Spiritual Growth ROI: Sermons or Relationships?

October 3, 2010

What’s your return on investment (ROI) for spiritual growth?

It may sound crass to apply business terms to spiritual endeavors. Like, how do we get the most bang for the buck? How do we minimize costs while maximizing benefits?

Business sense for spiritual growth

One of Jesus’s teachings is a story about a guy who cheats his boss, and is praised for it. “The children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light.” (Luke 16:8) So let’s use some smarts, some simple business sense.

Churches have picked up a lot of business practices, from mission statements to SMART goals. I’m not entirely comfortable with that. The practices we dislike as employees tend to be the same ones churches adopt. For example, measuring things by easily measured numbers (such as attendance) ends up valuing quantity over quality. And don’t get me started on mission statements.

But it seems like a no-brainer to me to ask what works best, and put the most effort there (time, energy, money). So why do we fail to apply this to spiritual growth? The problem is that we have sacred cows. We’ve used certain things for so long, those things have tenure and are exempt from questioning.

What things are overrated? What things are underrated? Let’s look at one of each.

Spiritual growth comes from…

I have two questions for you:

  1. What sermons have helped you grow spiritually?
  2. What people have have helped you grow spiritually?

Let me guess. You had to scratch your head and think hard about question one. But for question two, names and faces started popping into your head almost immediately.

There’s a lesson here. Why do we major in the minors, and minor in the majors? Bill Kinnon expounds on this in his blog post, Sermons Don’t Make Disciples. In a header partway down he adds, “though living life together just might.”

Hint, hint.

Sermons aren’t enough

I’m not saying that sermons aren’t helpful. They’re just insufficient. I think most preachers understand this. The meat of the sermon isn’t in the delivery itself; it’s in the conversations and actions that take place around it.

Among the people who have helped me grow spiritually, I do include a few pastors. I can even think of a few specific messages. But these men and women influenced me not by sharing a single teaching, but by sharing their lives with me, both in public and in private. These are people who teach what they already live. It’s not the sermon, so much. It’s them.

But pastors are a tiny slice of my cast of names and faces. This is as it should be. Every pastor would agree that this is a good thing.

So why is so much emphasis placed on one person — and a single activity? And that activity is primarily “sit still and listen to me”?

My peeps

The people who have helped me grow the most are mainly in the small groups that Kay & I have been in over the years.

There’s a reason terrorists organize in small, flexible cells. Easily formed, easily mobilized, easily disbanded to reform in new ways. Costs are low. Participation is high. Impact can be big. Kay led a band of ladies from one group to visit the Vineyard churches in Japan, leading a workshop on the Vineyard 5-step healing model — that is, how to pray for people while listening to the Holy Spirit.

I remember many meetings when I prepared something to discuss, only to have the meeting go in a completely different direction because of what the Spirit was doing in the people there. I learned to have a plan, but go with the flow.

And leadership isn’t just top-down: God has gifted each person with something for the others. One of the most formative times I had was when I met with a couple of guys, my planner at the ready, my careful agenda at my fingertips. One of the guys was very crufty (and gay) and told me to take all that stuff and shove it, and instead pay attention to them and to what the Spirit was already doing. That encounter continues to shape me 15 years later.

Funny, I didn’t intend to mention the Holy Spirit in each paragraph. I was just going to write about my peeps.

Hint, hint.

What has helped you grow?

I’ll be honest with you: My spiritual growth has been pretty flat for some time. My efforts have mainly gone into the black hole of the Sunday morning church service, which sucks up as much energy as you are willing to offer it. Sharing life in small groups that pursue the kingdom together is a distant memory.

But I feel myself coming back to life, enough to begin asking God what I should do about it.

What about you? In your own spiritual journey, what things have helped you? What things haven’t? Let’s expand beyond sermons and small groups. Please share below. Let’s pool our answers and see what we find.

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

10 responses to Spiritual Growth ROI: Sermons or Relationships?

  1. Jon, I love the post and I agree that relationships are important to spiritual growth. As one who has a calling from God to preach, I would also agree that sermons are important. I would say that relationships are more important only because we are all called to influence people with our lives. When it comes to sermons, however, I don’t think you are asking the right question. Whenever I preach I’m not expecting someone to be radically transformed. I’m simply offering up a ‘home cooked meal’. In other words, your question about sermons is like asking ‘What meals have helped you grow physically?’ I do expect that every once in a while God can give someone a ‘taste’ of the kingdom through my preaching and His Spirit can transform that person on the spot but He can do that through sermons, relationships or dreams if He wants to. So does that make sense?
    One last thought: for me, the ROI is different for sermons and relationships. We all know the ROI of relationships and we agree on their importance. But sermons give us a chance to cast vision, teach the Bible and inspire an entire congregation all at once. Think of all the big moments in Israel’s history when a prophet spoke to the nation or to a city. Or the time when the people rediscovered God’s law and stood for hours listening to it be explained. Sermons can help a group of people understand their identity as God’s people. Alright, there’s some ‘food for thought’!

  2. Some of the classic spiritual disciplines come to mind — I’m an introvert, so I do a lot of processing by myself. Solitude and silence, journaling, slow reflective reading, etc. have been helpful. I’ve been in a season where I’ve had to discover these in new forms to fit my life these days. A spiritual director has been helpful, too.
    Barbara Brown Taylor (author of Altar in the World) talks about the practices that are “saving your life right now.” I like that way of looking at it. A while back the practice that “saved my life” was taking my binoculars out and watching birds once a week. These days it’s been walking the same stretch of beach and finding it isn’t the same at all from week to week.

  3. Jon, I really appreciate this thought provoking post. In my spiritual journey I’ve found out the hard way that positional truth alone, no matter how it’s presented, apart from the experiential reality of the Person of Christ-in us and in the members of His body-can do way more harm than good(II Cor. 3:6) It’s like waving baseball tickets in front of a kid, never actually taking him to the game; the novelty wears off pretty fast.

  4. Nathan, thanks for speaking out as someone called to preach! I really appreciate it. You raise a lot of interesting points — so much so that I think I’ll have to continue this on a post of its own! I am particularly interested in preaching as vision-casting, because that’s not something I’ve heard before, and I care a lot about vision-casting.

  5. Maria, there’s a reason the classic spiritual disciplines are still around. Yet they don’t seem to be taught much, other than “quiet times” (personal Bible reading and prayer). I would love to see churches offer instruction in them, going beyond lectures and more towards modeling and coached practice.
    Tell me what a “spiritual director” is. Is that like personal coaching?

  6. Julio, you highlight the shortcomings of the lecture-only approach. Your metaphor is killer. I’m afraid it reveals poor theology: we treat faith as a list of cold facts, rather than life and relationship.
    I’m still a Vineyard guy at heart, so your metaphor makes me think of a John Wimber saying: “Everyone gets to play.”

  7. A spiritual director is someone who is trained specifically to listen and encourage in the area of prayer and relationship with God. The tradition has been kept alive mostly in the Catholic church, but a growing number of Protestant and evangelicals are rediscovering it. It may take some digging around to find one, but I recommend it.

  8. Thanks, Maria. Can you believe I’d never heard of this?

  9. Hi Jon,
    Good blog with relevant questions. I’ve been involved with a simple church for several years. We meet in homes mostly but have the liberty to meet anywhere we choose. Meetings in public places add an element of evangelism, friends pop into the group from work, relatives feel comfortable enough to join the discussion and to ask real questions, strangers observe and listen in on the discussions the prayers, see the tears and are drawn to the authentic expressions of God’s love. I LOVE BEING THE CHURCH instead of g-o-i-n-g to church. Also the inclusive nature of simple churches insures discipleship, up close and personal, all done through meaningful relationships. My daughter in law taught me a valuable lesson about RECEIVING teaching, instruction and discipline. The right to speak into someones life is EARNED through relationships. This is not the worlds standard but it is the churches. Parishioners might listen to a preacher or they might fall asleep. But Parishioners will almost always listen to a friend, someone who YOU KNOW AND WHO KNOWS YOU. Jesus said he no longer calls us servants but he calls us friends. Servants DO things, friends interact on a very personal level. Preachers generally do not let down their guard, too many people sitting in front of them to share personally from their disappointments, their loves, their lives. Yet in simple churches the numbers are manageable and true friendships at the deepest levels can develop. Everyone in the group will at sometime most likely, speak into your life. Powerful.

  10. Sue Ellen, that’s a powerful testimony. I’m hungry to see more of that.