Do you remember when you became an adult? For most, it happens on the sly. All of the sudden you turn 26 and you can’t be on your parents’ health insurance. What?! You have the sinking realization that you really are on your own. You can also eat Oreos for dinner. So, there is an upside. Becoming an adult usually happens somewhere in your 20’s, but not in a day.
My daughter has 21 in her sights with a birthday on Dec. 7, 2020. She’s really living on her own for the first time – buying her own groceries, paying her own credit card bill, scheduling her own oil changes. So, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about adulting, the affectionate term we use to encourage her in launching.
When she was young (probably too young), I remember telling her that our goal was to teach her how to be on her own. That was not the safety net she wanted. She was still young enough to imagine living with her dad and me forever. But, I intended to set her sights on independence, courage and agency. I told her, “We’ll always be around to support you, but we want you to be your own person and live your own life.” Now she is living her own life and I could not be happier for her.
This experience has me wondering about what adulting means in the spiritual life. The author of Hebrews alludes to spiritually growing up in the 5th chapter, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:13-14) What does it mean in the spiritual life to go from being an infant, both coddled and controlled, to being an adult with agency and responsibility? It probably doesn’t happen in a moment or in a day.
Tracing this movement so I can help replicate it in others is the grand passion of my vocation. I’ve long said that as a pastor, my job is to work myself out of a job. I want to preach, teach and lead so well that every person in the congregation is equipped to live a better, richer and more powerful spiritual life – for themselves. I want them to “launch.” I want them to go from milk to solid food. I want them to learn how to feed themselves. I want them to know of my support, care and love, but I don’t want them to feel dependent on me, on the church, or even on our life together.
A mature Christian should have a personal prayer life, a commitment to tithing, a regular routine of reading scripture, and an accountability group (without a pastor in it) to keep them focused and honest – no matter what church holds their membership. They should be committed to these inward disciplines, and their outward life should clearly reflect the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity and self-control – Galatians 5:22-23) They should be adults with spiritual agency and responsibility. And, they should perceive that as a gift, even if it is a little scary. Being responsible for the health of their spiritual life shouldn’t feel like a burden. It should feel like a sacred trust…a natural response to growing up.
I have been chasing this passion for over 20 years now in six different congregations and I’ve never been successful. I’ve not been able to equip people to stand on their own two spiritual feet with long-standing success. I hunch that several obstacles are standing in the way. I really believe that a program-centered church is not able to produce spiritual maturity. Instead, it creates dependency on the next program or study to keep people engaged. I also believe good spiritual role models are hard to find. And, I believe we struggle with allegiances (idols) in our lives. Most simply aren’t willing to lay it down for the sake of the cross. It is also completely possible that I’ve not been competent in my role as shepherd of the flock. Likely, it is a combination of all these factors and many others.
During 2020, I’ve seen the high cost of this failure. Without the familiar routines of weekly gatherings, peoples’ faith has frayed. Without a commitment to accountability, apathy and despair have taken over. Without several equipped spiritual leaders to mentor others, there is no way for me to reach into the life of every single person and exhort them to keep the faith. Without a commitment to sacrifice for the common good, we are ready to accuse one another instead of showing grace and supporting one another.
We’ve all had our spiritual struggles this year. Grief is a hard task master. Despair and futility are the enemies of hope. This is a hard season even for the most mature believers. So, the conversation I hope to start with this post is – how can we help each other grow up during this season? Let’s set our sights on more than finding the next oasis of infant’s milk. Instead, let’s use this experience to confess what we need to learn, figure out how to learn it together, and welcome the spiritual disciplines: weekly corporate worship (even online), private daily prayer, confession and absolution, serving those most in need, giving generously, and being accountable with and to one another.
How do we get there? How can I help us get there? How can we help one another get there? I welcome the conversation.