Our church theme for this year is Come Follow Me. It's the first three words of Jesus's statement in Matthew 4:19 - Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.
In a message by Jim Putman on discipleship, he talks about this verse. Following Jesus means transformation. Before meeting him, the disciples were fishers of fish but after encountering the carpenter, they will become fishers of men. Their identity will change.
Pastors and church leaders often encourage involvement in programs such as small groups, bible studies, and worship services. We do this to help people become disciples. Our language can imply relationships are the means for spiritual maturity. If you join this group or do this activity, you will grow spiritually. If you lead a bible study, it will grow you spiritually. If you serve other people, you will grow spiritually.
But Jesus never indicates relationships are the vehicle for spiritual maturity. They are not the side show, they are the main event. Relationships are not the means but the ends. Religious programming is the side show and our connectedness with each other is the main event. Everything we do is meant to support building relationships. If our religious activities don't contribute towards that objective then we are not growing spirituality. Putman says it simply: The product of spiritual maturity is relationships.
Thus, how you love your husband, wife, children, parents, coworkers, classmates, and neighbors is not the means of discipleship, it is the outcome. You do not evaluate your spiritual maturity by the amount of time you spend serving the church but by how the people around you are being led to follow Jesus.
This means religious involvement which does not build our love for others is not only useless but antithetical to being a disciple of Christ. The Pharisees had off-the-chart levels of religious involvement but Jesus never described them as spiritually mature. They were devoid of compassion and empathy for people. Religious involvement without love is not only incomplete, it is evil.
This is challenging for pastors and anyone whose livelihood depends on the prosperity of an organization. We want to build our empires but Jesus wants to radically transform our identity through relationships. Here's the question we need to grapple with: How are we doing at loving God, others, and ourselves? A person's religious involvement is easy to manufacture and easy to measure. You can throw yourself into church activities and feel godly. But the question of love is more perplexing and difficult to answer. It recasts everything and sets the bar impossibly high.
Therefore, the work of building Christ-centered relationships requires a different type of person. It cannot be achieved by discipline and willpower. It requires an inward change that may happen immediately but only manifests itself through a persistent and vital faith. Like life, spiritual maturity is non-linear, messy, and often difficult to distinguish. The early disciples' growth was not rapid - it happened in fits and starts - but once it blossomed after Jesus left, the world was forever altered.