Monday, May 11, 2009

Integrity, Flexibility and Spiritual Maturity

The Barna Group has some interesting results from a survey they conducted regarding "spiritual maturity" among Christians. A few highlights are included below:

Five Challenges

The study showed five significant challenges when it comes to facilitating people’s spiritual growth.

1. Most Christians equate spiritual maturity with following the rules.

One of the widely embraced notions about spiritual health is that it means “trying hard to follow the rules described in the Bible” – 81% of self-identified Christians endorsed this statement, and a majority agreed strongly (53%). Even among those individuals defined by their belief that salvation is not earned through “good works,” four out of five born again Christians concurred that spiritual maturity is “trying hard to follow the rules.”

2. Most churchgoers are not clear what their church expects in terms of spiritual maturity.

An open-ended survey question asked churchgoers to describe how their church defined a “healthy, spiritually mature follower of Jesus.” Half of churchgoers simply said they were not sure, unable to venture a guess regarding the church’s definition. Even among born again Christians – that is, a smaller subset of believers who have made a profession of faith in Christ and confessed their sinful nature – two out of five were not able to identify how their church defines spiritual maturity. Among those who gave a substantive response, the most common responses were having a relationship with Jesus (16%), practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study (9%), living according to the Bible (8%), being obedient (8%), being involved in church (7%), and having concern for others (6%).

3. Most Christians offer one-dimensional views of personal spiritual maturity.

A second open-ended question probed self-identified Christians’ personal definition of what it means to be a healthy, spiritually mature follower of Jesus, regardless of how they believe their church defines it. One-fifth of self-described Christians were unable to offer an opinion. Other identified elements included: relationship with Jesus (21%), following rules and being obedient (15%), living a moral lifestyle (14%), possessing concern about others (13%), being involved in spiritual disciplines (13%), applying the Bible (12%), being spiritual or having belief (8%), sharing their faith with others (6%), and being involved in church activities (5%). Born again Christians were similar in all respects to self-described Christians except they were more likely to mention having a relationship with Jesus (30%) as the sign of spiritual maturity. Further reflecting a lack of depth on the subject, the open-ended questions typically produced, on average, just one response from survey respondents, despite the fact that interviewers repeatedly probed for additional or clarifying comments.

4. Most pastors struggle with feeling the relevance as well as articulating a specific set of objectives for spirituality, often favoring activities over attitudes.

The research among pastors highlighted several inter-related challenges. First, while nearly nine out of 10 pastors said that a lack of spiritual maturity is the most significant or one of the largest problems facing the nation, a minority of pastors believe that spiritual immaturity is a problem in their church. A second challenge is that only a minority of churches has a written statement expressing the outcomes they are looking for in spiritually mature people. A third challenge is that pastors often favor activities over perspectives in their definitions of spiritual maturity. Their metrics for people’s spirituality include the practice of spiritual disciplines (19%), involvement in church activities (15%), witnessing to others (15%), having a relationship with Jesus (14%), having concern for others (14%), applying the Bible to life (12%), being willing to grow spiritually (12%), and having knowledge of Scripture (9%).

5. Pastors are surprisingly vague about the biblical references they use to chart spiritual maturity for people.

One of the reasons churches struggle with making disciples may relate to the lack of clarity that pastors have about the underlying biblical passages that address the process of spiritual maturity. This is most clearly reflected in the huge proportion of pastors who give generic responses when asked to identify the most important portions of the Bible that define spiritual maturity. In fact, one-third of pastors simply said “the whole Bible.” Other generic responses included “the gospels” (17%), the New Testament (15%), and Paul’s letters (10%). In all, the survey showed that three-quarters of pastors mentioned some type of generic answer to this query. In addition, one out of every five pastors gave a semi-generic response, such as “Romans” or the “life of Christ.”

As for verse-specific responses (mentioned by just one-fifth of pastors), the most common passages included: Galatians 5, John 3:16, Ephesians 4, Matthew 28, and Romans 12:1-2. Just 2% of pastors specifically identified the Galatians 5 passage relating to the “fruits of the Spirit,” which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. Theme specific answers represented just 7% of responses, including the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, and the Beatitudes. (Read more here)

This reminded me of some thinking I had done related to "mature faith".

It could be said that those with a more fundamentalist mind set, place a greater emphasis on the integrity of their faith, seeking to protect the divine authority of the Founder, the sacred scripture or religious institutions. This sometimes involves a rigid adherence to a literal interpretation of the Word of God. The problem is that it does not allow for the flexibility that maintains the dynamic and organic nature of religion, rendering it a static and dead thing which is not capable of meeting the challenges of a changing world.

Those with a more liberal mind set, place a greater emphasis on the flexibility of faith, seeking to protect the free exercise of reason in matters of belief and practice, and the sanctity of individual conscience in meeting the challenges of morality. This sometimes involves the rejection of any divine authority of either the Founder of their faith, scripture or religious institutions. Personal or popular opinion of the meaning of their religion becomes the authority to which such people turn for guidance in their lives. The problem with this is that it tends to undermine the integrity of religion, turning the mind or the ego into the object of worship rather than God. It also exposes religion to the chances and changes of popular culture such that rather than being a means of transforming the social order, religion simply lends its authority to whatever trends capture the imaginations of human beings in the moment. Anyone who takes seriously the understanding that God is the Sovereign Lord and Creator of all things must accept that humanity does not inhabit a moral universe that springs from our own imagination, or is simply the product of our social constructs.

There are fundamentalist and liberal proponents in all religious communities and indeed, both elements of belief can be found struggling for dominance within each of our own hearts. As a Baha'i, I believe that a mature faith requires commitment to both integrity and flexibility in equal measure and that a sane, balanced and truly spiritual civilization does as well.

It seems to me a that a Baha'i understanding of spiritual maturity involves maintaining a dynamic balance between spiritual integrity and spiritual flexibility. You can read more of my thinking on these concepts here and here. Readers what do you think? How would you define spiritual maturity?