1. God is ultimately responsible for all spiritual growth
2. Effort, diligence, and discipline are absolutely necessary for growth
3. Spiritual growth potential may not be easy to see at first
4. Spiritual growth depends on an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ
5. Growth is primarily an inside-out process
6. Spiritual growth relates to every aspect of our lives
7. Growth happens most naturally within a close social context
It is no surprise that close-knit families and churches are nurturing nests for strong, growing Christians. Characterised by love, Christianity is learned primarily within the laboratory of human relationships. A family provides the most natural environment for children to learn to love and honour God. God’s plan has always been for parents to model, teach, and train their children within the intimacy of the home relationship. In Deuteronomy 6: 6 – 9, Moses instructs the leaders of each family unit in ancient Israel to first model their faith in front of their children, then to teach or impress God’s commandments on them, talking about them informally throughout daily activities, and finally, to post reminders throughout the house of God’s laws. The home combined both formal and informal teaching and was designed to be the richest educational environment for members to naturally learn to worship, love, and obey God.
An examination of both history and contemporary experience reveals even Christian parents fail to live up to their biblical responsibilities. When children grow up in an atmosphere of emotional warmth and encouragement, they are more apt to respond to the teachings of Christ as they are modeled by their parents. When children do not have the privilege of growing up in such a home, a compelling need to find this warmth and love in other places will develop. Such needs often lead to unwholesome fulfillments.
God provides the context of the multigenerational family of God as our opportunity to learn, grow, and develop into Christ-likeness. Healthy local churches provide a community where people of all ages, walks of life, ethnicities and vocations learn together to love God and other persons. This principle of diversity is clearly demonstrated by the dynamics of the first church in Jerusalem. As you read Acts 2: 42 – 47, observe the evidences of the quality of their community and its influence on the people in the surrounding areas.
One of the primary reasons for the growth of the early church was the sense of community its members enjoyed. People develop best when they feel a part of a close, caring, and committed group. People also learn best when they wrestle together with issues that are of immediate concern. The early church realized the only way they could fulfill the Great Commission and infiltrate a pagan world was by being unified as the family of God. Fellowship and community were strategic factors in the growth of the early church. The term fellowship, from the Greek word koinonia, was used to express the common partnership between fellow believers because of their close relationship with Jesus Christ.
Paul explains the dynamics of the body of Christ in helping people to grow in Ephesians 4: 11 – 16. As leaders in the church train people to serve and minister to one another, individuals in the fellowship are built up in unity and knowledge of Christ. When members of the body of Christ lovingly interact with one another, people become more Christ-like. Each person’s common relationship with Jesus Christ and the use of gifts and abilities in a significant way is what holds the body of Christ together. Analyzing this passage from an educator’s perspective helps us realize people learn and grow when: they are trained by experienced, older mentors; they are involved in a close, caring group; they are encouraged by their peers; they interact with significant other people; they use what they are learning on a daily basis; and when they see significance in what they are learning and doing in the lives of others.
8. Significant growth occurs within the context of frustration, suffering, or challenge
One major contribution educational psychology has made to the field of Christian education is we now understand more objectively what we have observed about how people learn. Simple reflection on the history of Christianity shows that persecution has made the church stronger. Some social science research has attempted to explain why this is so. Learning theorists point us to the only way some living organisms actually grow (or change) is by encountering an obstacle big enough to make them rethink the way they previously dealt with things. When faced with such challenges, the organism experiences initial frustration and discouragement. Yet, through a process of trial and error and evaluating options, the organism will eventually either overcome the obstacle or be controlled by the obstacle. Based on the assumption that all living organisms learn in similar ways, it is easy to apply this principle to people.
There is ample evidence in Scripture, also, to point to the principle that we often grow most through difficult times.
In 2 Thessalonians 1: 3, Paul commends the faith of those in the church. In the next verse Paul tells us what was taking place in their community that precipitated their growth: v. 4 - “Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials that you are enduring.” Throughout church history, persecution and suffering have only served to make the church stronger and more resilient.
Suffering is presented as a necessary, and even normal, part of the Christian’s life. Romans 8: 18 – 27 gives a clear theological rationale for the reality of suffering. Paul continues developing our understanding in Philippians 1:29 by stating “it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” While it is definitely true that suffering may be a part of the cost of following Jesus, it may be helpful if we were to discover some positive reasons for suffering. A significant clue comes from Hebrews 5: 8 – 9. Here the author explains one of the purposes of suffering in Jesus’ life. Christ, as both fully God and fully man, learned in the same way that we learn. He learned to obey His Father, the text says, through His suffering. After a life of perfect obedience, in the midst of severe suffering, He became the source of salvation for those who would follow in His footsteps. We cannot expect to learn any easier than did our Master. Suffering, then, is to be seen as an opportunity to learn obedience. The tests of suffering give us the chance to strengthen our faith in the Word of God rather than trust our feelings. Suffering becomes an instrument of pruning in our growth process to help us grow more directly toward the likeness of Christ. If our goal is to become more Christ-like and to know God more intimately, suffering is inevitable. Paul makes this connection clear in Philippians 3: 10 – 11: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Intimacy with Christ is closely connected with both the experience of the power of the Holy Spirit and the experience of suffering.
Suffering can be appreciated as a valuable part of the gift of salvation only if we understand how it helps us learn, grow, and develop more into Christ-likeness. God uses suffering and persecution in our lives to challenge us to higher levels of spiritual thinking and living. When seen in this light, suffering moves us closer to our goal of Christ-likeness. Suffering and persecution challenge the reasons why we follow the Lord. It might be relatively easy to obey God’s Word when it is profitable, it makes us feel good, or it brings us popularity, but the experience of suffering usually challenges these carnal motivations. By staying obedient to the Lord in the midst of suffering or temptation, Christians can strengthen their faith. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1: 12).