For some time I have been thinking about a way to measure growth toward spiritual maturity. The concept is based upon the idea in the Bible that God works in us to bring us to a place of maturity in Christ. Though we recognize that this is never really complete until we reach our heavenly home there does seem to be evidence for the fact that God wants to bring us to a place of spiritual maturity in this life. So Paul writes, for example, that he admonishes and teaches everyone with all wisdom in order that he may present everyone as perfect or mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28, 29). The concept has to do with the means by which we experience the kind of practical sanctification in our lives that enables us to grow up in Christ.
As we know there are a variety of schools of thought within evangelical Christianity about how sanctification can be practically achieved. While granting that individual Christians are sanctified completely through the work of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection, there are differences of emphasis as to how this happens in actual fact. So we have the discipleship school which tends to emphasize the importance of knowing God’s Word and learning to obey that Word (Navigators, for example). Another school of thought emphasizes the importance of a personal experience of the filling of the Holy Spirit — in many cases accompanied by certain evidences or manifestations. Another school places the accent for sanctification on what it means to be identified with Jesus in his death and resurrection, and of surrender to Christ (Keswick). Still another, especially in recent times, encourages various disciplines toward the spiritual formation of Christ in our lives. All of these are valid and have something to contribute, but in my view, none is a complete explanation for how spiritual maturity is actually achieved.
So I have considered the validity of thinking in terms of a chart of spiritual growth in which all of these elements are included. The chart might be analagous to what happens in our natural lives toward physical and emotional maturity. We might even plot spiritual development on a graph and call it the Plot-line of Spiritual Growth. So it is that I have considered eight stages that might quite artificially be analagous to the human maturation process.
Birth Of course, just as in the process of human developement, we would begin with birth. The Bible makes a lot out of our need to be born again, or to be regenerated. Jesus spoke of this idea to Nicodemus (John 3) and Peter picks up the same theme in his letter to scattered Christians (1 Peter 1:23; 2:2,3). There can be no spiritual development unless spiritual birth has taken place through beignning faith in Jesus Christ.
Infancy Infancy has to do with how a baby begins to develop its concept of self based on how it relates to its new environment and how others relate to it. If the relationships are good, the child develops a positive self-image; if there is abuse, the child’s self-image will be severely distorted. Regardless of our early life experience, we have distorted ideas of our own image that can only be corrected as we learn to see ourselves from God’s perspective. It is important that a Christian, early in life learn to form a positive image of self based on one’s identity with Christ. This identity also is really what baptism is about — something that should occur relatively early in a Christian’s experience of new life. (i.e. see Ephesians 4:23, 24)
Childhood The third stage has to do with early childhood and typically is that period in which the youngster learns the basics of understanding (reading, writing, arithmetic) and obedience. This is like the discipleship stage of the Christian life in which a person, quite soon in his/her Christian experience, learns to know God’s Word and obedience to it. In my own experience, the Navigators were especially helpful in teaching me about having a basic grasp of the Holy Scriptures, and of particular passages and verses, in order to learn obedience. (John 8:32 is a typical Scripture along this line.)
Adolescence The fourth stage might be identified as adolescence. Because these years are often fraught with emotional ups and downs, with feelings of romance, and exhileration, might I suggest that this expereince is comparable to that time in which a Christian comes to know about the amazing ministry of the Holy Spirit — as One who is the Comforter and friend, and who guides the believer in the way of truth so that Christ is lifted up in his/her life. In this stage, a Christian learns what it means to surrender his or her life completely to the control of the Holy Spirit (Romans 6 – 8).
Young Adult The fifth stage is associated with young adulthood in which it is necessary for a person to learn about the disciplines of study and hard work. In the words of Lamentations 3:27, it is good for a young man to bear the yoke in his youth. Likewise it is good and necessary for the growing Christian to learn to know about a whole variety of spiritual disciplines that become means of grace toward knowing God better — meditation, Bible study, prayer, Scripture memorization, contemplation, fasting, journaling, sabbath rest, suffering, and others. Practicing the spiritual disciplines has to do with Christ being formed in a believer’s life (Galatians 4:19; 2 Peter 1:3 – 11).
Adult The sixth stage is the adult stage. In this stage a person is making commitments to work and relationships and not always finding them easy — marraige, raising a family. It is in these relationships that people come face to face with themselves and sees their need for what it means to walk in the Spirit and produce the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, longsuffering, and so on as described in Galatians 5:22, 23. It is in this stage also that the Christian learns about producing the fruit of new life through witness to Christ by word and deed (John 15).
Maturing Adult The seventh stage is about maturing adulthood and has to do with finding one’s particular calling in life. Here we visualize someone who is seeking to find their niche in life. It is about choosing a career that is long-lasting. In the Christian life, this stage relates to learning about the gifts of the Holy Spirit and which ones are especially peculiar to one’s reason to exist. While the gifts of the Spirit might be controversial at times, it is very important for the maturing Christian to discover what his or her particular gift is for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world and the building up of the church (Romans 12:1-8, for example).
Mature Adult The last stage is what I might refer to as the mature adult. In this case we are looking at someone who has come to that place in life where he or she feels very much at home with themselves, with who they are, and what it is they are doing in life. And so it should be for the mature Christian. We should come to that place where we feel we know ourselves well and how we can make our best contribution to the work of Christ’s kingdom. This stage is characterized by a sense of settledness and wisdom. It is the result of years of walking with God through faith in Christ and experiencing the ministry of the Holy Spirit (like Jesus in John 4:34).
Individuals and churches would do well to ask themselves where they are on a chart of this nature and what can be done to help individual Christians to experience each of these stages. It is a also a way of integrating the various perspectives on sanctification that, I think, could be benefical in thinking about the main emphases in pastoral ministry and the pursuit of unity within the body of Christ.