For as long as he can remember, Roger dreamed of doing something big for God. While other boys talked about being doctors or firemen, he imagined being a missionary or pastor. After high school he headed to Bible college, convinced God had called him to a life of ministry. “Those were exciting days,” he says. “During Bible college, I felt like I was growing by leaps and bounds. I was hungry to learn all I could about the Bible and about God. I was really looking forward to the future.” But the future did not turn out as Roger expected. The day finally came when he realized he would never reach the mission field or the pulpit. “I still don’t know what went wrong,” he says. “I guess I misinterpreted God’s will.”
When Roger’s dream of ministry died, he found that his spiritual motivation started to fade also. “I still read my Bible, but I’m not sure I always see the point. I’m not sure what difference it will make if I understand more doctrine or spend more time in prayer. Right now I’m mainly just trying to deal with life as it comes – pay the bills, enjoy my family, that sort of thing.”
For Cindy, the spiritual slowdown came more gradually. “It’s probably been sneaking up on me for the past 12 years, but I noticed it a year ago. When I compared myself to others, I thought, I don’t have the joy they have. I don’t have that enthusiasm.”
Cindy remains active in her church, playing the piano, singing in the choir, and co-teaching a Sunday school class with her husband. “But as far as reading my Bible, I’m hit and miss. And my prayer life stinks.”
Part of the problem is time, Cindy says. As a mother who home-schools two children, she has trouble making room in her schedule for personal devotions. “I know that’s going to be the key to getting out of this – getting back in the Word. Occasionally I can get myself to do it for two or three days, and I think, Oh, this is what I need. Then busyness stops me from keeping up with it. I’m not sure how to make myself do it consistently.”
Measuring the Problem
The experiences of Roger and Cindy illustrate a disturbing fact about the church: Many believers have stopped growing spiritually. Some are new Christians who barely got started; others have been saved for years. Yet somewhere along the path, they slowed down or stopped growing completely.
The problem differs from the ordinary spurts and pauses of normal spiritual life. These are Christians who haven’t grown for many months or even years.
The problem also differs from “backsliding” because there’s no obvious sin. These Christians aren’t guilty of adultery, drunkenness, or other flagrant evils. They are generally nice people who live respectable lives. But they seem to have lost their spiritual energy and direction. Instead of climbing higher, they stay on a spiritual plateau.
The problem isn’t new, of course. The Lord Jesus warned the first-century Ephesians that they had left their first love (Rev. 2:4). The writer of Hebrews chided believers who still needed to learn “the elementary truths of God’s word” when they should have been ready to teach others instead (Heb. 5:12). The apostle Peter felt it necessary to urge his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).
In his 16 years of pastoral ministry, Ray Pritchard has seen many Christians who have stopped growing. “I think one of the signs of the plateaued Christian is that there is no one thing that comes to the surface,” he says. “But you sense a dryness, a lethargy; certainly a lack of joy. It’s like the difference between the person who goes to the doctor complaining of a sharp pain versus the person who says, ‘I don’t know – I just haven’t felt good in a long time.’ The plateaued Christian often knows something is wrong, but can’t put his finger on it.”
Because most Christians first identify the problem through their emotions, some don’t look any deeper for the solution. They simply get busier, participating in more Christian activities, performing more acts of Christian service, purchasing more Christian products – anything that seems to offer them a fresh burst of excitement. Such an approach, however, never produces maturity. Sometimes it can even lead people to hypocrisy.
“Some believers who have slipped into lethargy are working hard to convince themselves and others that they are in tune. They may be among the most active Christians with the most visible ministries,” says Phyllis, a missionary in western Africa.
Few people would suspect Phyllis and her husband of ever struggling with the problem of spiritual stagnation. While in their early 40s, they quit their comfortable suburban jobs for the mission field. “But this is precisely the threat that seems most real to me right now,” she says. “Believers can drift into spiritual lethargy without knowing it, mainly because they continue to play all the parts. It’s like the Black Plague, because who really knows the cause?”
Ten years ago, Larry taught a Sunday school class for Christians in their 50s and 60s. He suspects that people in that age group are especially prone to spiritual stagnation. Now that he also has reached his 50s, he is determined not to let it happen to him.
“The medicine I used to give to the class is what I find I need, too. Who knows but what the best is yet to come? Maybe our defining moment in life has not yet happened. We know from Scripture – Caleb, Joshua, Daniel – that for a lot of people, their most defining moment occurred later in life, when they had a lot of experience.”
Larry blames the typical “church culture” for much of the spiritual stagnation he sees. “As long as we act and look and participate like everyone else, we feel pretty good. We start thinking, Hey, I’m accepted by everybody around me. I can discuss things on the level they want to discuss. The sins the pastor mentions in his sermons aren’t my sins. I must be OK.”
By any definition, Larry attends a quality church. Because it is located near a prominent evangelical seminary most of the adult classes are taught by theology professors. But he’s found that solid Bible exposition alone doesn’t solve the problem of spiritual stagnation. As long as people subconsciously define maturity by the group average, few will be motivated to keep “straining toward what is ahead” and “press on toward the goal” (Phil. 3:12-14).
“We are so earthly centered that it’s just normal for us to set the wrong standard,” Larry says. “If we set our goal low enough, we’re always going to hit it. Maybe that’s why we’re so satisfied – what I call ‘comfortable Christianity.’ But the goal is still to be like Christ, to be conformed to the image of Christ. There isn’t any level where we can say, ‘This is good enough. I can just coast for a while.’
“I think we miss opportunities we could have had if we’d continued to grow,” Larry adds. “The Lord probably has to go to someone else who didn’t level out, who’s still meeting the challenges, someone who’s still being exercised, as Hebrews 5 says, to develop spiritual sensitivities.”
Bill Miller is an associate pastor at another excellent evangelical church. Most of his week is spent counseling Christians. He fears that “people don’t ever grow to maturity, or very rarely, in evangelical churches.” The reason, he says, is that most congregations do not adequately prepare their members for walking by faith. While paying lip service to the concept of faith, many Christians actually operate according to their feelings or their logic. Their deepest assumptions about life and God are based on something other than Scripture.
“Each of us has developed a whole system of life that the Bible calls ‘flesh,’” Miller explains. “It’s a pattern of operating, our way of getting our needs met in our own strength and our own way. After the first glow of our honeymoon with the Lord is over, it’s back to business as usual.”
When a Christian falls into some serious sin, the flesh problem is obvious, Miller notes. But Christians who simply stagnate are equally ‘fleshy.’ They just happen to have more respectable flesh patterns.
“The people who don’t plateau literally believe what the Bible says and live according to that,” Miller explains. “They understand what their flesh patterns are, they understand what God has said them to be, and they understand how the enemy attacks.”
As an example, Miller cites Ephesians 2:6 – “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms.”
“What does it mean to be seated with Christ? It means that we have authority – authority to do the will of God, authority to resist all the temptations, schemes, and threats of Satan.”
Unless Christians live by faith instead of feelings, they will not experience the fullness of their privileges in Christ. “Too many people wimp out after they sin,” Miller says. “They don’t really believe that God has paid for every sin. When they fall, they just lie there. They don’t even bother to come to God and confess it.
“Others blindly espouse works theology. They think they have to perform to a certain standard to be acceptable to God… Everybody is trying to be a Christian in the flesh. They either give up and drop down, or they try harder and stay on that level plateau. The only choice they have in the flesh is to try harder or give up.”
Miller emphasizes that church activity is not a sure sign of deepening faith. “Without appropriate teaching, we can become defocused onto ministry. The person becomes more focused on teaching the class, doing the work – good things, but in the flesh… The enemy has got them religiously happy. They don’t even know there’s anything different. When somebody tries to present something different, they usually resist. They call the person a fanatic.
“But I think the Lord has called us to live fanatically radical lives.”
According to Ray Pritchard, nearly every plateaued Christian has withdrawn from other believers. That withdrawal might not be the first cause of the problem, but it is the most common. “Somewhere along the way, they have fallen out of any sort of spiritual accountability. I think that puts people on a spiritual plateau quicker than almost anything.”
The most obvious examples are easy to spot. “There’s a whole category of the ‘unchurched’ that really are deeply hurt Christians,” Pritchard explains.
“They’ve been wounded by another believer, or maybe wounded by God, and they’ve never dealt with it. Some of them live out there in the spiritual wilderness for decades. They listen to Christian radio, attend church on Christmas, but want no part of the body of Christ. Maybe it’s because nobody has been willing to pay the price. If you’re going to reach people who have been deeply hurt, you can’t just sit down and talk to them for 20 minutes. You have to suffer with them. And who’s got that kind of time? It’s hard in this rushing world.”
For other Christians, the withdrawal is more subtle. They may remain active in church programs while retreating from church people. They come to the services each Sunday, sit in the same pews, sing the same songs, but never take the risk of opening up to others.
John, a former missionary in Bolivia, believes that American culture encourages this spiritual isolation. In fact, he suspects the trend worsened during his 20 years outside of the country. “The sense of community has diminished so drastically in America,” he says. “We are so individualized. Every person lives for himself. What a person does is his own business. This attitude has infiltrated into the Christian community far more than we understand.”
The New Testament portrays a dramatically different picture of normal church life. The first believers sold their possessions and “had everything in common,” eating together, praying together, and worshiping together (Acts 2:44-47). The depth of their relationships set them apart from their culture and drew others to Christ.
Even after the church resumed a more independent lifestyle, true fellowship flourished. The epistles include instructions about bearing burdens (Gal. 6:2), confessing sins (Jas. 5:16), feeding strangers (Heb. 13:2), and sharing possessions (1 Jn. 3:17) – actions seldom emphasized in evangelical churches today.
“The trouble is that there is so little interpersonal relationship,” John says. “When we encounter the incongruities of life or deficiencies in someone else, it’s hard to know how to respond… To prevent the problem of stagnation requires openness to God and others. There’s a tendency to hide and withdraw. It happened in the garden, and it’s been happening ever since.”
Where to Turn
When unresolved doctrinal questions sapped the energy from Michelle’s faith a few years ago, she didn’t know where to turn at first. “I didn’t really have anyone to talk to. Most people in my church did not know how to think through doctrines, nor were they really interested. And in my family we didn’t discuss spiritual issues. I got out of the habit of talking about Christianity with anyone. I think that’s why I plateaued.
“I also think I became lazy. I saw lackadaisical Christians and started thinking that was the norm. Maybe I didn’t need to put so much effort into my spiritual walk.”
Then in 1992, Michelle’s boss called her into his office. Because of budget cuts and downsizing, her job would be eliminated in four months.
Four days later, Michelle’s mother died unexpectedly. The crises left her reeling. But they also jerked her out of “the comfortable rut” she had been living in for months.
“I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s enveloping me in His arms,” she says. “And I felt an astounding support from the Christians I knew. It was truly like family, which had become more of a cliché than a reality to me.”
Before long Michelle found herself working for a vibrant Christian. “She and her family became my friends. In them I saw a realness in Christianity that I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. Christ was as real to them as if He were sitting on the sofa with us. I saw God so evidently displayed in their lives that I began to hunger for that deeper, closer relationship I once had.”
Gradually, Michelle’s appetite for Scripture returned. Instead of mechanically reading one passage and moving to the next, she started poring over the same verses for several days. She added a time for reading in the mornings, while keeping her regular evening habit.
“I also gained a new curiosity about prayer,” she says. “Spending much time in prayer has always been difficult for me because it seems like such a passive activity. But I started feeling a thirst to pray more and am now studying the topic more.
“Since I’ve started to come back, I’ve talked with others about what God is doing in my life. That’s required a vulnerability to admit I haven’t been where I should have been. But I’m hearing others say they’ve gone or are going through that struggle, too.”
Toward the Top
The apostle Paul may not have had plateaued Christians in mind when he wrote his first epistle to the Thessalonians, but Ray Pritchard believes one verse in the book summarizes part of the solution – “We urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thes. 5:14).
The key, Pritchard explains, is understanding the different categories of need. “Idle is a military term meaning ‘to break ranks.’ While the body of Christ is marching forth in service, they have deserted. For people in this category, who have withdrawn from accountability, the solution is loving confrontation. Love them and get in their face.
“The timid are those who are afraid to do what God wants them to do. They have stopped growing because they are resisting some issue of the will of God. They need encouragement.
“The weak are physically sick or emotionally sick… Very often Christians plateau because of some traumatic experience in life that has nearly destroyed them. We give them the support they need until their spiritual vitality is restored.
“And be patient covers everybody. If you’re going to get into this ministry, know that it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be draining. It’s going to tax your resources. And if you try to pull out halfway through, you’re going to make matters worse.
Just as the problem of spiritual stagnation usually develops slowly, so the solution generally takes time. For the spirit, as well as the body, there are no miracle diets or instant fitness plans. True health comes through the simple things, and often it starts with the help of a friend.
“Nothing helps a plateaued Christian as much as another concerned believer” Pritchard notes, “someone who says, ‘You’ve been sitting on this ledge too long. You and I are going to climb together. And we’re going to make it to the top.’”
Davis Duggins, Moody