, mercy is shown, and lives are made new. But there are seasons when transformation stalls. As believers, we have a new standing with God, but our life in the world does not always reflect it.
The apostle Paul knew that the ongoing transformation had stalled in the lives of the Corinthian believers. In response, he wrote a tough letter to them about the nature of the gospel and how it was to be lived out in the natural course of life.
As we embarked on the Transformational Church initiative at LifeWay, our study uncovered many churches where transformation was ongoing, but also too many where it had stalled. As I thought through the findings, Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church seemed as applicable as ever. As in any generation, God’s children can stall out, and the reasons seem universal.
None of us like things that stall, but everyone seems to have experience with them. When Nellie Jo and I were younger, we owned a terrible car. It would stall at the worst times, normally the middle of an intersection. The only way to get my stalled car to start again was to open the hood and slam it back. It was both odd and embarrassing. But we did not have the resources to get anything better. So we had to endure with something that stalled at the most inopportune moments. I despised that car.
I dislike it even more when life stalls, when I see the spiritual growth of my church stagnate. Christians are to experience the new life in every new day. The connection to Christ is a guarantee that transformation is continual. The eternal reality that we were saved from sin should have a daily effect on life in this world. But sometimes, it stalls. How can we help liberate our congregations from their spiritual lethargy?
The Corinthians and us
The first letter to the Corinthians was probably tough for Paul to write and tough for the church to receive. They were in the midst of a city known for all of the wrong moral codes. Many of us live, work, and worship in cities similar to Corinth. Sadly, the moral code of the city became the moral code for many of the Corinthian believers—and the same happens in our day.
The letter from Paul leaps from antiquity and into our laps today. When I read it, I don’t just hurt for my congregation—it hurts me. The Spirit convicts me through it. I am often forced to admit that a stalling effect has taken place in my own transformation. Read this short passage in the third chapter:
“Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, because you were not yet able to receive it. In fact, you are still not able, because you are still fleshly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not fleshly and living like ordinary people?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3, HCSB)
The members of the Corinthian church had placed their faith in Christ and moved from darkness to light. But their lives stalled. They had not lost their salvation, but they had lost the forward momentum in their daily lives for real-time transformation.
When we lead our people in the process of transformation, we need to orient them to the reality of the war within them. Romans 8:8-9 says, “Those whose lives are in the flesh are unable to please God. You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” Once a Christian, the Spirit lives within us. But the “old self” still wars against the transformation. It is a battle and process that will continue until we enter eternity.
But I am given a great deal of hope when considering the transformational churches discovered in our research. The leaders of churches who have chosen to pursue change for themselves and their church communities reflect what is possible through God’s work in us. I think 1 Corinthians 3 gives us a portrait of what our church members must guard against in order to experience the fullness of transformation God intends. Let me point out three ways transformation stalls and give some responses as well.
1. Transformation stalls without spiritual exercise.
Verse 1 says that the Corinthian believers were acting like “babies in Christ.” They had Christ but were neglecting to grow up. They should have been eating solid spiritual food but needed to stay on spiritual milk because they lacked maturity. The only answer is exercise.
We all know that the believer cannot be transformed without the truth. Time in God’s Word is a necessity for our spiritual exercise. Church members must not fall into the trap of thinking that group study is enough. I think everyone should be involved in a small group Bible study and be exposed to strong biblical preaching, but leaving out their personal time with the Scriptures is a quick path to stalling their spiritual transformation.