How many newborn believers are in your church? Here are some ways you can help them in their spiritual development journey.
By Marissa Postell
How many newborns are in your church? Is it time for them to grow up?
I don’t mean newborn children. I’m talking about newborn believers. A recent study from Grey Matter Research and Consulting and The Blount Collective gauges spiritual maturity among evangelicals in the U.S. The survey was commissioned by Dr. Bill White and identified ten stages of spiritual growth based on his new book, “Mature-ish“: newborn, infant, toddler, child, pre-teen, adolescent, adult, parent, grandparent, and godparent. Everyone in the study qualifies at least as a newborn because they are born-again believers in Christ. Beyond the newborn phase, the study uses specific markers to identify where believers are in their spiritual development.
Where believers are in their spiritual development
It turns out that growing from a newborn to an infant is a significant challenge for many. Nearly half of evangelical believers (47%) are stuck in the newborn phase. The vast majority of evangelical believers in the U.S. are in the earliest stages of spiritual maturity (infant, toddler, and child). Nearly 9 in 10 (88%) believers haven’t advanced out of the toddler stage.Nearly 9 in 10 evangelical believers in the U.S. (88%) haven’t advanced out of the toddler stage of spiritual growth, according to research and analysis from Grey Matter. Click To Tweet
One in 4 (25%) believers are in the infant stage, and 16% are in the toddler stage. Each stage past the toddler stage has 3% or less of evangelical adults who fit into that stage. Just 6% of believers in the U.S. have reached spiritual adulthood or beyond. And less than 3% of believers have reached the highest levels of spiritual maturity—either grandparent or godparent.
Hindrances to spiritual development
But why are so many believers still in the newborn stage? Why is growth—even to infanthood—not guaranteed?
For the purposes of this study, there were five elements essential for identifying a believer who had advanced from a newborn to an infant. Beyond the core beliefs of a newborn, infants are a part of a group of believers at least once a month, read the Bible at least once a month, ask God to show them areas He wants them to change, believe God forgives them completely, and have confidence God loves them unconditionally.
But more than 1 in 4 believers are not yet infants because they’re not part of a church or small group (27%) or don’t read the Bible even once a month (26%). And 1 in 5 believers (20%) haven’t advanced to the infant stage because they don’t consistently ask God to show them areas of their lives He wants them to change. These are basic building blocks for the foundation of Christian life and worldview.
If the church’s call is to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19), how can churches disciple believers beyond the phase of newborns? What can churches do to aid believers in their spiritual growth? Here are three ideas:
1. Pray for spiritual development
Prayer must be the foundation for spiritual growth. Not a single believer will advance from the newborn phase to the infant phase because they tried really hard or because you implement an excellent discipleship strategy. Ultimately, spiritual growth can only come from God, the giver of all life, and the source of all growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).
It can be easy to get caught up in the tasks of ministry and lose sight of the spiritual implications of ministry. We can draw more people to our campuses without drawing more people to Christ. And we can develop more programs without growing more disciples. We can have fresh ideas and come up with new plans. But if we’re not surrendering that all to the Lord in prayer, we’re missing the mark.It can be easy to get caught up in the tasks of ministry and lose sight of the spiritual implications of ministry. — @MarissaPostell Click To Tweet
If we’re not asking the Lord to breathe life into our ministries and grow disciples in our churches, we’re idolizing ourselves in ministry and making ourselves the focus rather than focusing on the One who is worthy of that attention. But when we surrender ourselves and our ministries to God, He “is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20, CSB).
2. Provide opportunities for spiritual development
We pray in faith, knowing God can give the growth. At the same time, we know God has placed us where He has in this moment for a purpose. And He delights in working through the lives of believers to bring about His glory. So, we provide opportunities for spiritual growth among believers in the church.
Many believers never make it beyond the newborn phase because they’re not regularly living in community with other believers or reading the Bible. What opportunities are you giving spiritual newborns to experience the church and engage with Scripture? Don’t assume they know the importance of regularly showing up to church, and don’t suppose they know how to study Scripture on their own.
Are you providing newborn believers with opportunities to experience what the church really is? Are you intentionally inviting them to connect with a small group and grow alongside other believers? And are you inspiring them, encouraging them, and giving them the tools they need to grow to love Scripture?
These things don’t come naturally for newborn believers. They need to be taught. It takes patience. It takes grace. And it takes intentionality. And it takes time and energy. That’s why we begin with prayer. And we trust God to give the growth. May we be found faithful to create opportunities for that spiritual growth to occur.
3. Engage in relationships
Discipleship happens in the context of relationships. In fact, Jesus gave the Great Commission to the collective church. It is the church that is called to make disciples. It is the church that’s called to live on mission together. While the decision to accept God’s gift of salvation by His grace through faith is a personal, individual decision, God’s plan is for believers to follow Him in community with one another. This is a necessary step toward becoming an infant in faith that too many believers are missing.While the decision to accept God’s gift of salvation by grace through faith is a personal decision, God’s plan is for believers to follow Him in community with one another. — @MarissaPostell Click To Tweet
When believers are living in community with one another, they are challenged, encouraged, and strengthened in their faith. When believers share their lives with one another, they have accountability in their spiritual growth journey.
But relationships don’t happen accidentally, especially in a late-COVID world. We must be intentional and strategic as we build relationships. You don’t have to have a close relationship with everyone in your church. But are you creating opportunities for every person in your church to be involved in a group where they are developing close relationships? Are you mobilizing believers who are further along in their spiritual growth journey to develop discipleship relationships with newborn believers?
Many newborn believers will grow into infants in faith when they begin regularly connecting with the church and regularly reading Scripture. Friendships and accountability go a long way in making this a reality.
A Lifeway Research study of Protestant churchgoers who attend at least once a month found the driving force behind their participation in groups in that they enjoy the group and expect to learn something. You can’t make people enjoy a group, but there are things you can do to create atmospheres that cultivate relationships. Start there. Don’t depend on a program to do the work of discipleship. Lean into relationships in the spaces you’ve created opportunities for spiritual growth. And pray with the expectation that God will give the growth.
Marissa Postell Sullivan
Marissa is the managing editor for LifewayResearch.com.