Churches want to help people grow. I can’t think of any church that would overtly say they want people to attend their services, hear their sermons, participate in their programs, and walk away unchanged. This is one thing most churches are united in—their desire to see their people transformed.
The real question is how to facilitate transformation. When I asked about the stereotypical “churchy” ways that churches try to get people to change, the immediate answer was guilt, followed by fear and a few other negative ideas. Unfortunately, that is often what churches are known for. And while Jesus was in the business of seeing people transformed, he certainly didn’t seem to use guilt as a primary tool.
Take, for example, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. Though this famously short man was a chief tax collector and wealthy (read in our day, an accomplished swindler and oppressor), Jesus invites himself over to his house for dinner—a gesture of friendship and acceptance. Without guilting him, manipulating him, or threatening him, Zacchaeus experiences a sudden transformation in the way he related to him money. He went from greedy to generous in (seemingly) 6.7 seconds—without any of those "churchy" techniques of manipulation.
There are three shifts we need to make in the way we approach growth:
1. From Guilt to Grace
Though Jesus wasn’t “soft on sin,” (after all, he called sinners sick and in need of a doctor), he did not lead with guilt or make his main message “you’re not good enough.” His friendship with sinners created an atmosphere in which real transformation could take place. This is true not only at the beginning of our relationship with God, but throughout our lives. Grace is a better motivator for change than guilt. That does not mean that it is unhealthy to feel guilt (or conviction) when we’ve done something wrong. Nor does it mean that there is never a time to confront each other on bad behaviour (see Galatians 6:1). But guilt should not be the primary message or motivator the church uses to help people grow.
2. From Legalism to Love
When asked what the most important commandments were, Jesus famously replied that they were to love God and love others (see Matthew 22:36-40). God’s desire is (and always has been) for people to love him freely, and to demonstrate that love in their relationships with others (and themselves). The “rules” of Christianity are not the point—they are simply a way to express our love for God. A gardener provides a trellis in order to give a path for the growth of a vine. A trellis does not cause growth, it is not the essence of the plant, it simply shapes it. In the same way, rules are not the essence of what God wants from us, and knowing them certainly does not cause us to grow. However, as love for God and others grows inside of us, the “rules” give clear path on which transformation may grow. Of course, sometimes love pushes us beyond the rules, just like it did with Zacchaeus (who, while legally required only to add 20% to his restitution, offers 400% voluntarily).
3. From Human Effort to the Holy Spirit
The Bible is not a self-help manual, and the Christian faith is not meant to be undertaken alone. The presence, guidance, and empowerment of the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to transformation in our lives. The Scriptures promise that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on until completion” (Philippians 1:6). Our temptation is to trust less in God’s work inside of us, and more in our own ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Paul scolds the Galatian church for slipping into legalism and human effort: “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). He goes on to describe a life of keeping in step (cooperating) with the Spirit, a life that will naturally produce “fruit” like love, joy, patience, peace, etc. We must not forget that the Holy Spirit is in charge of the renovation of our life, and he supplies the plans, the agenda, and the tools to make us into the people he wants us to be. Our job is simply to show up and do the work when and where he asks us to contribute.
You can check out my sermon on this topic here.
Are there other changes churches should make in their approach to helping people transform?