Assessing maturity

  • Colin Marshall
  • 9 October 2015

How would you assess the maturity of your church? If you were designing a maturity survey for your members, what questions would you ask?

Here’s one essential question: what Christian preachers and writers are your members attracted to, and why?

Discernment is the measure of maturity

I have always found 1 Corinthians most instructive on how we go about evaluating our ministries and churches.

What was Paul’s overall assessment of the Corinthian fellowship? That they were brothers in Christ, but immature and not ready for solids, only baby’s milk, a situation made clear by their jealousy and quarreling (1 Cor 3:1-4). They displayed their immature attitude to speech in the context of their church gatherings. They were not making mature judgements about the place of tongues over against prophecy in the building of the church (14:17-20). Their thinking was childish as they hankered after the more impressive and showy gifts of the Spirit. They were proud of their gifts and spirituality and bickered amongst themselves.

What is the underlying measure of maturity for Paul? In a word: ‘discernment’. It’s all about how Christians think and make judgements. Immature behaviour derives from a lack of discernment.

The Corinthian believers lacked discernment. Paul contrasts the natural person and the spiritual person to make the point.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (2:14-16)

Apostles like Paul look weak and foolish to the natural person, so it was inevitable that the church at Corinth would split into cliques around leaders who exhibited giftedness in knowledge and speech.

In contrast, the spiritual person accepts the things of the Spirit of God, the revealed wisdom of the cross of Christ, proclaimed by God’s true servants. By grace, the truly spiritual person has the mind of Christ (wow!). How can they divide over the gifts of different preachers?

Mature discernment is a constant theme throughout 1 Corinthians, needed in these seven spheres of church life in Corinth (using the ESV translation of Greek words for ‘judging’ and ‘discerning’ etc., shown in italics.):

  • They should not pre-judge the faithfulness of any servant of Christ, before the day of judgement (4:1-7).
  • They must judge whether it is proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered (11:13).
  • When celebrating the Lord’s Supper, each should examine themselves so as to not eat or drink in an unworthy manner, without discerning the Lord’s body (11:27-32).
  • In the ministry of prophesying, two or three should speak and others weigh what is said (14:29).
  • In specific cases of sexual immorality, they failed as a church to judge and act rightly by expelling the wicked man from among them (5:1-13).
  • Their behavior in handling lawsuits between members is a problem of failed judgement; someone wise should settle a dispute between brothers (6:1-8).
  • Discernment is required in relation to freedoms and constraints in eating with unbelievers according to conscience (10:25-30).

In each case, Paul shows that discernment is based on the true knowledge of God and his will for his people.

What is discernment?

Discernment is applying God’s wisdom in Christ, received through the Spirit, to decisions for the glory of God. It is thinking theologically about all of life, the antithesis of pragmatism.

The writer to the Hebrews (sounding like Paul) makes the same connection between maturity and discernment, stressing the need to train ourselves in discernment through the word.

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Heb 5:11-14)

There are no shortcuts to maturity as a disciple or a church. Maturity requires deep theological reflection and the ability to apply the knowledge of God to every decision and circumstance of life and ministry.

So back to our maturity survey

I hope you can see why I’ve proposed the question “What Christian preachers and writers are your members attracted to, and why?”. Are we like the Corinthian church, hankering after eloquence and sophistication?

But what other questions should we ask to assess the maturity of our church members’ discernment? Here are some ideas:

  • To what extent does theological thinking (having the mind of Christ) or pragmatism (what works) drive our church decisions and policies?
  • Are our members more likely to turn up when the ‘best preacher’ is on the roster?
  • If they leave us, what factors do our members weigh up in choosing a new church?
  • Do our members want to learn to read theologically beyond their ability?
  • Do our members ask questions about how to apply gospel wisdom to all of life?
  • Is immorality overlooked as too hard to deal with?
  • Does the mature discernment of our members result in a loving, unified body of believers ministering to one another with God’s gifts?

What questions would you add?

This article first appeared on Vinegrowers, and was edited and re-published with permission.

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