It’s a fair question to ask: Is spiritual growth really measurable? What would we measure? And how would we measure it?
Some Christians cringe at the very idea of trying to measure spiritual things. They think of spiritual things as being so, well, spiritual that any attempt to measure them at best cheapens the Christian life and at worst plunges us into the silliest kinds of legalism as we endeavor—foolishly—to trap bits of God in a paper bag. “You can measure how many chapters of the Bible I’m reading a day,” they challenge, “But since when does that show whether I’m growing as a Christian?”
True, that. Measuring things like church attendance, Bible reading, and minutes spent in prayer daily are hardly reliable predictors of much of anything (save, perhaps, legalism). Cue the verses here about Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for tithing mint and dill and cumin and neglecting the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23) or Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for searching the Scriptures but missing profoundly how they testify of him (John 5:39) or Jesus rebuking the Pharisees for just about everything. In fact, you might be able to make a decent case that Jesus’ disdain for the Pharasaical is a disdain for what Pharisees choose to measure.
But that shouldn’t scare us away from all measurement of spiritual growth. To the contrary, as in the case of the Pharisees, what we measure (and what we fail to measure) provides penetrating insights into what’s really important to us. (Where your measure is there your heart is also?)
In Principle VII we talked about how hearing and doing the word are two sides of the same coin, and that what keeps doing from being works righteous is doing the word, which, by definition, launches us clear out of the realm of human merit and into the realm of God “making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20)—God doing through us what only God can do. We pass on, in other words, only what we have received from him.
In the same way, helpful measurements of spiritual growth involve a repentant turning away from measuring human activity–e.g., Bible chapters and prayer minutes per day–and turning toward the evidences of God’s strength and power that are observable in and around us—e.g., us forgiving and reconciling with our enemies in Jesus’ name.
Interestingly, that’s what the scriptures show God measuring:
- Sometimes He measures the absence of divine activity (like in Matthew 23:32, where Jesus challenges, ‘Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!’).
- Sometimes He measures the inhibition of divine activity (like in Hebrews 5:12, where the writer castigates, ‘In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!’).
- But most often scripture shows God measuring His own presence in us.
The perfect illustration of the last point is 2 Peter 1:3-9. Give it a careful read in light of the subject of what we measure:
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The list starts with faith–so that no one can boast–and continues on with qualities that, properly understood, are authentically divine, not human. When we measure those weekly, we prevent ourselves and our fellow lay church members from being ineffective and unproductive. Sadly, that’s a measure that few churches make at the level of individual members–which is probably what explains the ineffectiveness and unproductiveness of many folks hanging around church these days.
But someone might protest that God’s activity is not easily detectable or definable. Like Jesus says in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
But in that verse Jesus is not claiming that we won’t recognize God’s work when we see it (just check out Romans 1 for Paul’s argument to the contrary); rather, He is claiming that God’s work is not subject to human structures or boundaries–which is why in lay church the focus is not on measuring organizational statistics. The lay church is just the tomato trellis, so to speak–vital to the growth of healthy tomatoes, but not the subject of our measurements (except insofar as we seek to determine if we are an effective trellis!).
In Matthew 13:31-33 Jesus tells parables about yeast and mustard seeds, two entities barely visible at first. Two lessons can be drawn:
- God’s work in the lives of lay church members may be barely observable at first, but it is well worth our keen observation—it’s nothing less than how we “see God”;
- By God’s grace that barely observable work can grow until it is apparent to everyone.
So in lay church no small time is devoted to enabling each member to self-assess their spiritual growth weekly—and to grow from the helpful inquiries of others.
Few were better at this than John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He trained his lay leaders to open every meeting with these kinds of measurement questions. (Elmer Towns does a nice job of updating these questions in the recognition that members at different levels of spiritual development benefit from different types of questions—check out his three sets of questions for members at various levels of Christian maturity.)
Measuring the growth of each member of your lay church weekly trains them—and you—to train your eyes on the kind of things that only God can do–and is doing–in your midst.