When I was growing up, the doorframe of our kitchen was covered with pencil marks. Every once in a while my mom would stand me next to it and make a new mark. I would carefully measure from the floor to the mark and announce how tall I was. I was one of those kids who had a late growth spurt, so I measured my height a lot.
Measuring your height is easy. Measuring your faith, on the other hand, is not so easy. We have a clear idea of what “taller” means, but we really don’t have a clear definition of what a richer or deeper faith looks like.
So what do we mean when we talk about “growing in faith”? What are we looking for? How do I know if my faith is growing? How do I know if the faith of others is growing? Are the things we’re doing to encourage faith in our children and teens working? Do our church programs help people to have a deeper and richer faith? Is there a way to know whether our efforts to instill faith are effective?
Perhaps faith is one of those things that’s hard to define but we know it when we see it.
Think of someone you know who has a particularly deep faith. I’m not talking about someone famous like the late Mother Teresa. I mean someone you really know. It might be a parent or a grandparent. A pastor or an elder. A child or a teen. Have you got someone in mind? Now, why did you choose that person?
You probably chose that person because of what you have observed about the way she lives her life. Maybe you chose him because of the way he welcomes people into his home or because of the great advice she gives. Those are good things, but they are difficult to measure.
One possible measure of deep faith might be active involvement in a local congregation. For example, does this person attend worship regularly? It makes good sense that someone who is growing in faith will worship with God’s people often. But we can’t just count the number of worship services attended. Does someone who worships eight times a month have a deeper faith than someone who worships four times a month? Maybe worshiping eight times a month vs. four times a month doesn’t tell us much, but eight times vs. one time might tell us something.
Active involvement in church isn’t just worship attendance, though. It means participating in the life of the congregation. I’m on our church’s education committee, for example, so that counts for something, right? But faith is not the same thing as attending committee meetings. (If it were, the Christian Reformed Church would be in fantastic shape!) So while participation is part of what we’re looking for, being involved in committees or even attending church potlucks doesn’t really indicate a growing faith either.
We can also look more broadly at the way people live their lives. Some people in my church, for example, have the skills to build houses and, in their retirement, have volunteered to do that in our community on a weekly basis. This is a great ministry, and many people have benefited from their selfless service. Do these volunteers have a deep faith? Maybe. But maybe not. Their service is noteworthy and an example to others, but we’re looking for more than just that, right? After all, organizations like the Peace Corps or Habitat for Humanity are filled with people who give of themselves, but some of them have no faith commitment at all.
So just looking at what people do is problematic for measuring how deep someone’s faith is. That’s because the ways I use my gifts in Christ’s service might look different from the way you use your gifts. The same thing is true about involvement in our local congregation. For example, those who lead in music or in speaking do not necessarily have a deeper faith than those who listen. They simply have different gifts.
As we think about this, we end up with an amalgam of things that mix together both to inform our faith life and indicate how we are doing. In her book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean notes that teens who have a vibrant faith have four “theological accents.” They have “a creed to believe in, a community to belong to, a call to live out and a hope to hold on to” (p. 42). I found her list helpful as I thought about my own faith life. Let’s look at this list a little more closely.
Knowing what we believe is an important facet of a deep faith. This means the work of education is important in our churches and in our homes. By spending time in God’s Word and studying what others have written and said about God, we get to know God better and we grow in our understanding of our faith.
We were made to live in community with each other. Our modern emphasis on individualism runs counter to God’s call for us to be a community of faith together. We need others to hold us accountable, to teach us, to worship with us, to help us, and to be helped by us. If we are not part of a community of believers, we are missing an important element in our growth as Christians.
We are each called to live out our faith in ways that are uniquely “us.” We sometimes think of “call” in terms of vocation, but it is bigger than that. My call is different from your call, but we have each been called to bring our gifts, our abilities, and even our weaknesses in service to God and to other people. Our lives have meaning because we have a God-given purpose.
Faith is not just an academic exercise; it is a way of life that has a trajectory. We are working not just for a heavenly reward, but for the coming of Christ’s kingdom. We look forward to the day when wrongs will be righted and injustice will be no more. We have a hope that all things will work together for good (Rom. 8:28). We have confidence that God wins.
In studies of teenagers and religion, teens who exhibit the four accents above also exhibit a lot of the behaviors we mentioned earlier (church attendance, congregational involvement, lives of service) plus many more. These things are not just important for teens, but for all of us to continue to grow in faith. We need to have a place in our church community with God’s people. We need to know our brothers and sisters in Christ, and they need to know us. That means making involvement in our local church a high priority. And we need to make sure we and our children are involved in good church education programs. We can be serious about our call and what it means to do the tasks God has given us as people of faith. We also need to keep talking to each other. A life of faith thrives on conversation with other Christians. Our talk must be authentic and reflect our ups and downs, our dreams and disappointments, but it also should be laced with our thoughts about God’s place in our lives.
Channels of Grace
Faith is a gift from God, but there are things that Christians have done for centuries, faith practices, that play a powerful role in shaping our faith. These practices are not only indicators of our faith but they also help us to grow in faith—things like prayer, worship, reading God’s Word, and practicing hospitality.
We do not look at these practices as chores or as something we do out of obligation. Rather, faith practices are gifts from God. By engaging in them we open ourselves up to more fully experience God’s work in our lives; they are channels of grace that help our faith grow. So while it isn’t possible to measure faith as easily as we measure our height, we can have a pretty good idea of which direction we’re heading.
Questions for Discussion
- Bob Keeley says that measuring faith is not easy. Do you think faith can be measured? Why or why not?
- How do you know that your faith is growing?
- Think of a faith-filled person you know. What qualities does that person have that inspire you?
- Do you think the four theological accents are good measures of a vibrant faith? Explain. What ideas would you add to this list?
- What part do faith practices have in faith development? What helps you to grow in faith? How do you nurture faith in other people?
- What particular gift of faith have you been given? How do you share that with others?