Spiritual Growth Groups

Phil Halstead

At the beginning of the year, I read Jeremy Cowart’s inspirational book, I’m Possible: Jumping into Fear and Discovering a Life of Purpose. I absolutely loved it. Cowart believes that life-changing ideas and “possibilities hide in all of us, but so often we don’t carve out quiet places to let our minds wander into them.”[1] Stated differently, Cowart deems that “God throws ideas at” us “like crumpled-up paper wads.” Our job is to pick them up, “read the messages like a map,” and “follow the map.”[2] The book is replete with illustrations of how Cowart puts these principles into practice. The outcomes are utterly astonishing.

Here’s an example: After the catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Cowart observed that the news reports pouring out of the nation were focused on technical issues such as the number of buildings destroyed and the ever-growing death count.[3] Nobody highlighted personal stories and experiences. As he pondered this, the idea of photographing Haitian people holding up pieces of rubble with their stories etched on them gripped him. After a string of miracles, he captured the photos and created a photo essay entitled Voices of Haiti. People at Oxfam International saw and loved the sample of photos that Cowart had released on social media, so they contacted him and asked if they could display the entire photo essay at an upcoming gathering of world leaders and international donors in New York City. Cowart agreed. People who attended pledged a staggering 10 billion dollars to reconstruct Haiti! What a fantastic outcome! Reflecting on this, Cowart wrote, “though I have no way of knowing just how my photos affected them, I know one thing for certain: they heard the voices of the Haitian people.”[4]

I felt challenged by Cowart’s example and asked myself why do I not come up with such ideas? So, encouraged by Cowart’s principles, I withdrew from the surrounding din, stilled myself, and listened to see what might emerge.

The first thought that surfaced was a question that has irked me no end. Why do so many people become stagnant in their faith journeys? Why have vast numbers of churchgoers become lukewarm, passionless, and/or apathetic regarding God? Why do so many folks justify their passivity towards God via the rhetoric “been there; done that; it doesn’t work?” And pointedly for me, in what way am I guilty of these charges?

Questions like these caused me to ponder how we might turn this situation around? How can we motivate one another to move from A to B to C in our spiritual growth journeys? What might enable people to persevere with God when the going gets tough? So, I put these questions to God, stilled myself again, and waited to see what might surface next?

Spiritual growth groups that give precedence to upward, inward, and outward movements is what sprang to mind. While this idea is plainly not new, the philosophy behind the gatherings and the structure of the meetings will hopefully bring forth fresh life.

For me, upward trajectories move us beyond ourselves and ground us in higher, better ways of being. It is here where we receive our orientation, priorities, rules of life, and manifestos. Clearly, God reigns overall. We need to seek God, learn from God, and do things God’s way on God’s terms. If my thoughts and desires align with God’s and I am attuned to God’s will, life unfolds with greater clarity. It is in connection with God that we can distinguish more accurately between God’s perspectives and our own. It is in knowing God’s truth that we can more readily tame our emotions. It is by walking with the Good Shepherd that perseverance becomes easier.

Clearly, the Bible is central in this upward movement. God has inspired it, after all. C.S. Lewis argues that in most parts of the Bible “everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”[5] Accordingly, it has an import and a gravity like no other book. It also teaches us how to know, love, and serve God like no other resource.

The most effective way that I envisage a fruitful upward trajectory in spiritual growth groups is for group members to read collectively through a book of the Bible verse by verse. I recommend consulting some reputable Bible commentaries at the same time to gain deeper insights. This work will be necessarily slow. Spiritual growth is not a race. Discussions need to take place. Insights need to be personalised. Life applications need to be made. Once the group has digested the biblical resource, members may wish to engage with a more contemporary resource that focuses on God. After this has been completed, I suggest repeating the pattern in an ongoing fashion alternating books from the Bible with present-day resources.

The second overlapping movement is inward. To grow spiritually, to love God, others, and ourselves more, we need to address our inner worlds. Our shadows, our unprocessed wounds, our unconfessed sin, and our erroneous beliefs form the lenses through which we view and understand everything, including God. We mustn’t ignore these subterranean minefields; instead, we should recognise that our psychology, our inner lives, and our hearts have a staggering influence over us.

As we persist in our upward work, we will comprehend more clearly that God longs to help us address our inner worlds. Allow me to give an example from my own life. I recall a season when despite my attempts to pursue God, I was particularly fearful of being in the presence of people with prophetic giftings. For some time, I couldn’t work out why this was the case. But when I read in the Gospel of John that wrongdoers are afraid to come into the light for fear that their deeds would be exposed, the jigsaw puzzle pieces came together. I realised I was scared that a prophet would see right through me and identify that I was still trying to order my own steps and preferred anger over forgiveness. Of course, the irony here is that God saw my inner state all along, but I didn’t recognise this. Might there be some issues that you need to bring into the light?

Inward work in spiritual growth groups may take various shapes. It could, for instance, involve people reading through classic books like Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.[6] It may entail prayerful, deliberate, and collaborative explorations of concepts like shadow work, forgiveness, confession, emotional intelligence, and inner healing. Or, it may spotlight the ways in which the spirit of the world, worry, busyness, the beguilement of riches, and the seductiveness of pleasure, have entrapped so many of us. The crucial point here is that inward work is an important and welcomed part of spiritual growth groups’ agendas. If it isn’t, we will stagnate, block our transformation, and remain impoverished.

Developing an outward focus is the third intersecting movement that spiritual growth groups focus on. Having an outward orientation, embodying genuine concern for peace and justice, serving others, and meeting the world’s needs, balances receiving with giving. Outward motivations give us purpose and meaning. They also increase our compassion and love.

Naturally, each group will determine for itself the nature of its outward service depending on its context. It may involve a local, regional, or international mission. It may entail serving Christians or non-Christians. It may take people out of their comfort zones and mix them with folks from different ethnicities, faith traditions, and backgrounds One thing is certain: It will engender spiritual growth.

Lest we feel inadequate to serve, bear in mind that upward and inward work liberates us to engage in outward service. So, too, do the words of a wise preacher I once heard: “There are only three prerequisites for service: You have a pulse; you have a willingness to serve; and you have a sense of inadequacy.”

These are the ideas that surfaced in me when I followed Cowart’s example of becoming still. I hope they motivate you to create space to get inspired by God and let new ideas spring forth in you. I also hope that many of you will form spiritual growth groups that combine upward, inward, and outward movements. If we were to run with these ideas, we would counter the dropout rate from Christianity and assist folks to grow and mature spiritually.

[1] Jeremy Cowart, I’m Possible: Jumping into Fear and Discovering a Life of Purpose (Nashville, TN: W Publishing, 2019), 97.

[2] Jeremy Cowart, I’m Possible, 156.

[3] Jeremy Cowart, I’m Possible, 100.

[4] Jeremy Cowart, I’m Possible, 108.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings from C.S. Lewis (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1984), 37-38.

[6] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).