What REVEAL Can't Reveal

[This is one of a series of posts related to the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey. To see the others, click here.]

I am a big fan of the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey produced for churches by the Willow Creek Association. I have invested a lot of my time and energy in digging into its findings and helping other people to do so; I've tried to be creative in communicating some of the things we learned by writing A Parable of Churchville; my endorsement of REVEAL is even printed inside the third book on their research, Focus. The work they are doing is unprecedented, and church leaders will be much better off to learn from their general findings, published so far in three very quick reads (Reveal, Follow Me, and Focus), as well as to see what the survey finds about their own specific congregations.

After being pretty immersed over the past 2 1/2 years in any information I could find about REVEAL as well as my own church's data, I've noticed something that's lacking. (The lack isn't in the survey, but in me.)REVEAL gives church leaders insights like we've never had before into what is going on inside of the people in their churches, what they're looking for, what they really need, and specifics about what will be most effective at helping them grow in their love for God and for other people. The problem (to no fault of the survey, because it isn't supposed to serve this purpose) is that all of these insights can keep a pastor's focus on obstacles to spiritual growth that are exterior to him or her.

In other, more direct, words, REVEAL cannot reveal any insights like these to a pastor:

  • It has been years since your church's staff members have had any time in solitude with God.
  • The speed of your church's programming schedule allows no room for you, your staff, or your lay leaders to learn the ancient discipline of resting in God.
  • Although you may be highly effective at teaching others about God and the spiritual life, rather than enjoying your own relationship with God, you use ministry to avoid ever having to be alone with him.
  • The most vital factor in a church's effectiveness at helping people to grow is the quality of your friendship with God.
  • Your staff have never learned to be discerning in their own lives and can therefore be very dangerous to themselves and others when making decisions that affect the entire congregation.

REVEAL will make a church's leadership face some great questions, like "Are the things we're putting so much time, energy, and resources into actually and predictably helping people grow?", "Which ones should we keep doing?", and "Which ones should we stop?" And the focus is certainly not all external; it does have some detailed analysis of people's perception of their senior pastor and the research lays a strong emphasis on the importance of staff modeling in their own lives how to grow.

Yet leaders who have become accustomed to looking for programmatic answers to problems before waiting on God for them will still easily find ways to focus on what the data says are the problems "out there" in the congregation rather in "right here" in the hearts and lifestyles of the people in the highest levels of leadership.

In a great article available here, Ruth Haley Barton says, "Spiritual transformation in your church or organization begins with you and your transformation. Any additional strategy must and will come quite naturally after that." Leaders should keep that constantly in mind, focusing first on helping one another learn to live more fully in God's kingdom together before digging in to all of the exterior insights that REVEAL can provide.

So, if you have any influence in your church and are someone other than one of the pastors, you can do a couple of very important things: Encourage your pastor to learn about and participate in REVEAL, if your church is not already doing so. Also, do everything possible to help your pastor(s) be assured that they are in an environment where cultivating their own intimacy with God is not a luxury for them to attend to when time is left over from the real work that they do. Rather, use your influence to communicate to them that "no time is more profitably spent than that used to heighten the quality of an intimate walk with God" (Dallas Willard- read the entire article here). As someone who is being pastored and shaped by them, your own well-being depends heavily upon this.

A very practical way to do this is to make it possible for your pastor(s) to participate in a community where their own spiritual formation is the focus. I have recently finished a Transforming Community with Ruth Haley Barton and benefited greatly from it. Renovaré and The Upper Room also have good opportunities available.

If you are a pastor, you may or may not have control over whether or not you can participate in something like this. If you can't, you must find ways to cultivate your own life with God through practices such as Sabbath-keeping, solitude, and silence, and involve others in your efforts to do so. As Dallas Willard says in his penetrating article, The Key to the Keys of the Kingdom:

A response to giving attention to personal soul care often is, “I don't have time for extensive solitude and silence. I have too much to do.” The truth is you don't have time not to practice solitude and silence. No time is more profitably spent than that used to heighten the quality of an intimate walk with God. If we think otherwise, we have been badly educated. The real question is, “Will we take time to do what is necessary for an abundant life and an abundant ministry, or will we try to 'get by' without it?”

So a couple of words of counsel are appropriate for our attending to the inner life. First, God never gives anyone too much to do. We do that to ourselves or allow others to do it to us. We may be showing our lack of confidence in God's power and goodness, though it may be that our models and education have failed us. Second, the exercise of God's power in ministry never, by itself, amends character, and it rarely makes up for our own foolishness. God's power can be actively and wisely sought and received by us only as we seek to grow by grace into Christlikeness. Power with Christlike character is God's unbeatable combination of triumphant life in the kingdom of God on earth and forever. Power without Christ's character gives us our modern-day Sampsons and Sauls.