“Christ chose some of us to be apostles, prophets, missionaries, pastors, and teachers, so that his people would learn to serve, and his body would grow strong. This will continue until we are united by our faith and by our understanding of the Son of God. Then we will be mature, just as Christ is, and we will be completely like him.” 

Ephesians 4:11-13

Last Sunday, I began a new sermon series on “Becoming a Spiritually Mature Church.” In the next few weeks we are going to explore some ways in which we can cultivate our growth into spiritual maturity. God’s goal and desire for God’s people is that they become spiritually mature in Christ. What this means is that we become more like Jesus everyday in our temperament, our character, our personality. John Wesley had a word for this– “sanctification.” Sanctification is God’s work in us. Wesley described the change that the Spirit works within us as real change. In other words, our character and personality slowly changes as we become more and more like Jesus, the Spirit of God molding and shaping us slowly through grace. As Paul observes above in describing the goal toward which God’s Spirit is guiding us, “Then we will be mature, just as Christ is, and we will be completely like him.” In short, God’s objective and intent for every Christian is that they become like his some Jesus. Jesus is the perfect model of spiritual maturity. Or to us another term Jesus is our model for perfect self-differentiation.

You may recall that after I first arrived in January, we met together in small groups and revisited the last thirty years of our history here at Trinity. We remembered together some pleasant and painful experiences in the history of our church family. We also discovered that the church has experienced some significant pastoral changes over the last few years. One insight we gained from the small group meetings, is that our church family has experienced significant anxiety over these changes we’ve had within the last ten years. What is anxiety? If you had a chance to attend the Leadership Training Workshop I offered last January, you learned that the word“anxiety” comes from a Latin word that means, “to cause pain by choking or strangling.” When we are anxious, we feel like the life is being squeezed out of us. What creates anxiety in different people’s lives could be the same or different. It depends on our life experiences. When people or congregations are driven by anxiety, they tend to react rather reflect. When we are anxious and reactive, we act out of our lower reptilian part of our brain and our reaction is typically fight or flight. When driven by anxiety, we tend to see differences in other people as threats to our well-being. When we are anxious, instead of stepping back and rationally reflecting on our differences, we tend to react by fighting or leaving. It’s a physiological fact that when we are anxious and feel threatened, our body releases chemicals such as adrenaline and noradrenaline that stimulate us to react. This is an defense mechanism of survival and self-preservation. If I’m walking outside and a rattlesnake crosses my path, I don’t pause to calmly reflect upon what I’m going to do now. I automatically react by either attacking the snake or jumping away from it as quickly as I can. While this reaction of my limbic (reptilian) brain is extremely helpful in the wild, it is not so helpful in social situations when I perceive threats. While it might be helpful to attack or flee a rattlesnake, this kind of reaction is not going to be so helpful when used against my district superintendent or bishop, another pastor, my wife or church member whose words I may temporarily perceive as a threat. 

As we live through this Covid-19 crisis, our anxieties are particularly heightened as we are faced with so many threats. When I allow myself to be driven by my anxiety I am no longer in control of my feelings or actions. I don’t think. I react. And when I react, I either attack or flee. Individuals aren’t the only ones that can be driven by anxiety. Families can. Work places can. And even churches can be driven by anxiety. Peter Steinke, a church consultant, identifies at least eleven triggers for anxiety in congregations and suggests that there are probably more. These triggers can occur simultaneously or sequentially:

  1. Money (Basic level of safety and security.) 
  2. Sex/Sexuality 
  3. Pastor’s Leadership Style (Often a euphemism for “I don’t like the pastor.”)
  4. Internal/External (i.e. Pastor spends too much time in the community and not enough time with the members; mission to people outside the church vs. taking care of our own members.) 
  5. Worship Styles (Should worship be designed for the believer-member or should worship be designed for the seeker-outsider?) 
  6. New/Old (i.e. new time of worship vs. old time of worship; new way of doing communion vs. old way of doing communion, etc.) 
  7. Worship styles (Traditional vs. Contemporary) 
  8. Building, Construction, Space and Territory 
  9. Major Trauma or Transition (Death of a pastor, fire, tornado, earthquake, etc.) 
  10. Harm Done to a Child or Death of a Child
  11. Wide Gap Between the Ideal and Real ( i.e., Church members behaviors not matching what they confess.)
  12. Growth/Survival of the Church

In many congregations, you will find five or six of these triggers can happen simultaneously or sequentially to increase anxiety levels. While some anxiety is good and provides motivation to get things done, when anxiety reaches and stays at a certain high level we can be paralyzed by it. Family systems theory can act as a lens to help us focus on how we are being emotionally reactive in our relationships with others. As Christians we have resources of grace that can also help us to better manage our anxiety such as Bible study, communion, mission outreach, prayer, scriptural meditation, etc. By utilizing these resources the Holy Spirit can use these disciplines (Wesley called them “means of grace”) to not only manage our emotional reactivity but also become more emotionally, thoughtfully and spiritually mature. 

I believe that despite the many differences that we have here at Trinity (and they are many); that our greatest need is to learn to better manage our anxieties and discover how to relate to each other (despite our differences) in healthier, more mature and responsible ways. This is why I offered the workshop last January to help us better manage our anxiety and become more emotionally mature. class=WordSection2>

Becoming managers of how we respond to anxiety isn’t easy. It requires study, prayer and practice. But it is rewarding if we have the courage to make the effort. I can promise you that if we’re willing to make the effort, we will see positive changes in ourselves, positive changes in our relationships with our spouse, our coworkers, our boss and with others in our church family. The change has to begin with us. We must be the change we want to see in others, in our communities, our church and our world. We can’t change others. But through the grace of Jesus Christ, we can change ourselves. Paul once wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Cor. 5:17). Christ offers us the resources of grace to change. Again Paul reminds us, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Things won’t change immediately in our church. But there will begin to be a change in the way we look at ourselves and the way we look at others. And that’s a start.

Transforming God, we thank you for Jesus who is the perfect model of spirituality maturity. Through Your Spirit, shape our personality and temperament to become more like your Son, Jesus. Amen.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What are some circumstances that heighten anxiety in your life? 
  2. God offers us spiritual resources to help us manage our anxiety and cultivate our growth into spiritual maturity. Which of the following spiritual resources (i.e., worship, communion, prayer, Bible study, mission outreach etc.) do you find the most helpful to your growth in Christ?
  3. Growing in grace and spiritual maturity means becoming more like Christ. How are you becoming more like Jesus?