The Appalachian Trail is the world’s longest hikers-only footpath. It begins on Springer Mountain in Georgia and runs through fourteen states to the end, more than two thousand miles later, at the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
I had known people who walked the AT before but no one who had attempted to through-hike it – walk in one season from one end of the trail to the other. I had no idea how daunting a task it would be until my friend Dave Rough, a serious hiking hobbyist, actually did it in four months. (He tells the story of his sojourn in Hike It Forward: Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Strong, Safe, and in the Spirit.)
Until I learned about it from Dave, I pictured the AT as a broad, smooth, well-maintained path that flowed gracefully through meadows and fields and forests. I envisioned hikers striding confidently up and down gentle slopes, whistling and smiling with every step. What could be more pleasant than a four-month stroll in the woods?
I had no idea the trail was so poorly marked in some places that hikers could lose hours finding their way back. I had no idea that sometimes the trail crossed boulder-strewn fields that stretched on for miles, every step precarious, uncertain, and exhausting. I didn’t even give any thought to where and how a hiker would sleep every night. With the exception of occasional forays into nearby towns to resupply, hikers sleep in huts or tents along the trail.
Every morning you pry yourself out of your sleeping bag, stretch your weary bones, try to consume enough calories to sustain you until lunch, and set out again, hoping to catch up today for the miles you wasted yesterday when you lost the trail for an hour. After a few weeks on the trail, you realize you are growing thin, you are falling behind your schedule, and– like all the other hikers you meet – you reek of unwashed body odor. No, this is a tough, long slog; not for the faint of heart.
One of the results of the survey we took in January was that our people want to know how to grow spiritually. We want a clearly-marked spiritual growth pathway that will map out the steps toward spiritual maturity. And that pathway isn’t like the Appalachian Trail I naively envisioned. It’s more like the real Appalachian Trail: spiritual progress requires serious commitment and careful, sustained attention.
So where do you begin on this pathway?
Your goal, your ultimate destination is to be a wise, mature believer whose faith is solid, someone who loves God deeply and loves others sacrificially, someone who faithfully prays and reads the Bible and serves other unselfishly. That’s where you want to be someday.
(Okay, anyone else here getting intimidated by this description? Not only is that not me right now, I don’t see how that will ever be me.)
But the key is not to do all of that; the key is to do the next thing. Take just that first step.
So where do I begin if I want to move toward that kind of spiritual maturity? That depends on where you are:
Have I put my faith in Christ unreservedly? Do I trust that what God has given me in Jesus is all I need to meet my deepest needs and heal my deepest wounds and change my heart and make me finally, eternally right with Him?
Have I declared that faith publicly in baptism? What would keep me from being baptized?
Am I faithful in attending weekly worship, where I can gather with the people of God, worship with them, and hear God’s Word proclaimed and explained?
Do I engage with Christian brothers and sisters who can love me, challenge me, and encourage me? Do I take advantage of the many opportunities to learn and grow alongside other believers… like a class on Sunday mornings or a small group?
Am I cultivating spiritual disciplines on my own? Do regularly I make time to engage with God’s Word, read it, reflect on it, pray about how to obey it? Do I make time to speak to God in prayer about what’s on my heart?
Am I cultivating relationships with non-believers, people in my neighborhood or workplace who don’t know what God has given us in Christ and would love to hear the Good News about Jesus? Am I creating a depth of friendship that could sustain the weight of a spiritual conversation with someone outside the faith?
Have I taken the step to become a member of my fellowship? Am I ready to enter into a covenantal agreement with my church, formally declaring that this is my church family?
Am I investing intentionally into the life of a younger believer so that he or she can turn around and invest in someone else’s life?
If you’re like most people, you find yourself nodding in agreement with some items on that list and shaking your head sadly about others. Then begins the freak-out. There’s that one item you can’t even visualize yourself ever doing. And the list in its entirety is overwhelming! Why bother doing anything if you can’t do everything?
No, the key is to begin not from where you’re supposed to be but to start from where you are.
Wherever you find yourself in that list of steps, take the next step. Just the next step. Let one of the pastors know you want to be baptized. Or join a Sunday morning class or small group (there are five small groups with openings right now). Or sign up for the next membership class. Or invite a neighbor over for dinner.
Begin from where you are and take that first step.
But wait, what if nothing on that list actually moves you at all? What if the problem isn’t ignorance but lack of desire? What do you do with that?
If you can’t start from where you are, then pray from where you are. Ask God to awaken your heart, to cultivate in your heart new desires so that growing spiritually is a matter that drives you and changes your habits.
We want PPC to be a fellowship of brothers and sisters who are together on the journey, encouraging one another to stay the course and not give up… all of us taking the next step from where we are and exhorting other brothers and sisters to take their own next step.
What is the next step for you?
How are you going to take that next step?
Just take the next step.