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Johnson Lecture July 29, 2011

Growing Up, Or Just Growing Old?

Transformation through Maturation

By Randy Quate

I heard a story about a conversation in a retirement home. As several elderly people sat around a table, the subject of their ailments arose. One said, “I can hardly turn my neck, it’s so stiff.” Another said, “My eyesight is so bad I sometimes have trouble finding my room.” A third chimed in, “I can’t seem to hear thunder, sirens, or anything. By the way, what was the question?” After a few minutes of moaning about their disabilities a fourth senior tried to offer some encouragement: “Well, at least we all still have our driver’s licenses!”

Growing old is inevitable, but growing up is not. There are some folks who grow old without ever growing up.

Hebrews 5:7-6:3 reads:

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. 

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.  

Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

The writer of Hebrews is challenging readers to mature, to grow up. This is very much a pastoral letter delivered to a house church. This was the typical context for Christian fellowship since church buildings were several hundred years yet to be. And most likely, the fellowship being addressed was a group of fifteen to twenty believers meeting in that home. These Christians were facing a high degree of danger as followers of Jesus. Many believe that this letter was written during the time of Nero, after the death of Paul. These believers lived with the real threat that a group of soldiers could come to their homes at any time, and that such an encounter could be the ushering in of untold sufferings for them and their loved ones. The writings of Anne Frank and others who were hunted by the Nazis during World War II are not far removed from the situation experienced by these first century believers of Jesus.

William Lane, a noted New Testament scholar, writes:

The members of this house-church were severely shaken. They had to face painful and disturbing questions. How could God have permitted this to happen? Where was God when Christians were being humiliated at the hands of the government? What was happening called into question God’s ability to do anything about the situation. Christian attitudes toward God became ambivalent. God was their sole defender. But where was he? When the question posed whether God even cared about what Christians were experiencing, it was possible to become angry with God.1

So, there is urgency in the letter to the Hebrews. It is a deep pastoral concern that calls out to a wavering community who are facing untold hardships and threats. In light of this atmosphere, the pastor feels that one of the issues that need to be addressed is the spiritual maturity level of the group. The pressures that this church has to deal with are exacerbated by the fact that they are not growing or maturing in ways necessary to meet the challenges of the threats they face.

It seems that the same type of urgency should be felt among Friends. While most of us do not face the threat of violence because of our faith, there are threats that challenge our future as a viable, spiritual movement. Without real spiritual growth, without true spiritual maturity—the kind that comes through the transformation of the Holy Spirit—we may find ourselves in grave danger.

I noticed a statement made by John Punshon during the Johnson Lecture at Friends United Meeting’s 2008 Triennial sessions. He said:

My concern is with the Religious Society of Friends, or the Friends Church as it is more familiarly known to most of us, and what sort of future it may have. There is no historical guarantee that Friends will continue to exist, and the lesson of history so far seems to indicate that our Society has survived for three centuries because of its ability to change while preserving its essential nature.2

The chosen theme for this year’s Triennial sessions is “Transforming Lives.” Growth and maturity are closely akin to transformation. Therefore I want us to consider two questions that desperately need answers in relation to our spiritual maturity, for our growth in Jesus Christ is essential to our continued existence as a movement, as well as our own personal survival as believers in this time in which we live. To these questions I believe Hebrews gives us timely and valuable insight.

The first question to consider is: What Stunts Spiritual Growth?

The writer of Hebrews lists several teachings in chapter six that seem to have been part of the initial training or catechism that new believers went through in the first century church (i.e., “the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment”). These teachings are not being abandoned by the writer. They are not wrong teachings. They are necessary, but they are meant to be foundational starting points for the new believer.

My daughters are ages six and eight. In their earliest stages of learning, they both liked to play “school.” So, I would sit in the playroom, exploring deeply theological words like “cat” or “ball,” so that they could become proficient in their use of the alphabet. As an adult, I have advanced beyond that level of learning. However, just because I learned the alphabet long ago does not mean that I seek to abolish these letters. They are actually the building blocks of the communication I try to use today. It would be absurd, as an adult, to limit my entire use of language to the recitation of the alphabet.

The teachings referred to by the writer of Hebrews became obstacles, not because they were unnecessary but because they began to command an attention that was disproportionate to the entirety of the Christian life. They are truths that had been misapplied and thereby became “milk” teachings that had not been allowed to function as they were intended. And each truth, misapplied or overemphasized, begins to stifle maturity. So we might call them “maturity stunters.” What are these things that can stunt transformation?

Clinging to the Spiritual Past

One thing that stunts transformational growth is clinging to the spiritual past. This is reflected in the reference to “repentance” and “faith” (Hebrews 6:1). This combination, as they are given, probably reveals the understanding of saving faith and repentance at conversion.

If we were all asked to share about our spiritual life with Christ, how current would our responses be? Often responses can seem limited to when a person received Christ by faith and was converted, or the time they first experienced the Presence of Christ in their lives. In these cases, responses contain very little that is current or recent history. If you were asked to give testimony to your spiritual life, could you speak of any recent openings, promptings, or leadings?

I suppose that most meetings compose a “Spiritual Condition Report” each year that is submitted to their yearly meeting. Those who have to compile the information from such reports often say that many of the reports speak of everything but the spiritual condition. Meetings document programs initiated and building renovations, but seldom do the harder work of determining the true spiritual state of that meeting. It is easier to document external efforts than to discern the deeper state of that community of Friends. So again, if you were asked what your personal, spiritual condition was today how would you answer?

In John 3:7 Jesus told Nicodemus that new birth was necessary, and that Nicodemus should not be surprised at such a necessity. This is transformation language and the new birth is described with dramatic imagery. Scripture teaches the necessity of conversion in the words of Jesus, and in the teachings of Paul. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Again we have teaching that points to a life-altering encounter with the Living Christ that changes the very core of one’s self. Phrases like “new birth” and “new creation” point to this transformational encounter, but we also learn through the scriptures that transformation is not meant to end at conversion. Paul states in the same letter that believers “are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18b). In this passage transformation language is devoted to a continuous change. Many Catholics, unlike most Protestants, hold that there are numerous conversions in a person’s spiritual journey. This is true, and the maturing soul has surrendered to this steady and relentless shaping by the Master. It is wonderful to give a testimony that you have been saved by Jesus Christ, but the follow up to such a testimony is this question: What has Jesus saved you from lately?

Bound Up in Mechanical Ritual

The writer of Hebrews also speaks of “instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands” (6:2). The baptisms here are probably not references to Christian baptism, but to ceremonial washings. These were Jews, you see, and they had continued, and probably Christianized, the practices they had as Jews. The “laying on of hands” was probably part of the commissioning of members into leadership and ministry. So, you have worship rituals and administrative rituals.

Now I am sure that some of you might think this does not apply to us. We are Quakers and we don’t do ritual. Yet the fact of the matter is that our non-ritualism can become a ritual.

Several years ago, at YouthQuake, there was a time of open worship. One of the youth from one yearly meeting rose and spoke out of the silence. After the service another youth from another yearly meeting eldered the first youth by saying, “You are not supposed to speak during open worship, you are supposed to keep silent.” The second youth had become a gatekeeper of the Quaker ritual. George Fox and the early Friends sometimes spoke of the rituals of the established church in England at that time as “dead wood.” This referred to the mechanical repetition of ordinances and sacraments that early Friends felt were void of spiritual power and could actually become distractions to the immediate Presence of Christ. There is an irony that the dead wood Fox spoke of over three and a half centuries ago can manifest itself in Quaker meetings today as the ritualism of the non-ritualistic.

When our faith becomes a ritual, we begin to lose the probability of spiritual growth and transformation, and this issue is not just individual, it is corporate. We notice that these two examples of stifled growth (clinging to the spiritual past and being bound up in mechanical ritual) are always carried out in community. The gathered church is not meant to be a lifeless ritual, but a continual encounter. There is a miracle and mystery to the gathered Body of Christ and the writer of Hebrews continually calls readers into real, Christian community.

Take note of these passages:

Encourage one another daily, while it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Hebrews 3:13 

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another… Hebrews 10:24-25

For the immature—whether consciously or subconsciously—Meeting for Worship becomes a ritual, but the mature will see the church as the life-giving community of Christ’s body each time they gather.

Distracted by the Sensational

We see the third growth inhibitor that the writer reveals when we read “the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2).

Why would the recipients of this letter be so concerned about these two teachings? It could be that these teachings were part of the initial catechism that they learned when they became part of the church, but they had become more relevant because of the persecution these people were enduring. You see, the resurrection was going to get them out of their suffering, and the coming judgment was going to get their persecutors where it hurts. These teachings had relevance to the suffering congregation, but these teachings were all they wanted to study.

There is often a draw in the immature person to focus on one aspect of Scriptural teaching which peaks their interest, or meets a felt need, while ignoring the rest of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). If you don’t think this point has merit, try an experiment. Offer a study on the book of Revelation in your meeting and see how many people show up, at least initially.

There are some amazing and sensational aspects of the Bible. I hold them to be true and worthy of study and application. But the sensational aspects of Christ’s teachings, especially eschatological teachings, are not enough to cause me to grow. Spiritual maturity and growth happen in the trenches of everyday life. And that is where the immature get bored.

The second question to consider is: What Stimulates Spiritual Growth?

Back home in North Carolina one of my neighbors shared her recipe for helping young maple trees grow. It is called “tree chow.” This is a homemade, liquid fertilizer designed to stimulate growth. There is one problem: it calls for beer. The members of Poplar Ridge Friends Meeting, where I am pastor, tend to be teetotalers, so getting the beer can be a challenge. If you happen to see one of our members buying a six-pack, it could be for their pastor’s tree! Actually, we only treated my tree one year. Our neighbors have treated their trees every year. And though all the trees were planted at the same time, the neighbors’ maples are probably five feet taller than mine. I have maple tree envy.

With that “tree chow” in mind, what is the “soul chow” that stimulates spiritual maturity?

A Deeper Understanding of Christ

In Hebrews 5:11, the writer says, “We have much to say about this.” What does the writer mean by “this”? It is partly teaching about the High Priestley role of Jesus Christ. The members need to understand more about the nature and ministry of Christ on their behalf. The identity and mission of Jesus Christ is a vital understanding necessary for spiritual maturity. Not for the purpose of propositional bullet points to memorize, but in order to understand how the Resurrected Christ is working in our lives. A.W. Tozer, pastor and author of more than forty books, said, “The most important thing about a man is what he thinks about when he thinks about God.”3 The mature have a balanced and Biblical view of God.

It seems that Quakers have several views of Jesus. There are some who lean toward the “Sermon on the Mount Jesus” (Matthew 5-7). This Jesus can motivate a person to activism. This Jesus is often quoted during efforts at peacemaking and simplicity. But there is also the “Upper Room Jesus” (John 13-17). This Jesus motivates a person to evangelism. Here is the Jesus who proclaims that no one can get to the Father except through him (John 14:6). There are other brands of Jesus as well. Many fall into the categories of Teacher, Savior, King, Friend, etc.

The immature are always contented with a fragmented Jesus. This becomes a Jesus that feeds one’s own stilted mantra. The mature, however, seek to integrate the Biblical collage of Jesus into one magnificent work of art. The writer of the Hebrews is trying to help them see that every aspect of the personhood of Jesus Christ is necessary to empower a believer to live in a challenging and even hostile world. They need to understand the High Priestly role of Jesus so that they know they do not have to find an earthly priest in times of trouble. Instead they can come through the Holy of Holies, “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). We all need all of Jesus, not just what we are comfortable with.

Willingness to Suffer or Sacrifice

I have heard it said that if a crepe myrtle tree quits blooming you could take a shovel and slightly cut the top of the roots. They say the tree will begin to bloom in order to reproduce itself before dying. I know that pruning works for roses. (If I were a maple tree, I’d opt for the beer instead of a shovel blade!)

No one wants to suffer, but Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Most of us here cannot relate to the level of suffering that would come to first century believers. They had not yet come to the place of “shedding their blood,” but it seems imminent that for some it will come to that. I remember hearing Quaker minister Jan Wood, when she spoke at North Carolina Yearly Meeting sessions, say, “There is a cost to becoming a people of God. To be a people of God, you have to be willing to let your heart be broken.”4

It is the same formula for spiritual maturity. Somehow, a broken heart can hold more of the Holy Spirit’s influence and love than a heart that is overly guarded and resistant to what is uncomfortable and painful.

Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer, is a wonderful volume, but its greatest contribution to a generation of believers is simply in its title. We visualize and actually feel the concept of a wounded healer. The people I am most drawn to for spiritual counsel and encouragement are people who are deeply Christ centered and who have also experienced brokenness. These people typically show more patience with “squirmy” disciples. They also look you in the eye, because their interest is genuine. People who have leaned on Christ during the deep waters of pain have an authentic humanity to them, a humanity that is anointed by the Holy Spirit. They are mature. Pain has grown them up.

Another thought about trees. I am not a horticulturalist, but I have heard that the seeds of a pine tree have such a thick husk that the seed has trouble germinating. But the heat of a forest fire can crack open almost all of such seeds, and often the life within survives. It may take a fire to build a forest of pines, and the fires of life can bring the seedlings of true maturity to a disciple’s heart.

An Increasing Sense of Discernment

Returning to the writer of Hebrews, we see that before the signs of immaturity are enumerated, the writer prefaces this with an insight into the mature life: “Solid food is for the mature who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Discernment is both a fruit of maturity and a stimulus for it. Here we see that discernment is learned through the doing of God’s will revealed through Scripture and Spirit. Distinguishing good from evil, right from wrong, is about the use of discernment in everyday life. It is the willingness to ask the big question, “What path do I take?”, and to be willing to ask that question daily in smaller areas.

One of the young men in our meeting has been struggling with whether he should go into cross-cultural missions. He mentioned that he wanted to go through the discernment process with a clearness committee. As that committee formed, it reminded me that Quakers have a wonderful system for individual discernment through corporate insight and accountability. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire meeting to build a disciple.

Dan Brunner, one of my professors at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, asked our class: “What has quit working for you?” This question is haunting in the fact that it asks if we are aware of what is going on in and around us. Are my practices and lifestyle contributing to my spiritual growth, or stunting it? For the immature there can be a disconnect between what one knows and how one lives. But the mature believer is constantly—through discipline—putting into practice what they believe, and that breeds discernment.

In conclusion, it is so important for us to know what stunts and what stimulates real spiritual maturity. The best illustration for a principle is a picture, and the best picture of a principle is a person, a person who embodies the truth being explored. So, I take you to a man named George McSpadden.

Dr. McSpadden was a professor at John Wesley College in High Point, North Carolina, where I was enrolled. Dr. McSpadden was a highly honored educator. His degrees came from prestigious institutions. He had also been a tenured professor for years at Stanford. A brilliant man of God who was giving his twilight years to a small, Bible college in the south.

It was the mid-eighties and I was in the process of completing my degree, gaining my recording, and dreaming of pastoring the first Quaker mega-church. I thought “Willow Creek Friends Meeting” had a nice ring to it. One day, I was traveling north on Main Street in High Point, dead in the middle of my young zeal as a new believer. I noticed in the road some broken glass. I swerved to miss it and kept going.

Later that day, as I was traveling south down the same road, I noticed a person in the middle of the street bent over near where I saw the glass. I could tell that the person was sweeping up the glass into a dustpan, in the middle of a busy city street. As I got closer I saw that it was Dr. McSpadden.

All his degrees, tenures, and honors together were aiding him in doing the most menial of tasks. I was so busy trying to usher in the Kingdom before supper that I did not have time to stop and sweep glass, but I received a lesson when I was returning home. I will never forget that picture as I go through life, for it was more powerful a moment of instruction than any seminar or class on spiritual transformation could have given me. You see, Dr. McSpadden had grown very old, but he was also very, very grown up.


  1. William Lane, Call to Commitment: Responding to the Message of Hebrews (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), 28.
  2. John Punshon, Johnson Lecture, Friends United Meeting, Triennial Sessions 2008, High Point, NC.
  3. A.W.Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1961), 1.
  4. Jan Wood, Keynote Address, North Carolina Yearly Meeting, Annual Sessions 2008, Black Mountain, NC. 

Randy Quate is a lifelong Quaker out of Glenwood Friends Meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. Jesus Christ “spoke to his condition” in 1981 and he felt called to pastoral ministry a few years later. Randy has been senior pastor of Poplar Ridge Friends Meeting in Trinity, North Carolina, since 1990. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Ministry at Carolina Evangelical Divinity School in High Point, North Carolina. Randy has degrees from John Wesley College in High Point, North Carolina; Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois; and is finishing his Doctor of Ministry degree at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Randy is a frequent speaker at retreats, revivals, and conferences, and has had articles published in Quaker Life. Randy loves to play golf and root for the Tarheels. He lives in Archdale, North Carolina, with his wife, LeAnne, and daughters, Ragan and Haley.