Part 4 of my recent article on reasons why apparently believing people might decline to get serious about their local church.
Are they growing as disciples or have they stalled?
A useful question to ask is: where do the plateaux come in the Christian life? And why? At what stages do people reach a plateau in their discipleship and stay there rather than take the next step?
One of the major plateaux for quite a lot of people comes when they have been a Christian a couple of years. They are converted, know they belong to God, 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. Others are comfortable 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. The major way we learn about God up to this point is by receiving biblical teaching from others. It's the way an infant feeds, needing the parent to dish up the sustenance 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, if a person doesn't know how to move from receiving to self-feeding. Especially if they have failed to grasp one of the other foundational factors above. It is all too easy for church leaders to 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 hard.
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 a 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 greater the percentage of people who are in this category, the harder it is to bring about change in church life.
Ask these people to get heartily involved in the life of the local church and you will meet resistance. They are passive receivers, remember? Spiritual consumers who attend to avail themselves of a product that someone else provides. Someone recently said to me "when I have dental problems I go to a dentist, and legal problems to a lawyer. When I have spiritual problems I go to the church leader. I don't expect the lawyer ask me to get involved in his legal practice or the dentist to offer to teach me how to do dentistry for myself, but to receive their services. Why is church any different?"
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, perhaps, for all new believers and anyone who knows they would like help to go on.
Leaders need to realise 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.