About ten years ago Willow Creek Church in Chicago decided it was time to evaluate how they were doing as a mega-church when it came to helping their membership grow spiritually. So—they came up with what is called The Reveal Survey. A representative segment of the congregation took the survey and the leadership at Willow was shocked at what they discovered.
You may remember, Willow Creek is the originator of the seeker worship model. They had been using it for years. But the study showed that this seeker model wasn’t working as they had assumed. People were coming to Christ—but they were not maturing. They weren’t growing spiritually. So—Hybels and his staff led the church to make substantial changes in their worship format, their discipleship opportunities, and much more.
Since then the Reveal Study has been used by thousands of churches—and it’s inspired other evaluative studies like the Church Health Assessment that we just did. By the way, we’ll “reveal” the results of that assessment on April 7. Put that date on your calendar and stay tuned for details.
But, back to the Reveal Study. As I said, the Reveal Study has been done in thousands of churches and by comparing all those survey results you get a pretty good snapshot of the church at large in America. Here are a few of the things that have been learned by looking at this data.
a. There is a PREDICTABLE PATTERN OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH across all congregations.
The study shows that churchgoers tend to fall into one of four groups as they make their way along the journey toward Christlikeness.
- The first group of people we might call the “exploring Christianity”
These are folks who might say, “I believe in God, but I’m not sure about Jesus. Faith is not a significant part of my life.” These are people who are still early in the journey, just beginning to understand Christianity.
- We might refer to people in the NEXT group as: “growing in Christ,” and they would be described by this statement:
“I believe in Jesus. I’ve put my faith in Him but I’m working on getting to know Him.” In short, these are people who have come to faith in Christ and are just beginning to grow in their understanding of Him.
- We could call the third group of people: “close to Christ.”
These are people who might say something like, “I feel close to Jesus and depend on Him daily for guidance.” These are people who have a vibrant daily personal relationship with Christ.
- And then there’s a fourth group. They appear to be the most spiritually mature. Think of them as “MATURE AND MATURING.”
These people might say something like this: “God is all I need in my life. He is enough. Everything I do is a reflection of Jesus.” These are believers who’ve come to a place in life where everything revolves around knowing and serving and sharing Christ.
Now obviously this grouping is a simplistic. No one falls neatly into four simple categories, but there are discernable stages as we make our way along the journey of faith and the Reveal Survey helped break it down. But—before we go any further, I’d like each of us to take a moment and try and find ourselves on this continuum. Which of those four segments reflect where you are right now spiritually?
- Are you still in the exploring stage, still getting to understand Christianity?
- Maybe you’re growing in Christ; you’ve crossed the line into faith and are just beginning to grow in your knowledge of God.
- Maybe you’d say, “No, that’s not me I’m close to Jesus; I enjoy a personal daily relationship with our Lord.”
- You might identify with the last group and say, “All of my life is centered around Jesus Christ, every aspect of it.”
It’s a good thing to sort of “plot” yourself on this spectrum because if you know where you are you can decide where you need to go next.
b. A second insight that came out of the Reveal Survey was the fact that PEOPLE NEED DIFFERENT THINGS AT EACH STAGE to help them grow spiritually.
For example, for the folks in those first couple of segments—weekly worship services are strong drivers of their spiritual growth. They count on that to help them grow in their faith. For folks in the middle two segments personal spiritual practices become important DRIVERS of growth—daily devotions, personal Bible reading, prayer, journaling, retreat—those kinds of things are important in those middle stages. And then for folks in the last group—what helps them grow the most are two things: serving and relationships.
Don’t misunderstand—for those who are farther along the journey, weekly worship, daily devotions are absolutely foundational to their spiritual life—but the thing that helps them grow is SERVING in JESUS’ NAME and RELATIONSHIPS with other believers. In other words, they grow by PRACTICING their faith—and RELATIONSHIPS with other believers help them to do that.
This morning as we continue our study of friendship I want us to be reminded of this foundational fact—our relationships with other Christians contribute to spiritual growth. I want us to understand—this “living close” deal is not just an interesting topic—it is absolutely critical to the spiritual vitality of our church—and of our personal growth in Christ. As I’ve said many times before, to be an effective church, we need to get our relationships right—and one reason we need to is because wherever you are on the journey toward Christlikeness—wherever you are on this spectrum, friendships will take you farther and deeper than you could ever go alone.
The question I want us to seek an answer to this morning is WHY IS THIS TRUE? WHY CAN WE GET FARTHER ALONG SPIRITUALLY WITH GOOD CHRISTIAN FRIENDS?
For the answer to this question I want us to look at a remarkable group of friends: Three siblings—Lazarus, Martha, and Mary—and their close Friend: JESUS. They may have been Jesus’ closest friends, apart from the disciples. Now we don’t have a lot of background on this little family. But it does appear that Jesus had a special relationship with them. The evidence suggests that they were a fairly well-to-do family and an influential family in their community. They lived in Bethany, which was just outside of Jerusalem. And it seems as though their house had become kind of a home base, even a retreat, so to speak, for Jesus when He was ministering there in Jerusalem. Their house provided Him with a place to go where He could rest and relax, to get away from the press of people—and be with folks who not only believed in Him but people who loved Him.
We read about this little family three times in the Gospels. Those passages will form our text for this morning. The first in Luke 10:38-42. Turn there and follow along as I read:
38 – As Jesus and His disciples were on their way, He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him.
39 – She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said.
40 – But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to Him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 – “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,
42 – but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
In this familiar passage we find one answer to our question. NOTE: I am indebted to Bryan Wilkerson for my outline this morning.
(1) Friends are essential to spiritual growth BECAUSE THEY CAN BE BRUTALLY HONEST WITH EACH OTHER.
Now—this is the first description we have of Jesus being with these siblings, but we get the feeling they already know each other—because it’s obvious that they were comfortable and honest with each other.
For example, look at Martha. She’s ticked that Mary’s not helping with the food prep and she’s not afraid to show it, even to Jesus. I mean, you’d think that if you had the preacher over for dinner you’d want to make a good impression. Right? You’d be on your best behavior. You’d agree ahead of time that there would be no family arguments, etc. But Martha doesn’t care about this kind of thing. She lets her sister have it. And—she doesn’t just let her SISTER have it, she lets JESUS have it. Look at verse 40: “Lord, don’t You care? Tell her to help me!” Martha was a no-nonsense gal, and she was not afraid to be herself even in the company of Jesus.
But the same thing is true for Mary. You see, in that culture, it was not a woman’s place to be sitting at the feet of a rabbi. In fact, it was unheard of. Later rabbinic tradition includes quotations like: “May the words of the Torah be burned rather than be handed over to women.”
In fact, that may be part of what had Martha so upset. I mean, not only was Martha stuck in the kitchen doing the work. Mary had abandoned her traditional role and is acting as if she was a disciple. But you see, that’s what Mary was. She was devoted. She was passionate to learn. She WAS a disciple, and she was not afraid to cross cultural boundaries and be that. Well, because these two are so honest and so fully themselves, Jesus was able to speak powerfully into both of their lives. He was able to affirm Mary for her devotion to his teaching, and He was able to redirect Martha’s passion gently yet directly.
We don’t know how Jesus said, “Martha, Martha,” but the words suggest a certain tenderness, even a certain delight in who Martha and Mary were as people—and His joy at being with them.
Well, that’s one of the ways Christian friends help each other grow. We feel comfortable being our true selves in their presence. There’s no pretense. I mean, you don’t clean your house when a CLOSE friend is coming to visit do you? You can be REAL with a true friend—and that “REALNESS” is a channel through with guidance and love and even admonition can flow—the kinds of things we need to grow spiritually.
I’m sure all of you have heard of what is one of the most popular TV shows of all time: FRIENDS. It aired for ten years. The final episode in 2004 was the most watched episode of a TV show of the decade. You know the story line: six young adults are trying to make a way for themselves in New York City. And whether or not you approve of the show—you can’t deny it’s cultural impact. I mean, a whole generation of young adults came of age under the influence of that sitcom. Now—think with me. What is it about this show, about these characters, that makes them so appealing to so many people?
I think it was the comfortability that these six friends had with each other. In the high pressure, image-conscious, unforgiving environs of Manhattan, these six friends could be themselves with each other. Joey’s a goofball. Phoebe is ditsy. Rachel is a somewhat spoiled little rich girl, Monica is controlling. Ross is a nerd. Chandler is the product of a bad home. But it doesn’t matter. They’re still friends. They could come home cranky or giddy. They could be juvenile and it didn’t matter. They were still going to be friends. They lived up to their theme song: “I’ll Be There for You,” because they had this understanding that no matter what happened, no matter how things turned out, no matter who they turned out to be, they would still be friends.
And isn’t that one thing we need in friends? I mean, we need the freedom to be ourselves—because if you’re free to be who you are, you’re free to become someone better—someone you long to be. And for everything that the show got WRONG, that part it got RIGHT. True Christian friends do that for each other. They allow us to be our true selves. That’s important, because we can’t grow if we’re pretending. We can’t grow if we’re hiding. We can’t speak into each other’s lives unless we are being honest with each other. We can’t become who God wants us to be until we face who we are and do that in the company of other people—people who know us and love us enough to say what we need to hear if we are to continue on to the next stage of our growth.
Do you have friends like that? Is there someone in your life with whom you can be completely unself-conscious? Are you that kind of a friend to people? Do you give them the freedom to be themselves on their way to becoming who God wants them to be?
Here’s a second reason we need good Christian friends if we are to grow spiritually.
(2) FRIENDS CAN TALK ABOUT DIFFICULT ISSUES.
Turn to John chapter 11 and follow along as I read verses 1-3:
1 – Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
2 – (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)
3 – So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one You love is sick.”
By the way—we see another proof of the closeness of their relationship here. Mary and Martha send this word to Jesus, “The one You LOVE is sick.” And they didn’t even ASK Jesus to come. They just assumed that a Friend of the family like Him WOULD come. If you are familiar with this story—you know Jesus didn’t come—not right away as you would expect. He waited TWO more days before leaving. And—I have to point out—this doesn’t mean Jesus was being cruel.
It doesn’t mean He was waiting long enough for Lazarus to die so He could show His power over death. No—Jesus knew Lazarus was ALREADY dead by the time the messenger arrived. Remember, it was a two-day journey from Bethany to Jesus. Jesus waited two days before heading in that direction and when He arrived He was told Lazarus had been dead FOUR days. So, he died immediately AFTER the messenger left to tell Jesus. I point that out for a couple reasons.
First, I don’t want you to think that Jesus’ relationship with this family wasn’t close—that He lingered because He didn’t care. Jesus ALWAYS cares. As Peter says “We are His PERSONAL CONCERN.” Plus—if you skip down to verse 11, Jesus says to His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.…”
Also—I want to remind you that Jesus NEVER turned down a person in need. And finally, I mention this because it’s comforting to me at least to know that God KNOWS what’s going on. Jesus—God in the flesh—KNEW that Lazarus had died. As the Bible says, “Not a sparrow falls but that God knows.” He knows about our struggles. Isn’t that reassuring?
Okay—skip down to verse 20 where it says,
“When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet Him, but Mary stayed at home. ‘Lord,’ Martha said to Jesus, ‘if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give You whatever You ask.’”
Once again we find Martha being brutally honest with Jesus. She is not afraid to vent her feelings and her frustrations, and she dares to wonder out loud if He still might be able to do something.
Look at verse 23:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told Him. “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, Who was to come into the world.”
This is a remarkable conversation. Right here by the side of the road, they are talking about the deepest, most difficult things human beings can talk about—sickness, sorrow, suffering, loss, death, tragedy, and the life to come. I mean, Mary isn’t afraid to ask Jesus a hard question: “Where were You when we needed You?” And Jesus doesn’t hesitate to stretch Martha’s thinking: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t hesitate to invite her to take the next step of faith: “Do you believe this?” And the conversation ends with Martha making one of the most complete confessions of faith anywhere in the Gospels. It’s just as profound as Peter’s. She says, “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God.…”
Martha has obviously grown in her faith, right there by the side of the road. I have to think she had started following her sister’s example—choosing what was better—-sitting at Jesus’ feet instead of banging pots in the kitchen—learning from Him.
Later on, Mary comes and asks Jesus the same question. In verse 32 she says to Jesus, “Lord if You had been here my brother would not have died.” Jesus went and stood by Lazarus’ grave and began to weep. I mean, this is a tough time for these friends—sorrow and tension and misunderstanding and disappointment and grief—but they are there for each other. And the story ends with Lazarus walking out of the tomb, restored to life, reunited with his family. The glory of God was revealed for the whole town to see.
Do you see the point? This chapter of their friendship teaches us that spiritual friends aren’t just THERE for each other in hard times; they TALK to each other in hard times. They’re not afraid to face the big questions of life and death. They ask hard questions of themselves, of each other, of God. They stretch each other’s thinking. They dare to think out loud with one another. They give each other opportunities to explain the truth and take another step of faith.
Good Christian friends don’t just show up at the funeral; as important as that is, they find you a week, a month, a year later and they ask, “How are you doing, really, with God?” I mean, it’s nice to have friends that we can talk to about the weather and the stock market and the kids and the Superbowl—but sometimes we need to talk about big things, deep things, hard things. That’s the blessing of DEEP Christian friendships. They invite us to talk about those things.
And that’s one of the ways that the FRIENDS in that popular sitcom by the same name failed each other. Oh, they were there with each other through all kinds of life experiences, that’s for sure. But they rarely stretched and confronted and challenged one another to become their better selves. They rarely asked the big questions of life, and obviously never pointed each other towards God.
This is Daryl Davis. He’s a blues musician, but he also has what some might call an interesting hobby. For the past 30 years, Davis has spent time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. He says once the friendship blossoms, many times the Klansmen realize that their hate may be misguided. Since Davis started talking with these members, he says 200 Klansmen have given up their robes. When that happens, Davis collects the robes and keeps them in his home as a reminder of the dent he has made in racism by simply sitting down and having dinner with people. In the wake of the horror of the events in Charlottesville last year Davis traveled there to meet with Billy Snuffer, an Imperial Wizard of the Rebel Brigade Knights, a sect of the KKK.
Snuffer was there with other Klansmen attending a hearing of an associate facing a gun charge during that infamous “Unite the Right” rally—where a woman was killed by a driver who rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Davis wasn’t there to support Snuffer and his friends, but he did want to engage them in conversation in order to understand them. Not everyone welcomes Davis. Most Klansmen don’t want a friend whose skin is dark. But that doesn’t stop Daryl. He seeks to befriend these people.
And—he’s been doing this for a long time. He’s traveled across the south, east and Midwest, playing his music. In 1983 he was complimented by a man in the audience who compared his playing to Jerry Lee Lewis. After explaining to the man that Lewis learned his craft from black blues and boogie-woogie players, they eventually became friends—in spite of the fact that the man revealed his membership with the KKK. Since then, Daryl Davis has been dubbed “the Klan Whisper” as he soldiers on in a mission to challenge the beliefs of Klansmen through friendship and conversation. His closet full of Klan robes is a testament to his success. Racism in America is a complex problem with a myriad of systemic, interconnected causes and consequences.
Nevertheless, Davis’ example serves as a gentle reminder that the path toward progress requires a measure of humility and a willingness to listen.
Davis knows that God can use friendships in powerful ways. He’s learned that true friends are able to have difficult conversations—and that through them we can grow. I have to just stop and say—our nation is more divided than ever—and the easiest thing to do is just criticize the other “side.” That is counter productive. It only divides us farther. So many times, barriers would come down—truth could be conveyed—change would come—if we would just talk. As Davis’ example shows, God can use our friendships as salt and light.
That leads us to our last thought.
(3) Our friends help us grow because we ARE ABLE TO BE ATTENTIVE TO EACH OTHER SPIRITUALLY.
In the final scene with Jesus and this group of friends, are at a dinner party in Bethany. They have gathered in the home of Simon the Leper. Can imagine the kind of conversations that went on that night? Simon says, “You guys cannot imagine what it was like when Jesus healed me. I saw the scabs fall off my hand! My fingers grew back in place. I reached up and my eyebrows were there. I was healed.” Then Lazarus interrupted saying, “Simon that was nothing. I mean that must have been great but, hey, I DIED. I was gone four days! I went to Paradise. I saw the biggies: Abraham Moses, David…But I will tell you the most amazing thing I saw was when I came back and walked out of that tomb. Peter’s eyes were that big around.” Simon counters, “Hey! I was made whole!” Lazarus replies, “But I was in a HOLE!”—and so on.
Remember though—it’s the night before Passover, the cross is very near. But in the midst of their revelry no one notices the burden Jesus is bearing. No one understands what that means for Jesus. Everyone is laughing and having too much fun. But not Mary. Mary understands. She’s been listening to Jesus’ teaching. She’s been hanging on His every word. She knows that Jesus has come to die for our sins. She remembers that only hours before Jesus had said to His followers:
“We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the Law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. Three days later He will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34)
The disciples had rejected teaching like that—but not Mary. No one else at the party seems to be aware that any of that is going to happen, but Mary is aware. And so, while everyone else is feasting, the Gospels tell us, Mary gets up from her place and quietly crosses the room. She takes out a jar of expensive perfume. It’s incredibly valuable—worth as much as $35,000. She’s no doubt been saving it as part of her dowry. She breaks it wide open and empties the entire jar on Jesus’ head and on His feet. She uses her hair to spread it. The guests are scandalized: How inappropriate! Judas—the disciples’ official “Debbie-Downer” is especially upset at her extravagance. This could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor! But Jesus says, “Why are you bothering her? She’s done a beautiful thing to Me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them anytime you want. But you will not always have Me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on My body beforehand to prepare for My burial.”
Mary was sensitive to what was happening spiritually at that moment. As I said, she had been listening when Jesus spoke about his suffering and his death. Her eyes were on Jesus that night, and she detected something in His. She realized what was about to happen. And when the Spirit prompted her to do something, something risky, she didn’t hesitate. She anointed Jesus—pointing to the cross that was only hours away.
We need good Christian friends to do for us what Mary did for Jesus. Spiritual friends pay attention to us and for us. They help us hear God’s voice, feel his touch, and know his will.
As you know, this week, Billy Graham went home to be with Jesus. When I heard this—I felt led to review his life story—and as I did, I saw several of friends and family members who practices this aspect of friendship—guiding him to God’s purposes for him. They were attentive to his spiritual needs—-and to the Holy Spirit—and so they co-labored with God in helping Billy do what God had called him to do. Listen as I do a quick review of his life—and note all the people God used to guide Billy to the good work that God had prepared in advance for him to do.
When Graham was a young teen Mordecai Ham the famous evangelist came to down. The revival he led went on for several weeks—but Billy didn’t attend. Finally, A FAMILY FRIEND encouraged Billy to go. He went and that night he asked Jesus into his heart and life. He experienced a new birth that changed him powerfully. His desires changed. Things he had loved before like baseball and going to the movies were put on the back burner. God’s will became a priority. His personal experience of change also impressed on him the power of sharing the basic Gospel message as Ham had done in his meetings. Now—it’s hard for me to believe because he was such a prolific author but Billy Graham had a hard time in the classroom. In fact, when he was a senior his homeroom teacher told the family he didn’t think Billy would be able to graduate. Well, his siblings and parents—his FAMILY FRIENDS—encouraged him to persevere and he did. The summer after his High School graduation, Graham got a job in door-to-door sales—selling brushes for the Fuller Brush Company. He was a great success. Households all over North Carolina purchased brushes from him. His employer encouraged him to forget college and stay on because he saw that Graham had a knack for helping people to see their need for things—like brushes. With that encouragement, Graham went to college instead.
First, he attended Bob Jones University—but Billy chafed under the hyper-legalistic rules of that school—a school that even censored students’ mail. While he was there Billy said his spiritual life suffered. He wrote his mother and said, “I can’t seem to get anywhere in prayer, I don’t feel anything.” But God didn’t waste Billy’s pain. He used the negative atmosphere of Bob Jones to push him to transfer to the Florida Bible Institute, which he found much more beneficial to his spiritual growth. There, he learned a framework for thinking about critical issues that would stay with him for life: He said, “We were encouraged to think things through for ourselves, but always with the unique authority of Scripture as our guide. I could stretch my mind without feeling that I was doing violence to my soul.” On that campus, Billy found good Christian “professor friends” who saw that God had a special purpose for him. One was Dr. John Minder, who became Billy’s mentor and helped him start preaching. Dr. Minder worked with Billy helping “file off” the rough edges of Billy’s earliest sermons through prayer and practice.
With Minder’s help he grew into a masterful preacher. Billy’s friends saw that the seeds of his phenomenal work for Christ. They listened to the Holy Spirit and helped guide and prepare him.
After Florida Bible, he entered Wheaton College where he met and married his closest friend, Ruth. It’s wonderful to see ho God used Ruth to guide him to God’s best will. For example, when he was considering a career in politics, Ruth said to him, “I don’t think the American people would vote for a divorced president, and if you leave ministry for politics, you will certainly have a divorce on your hands.”
Though his ministry cost Ruth much, she wouldn’t have had it any other way. Ruth was Billy’s lifelong bedrock, often speaking up to offer advice, yet she just as often stayed silent so that he could focus on his mission. T.W. Wilson, a member of Graham’s staff said, “There would have been no Billy Graham … had it not been for Ruth.”
I could go on—but let me just ask, do you have a friend like that—a friend who knows your giftedness—a friend who is sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s promptings—a friend who helps encourage you on to God’s purposes?