Growth Is Mandatory

This week we are continuing our series, Generations. Last week we focused our attention on Generation Z and talked about the importance of following. This week the Millennials are in the docket. What is it that Millennials most need to hear in order to get their faith right in the season of life they are in? Read on to find out.

Growth Is Mandatory

I’ve talked before about our gardening exploits. The little garden spot we use does weird things. Last year, for instance, while we had three tomato plants from Jim, only one of them actually produced a tomato. It made its grand appearance in June, grew to about the size of a grape, and stayed that way until about October when it finally turned red. With all of that in mind, this year we tried to get smarter. We have put all of our plants in the same area of the yard, but we put them all in pots. Six plants. Six pots. Easy to maintain and water and weed and the like. What could go wrong? We even have tomatoes on both of our plants. I took a picture of two of them just to document the evidence. And we have blossoms on the squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Lots of them. But would you believe we still don’t have any produce? We got one little zucchini about the size of my pinky finger (which disappeared before it ever got any bigger), and that’s it. Oh, at the boys’ request, we planted a whole bunch of two different types of sunflowers including one variety that’s supposed to get up to 12-feet tall. About a quarter of those have popped up including just three of the twenty or so seeds we planted in the actual planter box. I’m starting to think there’s something weird about that whole side of our house. Or maybe it’s just us. 

Thinking about it, though, I think there’s an even bigger truth there for us that I’d like to take some time to reflect on with you this morning. The reason our gardening experience has been so weird and frustrating is that when you put seeds in good soil and give them sunlight and water (and even some fertilizer), they’re supposed to grow and produce fruit. And ours don’t. Living things are supposed to grow. Our plants grow and look healthy for a while, but they don’t produce any fruit. Which means they really aren’t growing all that well at all. What’s true about these plants, though, is also true about our lives. If you are a follower of Jesus and thus made alive by God’s Spirit, growth isn’t an option. 

This morning we are in the second part of our new series, Generations. The big idea for this series is that the counsel and wisdom one generation needs to hear is not necessarily the same thing another generation needs to hear. While there certainly are some truths that are universal, each generation is different. They grew up in different times and were shaped by different kinds of fears and expectations. The culture that was most impressed upon them in their formative years was different. The level of technological and media engagement they are accustomed to experiencing is not the same. Because of all of this, each different generation has different challenges when it comes to their following Jesus well. Each week of this series, then, we are focusing our attention on a different generation in order to talk about what they most need to hear in order for their faith in Jesus to become fully what it is intended to be. 

We started things off last week by talking to Generation Z. As we said then, the biggest faith challenge of Generation Z is the question of who they are following. With the guidance of Jesus’ own words to the disciples after He revealed His real identity to them, we explored the importance of clarifying who or what we are following in this life. The choices are manifold before us, but there’s only one path that leads to life. It’s not the path that is going to seem—much less be—the easiest of the available options, but it will lead to life. Yet if we are going to choose to follow Jesus, following Jesus is what we must do. There is no way to give ourselves halfway to this challenge. Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned with having our interest as He is our devotion. In fact, interest alone won’t get us to where we are trying to go. Or, as we put it then, Jesus doesn’t want you to like Him, He wants you to follow Him. 

This morning, we are going to shift our attention to the next generation back up the generational tree. This generation is known officially as Generation Y, but they are more widely known as the Millennial Generation. Millennials have been the favorite of marketing companies and advertising campaigns for years. Until Generation Z started to really come into its own, about all you heard about from every institution and organization was questions about how they could somehow tap the Millennial market. Businesses were after their wallets. Churches were after their hearts (and, if we’re being brutally honest, their wallets too). Political parties wanted their vote. Social media companies wanted their eyeballs. They were seen as the golden goose for anyone who could get them. They were associated with the future and whoever could get their wagon hitched to their train would have a free ride to the great things ahead of us. And that all lasted right up until Generation Z started coming into their own and now we’ve moved on leaving Millennials feeling sometimes a little overlooked and used like a formerly only child whose younger—and cuter—sibling just entered the world. 

As far as the Generation itself goes, Millennials are generally counted as kids who were born between 1980 and 1994. Now, as always, if you’re born near the margins of a particular generation, you might carry some of the characteristics of both of them, but those dates give us a reasonable window to use. Millennials grew up with technology, but they weren’t necessarily natives to it like Generation Z. The internet was in its infancy as they were entering the world. What marks out Millennials even more than their embrace of technology, though, is their embrace of change. They are a change oriented generation. And this makes sense too as they grew up in a world that was in flux. From technology to music and movies to politics and international relations to fashion and art, the Millennial Generation has lived through a ton of change. They are typically willing to accept and embrace change a whole lot faster than folks who came before them. Like Generation Z they tend to be very social and relational. In part because of growing up in a world that went out of its way to tell them how special they are (participation trophies, for instance, are a feature of Generation Y), they tend to be very confident in themselves and their ideas…sometimes too confident. They are often very optimistic, but if that optimism is revealed to have been misplaced, they can swing the pendulum way back in the other direction toward pessimism very quickly. They can be terrific team players, but can also be quick to want to quit when things get hard. Until Generation Z came along, they were also the largest generation in our history at more than 82 million strong. 

Yet while many folks from older generations—and even Millennials from the earliest years of the generation itself—are accustomed to thinking about Millennials as kids, the truth is that they aren’t anymore. The very youngest of them are on a fast approach to 30. And, I know, I know, that still sounds like a kid to some of you, but depending on when they got started on adult things, that means even the youngest of the Millennials are through college, maybe through grad school, they’ve gotten jobs, they’ve gotten married, and they’ve started having kids. They are putting down roots in ways no one imagined they would ever do not all that long ago. This reality directly shapes the word they need to hear in order to get their faith journeys right where they currently are in life. The Millennial Generation, more than anything else, needs to grow. After a season of running wild and free, they are planting themselves. And if they do not grow, they are in for a much harder journey than they are perhaps prepared to face. 

And while there are many places in the Scriptures that talk about the importance of growing, there’s one passage that thrusts the matter in our faces a little more forcefully than the rest. I’d like to take a look at this with you this morning in Hebrews 5. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to the New Testament letter of Hebrews. Near the back of the New Testament, Hebrews is one of the more remarkable documents in the New Testament. It is easily on par with Romans in its theological depth. It matches Colosians and Ephesians in its exaltation of Christ. Its depiction of faith rivals Galatians or James. The wisdom it offers on suffering puts it in company with Peter or Philippians. And its embrace of doctrine finds it on equal footing with either of the Timothies. In other words, it covers a whole lot of ground and does so really well. Personally speaking, I’ve been slowly working through Hebrews for the last several weeks and will be for the next few months as well. In the first two-thirds of the letter, the author (whose identity we don’t know) makes three arguments about the nature and greatness of Jesus. Interspersed with these arguments are several warnings to consistency in faithfulness that are some of the most uncomfortable such warnings in the whole of the New Testament. Whole books have been written analyzing them. 

Hebrews 5 starts out by talking about Jesus as our great high priest. As an illustration to make his point, the author references a fairly obscure character from the Old Testament named Melchizedek. Melchizedek shows up in exactly two places in the Scriptures before becoming a minor feature of Hebrews. The first is in Genesis 14 when, fresh off his conquest of the five-king army that had captured his nephew, Lot, Abraham gives a tithe of his spoils to this priest and king whose name means “king of peace.” We’re not told where Melchizedek comes from nor why Abarham gave a tithe of his victory spoils to him. He makes another appearance in Psalm 110 when King David describes the Messiah as a “king forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” While he plays a bigger role in some Jewish writings that didn’t make the Scriptures, that’s all we have about him before now. Honestly, it can be pretty confusing stuff to read. What’s more, this confusing argument comes on the heels of another lengthy and sometimes hard-to-follow segment about God’s eternal rest based on an analysis of Psalm 95. Like I said before: theological depth. 

But then, in Hebrews 5:11, just when it seems like we should get some sort of note about how hard this stuff has all been to keep up with, the author jukes us and turns in a different—and unexpected—direction. Look at this with me: “We have a great deal to say about this, and it is difficult to explain, since you have become too lazy to understand.” This is kind of like a slap in the face—especially reading it now. I mean, here we’ve been reading along with some really nuanced and difficult arguments, and now he wants to tell us that the reason he’s not going to explain it in any more depth and detail so that we could possibly really start to grasp the point he is making is that we’re just too lazy to get it? I’m sorry, I’m just not buying it. If you can’t explain it any better than you already have, don’t blame me for your own failures. That’s what we’re tempted to think here, isn’t it? Anytime we get challenged like this we naturally drift in the direction of self-defense or self-justification. 

Rather than react reflexively, though, let’s stick with him just a bit further. “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.”

So, what does this add to the picture? Well, let’s think about it. If you’re writing a letter like this, there’s a pretty good chance you know and understand your audience. You’re going to include certain things and exclude certain things because of what you know they need to hear. If you understand that you have the relational ability to do so, you might challenge them on matters where they need to grow. That’s what the author is doing here. He knows his audience. He knows where they are theologically and spiritually. And because of that, he knows that while he would like to go into more depth and detail here, he can’t because they’re not going to be able to keep up with him. It would not be worth his time to write more on this because they won’t be following him anyway. Why waste the words? While they could fairly be expected to be further along in their spiritual journey than this, they aren’t. Whereas they should be enjoying the richer and fuller meals available to those who have grown in their faith, they are still surviving on milk. The author wants them to understand that a believer who isn’t growing in her faith is just as much of an uncomfortable oddity as is a baby who never grows out of drinking milk from a bottle. 

That’s all a bit of a relief, isn’t it? I mean, if he’s talking primarily to his first audience, then he’s not talking to us. We’re not too lazy to understand him. We’re not untrained and drinking milk when we should be eating meat. Everybody can take a big breath and back down. 

Except. 

What if his words are meant for more than just his original audience? I mean, yes, he’s speaking to a specific group of people who aren’t us. But just for a second, put yourself in the sandals of someone in that original room where this letter was being read for the first time. Can you really say you understand everything you need to understand to be able to not only keep up with the author’s argument, but to the point that you were ready to hear even more on it from him if he had decided to go on? I mean, presumably you have the basics of the faith down if you’ve been following Jesus for more than a couple of years, but in how much detail could you talk about core parts of the Christian worldview that go beyond, “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so”? Now I’m meddling, aren’t I? 

And just so we’re clear on the kinds of things the author of Hebrews thinks we should have moved beyond after having marinated in the faith for a few years, he actually gives us a list in the next couple of verses. “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 [that is, baptism], laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” Now, just for fun and so we’re all feeling extra uncomfortable this morning, do you have your thinking fully developed on these six doctrines? Because the author of Hebrews seems to think those are all elementary matters that we should get down quickly and get ourselves ready to move on to higher, harder concepts. And here we just finished a teaching series about how to read the Bible…

Now, obviously, this challenge is for everybody. But to the great relief of a pretty sizable chunk of the room, can I speak directly to the Millennial Generation for just a minute. I said your primary challenge in following Jesus where you are in life right now—where we are in life right now since I’m technically a Millennial even though I’m old enough I generally have not identified as one—is one of growth. You may have already committed yourself to following Jesus in your past, but we are at the front end of a season of life when we are planting the kind of deep roots that can anchor us to one place for a very long time. The odds are pretty good that, absent something unexpectedly disruptive, we are where we’re going to be for the next season of life. 

In some ways, hitting that particular mark feels really good. You’ve arrived. You made it through all of the hoops and hurdles that make reaching that point in life more of a challenge than it seems like it should be, and you’ve arrived. Yet at the same time, when we have arrived somewhere, what are we not much interested in doing any longer? Journeying. When you go on a long trip and come back home, the last thing you want to do is get up and go again. When you’ve moved from one house to another and finally get all settled in the new one, getting all packed up to move again is an almost unimaginably horrible sounding idea. For a Generation that has tended to embrace change with gusto, Millennials are reaching the place in life where change sounds a little less exciting than it used to. We don’t want to change and grow anymore, we want to establish a comfortable rhythm we can dance along with for the next several years going forward. In other words, we have reached a plateau; a big, expansive plateau from which we can see our future—or at least the future we are aiming for right now—with what appears to be remarkable clarity. Why would we want to leave the safety and security of that for something else? 

And so we take everything we’ve acquired to this point in our journey and instead of sowing seeds for more growth into the future, we bury them in the ground for safe keeping. That is, we stop growing and start merely living. Now, depending on the amount of growth we’ve obtained to this point in our lives, that may not seem to us or look from the outside-in to be a bad thing at all. We could be covered in fruit by that point because of the work we’ve done in the past. But it’s probably going to be small and unripe compared with what it could be in the future if we would invest ourselves in building on our foundation rather than just living in it. It’s more like we’re covered in those little, green tomatoes currently sitting on my plants at home instead of the big, red ripe ones some of you have already reported to me you are picking. 

Or maybe you haven’t done a lot of growing in the past. Maybe you’re still fairly new to the whole faith thing. You’ve gotten over the line, which is great, but that’s about as far as you’ve made it. You’re a little more like the other plants in my garden. They look great. They’re covered with blossoms. But there’s no fruit. And I didn’t plant them just to look pretty. 

Here’s the thing: If you’ve been made alive in Christ, growth is mandatory. It’s not some bonus add-on that would be nice if you can get it but which you can otherwise fairly well ignore. It is absolutely essential to the journey. Millennials, I know you’ve been through a lot in the past few years. I know you want to settle down and just be for a while without worrying about all this extra stuff. I get that. I’ve experienced some of those same kinds of desires too. But if we stop growing, we stop living. Living things grow. That’s what they do. If they aren’t growing, that’s a signal that something is wrong. Remember that tomato plant I had last year that only produced one little green tomato and that was it? I had two other plants in addition to that one. They were strong, healthy-looking plants. They were covered in blossoms at one point. They were tall and smelled good. By every appearance they were doing fine. But they weren’t growing like they should have been; they weren’t producing fruit. And so, do you know what I did? I pulled them up and threw them away. There was nothing else to do. Living things grow. Dying things don’t. 

If you aren’t growing in your relationship with Jesus and your understanding of the Christian worldview, then you aren’t living like you need to be. In fact, it’s hard to say you’re alive in Christ at all. And if you’re okay with that, there really isn’t anything I can do about it except to give you the warning you may not be alive in Christ as you think you are. And to be something other than you think you are is a dangerous thing. No, growth isn’t an option for the living. Growth isn’t an option for the living. 

That, of course, just raises the important question: How do I grow? We’ve talked about all those things before. Engage with the Scriptures and prayer regularly and consistently. Engage faithfully with the body of Christ. Engage intentionally with believers who are further along in their journeys than you are so you can learn from them. Engage with non-Bible books about essential elements of Christian doctrine. Engage with the various media around you and the culture itself with your Christian worldview filter firmly in place. None of those things are automatic. They will all take you out of what you might prefer to have as your normal rhythm. They may bring some kind of a social cost with them. But they will help you grow. And growth isn’t an option for the living. 

Millennials, God made you to be alive in Christ. He made you to grow. He made you to be a beautiful reflection of His glorious splendor. In this critical season of life when it is so tempting to settle down into a rhythm that very comfortably doesn’t take you anywhere, commit yourself to growing more fully into who God made you to be. Growth isn’t an option for the living. God plans to use that growth in the days ahead of you to accomplish more incredible things for His kingdom than you can possibly imagine. It will come with territory very different from your plateau—incredible heights and deep valleys—but the payoff for your generation and the next will be more than worth it. So grow. Be alive. Growth isn’t an option for the living. 

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