HOW often have we heard people say with frustration or resignation, “They don’t make them like they used to … “ The “them” may refer to buildings, electronic products, furniture or the host of modern paraphernalia. These days, mass-produced things are made not to last – so that consumers can buy replacements and newer models.
When churches adopt similar business models for Christian nurture and spiritual formation, the result is mass-produced Christians. Programmes are devised and marketed, promising that if people are put through them, they will come out passionate, committed and mature.
But is such assembly-line thinking valid in the church? It may be efficient, but is it effective? Can mass-produced Christians last the distance? Can they be resilient when trouble comes, or be able to resist the seductions all around us?
A sea change has taken place in the modern world, and in the modern church — agricultural communities have become industrialised societies. Our living environment shapes our thinking and experience; hence, our modern thinking has incorporated factories and assembly lines, even in our conception of church and ministry.
In the Bible, largely written when agricultural models were still very important, the spiritual life was commonly described and understood in pastoral and agricultural terms. Hence our relationship with God is like that between sheep and their good shepherd (Ps. 23; Jn. 10). And the righteous person is compared to a tree planted near nourishing streams of water, adorned with shade-giving leaves and bursting with fruit (Ps. 1).
The biblical metaphors for Christian discipleship strongly emphasise the idea of cultivation – a long process of tending and nurturing that leads to fruitfulness. Even the artisans and craftsmen in earlier agricultural societies gave individual attention to the things they were producing. The idea of mass production was foreign and unthinkable to them. Hence, the potter works with the clay and produces pots one by one (Jer. 18:1-6). Each pot is shaped by him with careful attention.
Such traditional ideas of craftsmanship, animal husbandry, or farming are largely ignored, forgotten, or written off as no longer relevant to our highly industrialised societies. But are they? Especially when it comes to spiritual formation and the journey of the soul towards God. It is unfortunate that the assembly line and technically efficient modern factory have become the models even for producing holiness and Christian character. Great disappointment awaits those who go in this direction.
The problem with assembly-line Christianity is that it tends to be very superficial. It does not recognise adequately that each person is unique and different. It assumes that everyone thinks alike, has the same temperament, and that all religious experience can be put in neat little categorised boxes. But human personhood is not like that. Certainly God deals with us not only as crowds, but also as individuals.
The psalmist observes that God knows him intimately — his movements, thoughts, motivations, and emotions — a reminder that God relates with each of us as individuals (Ps. 139). God is personally involved in our first moments of existence, creating our inner beings and knitting and weaving together our physical forms.
And each of us is unique to God. Our thumbs are a wonderful reminder of this. All our thumbs are generally alike in form and function. However, each of our thumbprints is unique. No two persons have the same thumbprint! This is a wonderful reminder from nature that God does not mass-produce human beings – each a clone of the other; that God creates us as unique individuals.
If each of us is a unique individual, it follows that while spiritual formation may follow some general patterns, it does have to allow for individual variation and for personal journeys that are unique for each individual. The idea of mass-producing Christian maturity and holiness through well-marketed programmes, no matter how good they are said to be, is thus quite foreign to classical Christian spiritual theology. This is why Gregory the Great (6th century) identified a wide repertoire of pastoral responses for ministry to the diverse groups of people in church, and the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter (17th century) emphasised the importance of pastoral visitation and the pastoral care of individuals and families.
Our Lord Jesus demonstrated how to do it right. While there were crowds vying for His attention with their needs and demands, Jesus gave greater attention to the spiritual formation of individuals within the context of a small community of disciples. While He did minister to the crowds out of compassion, when it came to spiritual formation, He kept a safe distance from assembly-line thinking. He was not out to mass-produce disciples, because it does not work that way. Instead Jesus patiently cultivated His disciples, spending personal time with them that left a lasting impression.
EVEN when the church was growing significantly, the leaders of the church held on to the model of cultivation demonstrated by Jesus. Thus Paul told his protégé Timothy to cultivate others in the same way he himself was cultivated (2 Tim. 2:2). It was a far cry from the modern methods of mass-produced Christianity, spurred on by a mega mindset and the consequent need to “factory-manage” and standardise everything, including spiritual formation.
God, on the other hand, is more interested in personal stories than in collective statistics. There is a personal dimension in spiritual formation that must be guarded so that our individual uniqueness is expressed (without falling prey to individualism!).
There is also a long-term perspective in all of this. Mass-produced Christians are not made to last. Instead we need Christians who, in Eugene Peterson’s words, have a “long obedience” that is rooted in their individual and collective relationship with the Triune God. They are more like trees planted along living streams, growing in the sunshine of God’s love and in the showers of divine grace, as the Heavenly Gardener pays careful and loving attention to each one.
God is growing “trees” that can be transferred to the heavenly Garden, and not manufacturing mass-produced products for some heavenly warehouse. Let us therefore embrace His long-term and in-depth way of producing holiness, maturity and love, and not be distracted by spiritual assembly lines that promise quick and easy results that will fade with time.
‘The problem with assembly-line Christianity is that it tends to be very superficial.’