By Thom Rainer on Mar 5, 2020
Why does spiritual growth sometimes stall out in believers? Thom Rainer offers his view and solutions from a study of the Corinthian church.
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.
Exercise begins with prayer. In another letter, Paul wrote, “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Prayer was so important to transformational churches that we devoted an entire section of our book to it. In our research, we discovered that 73 percent of transformational churches (i.e., churches that are helping people become more like Christ and communities that reflect the kingdom of God) agreed with the statement, “Seeing people praying together is a normal sight in our church.” From the stories we heard, these are not perfunctory prayers before fellowship meals; these believers, fighting against a stalling form of Christianity, were truly listening and speaking to God in prayer.
Remaining active in sharing the Gospel is also important in staving off the stall that often occurs. I believe that losing the sense of what the gospel can do in the lives of others has a powerful effect in our lives. In our recent research, 77 percent of members in transformational churches strongly or moderately agreed with the statement, “Our church’s members understand the importance of sharing their faith story with friends.” The work of evangelism has the side effect of reinforcing its own power in the life of the one who does the sharing.
I would also add that serving others keeps us on track as a spiritual exercise leading people toward transformation. Service lifts our eyes from personal needs to those who are needy right around us or in a different culture. God uses service to aid others and to conform us to the image of Christ.
As physical exercise is a discipline, so is spiritual exercise. Transformation is something that actively takes place in our lives. We are transformed by the gospel to consistently become more like Christ and lead others to do the same.
2. Transformation stalls amidst envy and strife.
In verse 3, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are “still fleshly.” Continually yielding to the world precludes a person from yielding to the way of Christ. Obsession over the lives of others brought about by envy and strife distracts from a focus upon the life of Christ.
Envy and jealousy are extreme forms of selfishness. With envy, we want someone else’s life more than we want to be like Christ. With jealousy, we want what others have more than we want Christ himself. These forms of selfishness move us away from personal transformation and mission to personal promotion and ego.
These sinful characteristics deny a person the opportunity to serve others, and transformation is abandoned. But believers and churches experiencing transformation act just the opposite. Celebrating acts of service was common in transformational churches. They agreed with the statement, “Our church celebrates when members serve the local city or community” at the majority rate of 53 percent.
The stories we heard from these churches lead me to conclude that the fleshly attitude of refusing service to one another is a self-inflicted wound. When we serve, envy and jealousy have no room to stall our transformation. Rather, the service becomes an outworking of Christ’s transforming character within us.
3. Transformation stalls when we live like the world.
The final issue I see in this short passage from Paul is his question in verse 3: “Are you not fleshly and living like ordinary people?” It is an indictment of believers who have stifled the transformation begun in them by the gospel.
One of the greatest condemnations that can come into the life of a Christian is that he/she has settled for an ordinary life. Transformation by its very nature means that something significantly different from the world is happening in our lives. In C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, he wrote: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (Lewis, C.S., The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 26) Lewis is right; we should see the pleasures of this world as trinkets in comparison to the transformation offered by Christ.
Life is too brief to live like the world and deny our new position in Christ. It seems counter-intuitive, but giving our lives over to God’s power each day is the active path of experiencing transformation.
Striving rather than stalling
What if each morning, your church members prayed something like this: “Lord, I choose to be sold out to you today. Let me cross paths with those who need to see how your power transforms a life. Let me put others ahead of myself. Rejecting the feebleness of this world, help me to live like Christ.” Imagine the transformation possible if they chose to place God’s mission and the interests of others before their own. I fear that too many people simply hope to survive the day unnoticed and unscathed. I discovered that such a mentality is too much like the world and too little like Jesus.
In listening to the stories from our research, we discovered that churches and individuals experiencing transformation all went through a cathartic moment in life. At some point in time, they looked around and decided that more was possible. Some came to this conclusion because of negative circumstances and others because of a great victory, but the principle was clear: a decision must be made.
The natural order of things is for energy to wane, and things come to a grinding halt. But the Christian life does not have that intention. God creates a new life in us and wants to transform our everyday living into a portrait of the gospel’s power. If you find your congregation stalled, then it is time to help them make a decision. Christ’s plan for His people is that they might be more and more like Him. Decide today that stalling is no longer an option for them, and choose the hope born from transformation.
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