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Spiritual Intelligence

  • Alan Nelson Former pastor, church planter and author of Spiritual Intelligence; founder of; for free teaching materials on SI, go to
  • Updated May 05, 2011
Spiritual Intelligence

"Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times" (Mark 4:3-8).

As you know, Jesus' parable of the seed and soils is one of the most preached passages in Scripture. Yet beyond its deep spiritual meaning, it serves as a powerful metaphor for why our preaching often yields little fruit. For the savvy pastor, this parable provides more than anesthesia, easing our pain by explaining the reason of lean preaching harvest. It also can serve as a stewardship insight that propels us to focus more on soil preparation in order for the seeds we sow to bear significant fruit.

I grew up on a farm in Iowa and remember my dad making "oat dolls." He'd wrap seeds of oats in a cloth and tie it off in a 2- or 3-inch ball so they didn't not fall out, which gave it the "doll" look. Dad put it in a pan with a little water and placed it on the windowsill for sunlight and warmth. After a set number of days, he'd untie the doll and count how many of the seeds germinated. By tabulating the percent of sprouts, he could determine how productive this seed would be and whether it was suitable or not for planting.

Most of Dad's effort wasn't invested in better seed development. He put a majority of his time and energy into soil preparation. He sent soil samples to the Federal Department of Agriculture at Iowa State University to find out the chemical make up of the soil and what it needed for certain crops. Then he'd plow, disc, add chemicals and fertilize the soil so that when the seeds were planted at the right time, they'd stand the best chance of producing a good harvest.

Most pastors invest a lot of time and energy into seed preparation, only to wonder why they see such little outcome after years of planting. The typical pastor spends more than 20 hours a week in message preparation and delivery. Multiply this by 300,000 congregations in the United States. Factor in an average salary of $40,000 per year. The result is a weekly investment of around $15,000,000 for sermon production in America. How's our return on investment?

Forget the economics. Anyone in ministry more than a decade understands the frustration of wondering whether our people are getting it: board members gone wild, staff implosions, betrayals, bickering, mediocre stewardship, church hopping and the pettiness we see in ours and other congregations make us wonder how effective preaching and teaching really are. While Bible conservatives may criticize watered-down content as the cause, lukewarm spirituality is also rampant in their tribes, disguised by pious talk and camouflaged in doctrinal parroting.

The bottom line is that most Christians, in spite of great preaching and teaching, merely transition from spiritual Pampers to Depends. They never grow up. We confuse longevity in church (chronos) with maturity (kairos). Is the problem the overwhelming power of sin or the underwhelming umph of the Gospel or our preaching? Or could there be another factor here that we've overlooked? While I'm all for better preaching, more effective communication, and continual honing of expository skills, most of us would do well to assess how we're doing in soil prep.

Emotional Intelligence
A few years ago, Daniel Goleman and his colleagues popularized the concept of emotional intelligence (EI), the study of how people succeed and fail in their ability to read others socially and self-awareness as to how they are being perceived. After Emotional Intelligence, they authored a potent book called Primal Leadership, explaining how a leader's emotional intelligence impacts his or her effectiveness. While emotional intelligence is related to a Christian's ability to communicate spiritual fruit, there's a factor beyond EI that I've termed spiritual intelligence (SI).

After 50 years of attending church and 25 years of leading in it, the issue that amazes me most is how few people mature in spite of decades of sermon hearing, Bible studying and ministry involvement. I've come to realize the main reason we don't see more maturity in our people is not flawed doctrine, mediocre preaching teaching quality, sin or an unwillingness in our people. Lack of maturity is primarily a result of flawed ministry methods.

I don't mean musical style, visual software or any number of programmatic tweaks that evolve every few years. Rather, how we do church does not mirror the methods Jesus used to disciple the Twelve. While there are similarities, for the most part we never experience the synergy of the combined strategies Jesus employed. In fact, we rarely even take the time to unpack His approach to growing people.

We're quite fond of expounding upon Jesus' teachings, miracles and journeys, but we typically overlook how He did ministry. In contrast to today's church, Jesus implemented significantly different methods in the way He grew souls. Because Jesus was God and knew His time was limited, certainly He would have employed methods most apt to produce results. It was a conscious stewardship decision. We would be wise to analyze and replicate His means.

So what did Jesus do? If you study His methods, you'll find something quite different than what is scheduled during any given week in the typical local church and certainly not what most of us do as pastors. Yet it has everything to do with growing spiritually intelligent people who become authentically mature, not just putting in time storing one more Bible study or sermon. I'll leave it up to you to compare and contrast what you do with Jesus' means, but spiritual intelligence methodology is key to seeing greater results from our preaching.

SI Methods
Four methods stand out as you analyze the way Jesus developed His followers' souls. They are not necessarily sequential or effective when standing alone. Therefore, if you emphasize any one of the four aspects of Jesus' SI methodology, you lose the impact. They work synergistically. After a mere three years, 11 of the 12 changed the world dramatically.

Travel Team: The first method involved handpicking a group of 12. We'll call them His Travel Team because they went with Him from village to village, setting up camp, assisting in events, interacting with Him along with observing how He dealt with others. Two things stand in stark contrast to the way we typically do ministry in the American church. We avoid hand choosing our Travel Team, preferring to take anyone interested; and we do not really travel with them. We set up shop, if at all possible a physical location with chairs, offices and sound system, then invite everyone to come visit us. Jesus strategically selected a decentralized approach to ministry. In essence, He did life with them. Most of us pull people out of their lives for training and spiritual interaction.

While we can't know for sure what was going on in Jesus' mind when He chose this method, we can see that building a facility in a single location and inviting people to come hear Him preach was not a priority to Him. Ironically, we see Him leaving people, dismissing crowds and operating incognito at various times. Why did He select these 12 men? We don't know that either, but perhaps it had to do with knowing who was wired to lead, who would make the commitment, and even in Judas' case, who might serve the bigger objective as a betrayer.

Jesus invested a majority of His time with a few who eventually would multiply His work. By going shallow with many, people never escape velocity. They must be in a covenantal relationship with a few who will look them in the eyes and hold them accountable; otherwise the challenge of moving out of one's spiritual status quo will not happen. In spite of wonderful preaching, most biblical truths roll off our backs by the time we reach the parking lot. Unless we intentionally create a culture in which people are connected for intentional spiritual growth, maturity rarely happens.

The typical small group is inept at this, primarily because it is non-covenantal. I'm a big fan of small groups, but most are not suitably structured to create the level of accountability needed to implement spiritual truths in our lives. There are five basic levels of accountability:

Level 1: Politely friendly: Ultra light accountability, such as people who know each other at the coffee shop: "Hey, didn't see you last couple of weeks." "Yeah, been out on vacation."

Level 2: Socially affirming: Light accountability where people intentionally pursue friendships, but not at the level of significantly changing their lives; voluntary commitment that lapses with pressure; typical of small groups and Sunday Schools.

Level 3: Mutually earned: Strong but generally positive accountability; people in the group commit to grow together, experiencing life together so they get to know each other in various settings beyond pretense and know when people are and are not being authentic and can confront them lovingly because they also affirm them sufficiently and have earned the right to raise issues if and when they arise.

Level 4: Voluntarily surrendered: One person becomes the subject of more intense scrutiny and higher accountability, similar to a therapist and client, personal trainer or a recovery group "sponsorship." Accountability tends to be one-way.

Level 5: Involuntarily coerced: Behavior is changed because of a highly controlled environment or direct threat of punishment; very high accountability; one-way. Incarceration, garnishing of wages, forced hospitalization; physical and/or legal restraints.

The Travel Team typically incorporates Level 3 accountability that is mutually earned. Chances are slim that Jesus could have gotten away with a follower "Satan" in a typical church or small group and have him or her stick around. Because the Twelve made a commitment to each other and experienced love, affirmation and life, they stuck together through the difficult times. People fail to mature because they've not intentionally developed a formal or informal covenantal relationship with others who have earned the right to confront them or hold them accountable to grow through the difficult phases. They inevitably bump up against issues in their lives that need changing, whether it's a personal addiction, attitude, decision or behavior.

Alone or in a low accountability setting, such as a congregation or typical small group, people rarely push through the pain associated with growth. That is why churches are filled with Bible-smart people who never have experienced abundant fruit bearing that's characteristic of maturity. Great preaching minus a Travel Team yields biblical experts who are prone to spiritual pride, Pharisaical and been-there-heard-that attitudes, lacking genuine depth and humility that are indicative of spiritual intelligence.

Directions pertain to biblical truths, as well as content that is complementary to them. I have met many pastors who choose a verse-by-verse expositional style and are very condemning of those who do not. They believe their analysis of a particular passage or doctrine is superior to another's, creating an atmosphere of criticism and contention among preachers, churches and doctrinal camps.

What did Jesus do? He did not simply expose the ancient scriptures, line-by-line, word-by-word. He sometimes tapped content from the prophets, sometimes created new stories for illustration and deeper meaning and frequently pulled from events of the day. "Ah, but we're not Jesus. We don't create truth by merely speaking." True, yet we do add to truth when we expose and re-present it in our sermons and books. We provide our take on the original meaning. In doing so, we change it, whether we want to or not.

Jesus provided directions for his Travel Team. Without good content, a group is little more than a social club or fraternal organization. Certainly the Bible should be a strong presence in a Travel Team, but God also cna speak through events, music, art, conversations and circumstances. The Bible reflects all of these so that when we believe the Bible is the only way the Holy Spirit speaks truth to people, we are liable to miss many messages God has for us.

The goal is to synthesize truth into our lives, not segregate it to a classroom, intellectual discussion or rely on lecture (i.e. typical sermons). Rather, Jesus interacted with his Travel Team about what He taught. The team wrestled with it. He often followed up with more teaching based on the members questions. He frequently taught with questions versus answers. Study the questions Jesus asked and you can see how this method alone engages people more deeply in learning than info dumping, which tends to be very Western and passive.

Experiencing the journey is a third SI method. It has to do with getting out of the classroom, lecture hall and living room for preaching and Bible studies. Watch how Jesus worked. He was on the go, not stationary. While a majority of His time involved interacting with His Travel Team, He also used big events as a means to teach them, with opportunities to learn by doing. Whether it was feeding the 5,000, crossing the troubled lake, raising a dead man or any number of other events, Jesus' Travel Team got to experience God at work in their lives and others'. Experiential learning is a powerful method because it works on the heart more than the intellect.

Consider the difference in looking at a friend's pictures of his or her recent vacation and personally walking the streets of Paris with your family. How does watching a missionary's slides compare with taking a trip to Nigeria to hold an Aids baby? People get excited by what they experience. Classroom, sanctuary and living room conditions for spiritual growth do not possess the ability to replicate the impact of a multi-sensory experience. Travel Teams camping, feeding the poor and doing short-term missions trips together not only bond more deeply, but they learn to read and feed each other spiritually.

The weak link of most serving experiences is that we do them with people with whom we've not established a covenantal relationship for spiritual growth. Community service junkies don't acquire SI because they lack a Travel Team for knowing and being known and unpacking the shared memories together.

The fourth method Jesus employed was Path Finding. He served as the Path Finder for His Travel Team and then -- at the end of three years -- charged them to do the same. A Path Finder is part mentor, teacher and guide, but different from each. The typical sequence is: Find a Path Finder, become someone else's Path Finder while you have your own then serve as a Path Finder to keep growing spiritually. You don't have to be gifted at leading, teaching or organization to Path Find for others, but you do need to facilitate life and spiritual discussions with a Travel Team that is doing life together around scriptures, experiences and a commitment to each other.

The reason we have so many bored-out-of-their-gourd Christians is because after so many years, they have heard a majority of what there is to hear from our preaching and have become passive pew-sitters. The reticular activators in their brains literally screen out things we say that they've heard numerous times before. They are, in many ways, neurologically confined by their previous spiritual experiences. Some hop churches for something else while others stay to become self-appointed pastor critics. We're not sure which we like least.

Ray Ortlund was one of my Path Finders early in my ministry. One day we asked him, "Ray, why do you do this? You're officially retired and we don't pay you to meet with us as you do." Ray said, "Because I need it." At the time, I chalked it up to Ray's humility; but I later learned what he meant. He needed to serve as a Path Finder for others, not because he'd arrived but as a means to help him continue on his journey.

Most Christians pull off on the side of the road on their trips. They're still on the road, technically; but they've stopped progressing. They add one more sermon, one more ministry event, one more Bible study to their spiritual portfolio; but they'll never become spiritually intelligent.

Striving to provide top-drawer preaching and teaching is an important responsibility of pastors; but thanks to technology, the finest in sermons and orators are now available, 24/7 via the Internet, iTunes downloads, DVDs and cable programming.

The main purpose of the local church is to create a structure by which parishioners can grow their souls via the methods Jesus used with His followers. If you want to see significantly improved, long-term results from your preaching, consider how you can improve the soil conditions. While it is not traditionally what pastors and churches do today, it is required for our people to become spiritually intelligent.