Tuesday, November 16, 2010

End Spiritual Infant Mortality

Pictured at the right is an incubator. If it looks like it's made of car parts, that's because it is. It was designed by a company that specializes in appropriate and sustainable technologies for developing countries, many of which have access to a steady stream of reliable car parts (such as the headlights that provide the heat and the car battery that powers it) and almost zero access to the specialized parts that most other companies use for such devices.

Result: more incubators that work longer and are easy to repair means a greatly reduced rate of infant mortality. Indeed, estimates are that incubators alone could cut infant mortality in many of these countries in half.

John Wesley was noted for his exceptional passion and commitment to proclaiming and leading people to experience the new birth, the dawning of justifying grace in their lives.

But he was even more interested in ensuring that those newly born in Christ had everything necessary to get out of spiritual infancy alive! He was witness in his own day to too many others also preaching the new birth and stopping there, with the result that there was a very high rate of those being "converted" either becoming frozen at a level of spiritual infancy or, more frightening, regressing to spiritual death once again. 

Wesley resolved to have no part in contributing to the rise of "spiritual infant mortality" in his day. So he would not do field preaching where there was not an active Methodist society and a trial class meeting to refer those who responded. The trial class meetings were like spiritual incubators, constructed of others who were similarly responding to the gospel and leaders who would make sure they were actually growing rather than, as babies left to their own devices in adverse circumstances, failing to thrive. 

This is why for Wesleyan Christians it is not enough that we try to increase attendance in services of worship or even have more "professing members" or even more small groups in our congregations. There are too many ways to do all of those things that have nothing to do with the new birth or actual growth in holiness of heart and life-- and they are being tried successfully-- if your metrics of success are increases in attendance, membership and the number of small groups. 

But our earnest passion and the striving of our souls and bodies is not simply for significant spiritual encounters or pledges of institutional allegiance or places of belonging. All of these may be related in some way to the new birth, but none of them necessarily so. We, too, live in a hostile environment where there are way too many cases of infant spiritual mortality. Witness the "churn" noted in Willow Creek's Reveal study a few years ago, and found to be commonplace in many "growing" congregations in the US in the past several decades.

Congregations today as in Wesley's day are not equipped to prevent those newly born from failing to thrive. The "black box" we call congregations with their internal systems do NOT generate the outcome of discipleship at anything like an acceptable rate. Indeed, they tend to generate the opposite result-- at least if you follow the findings of Willow Creek.
It's time to end spiritual infant mortality in our own day.

It's time to start building more incubators-- lots of them.

These incubators aren't black boxes. We know what's inside them. And we know how and why they work. And we know they do work-- at a far higher rate of success than congregations do. 

The parts are all around you-- but you may need to look beyond folks just in your congregation to find them and assemble them into a working incubator.

Covenant Discipleship groups can be such incubators. So can others. But I mention Covenant Discipleship here because I know what it's doing for me. Through it the Spirit is truly working. I am growing and being challenged and supported to grow further in holiness of heart and life. I'm more aware of my own failings to do so, but also more aware of the grace of God empowering me to do so. And that seems to be the experience of all of us in the group I'm part of.

Parts needed-- 5-7 people willing to covenant together to watch over one another in love to live the way of Jesus by supporting and holding each other accountable for the ways they will engage in acts of mercy (personal compassion and social justice) and acts of piety (personal devotion and public worship).

Get in one of these yourself-- or a group like it-- if you aren't already.

Then go invite others to do the same.

And then watch as fewer infants in Christ fail to thrive, and more of them grow into the full stature of Christ because they have the support systems they need to live as his disciples on his mission in the world.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

For more about this incubator and how it is also a great example of how innovation normally works-- by using what's already available and connecting it in a new way-- watch Steven Johnson's TED Talk, "Where Good Ideas Come From."


Anonymous said...

Love is a powerful and until people learn to love one other will infant mortality cease.

John Meunier said...

Great post, Taylor.

Here's the situation I encounter more. We have a congregation full of spiritually dead babies. Back a long time ago, and incubator would have helped, but now they are long dead and cold. (But it's more like The Princess Bride - they are mostly dead.)

Does sticking them into an incubator at this point work? Or do we need the spiritual shock paddles to restart their hearts?

Sorry to abuse the metaphor, but I hope the serious question underneath is clear.

David Oliver Kueker said...

Taylor, I get a different sense of what the Willow Creek REVEAL study indicates - I'm wondering what you mean by "churn" in context.

John - in my schema for a developmental approach to spirituality, the "infant" level of spiritual development is where appx 83% of church attenders remain. I believe this "failure to thrive" is caused by the lack of appropriate nurture - which would be the opposite of the shock paddle approach.

I believe that failure to thrive is a natural result from an institutional approach to providing spiritual nurture. (An example: http://www.disciplewalk.com/parable_Orphanage_M.html)

journeyman37 said...


I'm with David. Shock paddles won't usually get it. Our God raises the dead. God's kindness leads to repentance and even new life.

Meanwhile, not all who appear dead are dead all the way. And not all in most congregations actually are dead or even that close to it-- more like dormant. Look for those whose eyes light up-- or tear up-- when you describe close encounters with God and the life of discipleship to Jesus. Go talk to them, one on one, to find out what that was about. Learn from that conversation where and whether they are ready to go deeper. Then help them get there.

Consider yourself-- and perhaps a few others there-- allies in this work of finding the living among the dead, and finding the spark of life in that which may otherwise appear dead, and nurturing this to strength. The incubators come in here-- after the spark (not a shock!) has been ratified.

Peace in Christ,


ed said...

I beginning a new appointment on January 1 (how appropriate). This will be a perfect time for me to start looking for those who are dormant and others looking to come to life. Then I can begin to partner with the Holy Spirit to bring new life and maturation to these disciples. Thanks John and Taylor.

ed said...

Almost forgot, my clergy covenant group is the covenant discipleship group for me. They are helping me to grow in walk with Jesus and are keeping me alive and growing.

Mike Mather said...

I don't know that the folks are either a) dead, or b) dormant, or c) both. I kinda feel like they are spiritually alive and we just miss it all the time. We don't celebrate it where it is real and present. Instead we crab at them about how they are failing. So much of what we pass off as spiritual maturity is connected to things we "do." Maybe y'all are right and maybe I've got the most unusual congregation this side of Jerusalem...but my challenge is less reviving the dormant and the dead (I agree with you Taylor that God raises the dead - doesn't need my help on that) -- and more celebrating the actual fact that the people in front of me are in fact not only raised from the dead, but overflowing with and in the grace of God. If I can see it and name it - then perhaps they will then be able to see it as well. It's what I try to do with my voluminous correspondence with 'em and with our prayer time together and with worship on Sunday morning...but the overwhelming message is "grow up" not "my God what God is doing in and through you is the most amazing thing I've ever seen..."

journeyman37 said...


Broadway is unusual in part because it has, what, about a 20 year history of pastors (you and Phil Amerson) who both reminded them of what God was doing in their midst AND through such reminders (voluminous correspondence) expecting them to do something with that... that is, in fact, holding them accountable.

That's just not the case at all in most other places. You're exactly right that there is too much "negative motivation" going on, which of course generally ends up being very demotivating.

Actually growing up is the result of positive motivation.

What you've been up to (and Phil before you) and what Covenant Discipleship Groups do at their best is precisely such positive motivation.

Peace in Christ,