Growing into christian maturity

This page last updated June 15th, 2017

How do people mature? Does it just happen automatically as we grow, or are there things we can do to aid maturity?

And do christians mature in any different way from other people?

We can learn from from psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, simplified and adapted to apply to christians and churches by psychologist Lyn Worsley.

Three stages in maturity

Our growth towards maturity can be characterised by three stages, related to children (self-focused), teens (conformity) and adults (maturity), as shown in the table. Our aim as christians is to move through all the stages and so reach maturity.

These stages are generalisations, and sometimes children and teens can show mature traits. But equally, adult behaviour can often remain at an immature stage, with some characteristics of self-focus or conformity.

Stage 1. Self-focused Stage 2. Conforming Stage 3. Maturity
The natural place for children. Their behaviour will be characterised by: Conformity gives a feeling of comfort and security, and is the natural state for teens. Their behaviour will be characterised by: This is the desirable stage for adults, whose behaviour will be characterised by:
  • black and white thinking
  • “it’s all about me”
  • controlling the environment to my way of thinking
  • temper tantrums in children to get their own way
  • “my friend belongs to me and no-one else”
  • anxiety when things don’t go my way
  • moving on from complete self focus to a more group mentality
  • reading what the crowd is doing and trying to fit in
  • anxiety – how can I fit in?
  • starting to realise that it’s not all about them, and they are not the most important person
  • however, when threatened, they can revert to stage 1.
  • much greyer thinking
  • considering all viewpoints, not just the most comfortable
  • thinking compassionately, not fearfully
  • according justice and human rights for all
  • valuing other people’s views, cultures, etc
  • caring about the needs of the individual no matter what their background is
Some adults can remain here their whole lives, and their behaviour will be characterised by: Some adults can remain here their whole lives, and their behaviour will be characterised by: Adults here will aim to be like Jesus:
  • promoting self care at the expense of others
  • looking for ways to help them progress at the expense of others
  • providing comfort for themselves alone
  • only do things for those who think like them.
  • when feeling threatened they put up walls, stop looking outwards and only listen to each other, and so become less aware of what’s happening in the real world
  • security in sameness
  • complacency
  • maintain their comfort zone (this makes church like a club)
  • anxiety about making sure they are fitting in
  • when threatened, they will tend to revert back to stage 1, where they think they will be safest, but this make them less aware of what is happening in the world around them
  • other-centred, not self centred
  • mature, not immature
  • self-giving, not self-preserving
  • wholistic, not individualistic
  • working for the good of all, not just a select few
  • behaviour driven by internal moral principles
If church leaders, remain in this stage of maturity, their leadership and churches are likely to be characterised by: If church leaders, remain in this stage of maturity, their leadership and churches are likely to be characterised by: Churches and leaders will tend to be characterised by:
  • an extremely rules-based church
  • looking for power to have influence over others
  • aiming to showing their own prowess
  • perpetuating inward looking and thinking
  • when feeling threatened, withdraw and only listen to others like them
  • therefore they’ll be less aware of what is happening in the real world
  • anxiety about change
  • fear of the unknown
  • unwilling to consider other viewpoints
  • fit in and don’t make waves
  • when threatened, they will tend to revert back to stage 1, where they think they will be safest, but this make them less aware of what is happening in the world around them
  • courageous
  • compassionate
  • stepping out to advocate for others
  • flexible policies – willing to consider other viewpoints
  • encourage members to be individuals and think for themselves

Seeing this in the world and the church

We can see examples of adults not behaving maturely in many ways.

When societies are at peace and relatively affluent, they can display altruistic behaviour (for example, providing generous social welfare, welcoming people seeking asylum and taking steps to care for the world). But in times of uncertainty, many people will revert back to behaviour that protects their own group (conformity), or even just themselves (self-focus). Their voting patterns may change and their fear and mistrust of others will likely increase.

Successful churches will generally be outward looking, inclusive of strangers and seeking to transform the world around them. But if a church is in decline, its members may become fearful of change, conforming to traditions and act like a club that doesn’t easily welcome people who are different, all typical of stage 2.

Moving to maturity

We move towards maturity by opening ourselves to new and different experiences, and facing up to dilemmas that challenge self focus and conformity.

In the life of Jesus ….

We can see Jesus using experiences and dilemmas to challenge his hearers and train his disciples.

  • His parables challenged listeners to puzzle over the meaning and connect the teaching on the kingdom of God to their own lives.
  • When Jesus talked with Nicodemus, the rich young ruler and the woman at the well, his conversation challenged them to re-think some of their habitual ways of thinking.
  • He took his disciples on his itinerant ministry, pointing out things that would expand their horizons and teach them new things.

In our own lives ….

We can choose to open ourselves to new ideas and experiences. We can visit other churches and meet christians with different ideas, attend conferences or workshops by organisations with different focuses to our own church, read books and magazine articles from different perspectives (the internet is great for this). We can choose to join a new community organisation or invite someone from a different background to our home for dinner.

All of this will broaden our experience and sometimes open up dilemmas as we have our own understandings, behaviours and traditions implicitly challenged. If we are threatened by this, it shows we are likely still at stage 2.

There will be times when our concerns may be justified, and we are not ready for some challenges and situations. But as we grow in our faith, we shouldn’t be worried that (in Dean Sherman’s immortal phrase) our salvation is going to leak out all over the floor if we mix with very different types of people, because “greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

There’s a wonderful and true example of this in the film Mary Meet Mohammad. It tells the story of a group of women in a knitting club in Tasmania who live near a new immigration detention centre. They decide, with some trepidation, to knit woollen hats for some of the asylum seekers imprisoned in the centre, and then give them to the men personally. One meeting turns into regular visits, and friendships develop. Mary, initially prejudiced against the mainly Muslim asylum seekers finds herself changing, moving from stage 2 to stage 3, as she gets to know Mohammad, a Hazara man from Afghanistan.

As parents, teachers and leaders ….

Our roles as parents and leaders require us to help people mature, as human beings and (hopefully) as christian believers. It appears that many christian leaders have the unfortunate misunderstanding that simply imparting knowledge will do the trick. But while knowledge is a necessary part of growing, people need their motivations challenged, not just their minds filled, if they are going to mature.

They need new experiences, to hear new ideas, and to face and resolve challenges and dilemmas.

Overprotecting children will generally lead to bad outcomes down the track. Protected children may never develop a strong character or faith that will stand up to scrutiny, challenge, criticism and hard times. And if that is the case, all the knowledge in the world is unlikely to be enough. Living with integrity requires more than knowledge – it requires maturity.

So christian parents, teachers and leaders need to prayerfully allow their children or church members to explore new ideas, have new experiences and face dilemmas. Of course children shouldn’t be exposed to challenges beyond their emotional capabilities, but parents who take their children to new places, in the world and in their minds, can take the opportunity to explain to them what is going on, to answer their questions and to reassure them when necessary.

Youth leaders, ministers and teachers can take similar opportunities with those in their care. They can allow discussion and diversity of opinion on all but the most essential christian teachings, and model how disagreement doesn’t need to lead to non-acceptance or argument. They can try new ideas, do things in different ways. (Churches that resist such changes have likely allowed themselves to stay stage 2, and need more than ever to be challenged before it is too late and they ossify.)

Questions to ponder

  • What can we do to meet different people, and open ourselves to different ideas?
  • What makes me feel good so I’m not willing to change?
  • How can we make people feel safe even though vulnerable?
  • How can we be more effective listeners and ask more effective questions?
  • What do other segments of society know that we can learn from?

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