Here are four ways to help a new Christian grow up.
It was almost time to turn on the headlights. Suddenly, in the gray dimness ahead of me, I saw something move in the roadway. I mashed down the brake pedal and lurched forward as my tires screamed against the pavement. It took an instant for my brain to register what my eyes were seeing. Crawling across Parkhill Avenue in the twilight was an infant, not yet old enough to walk.
I jammed on the parking brake, leaped from the car, and sprinted to the center of the street, scooping up the baby as quickly as I could. I was a senior in high school and hadn't had too much experience handling babies, but the child didn't even cry.
The baby wore only a diaper, which was mostly the color of the asphalt it had been crawling on. An odor let me know the condition of the inside of the diaper. The little one’s tender knees were scraped and black, as were the palms of her hands and the tops of her feet. For a moment I stood there at the edge of the street a bit undone, looking at her smudged cheeks, listening to her coo, and asking her where she could have come from. The child, in reply, simply reached grimy fingers toward my glasses.
I figured the infant couldn't have crawled far and that I would locate the parents in one of the homes nearby. I was wrong. I crisscrossed Parkhill Avenue knocking on doors. Time after time the response to my question, "Excuse me, is this your baby?" was the same—an incredulous stare, a shake of the head, a definitive "No!" Nor had any of them any idea where the child might have wandered from.
Finally, after I had walked over a block, I approached the door of a small home with a woefully neglected yard. Through the screen door I saw the flicker of a television set that I had heard from fifty feet away. A bare-chested man with a can of beer in his hand sprawled in a faded, upholstered chair. I knocked harder. The man, who couldn't have been more than five years older than I, groaned his way out of the chair and across ten feet of hardwood floor to the tattered screen.
"Hello. This wouldn't by any chance be your baby?" I asked. He pushed the door open and pulled her roughly from my arms.
"Yeah. What are you doing with her?"
By now I was angry. When he pivoted to deposit her on the floor, I stepped in the door behind him. On a couch to my left lay the baby girl’s mother, propped on one elbow and smoking a marijuana cigarette. She was nearly oblivious to my presence. Speaking to both of them, I shot back, "I found her in the middle of an intersection more than a block from here. I nearly ran her over."
"Yeah? Well thanks for bringin' her back," he said as he turned back toward his chair.
I began to retort, but realized it would have little effect, so I turned to leave. I stopped at the threshhold and said, "Her diaper needs changing. Good-bye, little one."
I told the parents of a friend in the neighborhood about what happened, and they said they would see what they could do.
I'll not easily forget the sadness and anger I felt that night and still feel when I remember the incident.
Over the years I have come to equate this instance of child neglect to a tragedy that occurs in the spiritual realm: We can be involved in evangelizing those around us, but if we don't continue to nurture these babes in Christ, they may crawl into the street and be crushed by the temptations of their former life. Worse yet, they may lose their faith.
I have invited family, friends, and coworkers to evangelistic crusades or outreach Bible studies where they have committed to follow Jesus Christ. But then, too often, I have kicked back in my spiritual easy chair while the newborn child of God crawled out the church’s "screen door" and into the streets. I don't want to do that anymore. I don't want to "love ‘em and leave ‘em." So I’ve determined to take some practical scriptural advice for "spiritual parents" so that I can "love ‘em and lift ‘em" instead.
The Great Commission in Mt. 28:19 says, "Go and make disciples." That includes, of course, presenting the plan of salvation and offering the opportunity to make a decision to receive Christ, but it doesn't stop there nor even necessarily begin there. Based on Scripture, I'd like to suggest at least four ingredients of responsible "spiritual parenting."
Pray. After someone we’ve been praying for makes a decision to believe in the Savior, we must continue to pray for him. A good model for us is the prayer life of Epaphras, recounted in Col. 4:12: "Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured."
A couple I know spends some time each morning praying for their children—for their present needs and even for the keeping of their future spouses. One youth leader told me he didn't start seeing real growth in the lives of the group members until he spent one entire day praying through his list of kids. I know Sunday school teachers who consider it essential to pray for each student by name every week. If I am to be a soul winner, I must be willing to "wrestle" in prayer for the ones whom God has brought into my life.
Often I find myself praying for someone’s physical well-being or financial stability. There is nothing wrong with that, but I'm learning to reorder my priorities in prayer so that I don't neglect to pray for his or her spiritual growth. Scripture offers excellent patterns of prayer. Some good examples are found in Col. 1:9-12 and Eph. 3:14-19.
Encourage. In addition to praying, we should make every effort to be an encouragement to less mature members of the family of God so that they will come to know Christ more fully. Paul writes about the people he was discipling, "My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:2-3).
My wife, Cindy, has been working through a Bible study with a college student who is fairly new in the faith. Sometimes they don't cover every question, but they share concerns and pray together. That means a lot to Cindy’s young friend. She has also expressed what a lift it is when Cindy sends a postcard or phones her—just a few words saying, "I was thinking about you today. I'm praying for you as you study for finals."
I have a friend who lives far away who still holds me accountable when he calls by asking, "Is there any grass growing on your path?" Regardless of my answer, he encourages me to keep on walking in the Spirit as I ought to. May it be said of us as Paul said of his friend, Philemon, "Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints" (Philemon 7).
Be an example. Titus 2:7 directs us to "set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned."
I remember leading my children on a hike in the mountains a few years ago. Hannah, my daughter, was unable to cross the ground as easily as the rest of us. I kicked bigger stones and twigs off the path and showed her where to step so she wouldn't stumble. In the hardest parts I picked her up and carried her. This past winter, as we hiked up a mountain slope in deep snow to do some sledding, I made footprints that weren't too far apart so that she could get to the top more easily.
In a similar way, we can help those whom we disciple to successfully reach the top of their spiritual trail when we show the way and remove the things that would make them stumble. Paul tells his "younger" Christian brothers, "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you" (Phil. 3:17). We need to take regular inventory of our lives to make sure we're on a course that our spiritual children could and should follow.
Teach. Finally, to ensure that a disciple will grow into Christian "adulthood," we should be teaching as directed by the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20). What do we teach? "You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1). That means we have to know what constitutes sound doctrine by being a regular student of the Word. A trip to the nearest Christian book store or a look through a Christian book catalog will reveal some excellent Bible study materials. I try to select material that will require the disciple to think on his own. Remember that the goal of good teaching is to make the student an independent learner.
I remember holding my newborn son and daughter in my arms for the first time. On each occasion I experienced an indescribable thrill. The responsibility of nurturing them—educating, encouraging, disciplining, comforting, upholding—has been a serious undertaking. At times it has been discouraging and frustrating, but the joys have far outweighed the tough times. The commitment has been worth it.
I must confess that there have been too many times when I haven't "held" my spiritual "kids" as lovingly. When I have, though, I have found that my own faith was strengthened and my life greatly enriched. On those occasions I have experienced more deeply the loving presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul describes the proper attitude we are to have toward others like this: "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us" (1 Thess. 2:8). I hope never again to hear a screen door bang shut behind a "babe" left to crawl in the street, like that infant I nearly ran over many years ago. At the very least, I am determined to pray, encourage, set a good example, and teach those for whom God has given me responsibility.