Sometimes the maturing process in Scripture refers to preparing people for church leadership roles. Paul seemed to have this in mind when he admonished Timothy to entrust the “pattern of sound teaching” to faithful men who could transfer this truth to another generation of believers (2 Tim. 1:11-2:2). In other places, the Scriptures refer to church leaders as elders, spiritual shepherds, or overseers entrusted with the care and nurture of others (2 Pet. 5:1-3; Eph. 4:11-16). But growth to maturity is for every believer, not just the appointed leaders of the church. Our zeal to equip should extend to all believers (Col. 1:28-29).
In fact, growth to maturity should include both equipping leaders and assisting believers not yet ready for leadership roles. Leadership in the church differs from leadership in other settings. Of course, some important gifts and skills (charisma, initiative, communication, commanding presence, etc.) carry over into the church. God uses these abilities along with other gifts when He calls people into leadership. But the defining qualities for leaders in the church are character-driven, and godly character comes from equipping as a mature disciple (2 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
Regardless of their leadership ability, younger believers should not be appointed to leadership roles until they are spiritually mature enough for the challenge (1 Tim. 3:6, 10). On the other hand, mature Christians who may not possess natural leadership ability can function effectively in some leadership roles.
Part of Jesus’ approach to help believers mature was the gradual development of leaders. At the right time, a leadership role can serve as a critical part of spiritual development. Growth occurs when believers trust and obey God and assume responsibility for others whether through an official church office or not. In fact, a leadership role may be as simple as the casual but definite task of a friend who works hard to encourage others.
A Proper Perspective
Three men digging a ditch on a scorching summer afternoon were approached by a passerby, who asked, “What are you guys doing?”
The first, already weary from exertion, responded impatiently, “What does it look like? We’re digging a hole!”
The second added some information: “We’re building a foundation pad. This hole’s going to be filled with concrete.”
The third man, who had been whistling happily while he labored, laid his shovel aside and wiped his forehead. He then explained how this particular hole would help them place one of the massive flying buttresses needed to support an entire wall of stained glass windows for a new cathedral. After describing in great detail the planned building process, he added, “See that rubbish pile? If things go according to plan, on Christmas Eve five years from now, my family and I will worship together at the altar in that same spot.”
All three men were working hard at the same task. But their attitudes varied markedly with their perspectives. The man who could see the unseen had the best attitude and the most energy. Proper perspective enables us to survey a situation and see beyond what’s happening to its significance and to develop strategies for what should happen next. Perspective provides hope when times are tough. And tough times are when hope emerges in mature people.
The root causes of our current crisis of maturity are complex, but as Christians, we must shoulder some of the responsibility. Though individual believers and some faith communities have found ways to grow and develop, the Church at large has lost much of the capacity to live in the world as salt and light. We haven’t made growth toward spiritual maturity a primary goal the way Scripture commands (Matt. 28:18-20; Col. 1:27-29).
In essence, the maturation processes in the Church have either collapsed or been neglected. When maturation processes collapse, mature leaders fail to emerge. Without mature leaders, families suffer, churches neglect priorities, businesses fail, and in time, cultures crumble.
We’re again at a pivot-point. Will this be our greatest catastrophe or our finest hour? It depends on our perspective of God and His Kingdom. Without a vision for maturity, it might be easy to lose hope and become weary. Are we digging ditches, or are we building something wonderful to the glory of God?
A Reason to Hope
There’s growing evidence of an emerging movement that will help us recapture a much-needed emphasis on maturity. Younger believers are searching for a more robust, biblical understanding of the gospel. A new generation of church leaders insists that the good news involves more than justification. It also includes growth to maturity. These leaders urge us to appreciate and apply the grace that forgives at every stage of the maturation process. This gospel-centered discipleship embraces a grace-driven process that encourages humility, produces relational honesty, and leads to maturity. Stressing the need for authentic community, spiritual growth, and good works, this process encourages believers to grow up.
John Burke sums up the need for an authentic maturity by saying:
Our generation longs for something authentic. They are searching for “the real thing,” though they don’t really know what “the real thing” is. Because this generation has endured so much “me-ism” and letdown from those they were supposed to follow and trust, they want to see a genuine faith that works for less-than-perfect people before they are willing to trust. They want to know this God-thing is more than talk, talk, talk. They desperately want permission to be who they are with the hope of becoming more. They aren’t willing to pretend, because hypocrisy repulses them. But most have yet to realize that every person is a hypocrite to some degree – the only question is whether we realize it and are honest about it.
Jonathan Dodson says,
The disciples of Jesus were always attached to other disciples. They lived in authentic community. They confessed their sins and struggles alongside their successes – questioning their Savior and casting out demons. They continually came back to Jesus as their Master and eventually as their Redeemer. As the disciples grew in maturity, they did not grow beyond the need for their Redeemer. They returned to Him for forgiveness. As they began to multiply, the communities they formed did not graduate from the gospel that forgave and saved them. Instead, churches formed around their common need for Jesus. The gospel of Jesus became the unifying center of the church. As a result, the communities that formed preached Jesus, not only to those outside the church but also to one another inside the church.
These men are right. The gospel Christ offers both justifies and sanctifies. May God strengthen their hands and increase their influence, and do the same of others like them. May He use them to drive back Satan and usher into the church a new season of Christ-like maturity.
God is not unaware of or indifferent to the current crisis. In the past, He’s sometimes hidden His prophets in caves, keeping them safe until a day of restoration dawns. He’s sovereign over the nations (Psalm 2), Lord of His church, and ready to defend the honor of His name and renew His people. Throughout history, whenever it seemed as if the people of God were defeated, the troubles they faced became the catalyst for fresh hope, renewal, and victory.
Sometimes refocusing perspective and building character requires hardship and defeat. Romans 8:28-29 affirms this as it reminds us, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son.”
Helping people mature is not easy. Growing disciples face many obstacles, including the enemy, who hates the idea of mature believers. But satanic opposition, though real, is only one of the problems. As this chapter has shown, we seem to have lost our way or developed corporate amnesia regarding the process and priority of helping people mature. Lacking a clear strategy about how to help people grow, we opt for hit-or-miss tactics or repeat traditional approaches only because they’re familiar.
The way is difficult and at times hard to understand. Discovering and implementing a process that produces maturity requires humility, courage, and faith. But the outcome is worth it, both now and for eternity.
 John Burke, “No Perfect People Allowed” (Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan, 2005), p. 69-70.
 Jonathan Dodson, “Gospel Centered Discipleship” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), p. 17.
Robert D. (Bob) Dukes is the President and Executive Director of Worldwide Discipleship Association (WDA), headquartered in Fayetteville, Georgia.
[This is an excerpt from Bob’s forthcoming book from WDA, Maturity Matters: A Biblical Framework for Disciple Building.]