Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Water Turned into WIne


We’ve been going through the Gospel of John at the Windsor and just started the second chapter where Jesus and his disciples go the Wedding in Cana of Galilee. 

Most people know this story and it’s a great opportunity to talk about Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry.   In these studies, in the Gospels as well as the other books of the Bible, it’s often thought that it is easy to ask some general questions with the primary objective of getting a conversation going:

What did Mary ask Jesus to do?  Why do you think they ran out of wine?  What do you think is the purpose of this miracle?  Do you think all the water was turned into wine?

The idea is that when people participate they learn and grow.

However, just asking questions and letting people come up with the answers on what they believe the scriptures mean, can be problematic.   Jesus rebuked both those who didn’t understand the scriptures as well as those who twisted the words of Scripture or misapplied them.

The approach I take is to start with the general assumption that all of the Gospel of John has one primary purpose. That purpose was stated by the Apostle John in John 20:31 “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name”

The second step in the approach is the more difficult both in application as well as in definition.    It includes the idea of taking the scriptures ‘literally.’

Typically when someone asks if you take the Bible literally, you can get caught between the two extremes.   Some of the sayings in the Bible are obviously meant to be figurative.  Jesus says he is the door but He obviously is not made of wood.    However, assuming that the Bible is allegory or metaphor means you can make it say anything you want.        

The best way to understand the Bible and more importantly to teach it is to take a Literal, Grammatical and Historical approach to what is called exegesis, or finding the true meaning of what the author was saying through the inspiration of the Spirit of God.

Typically, people depart from the more literal meaning of the verses not because they are obviously figurative but because they are amazing, mighty and fantastic.

Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, the plagues of Egypt, the Virgin Birth and even the Resurrection of Jesus are Bible events that are to be taken literally.

Jesus made a reference to Jonah obviously because He believed it to be literally true as well.   He compared Jonah’s few days in the belly of a great fish to His own death and resurrection.

In the same way, some think it amazing, mighty and fantastic to think that Jesus would return.  However, the prophecies regarding Israel are being fulfilled in our day.   If you read the Bible and use a Literal, Grammatical and Historical approach to the prophecies of His second coming, there is much to be excited about what may be happening in the very near future.




Monday, May 21, 2018

Measuring Spiritual Growth


Is it a basketball game if no one keeps score?  I remember coaching our church’s basketball team for children.   It was a mixed team with girls and boys including my son, all under 9 years old.   When we played our first game I learned that we weren’t going to keep score. 

Someone had decided that it wasn’t “Christian” to be that competitive.  Most of us dads found that not keeping score just didn’t create the excitement or enthusiasm that a soccer, football or basketball game typically generated.   Fortunately there were plenty of Capri Sun drinks to keep the enthusiasm up.   One of the advantages of not keeping score was that we didn’t need a ‘mercy’ rule, which mercifully often ended some of my games back when I was only nine.

Some of that thinking that Christians shouldn’t keep score has limited the churches ability to measure spiritual growth.   Spiritual growth however should be a primary objective of our churches and without some measuring rod, some metric that can be employed, how do we know if we are effective?

Metrics are used in churches to keep track of things like attendance and giving.  Churches even keep track of more spiritual matters like Baptisms and commitments to Christ.  We know however that these activities don’t necessarily equate to true spiritual growth. Activity and attendance doesn’t necessarily parallel a change in the heart or the development of Christ-likeness.

Some significant attempts at spiritual measurements have been interesting and well documented.    Willow Creek conducted their ‘Reveal’ study in 2004 that analyzed over 6,000 extensive attendee surveys.  They reached out to hundreds of people that had left Willow Creek the previous years.   Then in 2007 an additional 5,000 surveys were completed.   

Willow Creek invested a considerable amount of money to conduct a very comprehensive and well-documented measurement of spiritual growth and satisfaction at their churches.  One of the preliminary and primary finding was that Involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth.[1]

If we take the findings of the Willow’s Reveal study as a starting point and apply some standard statistical probability analysis methodology I believe we have the opportunity to create a measurement tool that can give us some highly significant metrics.  One of the first hurdles that we have to address is that measurement and metrics are about identifying both positive and negative trends. They are not designed to measure absolutes.   In addition, a metric is only meaningful when used in comparisons and over time.  An individual score or metric is meaningless without a comparison.

For example, a quality rating for a hotel or a restaurant of 5 stars may be better than one with 4 stars but does not guarantee that the 5 star is perfect nor that the difference between the five star and four star is observable.

Hotel and motel four and five star ratings are based on things like hospitality, cleanliness, amenities, lobby hours and how long the concierge or room service may be available.  Churches need to find other classifications and qualities to measure.  Willow’s reveal study said that activity and attendance isn’t an appropriate “stand-alone’ measure so what should we use?

The Apostle Paul talks about measuring Spiritual growth in the 5th Chapter of Galatians.  He juxtaposes the acts of the flesh in 5:19-21 (sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy drunkenness, and orgies) with the fruit of the Spirit in 5:22&23 (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).

Rather than measure attendance or even more subjective things like satisfaction with the church, the services, music or pastor, why wouldn’t churches measure what actually matters?

Do we really want to measure whether people are ‘happy’ with the sermons, the music or the pastor?  The apostle Paul also said that “Godliness with Contentment is great gain,” (1 Tim 6:6) but from my perspective, contentment without godliness is just spiritual apathy or complacency.

In a statistically conducted survey there are some factors that determine whether the results of a survey are reliable.  If they are reliable, that means that the results of the survey are adequate to be able to predict that if EVERYONE was surveyed, the results would be similar.  We are used to hearing comments like “95% confident and “within the margin of error” which is a reference to what is known as a confidence interval.

If churches could find a simple, easily repeatable survey that could consistently be used to determine if people are growing spiritually – if people were becoming more Christ-like with regards to exemplifying the fruit of the spirit described by Paul, would that be something worthwhile?   The answer is yes, absolutely, so let’s go a little further into the methodology that should be employed.

People that work in the field of statistics know that the questions that are used and the sample selection employed are very important in determining the usefulness of the data and responses that are collected.    A relatively few number of respondents (i.e. as little as 322 out of a population of 2,000 ) can give you a 95% degree of confidence of the results within + or – 5 points)

While the sample size is important but easily attainable, the degree of randomness or ‘lack-of-bias’ in the sample selection is critical.

For example, in looking at church attendees, sampling or surveying 2,000 people and collecting only a few hundred responses could easily have a significant response bias. Perhaps it is the people that are most involved or connected to the church that respond.   Perhaps those that are the most apathetic or least spiritual chose to not turn in the survey.

As a result, it is more important to use some random method to select the survey recipients and ensure that a higher percentage of them return their surveys.  A high response rate is essential in legitimizing a survey’s result.  Typically, this is done by 1) limiting the number of questions; 2) making it easy to complete and return the survey and 3) providing encouragements and incentives to ensure a high response rate.

Taking Paul’s characteristics of Spiritual maturity (i.e. the Fruit of the Spirit) and keeping the survey brief with just a few qualitative questions a survey can be designed that would be very useful.  The church should keep it easy to administer and likely to be returned.  Many studies have shown that there is very little bias introduced when only electronic surveys (as opposed to telephone and mail) are used since so many people now have access via home and office computers and their hand held cellular devices.   Providing incentives including discount coupons are excellent ways to encourage participation and adequate sampling.

Some of the questions that could be asked (five point response scales are common) would include: Do you find joy in knowing Jesus has a plan for your life?  Do you worry or find yourself worrying often about the future? (this being a negative response question).  Are you a person that takes difficulties and trials in stride, knowing that the Lord can use all things for our good? Do people think of you as being a peacemaker?  Are you faithful in all things, particularly in keeping your commitments to the Lord and your family?  Are you kind and tenderhearted?  Do you consider yourself to be a person of faith?

Questions related to spiritual growth could include: Are you engaged in daily prayer (other than mealtimes)?  Do you have an interest in fasting, refraining from certain types of foods or pleasures for spiritual gain?  Are you a good steward of your life, deliberately managing God’s resources for His glory? Do you read your Bible regularly?   Are you a good Christian witness, taking the opportunity to share with others the hope that you have within you?  Do you find yourself growing in faith, becoming more Christ-like?

One individual survey result will not provide any definitive metric that the church can use.  However, if the same survey is administered to the same demographic over a period of time, there are likely trends that will be spotted.   Since it is important that the survey questions remain constant over a period of time to be able to compare results, churches should be careful in selecting the limited number of questions carefully ensuring that they are the types of qualities they want measured and worded in a way that is clear and provides consistent responses.

Churches can and should be using metrics to determine if they are effective in producing spiritual growth.  Rising attendance and healthy finances are possible indicators of health but quantitative surveys can produce meaningful data that will help answer the question.

(Faith Dialogue, Inc., a nonprofit faith-based ministry in Florida has developed a Spiritual Growth Survey and can assist any church in implementing this type of measurement of spiritual growth.   Contact them at www.faithdialogue.org)



[1] Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Reveal: Where Are You? (Barrington, IL: Willow Creek Resources, 2007).

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