How Should We Measure Spiritual Growth?

In the field of education, measurements are crucial. Not measuring baking ingredients or 2x4s, of course, but measuring a student’s progress. Tracking growth.

This is especially important for me as I’m hunkered down at the alternative high school—the last stop for the teens of Prison City. (We don’t like to brag about it, but Jackson, my home base, houses the state prison. Please don’t be jealous.)

Measuring learning in my context, like the spiritual one, is a tricky business. When it comes to internal processes—growth of the mind or the spirit, for example—there are no fancy growth charts to tack up against the wall.

To keep students progressing, then, good teachers ask themselves a guiding question: “How will we know when a student is officially ‘educated’?” Or, in other words, “What does a well-rounded graduate look like?”

This guiding question keeps the day-to-day operations on track. At the end of the day, the week, the month, is a student closer to being “educated”? Do they look and think and act more like a high school graduate than they did before?”

With a million possible lesson plans to draw from, the guiding questions also help us choose the right classroom experiences. Does this presentation advance the learner toward being a graduate as we’ve defined it? If it does, roll forward. If it doesn’t, cut the fat.

So the jump I’m about to make is probably pretty obvious at this point, right?

How do we, in the faith arena, keep our faith fresh? How do we ensure that we continue to grow throughout life?

Now, no worries, we’re not about to make a rubric for Christianity. Or to advocate checking traits off a list to judge others’ faith. Clearly not the point.

But I’ve found asking myself a similar question is not a bad idea. “How will I—or others know—if and when we are growing toward a more full experience of faith?” Or, another way of saying it, “What does a lifelong follower of Christ—a person who has been devoted to Christ and his vision for years—look like?”

With a million possible devotionals to read, causes to take up, or programs to implement in our churches, these are the questions that help us set our course in the day-to-day, too. Does this sermon, this focus, this new program encourage us and those we lead toward becoming more like Christ? If it does, roll forward. If it doesn’t, cut the fat.

At the end of the day, the week, the month, are we closer to embodying Christ and his vision for the planet? Do we look and think and act more like Jesus?

Questions like this make identity questions easier for me, too. Do I want to be influenced by and glean learning from the emergent church? The seeker movement? The house church explosion? Other Christian camps that will arise along the way?

Use the question as a funnel: What do the followers of those movements look like? Are they holy, prayerful, devoted to living out the way of Christ? Or after months of walking around with them, is the most prominent result the Urban Outfitter wardrobe and retro specs? (Or the American Flag tie pin and fundy hair-part?)

I’ll give everything I have to becoming like the first (with or without the snazzy specs).

But I hope to give absolutely nothing to the latter. 

I’ve decided, while writing my new memoir, Picking Dandelions: A Search for Eden Among Life’s Weeds, that I cannot afford the luxury of unchanged living.

I have a feeling that anyone who claims to be following Jesus—really following him through all the places that he goes—would be different tomorrow than they are today.

So it’s Christ or bust for me.  

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Sarah Cunningham
Sarah is the author of "Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation," "Picking Dandelions" and her newest title, "The Well Balanced World Changer."