Three expert archers were blindfolded, each given a single arrow, and told to aim at the most important target in their sightline when the blindfold was removed. The first archer positioned the arrow in his bow and aimed it at a high-flying fowl that appeared directly overhead. He brought down the game bird with a single, perfect shot. The second archer saw an empty beer can sitting on top of a fencerow behind him. With a fancy trick shot behind his back, he knocked the beer can off of the post and into the air with a satisfying ping. The third archer saw a willow in the distance of the empty field that filled his sightline save for one small obstruction about fifty yards away. He aimed his arrow up and over the obstruction, landing it near the base of the willow. The distance was a personal best for him.
What each archer failed to recognize was that the obstruction in the field was a bullseye target. All three overlooked it because they didn’t know what they were supposed to be aiming at.
I think spiritual maturity is a lot like that parable. We aim at all kinds of good things, but fail to point our arrows at the true goal. We don’t know what we’re aiming at.
What Is Maturity?
Scripture urges us toward maturity with passages like 1 Corinthians 13:9–11: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
Many churches have a strong focus on early-stage faith training, pouring energy into ministry focused on children and families and equipping new believers with the basics of the faith. But the lack of emphasis on ongoing disciple-making among those further along in their journey with Jesus seems to imply that repeating the same patterns they learned as new believers will sustain them throughout their days. They grow in their skill as archers, but often without a clear sense of what they’re aiming at.
The archer analogy isn’t a perfect one. The word for maturity often used in the New Testament is teleios, translated as “completeness” in the passage above. It describes the purpose of a Jesus-follower’s journey with him. It is not the name of its bullseye.
In my four-plus decades in the church, I’ve heard the word maturity used often but rarely defined. And it’s not just me. When researching the topic for this book, I ran across a Barna Group survey revealing widespread fuzziness on the subject. When asked to define spiritual maturity, twenty percent of self-identified Christians couldn’t answer the question at all. The other eighty percent offered responses that included having a relationship with Christ, following rules, choosing a moral lifestyle, practicing personal spiritual disciplines, possessing faith, applying the Bible’s principles, and being involved in their local congregation.
In other words, a majority of respondents could identify some important components of maturity, but if each one put their answer in their sights and drew back on their bow, they’d aim their lives at decidedly different targets. For example, “following rules” as a measure of maturity will lead to a very different kind of spiritual life than will “having a relationship with Christ.”
And perhaps it’s our modern desire to measure and quantify maturity as a product—yea and verily, a bullseye—rather than as a process that has us aiming our heart, soul, mind, and strength at lesser, splashier goals. After all, if you can knock a beer can off a fence post with a snazzy trick shot, you’ve mastered an impressive archery skill set.
A Better Focus
There are organizations that have attempted to boil down discipleship into a set of measurable goals that look suspiciously like excellent church attendance and involvement. It is a temptation for church leaders to substitute the “nickels and noses” giving-and-attendance metric to show they have a growing and, by extension, maturing church. If we’ve learned anything from a generation of business-based church growth practices, it’s that we humans can grow ginormous churches that can be led by tragically immature leaders.
The Gospels paint a very different picture of maturity. They tell us it happens organically as we are growing in union with Jesus, loving God and loving neighbor with the same kind of self-giving love that led him to the cross. Paradoxically, maturity ends up looking a lot like childlike dependence, which looks suspiciously like obedience. Perhaps maturity is better framed like this:
He is the bullseye.
He is the archer.
And we are arrows in his strong, scarred hands. Those who are surrendered to the tension of the bow and released into the unknowns of flight must trust his work to bring us to teleios.
Cover image by Anastase Maragos.