Where do the plateaux come in the Christian life? That is a subject of some recent interesting research by Willow Creek about their own church life. Most of us are very different to WC, but some of their observations are interesting. They identify four stages in discipleship: exploring about God, young believer, going-for it and completely yielded [my paraphrase, without the book to hand].
The interesting thing is what are the factors that help people move on from one stage to the next? And what will hinder them doing so? At which stages do people reach a plateau and stay there rather than take the next step? And why?
One of the major plateaux for quite a lot of people is between stage two and stage three. People are converted, know they belong to Jesus, pray to him and read their Bible to a degree, but don't really hunger for more. Some folk at this point realise there is more but don't know how to get over the hurdle. Some folk are comfortable and happy where they are and don't want to commit further. For them we should be concerned. Some don't realise that they are meant to grow. For them we need to help awaken a hunger for what God might do in their lives.
One of the reasons people plateau at this point is the need to move from being a receiver to being a self-feeder. Let me explain. The major way you learn about God up to this point is by receiving biblical teaching from others, whether one to one, on a Sunday or in a mid week. It's the way an infant feeds, needing the parent to dish up the goodies but unable to take responsibility for themselves yet. But at some point all infants have to grow up by feeding themselves. It is the same spiritually. At some point all believers have to know how to read, comprehend and appropriate the Bible for themselves rather than just rely on others doing it for them.
I think it is possible to remain on this plateau a long time, perhaps many years, because a person doesn't know how to move from receiving to self-feeding. And because church leaders assume that everybody is a self-feeder. The longer someone remains on the plateau the more it seems normal, and the harder it gets for people see that they need to grow. Producing a hunger for growth in someone who hasn't grown for years and is happy where they are is
There will be some people on the plateau who don't want to come off it. They are comfortable there and don't see the need for change. They will be nervous about challenge to go somewhere unfamiliar. In the worst case they may even sit under biblical teaching every week but with a sufficiently impenetrable defensive screen that they persuade themselves that it isn't for them, that they don't need to apply what is taught, or that it is simply beyond them. The Old Testament will certainly remain a closed book, but the whole Bible might. They will resist the very changes in church life that are designed to help them go on with God. The more people who are in this category, the harder it is to bring about change in church life.
What is the answer to this plateau? Surely it is every church having some mechanism for teaching everyone solid, basic principles for reading and appropriating scripture for themselves. A "Bible Enjoyed" course for all new believers and anyone who knows they would like help to go on. This week our home group were chatting about how to help people get over the hurdle. Suggestions included a "pin it on your fridge" page in the weekly newssheet for taking sermon notes to look at through the week, a mentor that you could ring up and ask about a Bible passage you don't understand, writing down difficult bits to take to home group and ask the leader for help.
My need is to remember that there are real Christians who don't know how to read the Bible or to develop an increasing hunger for God. That's not their fault if they don't know how. It is the responsibility of leaders to help people see they are on a plateau and given them practical strategies for getting off it.