This week we are taking the next step forward in our conversation about who God has designed First Baptist Oakboro to be. We are a people with whom anyone can connect, but connecting can’t be the end of the journey. Once someone has connected, it is time for some growth to happen. Let’s talk about what that means, why that matters, and how it can happen here.
The Necessity of Growth
Lisa and I both grew up in the suburbs. Now, I remember doing a pretty good-sized garden when I was growing up. It was a suburban backyard garden. We grew green beans, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and probably some other veggies, but those are the ones I remember. After we got through seminary and settled in a little town in the middle of rural, Virginian farmland, though, neither of us had grown anything for quite some time. Naturally, we thought planting a garden would be a great idea. Noah was still at the age where we could put him down and he really couldn’t go anywhere, so we had our friend Larry till us up a 30×60 plot of ground with his tractor. We had a ball. We would spend hours each week pulling weeds (just so we’re clear: when you’re a bit OCD, keeping a 30×60 garden completely free of weeds is no small task) and watering and then picking and canning. It was great. That worked out for a couple of years and then we found ourselves with another baby and a toddler…and the garden got smaller. Then came baby number three and it got even smaller.
Now we have a house with a backyard that’s mostly rock, glass shards, and shade, three busy boys, and so gardening like we used to do isn’t something currently on life’s menu for us. But that doesn’t mean we’ve given it up entirely. We have a little plot of ground next to our garage that’s small, empty, and gets plenty of sun. It’s right around the corner from the hose which makes it easy to water. It seems like the perfect little garden plot. Well, a couple of years ago we planted a few things–squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes–and we got a little bit out of it, but not a lot. That was okay, though, because we had all we needed. Then, last year we did it again and got even less. Our gourd plants produced exactly nothing to eat and out of four tomato plants, one of them produced a tomato which stayed green from July until mid-October when it finally turned red. This year, we sought more advice, mixed some really high quality dirt into the planting box we have there…and got the same results. The plants we plant are growing, but they’re not producing fruit. Now, we’re not proficient enough gardeners that we know what all is happening in our ground there, but we are astute enough to recognize that something is wrong. Plants that don’t grow and produce fruit are not working like they are supposed to work.
This morning we are in the second part of a four-part conversation about who God has designed us to be as a church. We’re having this conversation because although I remind you of it every single week, hearing a slogan and understanding the ideas behind it are not the same thing. Just like in your own life you need an identity and not merely a slogan, the same goes for us as an organization. First Baptist Oakboro is a people with whom anyone can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. Knowing that is important; understanding it is even more important So, we’re talking about it.
Last week we started with the idea that we are a people with whom anyone can connect. God has designed us as an organization with a connectable personality. You guys have shown time and time again a willingness to embrace anyone who walks through those doors. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a “from here” or a “come here,” they can be a part of the family here. That’s a gift far too few churches give to the folks who walk in off the street. But, this is a gift we can’t keep to ourselves. That’s where we landed last week. If you have connected here, then you need to be actively inviting others to come and experience that same thing. Cheers may be nearly 40-years-old, but our desire to go to a place “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came” hasn’t changed. We need to go invite people to come and see what God is doing here. More than that, we need to invite them to encounter Jesus here. We don’t just invite people to church, we invite them to Jesus.
While God has made us to be a people with whom anyone can connect, though, that’s not all He’s made us to be. Simply connecting here isn’t enough. If we were nothing more than a people with whom to connect, we would be only a social club. While social clubs aren’t quite as common as they used to be (which actually isn’t a good thing for our culture), there are plenty of them still out there. The world may need a few more of them, but it doesn’t need us to be one. We are a church. God made us to be a church, and the world needs us to be one (even if it doesn’t always understand that). And because we are a church, seeing people connect with us is not the end goal. Some churches make that the goal and get really big. But they don’t have any depth. When the connecting engine stalls, as it always does at some point, they’ll shrink just as rapidly as they grew. No, for us, seeing people connect here is only a pathway to something else. It is a pathway to their growing to become more fully who Jesus designed them to be. Or, to put that another way, it is the pathway to their growing in Christ. This morning, I want to talk about growing and who God made us to be.
In order to do that, though, we need to start by grappling together with just how important growing really is for followers of Jesus. Now, there are several places in the New Testament that talk about followers of Jesus growing and becoming more fully who God designed them to be in Him. There is one, though, that really caught my eye for this morning. It did so for a couple of reasons. First, it diagnoses the challenge before us here about as plainly as it possibly can. Second, it offers a challenge along these lines that we dare not miss. This passage is found in the New Testament letter we call Hebrews.
Now, Hebrews is an interesting little document. The document itself is the only one in the New Testament whose author is a mystery to us. It also offers its readers the greatest theological depth in the New Testament. The author makes the case to a group of Jewish background believers that Jesus not only is the Messiah, but that He’s greater than Moses or the Law. Jesus and the new covenant are, in fact, the fulfillment and replacement for the old covenant in its entirety. The arguments of Hebrews are deep and occasionally complex. It is an extras for experts sort of book. I’m making a convincing argument to read and study it, aren’t I? I don’t actually say any of this to discourage you from reading it. In fact, what we are going to look at in just a second is a fairly explicit encouragement to engage with it even more fully than perhaps you have before.
If you have your copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to Hebrews 5. The author begins here by talking about the role of high priest in Jewish life. Then, he shifts gears to talking about Jesus as the greatest high priest. He does this by making a reference to an obscure character from Genesis 14 named Melchizedek. Melchizedek, whose name means, “king of righteousness,” was the King of Salem (Jerusalem before its name change). When Abraham led an army to defeat a coalition of five kings who had raided the region of Sodom and Gomorrah and took his nephew, Lot, as one of their prisoners, when the fighting was done, Abraham went before Melchizedek, who was also identified as a “priest to God Most High,” and gave a tithe of his spoils to him. It’s an odd little episode after which Melchizedek fairly well vanishes from historical reference with the exception of a brief appearance in the Psalms and Hebrews. Well, the author of Hebrews’ point is that Jesus is both a priest and a king, but this is honestly a fairly hard-to-follow way of making it.
Well, the guys who contributed to the Scriptures sometimes seem more self-aware of when they are making a difficult point than at others. This is one of the better moments. After making his point, the author suddenly pauses and addresses the fact that his audience might be struggling to keep up with him. But rather than, say, explaining himself in simpler terms, he does something rather unexpected. He offers a comment on the spiritual maturity of his audience.
Let’s take a look at this together in Hebrews 5:11: “We have a great deal to say about this, and it is difficult to explain, since you have become too lazy to understand.” Ouch, right!?! The author might as well have said, “Look, there’s a bunch more I’d like to say about all of this, but you’re too lazy to keep up with me.” In other words, it’s your own fault you’re not keeping up with me. But then, instead of backing off a bit to let them wrap their hearts and minds around this challenge to their spiritual maturity, he plows right on ahead with it. Verse 12: “Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basic principles of God’s revelation again. You need milk, not solid food. Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced with the message about righteousness, because he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature—for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen this passage on any of the lists of top ten most inspirational Bible verses. It’s really not so hard to see why. Not many folks like being told they are lazy and immature. Yet that’s exactly what the author of Hebrews had to say to his audience here. I want to say more about this to help you understand this better, but you’ve gotten too lazy to understand and keep up with me. You’re so accustomed to being spoon-fed everything you need to know, that you haven’t learned how to feed yourself and digest more mature morsels. You’ve been at this long enough that you should be teaching the faith to others, and yet you still don’t have a firm grip on the basics. You may be following Jesus, but you don’t really understand the faith yet. It’s time for you to grow.
What the author is saying here is pretty clear. You don’t need me to unpack this for you. The question that really needs to be addressed is why we’re even looking at this together this morning. I’ll give you a hint: It’s not because I think you’re lazy and immature. What the author lays out here in pretty stark terms for us is the absolute necessity of growing once we are planted in Christ. It is sufficiently important that he was willing to risk angering and alienating his audience if there was a chance that was going to kickstart them into it once again when he felt they were getting slack. In fact, if you keep reading forward from here, the author doesn’t leave the point. He doubles down on it in even more uncomfortable language.
Listen to a little bit more of the text here starting in chapter 6 now: “Therefore, let us leave the elementary teaching about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works, faith in God, teaching about ritual washings, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this if God permits.” That’s all the basics. Those are things he feels like his audience had already had plenty of time to get down pat. But they hadn’t, and they were at risk of drawing back from the faith because of it. “For it is impossible to renew to repentance those who were once enlightened, who tasted the heavenly gift, who shared in the Holy Spirit, who tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age, and who have fallen away. This is because, to their own harm, they are recrucifying the Son of God and holding him up to contempt.” And, in case that isn’t clear enough, “For the ground that drinks the rain that often falls on it and that produces vegetation useful to those for whom it is cultivated receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and about to be cursed, and at the end will be burned.” After two years of getting nothing from our garden, we’re probably not going to plant there again next year. Are you with me?
When following Jesus, growth isn’t an option. The author there in chapter 5 used the imagery of milk and solid food to talk about Christian maturity. There are several different places where this same imagery is used in the New Testament. I suspect the illustration is one you understand. Young believers are like babies. They aren’t yet ready for the rich, deep truths of the faith. You don’t take a new believer into a deep discussion of the concept of a dark night of the soul. You aren’t going to take someone who has just started following Jesus and have a nuanced conversation with them about the intricacies of the doctrine of God. I’ve got several graduate level textbooks on theology and ethics and apologetics and philosophy in my office. I’ve read several of them just for fun and really, thoroughly enjoyed them. But I’m not going to make one required reading for any of the folks I baptized a couple of weeks ago. No one starts out life as a full-grown adult with a well-developed culinary palate. No one starts following Jesus and is instantly an expert in the Christian worldview. But, babies grow. We’ve got parents with some little ones in the room. You know how quickly little ones grow. You can almost see it happening before your eyes. The bad news is that this doesn’t seem to quit. Last year at Christmas, Noah wasn’t as tall as Lisa. Now he has bigger feet than I do. We’ve considered cutting off food for a while to see if we can manage this, but then we realized this is exactly what should be happening. Babies grow. If babies don’t grow, we have a problem on our hands. Something is wrong. Babies that don’t grow usually die.
Well, what’s true physically here carries right over to the spiritual point our author is making. New believers in Jesus are spiritual babies. That’s okay. That’s things as they should be. But if spiritual babies don’t grow, we’ve got a problem on our hands. Let’s push this physical analogy just a bit further. There is a rare genetic condition called Child Disintegrative Disorder, where a child develops normally until about 3-4 years of age, and then suddenly begins to regress physically, verbally, or socially. We don’t know why this happens and it is a tragic effect of living in a world broken by sin for those families that experience and have to live with it. There are medical researchers working feverishly to figure out why this happens, how to prevent it, and how to treat it effectively. It’s resulting effects can cause frustration and heartache for the family and the child for years, decades even. The point, though, is that when growth begins to reverse itself like that, we know something is wrong.
But when a follower of Jesus begins to regress, often we hardly bat an eye. When a believer falls prey to some sin and begins to manifest the effects of that sin in her life, we might notice something is a bit off, but that’s just a personal issue and we should mind our own business. Yet is such a spiritual regression any less of a tragedy than something like Child Disintegrative Disorder? No, and it is arguably even more of one. Certainly CDD is a tragedy for the family who experiences it, and something we as a culture should work against and minister to wherever we can, but a regressing believer might just reveal that the salvation everyone (including, perhaps, that very believer) assumed was genuine wasn’t actually and now he’s not in God’s hands anymore. Such a state of affairs could have potentially eternal consequences. That’s what the author of Hebrews was warning about in chapter 6. Now, yes, he goes on to express his confidence that his audience isn’t really there at all, and I don’t think the New Testament gives us leave to think a genuine follower of Jesus can lose his salvation, but someone everyone thought was just fine could be revealed to have never actually gotten it in the first place. When following Jesus, growth isn’t an option.
Well, God has not simply created us to be a people with whom anyone can connect. He has created us to be a people with whom those who have connected can grow in Christ to become more fully who He designed them to be. No one here has to settle for remaining a spiritual baby. Now, that doesn’t mean we simply spoon feed anyone. We’re not going to hook you up to a spiritual feeding tube so that you can get all the nutrients you need without even trying. There’s a part for you to play. But together, we will see growth happen. That’s who God made us to be. And when following Jesus, growth isn’t an option.
Okay, but how? We start together. Doing what you are doing right this very moment is the on ramp to this growth. Be at worship. When we gather to worship the Lord together, make sure you’re here more often than you aren’t. This two hours is a critical time for fellowship, study, and learning together. If you’re missing it, you’re missing out. But then, you already knew that because you’re here. Spread the word.
If you’re really committed to growing in Christ, though, this can’t be the only time you engage with the church. In fact, if worship is the only time you engage with the church, over the long term, you’re not really going to connect, and your growth is going to be stunted. This is because even though you have two pastors taking part in this service each week whose primary spiritual gift is teaching, there’s a limit to how much we can accomplish in an hour all together. We can cover the basics in here pretty well, and we’ll plunge a bit deeper into some topics, but that’s about it. If this is all you are getting, you’re getting a steady diet of baby food. That’ll nourish a young body, but it won’t provide enough by itself to grow very well. To reach that next level, you need to be engaged regularly and consistently with a smaller group environment. There are two primary options available for you there. The first is the hour just before this time: Sunday school. Sunday school is a chance to dig deeper into the important truths of the faith than we can do in worship. We’ve got great teachers for all of our various classes who will help you go deeper and get your heart and mind wrapped more fully around some important topics. It’ll also help you better connect to the people who are here as there is more time to fellowship together there than there is here. The other major option is Bible study on Wednesday nights. Wednesday nights provide a great forum for going really deep into the faith. For kids and adults both we dive deep into the Scriptures and wrestle together with what we find there. As we prepare to add dinners back into the mix in the not-so-distant future, there is an even greater opportunity for connection there as well.
If all you are getting is information in your efforts to grow, though, you’re not going to be as healthy as you need to be. Oh, you’ll be well-informed which is really important, but unapplied truth is truth that isn’t really doing you a whole lot of good. The real growth happens when you put what you’ve been learning into practice. That means serving. If you aren’t serving somewhere, it’s time to get you plugged in to the right place. Come chat with me and I’ll help you find where that is.
One last piece here. Although we are going to provide some excellent opportunities for growth here within our community activities, none of what goes on here should be your primary source of spiritual nourishment in your efforts to grow as a follower of Jesus. The primary source for that is currently sitting in your chair. When following Jesus, growth isn’t an option, and that means you’ve got some work to do. We’ve talked about this before, but there are two essentials you need to put in place in your life in order to make sure you are growing. The first is to build a habit of daily Scriptural engagement. In other words, read your Bible every day. Have a regular devotion you can turn to each day that is going to take you into God’s word so His Spirit can mold your heart and mind to better reflect the image of Jesus. As far as resources for this go, your own Bible is a good place to start. The YouVersion Bible App is another excellent resource. There’s also my own blog where I post a devotion every single weekday. You can sign up to have that appear in your email inbox each morning. If you’re interested, I’d be glad to show you how. The second thing you can do is to build a habit of daily prayer to go with your daily Bible reading. Those two things will lead to more growth in your life than just about anything else. And when following Jesus, growth isn’t an option.
God created First Baptist Oakboro to be a people with whom you can grow in Christ. There are several resources available here to that very end. When all is said and done, though, you’ve got to use them. We’re here for you and we’ll help you along the journey, but you’ve got to be the one doing the walking. You’ve got to do it because to not grow is to die. God’s got an incredible design for your life. Your goal must be to realize it more each and every day with His help—and with ours. When following Jesus, growth isn’t an option, and God made us a people with whom you can grow. Seems like a match made in Heaven to me. Yet even as important as this is, it’s not the end of the journey. We’ll talk about that next time.