One of the things Dr. Howard Hendricks instilled in me during seminary is that I should always have a group. Specifically, I should always be able to point to a group of men and say, “That’s the group I’m currently pouring my life into.” As I stated in the introduction, I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility to fill anybody’s cup. But I am responsible to empty mine. So I’ve always had a handpicked group of guys that I’m investing in. It was in one of those groups that I made a discovery that shaped my view of spiritual formation.
In 1987, my group was comprised of college students who felt like God might be calling them into full-time ministry. We met on Tuesday mornings at 6:30 for about an hour and a half. One of the things I asked each group member to do was develop a chart that reflected his spiritual history beginning with salvation. Keep in mind, these guys were in their early twenties, so it’s not like they had a whole lot of life to chart. Specifically, I wanted to see the highs and lows and I wanted them to include the things that contributed to both. As best I can remember, my goal was to get a snapshot of where each of these guys was coming from.
There were five college students in that original group. While the details of their stories were different, there was a good deal of similarity as well. A year and a half later, I asked a second group to do the same exercise. The stories were different, but the dynamics that led to their spiritual growth were similar. After repeating this exercise several more times, I observed five things that surfaced in just about everyone’s story.
Fast-forward to the fall of 1995 and I’m sitting in a friend’s basement with the original North Point staff hashing out the mission and strategy statement for our newly formed church. It was within the context of this lengthy discussion that the subject of spiritual formation first surfaced. We began wrestling with questions such as: What should our discipleship model look like? What is our goal for the people who choose to partner with us in ministry? What does a mature believer look like? What role does the church have in developing Christ followers? More than anything, we wanted to create a model that would actually facilitate spiritual maturity. We had enough church staff experience to know that in most churches spiritual formation was not the driving force behind programming (or budgeting, for that matter). We wanted to be the exception. We wanted everything we did to focus on building mature followers of Christ. And we knew that if we weren’t intentional, spiritual formation would get lost in the plethora of activities that tends to gobble up valuable time and resources.
The mission statement we had settled on was (and still is) to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. But we felt like that needed further definition. If someone is in a growing relationship with Christ, what specifically is growing? Her hair? His beard? To make a long series of conversations short, we determined that faith is what grows in a growing relationship. Specifically, a person’s confidence in God. Confidence that God is who he says he is and that he will do what he has promised to do.
Faith, or trust, is at the center of every healthy relationship. As trust goes, so goes the relationship. A break in trust signals a break in the relationship. Sin was introduced to the world through a choice not to trust. In the Garden of Eden, humanity’s relationship with God was broken when Eve and Adam quit trusting. God has been on a quest ever since to reengage with mankind in a relationship characterized by trust. The entire Old Testament is the story of God saying, “Trust me.” It’s no coincidence that God didn’t give Israel the law until they first learned to trust him and follow him. With that as a backdrop, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that at the epicenter of Jesus’ message was the word believe. Just as humankind’s relationship with God was destroyed through a lack of faith, so it would be restored through an expression of the same. At its core, Christianity is an invitation to reenter a relationship of trust with the Father. At the cross, sin was forgiven and we were invited to trust. It makes perfect sense that salvation comes by faith, not obedience. Intimate relationships are not built on obedience. They are built on trust. Walking by faith, again, is simply living as if God is who he says he is and that he will do everything he has promised to do. As a person’s confidence in God grows, he or she matures.
As we continued our discussion, we talked about the Christians we knew who appeared to have the strongest relationships with Christ. In every case, these were men and women with big faith — extraordinary confidence in God in spite of what life threw at them. These were the people whose faith amazed us. I was convinced then, as I am now, that God is most honored through living, active, death-defying, out-of-the-box faith. During one of these discussions, someone on our team pointed out that the only time Jesus was ever “amazed” was when he saw expressions of great faith and little faith.24 Big faith was a big deal to Jesus. When people acted on what they believed about him, he was impressed. We are as well. Isn’t it true that we love the stories about people in our church who trust God against all odds? We revel in the accounts of teenagers who decide to live out their values at school because they believe God’s promises. What about those hospital visits when you walk in praying for the right thing to say, and you are greeted by a family whose faith in God is staggering? They are confident. No fear. I don’t know about you, but there have been plenty of times when I have driven home from a hospital visit wondering why they let me be the pastor. As I write, I’m reminded of a couple in our small group that has two children with severe vision impairment. I’ve heard Chris and Dave share their story on three occasions. Each time I am moved to tears when I hear Chris talk about their confidence in God through a series of difficult conversations with doctors and two very difficult pregnancies. Maggie and Luke suffer from different conditions, both of which have left them legally blind.
As our team continued to wrestle with the relationship of faith and spiritual maturity, we all agreed that we were way more inspired by the people who have the kind of faith that endures a no from God than those who claim their faith arm-twisted a yes out of him. Big faith is a sign of big maturity. We concluded that the best discipleship or spiritual formation model would be one designed around growing people’s faith. The model most of us had grown up with was designed around increasing people’s knowledge. The models we were exposed to were primarily teaching models. We wanted to go beyond that.
If our mission was to lead people into a growing relationship with Christ — a growing relationship equated to growing faith — then we needed to know what grows people’s faith. So the conversation quickly turned to these questions: What fuels the development of faith? What are the ingredients that, when stirred together, result in greater confidence in the person and promises of God? That’s when I introduced my findings to our team.
I shared my experiences with my various men’s groups. Then I explained the five things that showed up in everybody’s faith story. One by one, the members of our team acknowledged how each of these five dynamics had played a role in their spiritual formations as well. It was a defining moment for our team. We decided that if this was how God grew people’s faith, we should create a ministry model that continually pointed people back to these five dynamics. If these were the essential ingredients to big faith, we should build our entire model around them. So that’s exactly what we did.
Early in our discussion someone suggested we name these things. As you will see, they aren’t steps or principles. I often refer to them as dynamics. But that can mean a lot of things. I think it was Reggie Joiner who suggested the term catalysts. So from that point forward, we’ve referred to these as the five faith catalysts. During our weekend services, I sometimes refer to them as five things God uses to grow your faith.25
As you might expect, you won’t find this list anywhere in the Scriptures. Remember, this list is the result of what we’ve observed. We’ve made no effort to make the list complete or balanced. These five things are what surface on their own when people tell their faith stories. Since those early days, we’ve tested our theory on numerous occasions. For several years, Reggie Joiner incorporated the five faith catalysts into his leadership training for student pastors. In one exercise he would write each of the five on a three-by-five card, turn them over so no one could read them, and then attach them from left to right across the top of a planning board. Then he would ask his audience to think through the things that contributed most to their spiritual development, good and bad, and begin calling them out. He would write down whatever came to their minds on cards and tack them under one of the five catalyst cards across the top of the board. When everyone had finished sharing, he would turn the cards over to reveal the five catalysts. Time after time, summer after summer, everything these leaders threw out as major factors in their spiritual development fit at least one of the five.
As I’ve stated throughout this book, I’m not expecting you to do what we do. But we are absolutely convinced that these five things reflect the way faith is developed. We’ve presented this idea to church leaders from every church background imaginable. Each time we do, we walk away even more convinced that these five things represent the common ground for faith development. I’m convinced this is how God works in spite of how we organize and program our churches. But imagine what would happen if we actually organized and programmed in concert with the way God works? We believe that what we’ve seen over the past seventeen years is a direct result of our efforts to do just that. So for the remainder of this section, I’ll walk you through the five faith catalysts, along with examples of how we’ve allowed them to shape our programming as well as our model.
In case you have to leave early, I’ll go ahead and give you all five upfront. Yes, they all start with the letter “P.” No, I’m not a fan of lists that all begin with the same letter. This is one of those rare cases in the history of list making when someone didn’t have to force a word to fit the motif.
The Five Faith Catalysts:
- Practical Teaching
- Private Disciplines
- Personal Ministry
- Providential Relationships
- Pivotal Circumstances
Stanley, Andy. 2012. Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.