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Why We Need a Different Kind of 'Maturity' in the Church

Why We Need a Different Kind of Maturity in the Church

You’ve had it happen before, people tell you they are leaving your church because ‘they’re not growing’ or they’re looking for ‘deeper teaching.’

They claim they need a place where where they can grow and mature more spiritually.

While I totally understand that people leave churches for legitimate reasons (I have left a denomination at one point), over time I’ve begun to sense a trend. While everyone might have one or two life-time changes in them, the kind of ‘this isn’t doing it for me’ movement that characterizes church today alarms me.

I’ve noticed that the people who often claimed to be the most spiritually ‘mature’ (or at least on that quest) are often people who are

Somewhat judgmental

Generally disinterested in reaching their unchurched friends


Serially dissatisfied

Often unwilling to actually commit long-term to any local church

Question: are these really the characteristics of maturity?

Maybe what poses as ‘maturity’ isn’t always maturity.

Here are three points of confusion I’ve noticed in the maturity discussion in the church today:

Depth of knowledge is seen as the goal of maturity. It’s wonderful that people understand what they believe, but knowledge in and of itself is not a hallmark of Christian maturity. As Paul says, knowledge puffs up. Love, by contrast, builds up. And some of the most biblically literate people in Jesus day got by-passed as disciples.

Clarity is mistaken for superficiality. Sometimes I think people assume a teaching is ‘deep’ because they can’t understand it. They walk out of church and you ask them what they learned. They say “I”m not sure, but wow, it was deep.” How helpful is that?

Preachers need to be clear, but often, there’s a pressure on us ‘to go deeper’ by offering information that’s confusing or even irrelevant in the name of ‘being deep’. I always shoot for clear, even though that’s sometimes more work. It’s easier to be confusing than it is to be clear. And I still shoot for clear even though I know my inbox will get messages from people who can’t understand why we’re not ‘deeper’.  But if you want to reach unchurched people (here are 9 signs you are ready to reach unchurched people) and truly help even Christians mature, you need to be clear (Paul, by the way, seems to agree).

Many Christians also appreciate clarity because, unlike complexity, clarity is helpful. If you really want to grow, clarity is of tremendous value.

People think the church is responsible for their spiritual growth. People leave churches because they’re not growing. But whose responsibility is growth? Theirs. Yours. Mine. Why is that people who say they are most passionate about maturity blame others for their lack of maturity? I just don’t get that. Isn’t responsibility a sign of maturity?

For sure, the church can help. In the same way a gym can help you get fit, a friend can help you through a tough time. But you are responsible getting in shape, for getting better and even for your personal and spiritual growth.

So what are some marks of a different kind of  ‘maturity’ in the church today?  Here are five I see:

A passion for application. Biblical knowledge is ultimately designed for application. The kind of maturity that I think honour God most deeply is knowledge applied in love. Our lives should be different. Our marriages should be different. Our parenting should be different. Our love for our neighbours and community should be different. Our confession and repentance should be deep and authentic. Our transparency should be authentic. And we should be radically committed to living out our faith.

Humility. True Christian maturity has always been marked by humility.

A servant’s heart. True maturity comes in many things (including faith) when your quest becomes about others, not yourself.  Mature Christians live for Christ and live for others.

A love for unchurched people. If you consider the Apostle Paul to be a mature Christian,  consider his obsession with unchurched people. Eventually it got him killed. Real maturity is not a life lived in pursuit of self or even the ‘found’ – it’s a life lived pursuing others and the lost.

A deep investment. I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I do think one of the marks of mature faith is a deep investment in the Kingdom of God. Sometimes I wonder if you checked the giving records of people who complain most about being fed, and you will see scant evidence of a sacrificial investment in the Kingdom of God. Conversely, you will see many people deeply committed to quietly serving others who have a deep investment in the Kingdom. Think about that for a while.

What are you learning about maturity?

What do you think the future of the church would look like if we pursued application, humility, service, love for the unchurched and a deep investment in the Kingdom?

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  • Just Me

    I found this article googling something church related. And I hope I will still get some help. I am ready to leave my church after well over 8+ years. And its a struggle decision. I have come across several articles like this all stating ‘the church is responsible for your spiritual growth’ or something similar. After being ordained but not activated. Consistently advised ‘you’re not growing/still need healing or maturity’. No programs or church support outside of sunday service & intermittently regular Bible study. Ok here’s the big question then: What is the purpose of the church for individuals and/or families? What should we be looking for?? Im tired of being told what I perceive as ‘sit down & shut up & grow up some more’. Because if we are responsible for our own growth, what do we need the church for? Help me. Feeling stumped about this.

    • bob_the_third

      I understand and I think I probably share many of your frustrations. There are a lot of problems with the church in the U.S. today. It’s really hard but I highly encourage you to stick with church. We get church wrong in a lot of ways, but we still need each other. I think there’s shared responsibility for growth. The individual is ultimately responsible for being a disciple of Jesus (believing, repenting, and growing which is a consequence of the first two; if we don’t believe and repent, going to church isn’t going to help us, unless it leads us to faith in Jesus and repentance), but we’re also responsible as a church for helping one another grow and for encouraging each other to do the good works God has called us to do as believers. That’s the main reason for church: encouraging and building up the body of believers and helping them grow so they can serve Jesus more effectively. We’re not so good at doing that sometimes, but even if you’re not receiving that from your church, you can be that resource to others yourself–you can serve even if you’re not being served. Along those same lines, I wouldn’t rely on church to provide you with all of the Bible knowledge you need in your life. I highly recommend reading the Bible daily if you aren’t already, and going through the entire Bible without skipping any parts (I don’t mean you have to read in order from cover to cover, just to make sure that you eventually do read all of it). It’s very hard for pastors to preach through the entire Bible in a timely fashion, and some passages are probably really hard to preach and/or unpopular/uncomfortable for them to do so, so you’ll miss out on a lot of Scripture if you’re not reading it for yourself. The other thing I’ve learned lately is that the church in the U.S. is flawed in many ways, but God is still using it and the flawed people who comprise it for his kingdom (including you and me :)), so we need to not abandon it in our frustration over the issues. This is actually really encouraging to me, because it’s a picture of God’s grace to us. That said, if you need to leave your current church for some biblically sound reason, then you should definitely find a different church, one that is biblically sound, even though imperfect, since they’re all imperfect.

      This Bible passage is a little long, but I think it sums it up well:

      11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[c] and teachers,[d] 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,[e] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

      (Ephesians 4:11-16)

      I hope this helps in some way. It can be hard and frustrating at times, but it’s well worth it!

  • Brandon

    In regards to your point about “A servant’s heart,” I’d just like to make a distinction from the perspective of someone dissatisfied with the church. In my experience, and in the experience of a few of other friends who have left churches, it’s not that we don’t have a desire to serve–we do. But we want to make sure we’re investing our time in things that matter. We’re on fire, ready to serve as the body of Christ to do great things in the world, and when we go to church and seek out opportunities to serve, we’re stuck pouring coffee and running slideshows. When we try to make opportunities, nothing seems to catch on, as if no one else is interested. This is the driving reason behind some people being unchurched–the church doesn’t have opportunities for them, and doesn’t respond when those opportunities are suggested or created. So we make our own opportunities individually–without the church.

    Someone has to pour the coffee and run the slideshows, sure. But if that’s all you have, and you’re not open to pursuing consistent service with eternal impact, that’s not a place I want to be investing my time. I’d rather use that time to be doing things that matter.

    • That makes a lot of sense Brandon. I think what I was driving at was people who want to be served rather than to serve. Love your desire to serve!

  • Joshua Smith

    Maturity is born of experience and the wisdom to apply that experience to future events. Those lessons can be passed onto other willing recipients and the multiplication can be infinite. And all this could be accomplished by a 12 year old who has been “around the block”…

  • I landed here on this post after reading “How the Church today is Getting Discipleship Wrong”. I met over coffee today with my son who is in his 20s. He knows Jesus and his heart is set on living for God’s kingdom. He is an artist (also knows it is his vocation from God) and he is very fortunate to have found a career in using his craft. He lives a life of ministry as he serves ppl in our city through his artwork. It’s unconventional and not even really recognized as ministry by most of the church community in our city. We meet up and chat at least once a week. I am processing back through our chat today In light of your question; “What do you think the future of the church would look like if we pursued application, humility, service, love for the unchurched and a deep investment in the Kingdom?”

    My son & I agree that we dream of a “grown up” church community where ALL are welcome and they are safe to be themselves, our desire for those in our community is them coming alive in relationship with Jesus and that they know they add value to the community but not because they can do something FOR us. That is a tricky one… the balance of celebrating people’s God designed gifts/talents in service to the rest of the community and God’s kingdom “here as in heaven” without causing them to feel “used” in a negative way.

    As I listened to my son I could hear his desire to see our church community become the best and most desired community in our city but for the sake of the city not in order to serve ourselves. He seemed “worn out” from all of the years he has experienced the more “self serving” approach to “Christian maturity”. We have a LOOONNNG way to go. But, a huge part of that journey is pursuing “first son” followership (Matt 21:28-32) which I think requires application, humility, etc. that you list.

    Thanks for asking 🙂

    • Kala-ada

      Great to hear what you and your son discussed.. sorry what do you mean by first son followership?

      • I am referring to the story Jesus told in Matt 21 about the two sons. The “first” son in the story actually changed his mind and went to do the work in vineyard even though at first he had said he wouldn’t. I have been asking God to help us engage life as that son engaged his work in the vineyard.. That we would rediscover that doing God’s will in this life is about engaging the life you have been given for Jesus’s glory… “First son” followership… 🙂

        • Kala-ada

          okay great thanks!

  • Another out of the park post, Carey! The third complaint, “People think the church is responsible for their spiritual growth,” is particularly interesting to me.

    As a father of a 13 and 18 year old, how would I be viewed if they were still drinking from a sippie cup or being spoon-fed by me? It would be a sign of parental neglect at best! Yet, I cringe when supposedly “mature” members complain or threaten to leave over dissatisfaction that I’m not holding a spoon for them to eat from.

    My role as a father is to help my children learn to take responsibility for feeding themselves, and I think the role of pastor carries a similar mandate in Ephesians 4.

    Churches should be aiding in the maturity of its members by emphasizing that maturity involves the church community taking greater and greater responsibility for their own “feeding,” while helping to get others on their way to maturity as well.

    • Thanks Kevin. I agree. It’s a question really teaching people to feed themselves and learn how to feed others. That’s what mature people do.

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  • Ednilson C de Abreu

    I am a pastor in Brazil and just read this post and found it very relevant. thanks for posting.

    greetings from Brazil

    • Thanks! And welcome to the community. —
      Sent from Mailbox

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  • Danielle Schneider

    Wow, lots of great points here. I’d add another mark of maturity that I see is lacking and that is that the believer is always looks for God to be glorified. (this is as opposed to themselves wanting the attention, or trying to give all the attention to the ‘star pastor’ or ‘star author’ etc.

    I’d also like to suggest one small caveat to the idea that people are serially dissatisfied. With what are they dissatisfied serially? If they are unhappy with the quality of the music/lighting/preaching/carpet color etc, then yes, that indicates immaturity. However, if they are dissatisfied with a lack of evidence of the presence of God in the church, that is another matter entirely. I’ve noticed lots of church leaders prefer to use the ‘serially dissatisfied’ status as an excuse to dismiss legitimate concerns for a lack of God’s manifest presence in the whole organization of the church.

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  • Beejai

    Great article. I love the five marks of true maturity and this addresses a much needed issue as church hopping within a Christianized subculture is a growing trend. One bone I would pick, though is that some might misread an anti-intellectual lead into what you’ve written. Although I agree that growing in knowledge is not *the* goal of spiritual maturity, it is still *a* goal. We are called to grow in both grace and the knowledge of our Lord. Lets not forget that even Peter accused Paul of being difficult to understand at times.

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  • Martin

    Thanks again Carey!! It’s tough not to take personally the lack of growth in the “sheep under our care.” I’m feeling more and more like we also need to facilitate a connection with the Holy Spirit for our people in addition to our clear and compelling biblical messages. Only the Spirit can transform the consumer into a servant.

  • Joe Verhaeghe

    for everyone that thinks the message is not deep enough here is some good reading for you…

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  • Dan Smith

    You hit the nail on the head with the idea that people think the church is responsible for their spiritual maturity. It takes away all of the responsibility from them and they blame the pastor or teachers when they don’t know answers. Well, it won’t work forever. People have to take responsibility for their actions (or inaction).

  • Carey,
    since I’ve read this article, it’s really stuck with me. I’m thinking of developing a sermon series using the key points on maturity (as there’s a pile of Bible behind each of them).

    It articulates a lot of good stuff I’ve talked about in conversation along with some new ideas for me in a very precise way. Thanks for this post. It bears reading regularly.

  • No matter how well studied or connected, if someone is not visibly manifesting the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) they are NOT mature believers. Fruit is the yardstick– not knowledge or service. As a matter of fact, if the gospel isn’t life-changing then you should question whether Christ knows you (Matt 7:15-23)

  • Great post. When people complain like this, usually they are not interested in living out the teaching as much as absorbing it. Pointing people into serving opportunities seems to be the best way to test if they are really eager to “go deeper”. Thanks for your leadership and influence. Thanks for your investment at Orange.

  • Steve Johnson

    Carey, Great post. I have two quick thoughts on it.

    First, this is the issue that the writer of Hebrews is dealing with in Hebrews 5:11ff. People want the “mature” to make them mature by giving them more information. It seems that a better path to maturity is stepping up.

    Second, this is a weakness of the people you describe, but it is in part a weakness of the way we construct our churches, not as families who value every person, but as organizations who work to entice individuals. When we do the former, we fight to keep those in our church in our church. When we do the later, we make ways that people can easily be drawn to our church, usually from other churches.

  • Joanne

    A friend who went to Connexus left because she said had already gotten your “Love, give, serve” message and was looking for a “deeper message”. I didn’t really know how to respond to that, but your blog posting helps me. Personally, I think I have a lifetime of work to really get and live out “Love, give, serve”. Perhaps I’m a slow learner LOL!

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  • I was talking about a similar concept the other day with my Senior Pastor (also my boss as well as Father-In-Law). It seems that many Christians today are in it for their benefit. It’s almost as if they say: “What can God do to make my life better?” rather than honestly seek a personal walk with the Father. It seems that they are interested in being blessed rather than finding ways to serve and glorify God. Our churches are literally filled with programs, special events, special lights, and the like to keep people (Christians!) interested enough so that they will come back to church from week to week. I understand that what we do needs to be appealing to the masses, but what about the Christian who has been sitting in the pews for years? At some point, we need to grow up, wipe the milk off of our faces, and cut our own steak. As long as the pastors of the churches are doing a good job of teaching the Word, then I don’t think growth and maturity are too much to ask for.

    • cnieuwhof

      I agree Bobby. A sign of maturity is the willingness to care for yourself and to care for others. I’d love to see even more of that in the church.

  • The idea that people assuming the Church is somehow responsible for their spiritual growth is a bigger issue than many Churches are aware. At CCC, we know this mentality is out there and we are attempting to address it. Still figuring this out, but starting with simply addressing it regularly at our gathering for new members. We are finding that when we vocalize it, people ask questions about personal spiritual growth that they wouldn’t have asked previously. Right on with this one, Carey!

  • cnieuwhof

    So good to see we are in this together on this one. Thanks for the incredible encouragement. What’s significant, I think, is that if people took greater responsibility for their personal growth is that they would be better off. It’s as much about what we want for people as what we’d love to see from them.

  • Bill Hamilton

    So on the mark Carey. If maturity was strictly about Bible knowledge, the monks living in seclusion had it right. As we are renewed in God’s word and community, the sign of maturity is that process impacts our living, our goals, our relationships, how free we are with our possessions, our outreach, and how we do church. Great, great read.

  • Great insights! Thank you.

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  • May

    What a great read. 🙂

  • Excellent. Again.

  • Andrew Reichart

    Great resource to use as a basis of discussion!

  • patricia konkle

    I agree this was a great message. I believe that if we all practiced the 5 points you mentioned that today’s church would be overflowing with people that are aching to be loved and accepted for who they are.

  • Great message! As said below, I can’t agree more. I try to write and promote maturity and spiritual maturity in my blog. Personal responsibility is an absolute necessary thing if a person is to grow, really, in any way. I challenge men to take notes, to pursue a different kind of marriage and to be consistent everyday in Christ. Your 5 points are right on the money. I’ll be sure to spread around on my networks. Thanks for sharing!

    • cnieuwhof

      Love the emphasis you bring to the discussion. Responsibility counts for so much. Thanks Bryan!

  • Jade

    A fantastic word, Carey. I couldn’t agree more.