Self-Feeders?

You shouldn’t be overly reliant on the church community and its leaders to feed you spiritually, right? Isn’t this what Willow Creek’s REVEAL study taught us? Three things…

First, look at John 21. In the conversation between Jesus and Peter, Jesus says three things: “feed my lambs”, “tend my sheep” and “feed my sheep”. He doesn’t tell Peter to teach people to feed themselves and then get out of the way of the ones that catch on. Of course as believers we should know how to study the scriptures, how to pray, etc., but we should never expect to stop being fed.

Second, some comments about “self-feeders” from David Fitch in a post from a while back about Willow’s REVEAL study results:

On p. 64 REVEAL says that Willow sought to “meet the needs of its people” too much. This creates an unhealthy dependence. The solution the report provides for the problem is that the church needs to teach its people more spiritual practices. At first glance, this appears encouraging. Perhaps Willow has have been listening to those who have been asking serious questions about consumerism and business practices in American church.

But then REVEAL goes on to say that as we grow more mature in Christ, we need to teach people to become “self-feeders.” In the words of Bill Hybels (in the video), we need to provide coaching, “customized personal spiritual growth plans.” As “you go to a health club and you get a personal trainer … to figure out how to care for your health … we need to provide coaches for personal spiritual growth.” Here the language might have changed, but the strategy remains the same. We’ve seen the problem, let’s provide a program to meet the individual (customized) need. Here the Christian life is seen as a personal individualist pursuit for some goods that are frankly seen as self-beneficial. Spiritual growth has now become a goal in itself.

If Willow creek follows this course, I predict it will be spending more money on why the mature Christians are leaving their church in another ten years. Because Christian growth has everything to do with community. It cannot be achieved independently of the spiritual disciplines within community including confession, truth speaking in love, worship, working out one’s salvation in fear and trembling and above all prayer. None of these practices can be personalized. These are corporate disciplines, just not achievable in corporate bodies that are extremely large.

Furthermore, this kind of spiritual formation occurs only in and through participation in Mission, the journeying together as a people infiltrating and witnessing to the life and ministry of Christ incarnationally in the world. “Personal spiritual growth plans” sounds way too individualized to avoid becoming another form of self-indulgence. True spiritual growth takes on the suffering and hurting and lostness of the world in the ministry of salvation. One cannot undergo such a journey if its goal is personal spiritual growth versus the Mission of God.

Eph 4 is a lesson on spiritual growth. It happens within the formation of the Body of Christ. Here the organic “Body” of Christ works for the edification of our spiritual growth “until we all grow to the full stature of Christ”(Eph 4:13 – read the whole chapter).

Spiritual growth cannot happen as a “self feeder,” it is the outworking of the Body of Christ as we participate in His Mission. The solution proposed here is disastrous for not only the spiritual growth of Willow creekers but for the furtherance of the Mission of Christ.

Third, some thoughts from Darrin Patrick in an article from Leadership last year:

In my research I found that churches often lean in one of two directions. Some believe that people should be “self-feeders.” The church’s responsibility is to create impressive worship services with practical teaching, and maybe connect members into relational groups. From there, however, the people are expected to do the rest. Their spiritual growth is in their own hands.

On the other side are churches who are “spoon-feeders.” They place a high value on biblical teaching and exposition. The sermons are deep and these churches imply that if you just come and listen, you’ll grow in your faith…

There are problems on both extremes. We should not expect the church to do everything, but we cannot undervalue the role of the church either. Gospel preaching and Bible exposition are vital, but equipping believers to take responsibility for their own growth is also important.

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