02 Aug '08
Seven Practices that keep us growing
Do you have a plan for continuing to grow spiritually, emotionally, relationally and to continue to develop the strengths God has given you? Each of us has a way of learning and growth that works for us. I want to suggest that there are seven disciplines that directly relate to maximizing our growth, potential, and therefore legacy.
The people we know
If you surround yourself with people who are wiser than you – some of their wisdom will rub off. The most influential people I know are deeply intentional about their relationships. They purposefully pursue relationships with individuals they respect and that they know they can learn from.
God has blessed Mary Ann and me with some of the most outstanding friends one could ever have. Each of them has influenced us in a very specific way including our faith, obedience, marriage, leadership, emotional intelligence – and the list could go on. This rich mosaic of quality friends as left an indelible mark on our lives.
We have a saying called “friends for life.” We intentionally pursue relationships with people who want to share the journey with us and then we are intentional in keeping the relationship close.
Relationships are an investment. If you invest in healthy relationships with people who are passionate about living out their lives for maximum impact you will be deeply influenced by their lives. The advice most of us got as kids is true: you become like the friends you keep. We have many acquaintances but we nurture our key relationships – more precious than all the gold in the world.
It is these key relationships that can speak into our lives, tell us truth but with the knowledge that we can trust them explicitly. There is also huge accountability built into such relationships because there is a transparency about one another and the issues we face. I know that if I were to start walking down a dangerous path exactly who would show up at my door and get my attention. I also know who will encourage us, help us and share our joys and burdens.
All of us have friends – but not all of us cultivate key friendships that have the power to help us grow, develop and become all that God made us to be. One of the young people I have mentored is moving from Minnesota to Los Angeles. He asked for any parting advice I might have. I said, “find a good church and then find the most mature, gifted, passionate individual or couple and pursue that relationship.” I said, “don’t worry about age differences, economic or educational differences, be intentional about the relationship.”
Our key friendships matter if we are going to keep growing and stay on the cutting edge of life and ministry. Choose them carefully and then nurture them regularly. Each of my friends is a faithful mentor in some area of life. Not formally but informally. I am better for every one of them.
The books we read
Books, really good ones, are like relationships. They mold us and cause us to think deeply. The issue is not how many books we read but the quality of the books we read. C.S. Lewis is a close friend of mine – as I have enjoyed his company having spent a great deal of time with his books. As are many others including my hero Winston Churchill with whom I have spent many hours, sans cigar!
As I get older I spend less time with books of business and strategy and far more time with books of the heart. Not that I ignore the former (especially don’t ignore the ones I have written) but the reality is that to finish well, my heart has to be in the right place so it has become a priority.
Choose books with care. As it says on the t-shirt book lovers wear, “too many books, too little time.” Read books that will challenge your thinking rather than simply confirm what you already know. Read deeply, allowing the writer to ruminate in your thoughts. Shallow thinking is one of the sins of our time. Read ancient as well as new – all wisdom does not reside in the present. Some of the deepest thinkers are long gone but you can meet them in their writing.
The experiences we choose
Experiences can change our lives, our perspectives and our understanding. I remember asking Jot and Marietta to travel to China with a small group I was leading. Jot later told me, “I thought why would I want to go to China?” They came and have had a many other trips back, have led ministry teams and have been active in China ministry. Experiences change us.
While we all love good experiences, the trick is to choose some that will stretch us and take us out of our comfort zone. Whenever I travel internationally, I ask to be brought to the poorest area of town. I know that 54% of our world lives on $3.00 a day or less. I want to get a reality check and see the needs as well as what God is doing in amazingly tough circumstances. You cannot make too many of those trips and come away unchanged and more deeply committed to ministries that help the hopeless as well as give them eternal hope.
I remember a ministry trip our church took to train teachers in rural Yunnan province in China. When we arrived at the college, people saw the dorms (horsehair mattresses), the toilets (holes in the floor), the food (hmm, pretty bad), the bugs (really big), the air-conditioning (open windows) and several were ready to turn around and go right back home. Yet, at the end of the ten day training period, no one wanted to leave.
Stretching ourselves with experiences that are out of our comfort zone can be game changers for us. Our cautious living may keep us in the safe zone but not in the growth zone.
The ministry we undertake
Using our gifts in ministry will always help us grow and stay fresh. But it can be scary and intimidating as well. Ministry changes us because we are joining God in His work. And when we join Him in His work, nothing stays the same.
Earlier this year, Mary Ann got a call from one of her former students at the high school whom she had helped when she became pregnant in ninth grade.
Now graduated, she was living with her boyfriend who was abusing her, had a four year old daughter and her dad had come to live with them to try to protect her. None of the three were employed. Talk about a messy situation.
She rounded up some help, called the police to meet her at the apartment, found a place for the dad to live and another place for the gal to live then networked around to find the dad a job. The gal she rescued was too used to a life of chaos to live in the order she found herself in and she went back to the abusive boyfriend several months later. The dad has remained employed and is growing in his faith.
I am always amazed when I watch Mary Ann pull something like this off. But she is in her sweet spot and ministry is often messy. But in the mess we watch God work, change lives, become whole – and learn to trust Him when things don’t go as planned – as they often do not. While Rebecca has gone back to her old ways, other members of her family are exploring faith.
You cannot stay engaged in real ministry with real people in real situations and not grow and change. Every time we take a step of faith in joining God in what He is doing, we deepen our own faith and are willing to take an even greater step of faith in the future.
The risks we take
On a regular basis, God calls us like he called Peter, to step out of our comfortable boats and to follow Him in some endeavor that requires us to trust Him and take a giant step of faith.
My friend Mark was a successful stockbroker and investment advisor when God called him to start a church that would reach the unchurched young professionals in Rockford, Il. Mark had no seminary degree, already had a well paying job but he had a passion for those who didn't know the Good News. Nothing in his resume, however, indicated that he was going to be successful in church planting – except that he was passionate.
They held their first services in Mark’s living room using videos for the preaching from Willowcreek Community Church. That risk paid off. Today, ten years later the church runs about 7,500 per weekend and they baptize in excess of 500 new believers every year. Mark sold his brokerage business so that he could lead the church full time.
It is always worth taking the risk when it is clear that God is in it. Risk forces us to trust God in ways we have not had to trust before. The comfort zone is a dangerous place for growth and development. It is in the red zone where we see the most growth but we must be willing to take the risk – to grow. My experience is that God is often calling us to risk something for Him. Those who respond, grow. Those who do not, don’t.
The questions we ask
We grow when we choose to be inquisitive. I love spending time with my friend Ken. He asks tons of questions – about everything. It does not matter if he is meeting with a twenty-something or someone like himself who runs a large corporation. He is always asking, listening, learning.
Some people don’t ask many questions because they think that it is a sign of weakness. I had lunch with the senior executive of a ministry that serves other ministries including the one I work for. In the two hour lunch, he asked one question, at the end. Otherwise it was all about him. I told a friend on the way out, this individual is not a good leader and he is not a learner.
Asking questions is an art that can be learned. The simple question, “What do you think about….” can open great conversation, give you a glimpse of a different perspective and learn something new.
The obedience we pursue
Nothing will cause us to grow, develop and stretch like a commitment to be a fully devoted follower of Christ. Many of us have a “negotiated followership.” We follow when it is easy and convenient, but where followership is inconvenient we fudge. That is why studies show that there is very little difference in lifestyle between those who claim to be evangelicals and the rest of society.
Non-negotiated followership is the commitment to align our lives with Jesus and Scripture through the empowerment of His Spirit. Every time we take a new step of obedience, we change and we grow – closer to what God wants us to be.
The New Testament is explicit that there are things that we are to “take off” and other things that we are to “put on.” Our life is a journey of taking off those things that are part of our sinful nature and putting on those things that are from the Spirit of God. Nothing will bring more personal growth than a commitment to continuously align our lives with His.
Our commitment to keep growing, stay engaged and join God in His work takes intentionality and a set of disciplines that is designed to keep us on the growing edge.