What to Do with the Problem of Immature Church Members
“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18).
“By this time you ought to be teachers, (but) you need someone to teach you the first principles of God, and have come to need milk and not solid food.” (Hebrews 5:12).
A church leader was venting. “We have so many immature members. And the problem is, they want to stay that way!”
The leader said, “How do we deal with our discouragement? How can we keep from becoming Pharisees who constantly see their faults and not their potential? And how do we love those who cause so much trouble in the church by their immature actions?”
The letter concluded, “I feel like I’m in danger of becoming like the Ephesus church, the one which had lost its first love.” A reference to Revelation 2:1-7.
My first thought upon reading the question was: “You’re not alone, my friend. Every spiritual leader fights that same battle, although not to the same extent.”
Let’s do a quick Bible study on the subject, then allow me to make some observations…
Paul saw the Corinthian church split asunder as a result of immaturity. He said, “I could not speak to you as to spiritual people, but as to carnal, as to infants in Christ.” (1 Corinthians 3:1).
Well. That was pretty plain. Wonder how they took that. (Paul was safely at Ephesus, and thus insulated from the barbs of the worst of the bunch.)
Paul continued, “I fed you with milk and not solid food… For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (3:2-3)
Their immaturity showed up in a number of problems which are dealt with throughout this epistle: lawsuits among members, immorality, splintering into cliques, favoritism, pride over spiritual gifts, etc.
What was Paul’s remedy for these spiritual dwarfs? He reminded them of who they were in Christ. “We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field; you are God’s building” (3:9). “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (3:16). “Let a man so consider us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (4:1). Then, he said…
“I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you” (4:14).
So, the immature in Christ need to be reminded of who they are in Christ, of what they might become, and the dangers of failing to be what God intends.
And they were to love. 1 Corinthians 13 stands as the gold standard of Christian behavior. Love covers a multitude of things, to be sure.
Okay. Here then are some observations on the problem of spiritual immaturity in a congregation…
1. As long as a church is reaching new people for Christ, it will have immature members. So that part is good.
2. The bad thing is when–as my friend wrote–the church is filled with the immature. When no one is growing, when the immature are calling the shots around there, the news is all bad.
3. Ideally, a church will never select leaders from among the spiritual infants. But pity the pastor when the entire jury pool, so to speak, is filled with the immature. (One good thing about a larger church is that when some leader begins acting childish, others will speak up and not let them get by with it.)
4. What to do about a non-growing church membership? Two suggestions:
a. Find the few who seem to be open to growing in Christ–to trying something new, to studying the word, to making changes however tiny–and go with them. Put your emphasis on those who are responding but without neglecting the others. (In a garden, you fertilize the plants showing promise.)
b. Find the least demanding spiritual disciplines you can and start there. Lead the infants to take baby steps first. What might that include? Here are some things that come to mind; you’ll think of others...
- Give everyone three printed invitations to some upcoming church program to hand out to neighbors, co-workers, extended family. (Anyone can do three! Surely.)
- Ask everyone to “Pause tomorrow at noon and pray for (whatever; the pastor, some upcoming event, or someone in need).” (Just one time; it won’t cost anything; everyone can do it.)
- Tell the church of someone in the news who needs encouragement. Give them paper and ask them to write a note of love and hope and place in “this basket” and we will mail them all tomorrow. (Find small things. Easily done. But possibly with big impacts.)
5. As for business meetings where the immature have been known to show their colors, leaders should go into these with lessened expectations. Quit expecting that “tonight everything will be perfect.” Instead, even though you are praying for unity and harmony, be prepared in your mind for the carnal to make an appearance and not to let it bother you.
6. Pray, pray, pray. And then pray some more. Make a list of a dozen or 20 members who need to grow or show some signs of responding, and pray for them daily. Tell no one about your list. It’s between yourself and your Lord. I can assure you the Lord and you want the same thing here, so you are praying on solid ground.
7. When you see positive developments, encourage the person. Do not say anything condescending (“Well, it’s about time!” or “You’re finally beginning to see the light!”) but be sweet. “Thank you for what you said in the business meeting, Charlie.” Drop him or her a quick note. Two sentences are sufficient, just enough to call attention to the value of what they did/said and to thank them.
8. When you call on shut-ins or newcomers or visitors to your church, take along a member. Tell them they do not have to do anything but you would like them to accompany you. The best way to catch fire is to stand close to something burning. Presumably, you are that something ablaze for the Lord.
And one more: When you find yourself in a casual setting a with leader of another church ask, “What have you found that works in helping the immature to grow in the Lord?” I can almost guarantee you some of your ministry friends will have some great ideas on this.
As always, keep your eyes on the Lord and not on the people. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve, said Paul in Colossians 3:24. It’s our faithfulness He seeks; the results are His business.
Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/Jupiterimages