THE IMPORTANCE OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH & RENEWAL
By Rodney L. Pry, Executive Director of the PA State Sunday School Assn.
Like many Christians, I find the Book of Revelation challenging to read and understand. But, one section of the book that I find particularly interesting is the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor, in chapters 2 and 3. These messages were not just for those selected seven churches, but they also contain important messages for us and our churches today. The words of those two chapters carry inspiration, challenge, praise and condemnation. But, the letter that I find most troubling is the message to the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22). The basic message of that letter is conveyed in verses 15 and 16: “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish you were one of the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, I will spit you out of my mouth!”
As I read the words of the different messages to these seven churches, I have to wonder what God sees when he looks at our churches and Sunday schools today. Would he praise us for our work? Would he condemn us for our failures? Or, like the church at Laodicea, would he see us as neither hot nor cold…what we might today call a “wishy-washy” church or Sunday school?
Some of the biggest questions that we hear at the Pennsylvania State Sunday School Association relate to Sunday school and church growth and renewal. Attendance is down. It seems to get harder and harder to find teachers and leaders. And the general interest in programs like Sunday school seems to be at an all-time low.
Couple these questions with statistics that tell us that only about 10% of all churches and Sunday schools grew in attendance last year and that only about 2% of all Christians are actively involved in witnessing and inviting others to their church and Sunday school, and you start to get an even clearer picture of the problem.
There are no easy answers or magical solutions to the problems involved in bringing about Sunday school and church growth and renewal, but one of the things that I have observed over the years is that many of the problems that we have in our churches and Sunday schools are not so much problems in themselves as they are an indication of even deeper problems. And - I believe – many of these deeper problems are of a spiritual nature.
I believe that the first and most important step involved in church and Sunday school growth must be spiritual renewal and growth! The Book of Acts tells us of the activities of the Early Church and how they say phenomenal growth as the Word of God was proclaimed and as the believers received the Holy Spirit. Acts 9:31, for example, says, “The church then had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and it grew in strength and numbers. The believers were walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.”
As we look at our churches and Sunday schools today, can we say that our members are “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit?” Or, would be have to admit that many of our members quite “wishy-washy” in their faith – neither hot nor cold?
Certainly God wants every Christian to be on fire for him. He wants to be the number one love of each of our lives and He wants us to strive to live each and every day for Him.
A number of years ago I heard author and educator Tony Campolo use an illustration that supposedly had its origins with the great philosophers of Greece or Rome. In the illustration Tony said this, “Make a list of the 100 most important things in your life. Then study the list carefully and cross of the one thing that is of least importance, leaving you with a list of the 99 most important things in your life. Again, study the list and cross of the one thing that is of least importance. Continue to do this as you whittle the list down and whittle it down until you have just one thing remaining – THE most important thing in your life.” Do you know what that one remaining thing is? That, in fact, is your “god!” But, the question is, is it a capital “G” God – Jesus Christ – or a small “g” god, meaning something like your home, your car, your family, money, power, or fame?
For those of us who call ourselves Christians, can the number one priority in each of our lives be anything other than Jesus Christ? In Mark 12, Jesus was asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28b) Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all you mind, and all your strength.’” (Mark 12:29 & 30)
And, when Jesus Christ is truly the top priority in a person’s live, won’t their other priorities be different, too? Won’t they have a greater desire to read the Bible, to find out all that they possibly can about this one who is the number one love of their live? Won’t they want to pray more, to talk with the one who should be their closest friend? Won’t they want to talk with other Christians about spiritual matters? Won’t they have a greater desire to be in worship, Sunday school and Bible study? Won’t they want to tell others about Jesus Christ – their best friend? And, won’t they have a desire to invite others to come to their church and Sunday school?
But, what happens when Jesus Christ is not the top priority in a person’s life? Those things that are of a higher priority will push Jesus and the things related to doing His will to the side and out of the way. When that happens, will they have much of a desire to read the Bible, to pray, to be in Sunday school and church, and to witness and invite their friends? Probably not!
As I mentioned earlier, there are no easy fixes or magical answers to bringing about Sunday school and church growth and renewal. If you are to see increased attendance and a renewal spirit within your church and Sunday school, it will involve a lot of time, hard work, prayer and much more. But – again – I believe that the first step in the process must be centered the spiritual renewal and recommitment of each of your members to Jesus Christ and to doing His will.
But, what can we do to help bring about this spiritual growth? Messages from the pastor, Sunday school teachers and through every available media within the church must call members to spiritual renewal, revival and accountability. We must encourage everyone to read their Bibles even more, to pray more, to talk with other Christians and to hold each other spiritually accountable. We need to focus on Jesus Christ and doing his will throughout each day by reading Christian books and magazines, and by listening to Christian music, radio and TV. We should make every effort to attend Sunday school, worship and the other activities of our church more often. And, we should all get actively involved in sharing our love for Jesus Christ, our church and our Sunday school with others through witnessing and invitation.
An important reminder: We would all like to see our Sunday schools and churches grow, but don’t get caught up in thinking that this only includes increases in attendance numbers, offerings and membership. Remember, the more important growth that we should all strive for will involve things like increase knowledge of God’s Word, deeper spiritual commitment, greater faith and greater love for others.
Growth and renewal in any church or Sunday school will not happen overnight. It will be more of a process involving a number of steps, but – again – I believe that the most important first step in the process must be one of a spiritual nature – the spiritual growth and recommitment of each of your members.
In Second Peter, chapter one, Peter talks about this whole spiritual growth process. He says this, “So make every effort to apply the benefits of these promises (from God’s Word) to your life. Then your faith will produce a life of moral excellence. A life of moral excellence leads to knowing God better. Knowing God leads to self-control. Self-control leads to patient endurance, and patient endurance leads to godliness. Godliness leads to love for other Christians, and finally you will grow to have genuine love for everyone. The more you grow like this, the more you will become productive and useful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 1:5-8)
I often ask people why Sunday school is important to them. To me, it is important because of its basic purpose – Christian education or studying the Bible. But, why is the Bible important? Because of the central character of the book – Jesus Christ! And, why is Jesus important? Because, as He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” In other words, Jesus is the way – the only way!
Read the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation, and then take a good hard look at your Sunday school and church? Which of the seven church messages do you think God would send to you? Are you good and growing? Are you spiritually dead? Or, like so many churches, are you “lukewarm,” “neither hot nor cold?” If you are, remember that God is calling you to be on fire for Him and His Word. He is calling you to action! And, where must that action start? By focusing on the spiritual growth and renewal of each and every member of your church and Sunday school. With God’s help and guidance, we can see spiritual growth and we can see growth and renewal in each of our churches and Sunday schools…to His glory!