Has “Spiritual Maturity” Lost Its Meaning?

In research for a book project on spiritual maturity, I fear I am discovering that “spiritual maturity” as a term no longer has any currency in Christian talk.  I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday, talking with the manager about this matter and looking at books on the shelves.  “Spirituality” has become the generic term, which, of course, I knew, but the idea that people don’t recognize “spiritual maturity” is more than a little worrisome.

I think I’ve blogged before (I admit, I didn’t check my archives) about the Barna Group – now over a year ago – doing a phone survey on this very matter.  They discovered that neither church leaders nor rank-and-file Christians know how to define “spiritual maturity.”  In fact, the most commonly offered attempt at a definition was “following the rules” (See “Barna Update” for May 11, 2009, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12).  To say the least, we ought to be concerned about this shocking lack of awareness.

I don’t remember which Supreme Court justice said it, but, in hearing the challenges of obscenity laws back in the 1960s, said something like, “I don’t know how to define ‘obscenity,’ but I recognize it when I see it.”   I think the same could be said for spiritual maturity, or, at least, I’d like to be able to say it.  Can we recognize spiritual maturity when we see it even if we can’t define it?  Or do we really think that merely “following the rules” satisfies?  If this is the case, we have drifted a far, far distance from the mark.

Which brings me back to my question: does the term “spiritual maturity,” or “spiritually mature” mean nothing any more?  If so, what word goes in its stead?  “Spirituality” does not cut it for me.  I work in higher education and “spirituality” has crept into our discourse as a replacement for “religion.”  Generally, writings from this quadrant oppose the terms “spirituality” and “religion.”  “Religion,” it is said, has to do with external, institutional and legal matters.  “Spirituality,” on the other hand, refers to expanded consciousness, compassion, openness toward (the omnipresent) “other,” justice, and the like.  To be too blunt (I admit, I’ve become quite frustrated with this constant and ironic barrage about “bad religion,” “good spirituality”), most of the stuff I’ve read in this genre is incoherent and badly argued, filled with sweeping assumptions and redefinitions.  Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff.

So, I don’t like “spirituality” as a replacement for “spiritual maturity.”  And I’m worried that most Christians – if the Barna Update is accurate – don’t understand an absolutely fundamental aim of the Christian life.  Golly, if we don’t understand this point, what do we think being Christian is all about?

My question offered to anyone willing to respond: does “spiritual maturity” no longer have meaning for Christians?

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. internet elias says:

    Wonderful post. Timely question. I do believe ‘spiritual maturity’ fell to the wayside when, seemingly, the Christian masses began to blend with the traditions of man rather than follow the precepts of God….to their fulness…Spiritual Maturity. I’m numbered with the masses. God continues to compell me concerning the importance of shaking off all the debris of denominational traditions and grasping hold of the unadulterated Truth….holiness through renewal, regeneration, and sanctification by way of ‘following’ Christ…led by the Holy Spirit.

    Again, very good post.

    Carolyn

  2. Guy Chmieleski says:

    Steve,

    You’ve raised a very important question here… and unfortunately, it’s not one very many people are asking, or even seem to be concerned about. I just left a retreat with 25 other campus ministers from Christian colleges and universities across the US and Canada. On our agenda was distinguishing the differences between teaching and training our students up in the faith. We had some great dialogue about hoe students learn best and how best (as much as it is humanly possible) we can assess the spiritual formation of others (specifically college students). All this to say that there are many if us, like you, who do care about becoming spiritually mature and training others to do so as well!

    Thanks for encouraging us all to ‘strive towards the goal.’

    Grace and peace.

  3. In my work with the General Board of Discipleship I have worked with many United Methodist congregations in all parts of the US. I, lamentably, must agree with your assessment that “spiritual maturity” is not part of the conversation or concern of the vast majority of United Methodist congregations. I suspect part of the reason is the lack of teaching and preaching on Christian perfection (holiness of heart and life, sanctification) in the vast majority of UM churches.

  4. Sure enough, “Spirituality” has become something of a post-New-Age melting pot for vague non-committal feelings. But I do wonder whether “spiritual maturity” is a useful concept. Who talks of themselves as “mature” ? Kids who feel they can finally claim they have become grownups but still have a lot to learn and experience. I have the feeling that calling oneself “spiritually mature” would soon shade off into some sort of smug self-satisfaction suggesting “Now that I’m born again, my quest has culminated and I have nothing left to learn; I can sit back comfortably and stop asking questions — perhaps even become nicely judgmental about people who think differently”. The wonderful thing about faith is that loving God (not unlike loving people) remains a constant quest, a constant growth, a constant discovery, and keeps fostering an endless sense of awe and wonder. It would be a pity to sit back, relax and take it all for granted, to say “now I have matured, there is no need to grow or mature more”. A faith that no longer looks forward runs the risk of becoming stagnant. Like “perfection” (Wesley’s synonym for maturity I suppose) I would see maturity as an aim to be pursued, not as a stage to be reached in this earthly existence. And certainly not as a badge to be conferred upon oneself or even others. Like so many other things, I would leave that to God.

    • Absolutely, maturity is an aim, not a stage. This is part of the difficulty: “perfect” in the Biblical sense is a dynamic reality, not a plateau on which we can stand. So, to use maturity, it would be a “maturing maturity,” something always moving.

      This is part of my problem. I don’t know what word to use to describe the aim. We need an aim.

      Sorry for the slow response. I forgot how WordPress works with comments. I got rusty.

  5. I use the phrase “spiritual maturity” regularly in my teaching and preaching. I haven’t felt very successful, however, in leading people to take it up as something distinct and distinctly worth pursuing.

    The folks out there who seem to have the healthiest push this direction are those I’ve seen associated with the Renovare movement. But for most the folks in my church, the discipline involved in pursuing spiritual maturity just requires too much effort. They’re busy people, with full lives. And it’s so easy to settle for “going to heaven when you die,” or “being a good person.”

    I’ve noticed that using the Wesleyan word “perfect” is not a help. The folks I’m around hear the word, lapse into “we all know that no one is perfect [but Jesus!],” and then instantly give up.

    • Thanks, Richard. (Sorry for the slow response. I forgot how to use WordPress.) I wonder if we just keep talking about it until people start to notice and begin to ask questions. I’m regularly perplexed about how the “grand depositum,” the one emphasis for which Methodists were chiefly called into existence, is no exmphasis at all.

  6. i was made familiar with the term “spiritual” only a year ago and didn’t understand the term, until it was simply put that its a relationship with christ. But hen wouldn’t it be called a spiritual relationship?

    and i believe that spiritual maturity is the building of the relationship and the christian character.

    • I apologize for the slow response. (I forgot how WordPress works.) Maturity in Christ is about character, but the problem is, we tend to limit talk of “character” to moral and ethical behavior. We don’t talk enough about what motivates such behavior, assuming, perhaps, that we can attribute it to the Holy Spirit. I would agree that the Holy Spirit does this work in us, but it still is worth our time to reflect on the changes in our motives that take place as we grow in Christ.

      • Hey,Steve, why should a believer who trusts in Christ for eternal salvation nevertheless decide it is best for them to consciously sin against God? I write about it on my Blog, “Become Like Jesus Now”. I advocate a spiritual discipline I call Treasure Exchange©. check it out, bro. Tad Wyoming

  7. Steve, most of my posts were down for a while. If you missed them, they are up now. Christian maturity is the thrust of my blog, called Become Like Jesus Now Blog. TW

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: