Carey Nieuwhof—Spiritual maturity & the purpose of the Church

June 30, 2022

Leading a church through this post-pandemic culture feels like uncharted territory. It has left many wondering “what is the real purpose of church?”

Pastor and leadership expert, Carey Nieuwhof, recently joined the Subsplash podcast to explore the purpose of the Church and how it’s taking on a new shape in today’s world. He also shares his perspective on the biggest factors in helping people grow towards spiritual maturity.

Episode at a glance


Hosts Nick Bogardus and Carolyn Farny introduce and welcome Carey Nieuwhof—pastor, church planter, leadership expert, and podcast host.

[3:07–6:05] What’s the primary purpose of the local church?

For churches in this post-COVID era, it’s important to assess what the primary purpose of the local church is. Carey explains that, although many people think that the local church is under siege right now, not all that much has changed over the past 2,000 years. Carey goes on to explain that the purpose of the Church is to gather Christians and reach the world. When the Church is at its healthiest, that’s exactly how it’s been done.

“Church is not a solo sport.” –Carey Nieuwhof

[6:07–8:06] How has this purpose taken on a new shape since 2020?

Carey believes it’s not necessarily a new shape as much as it is a new opportunity. He states that many church leaders are worried because attendance is down. Since 2020, the percentage of churches actually seeing growth is in the single digits, but Carey points out that there’s a new outreach opportunity—digital ministry!

“I hear from church leaders from time to time: ‘What about those people who don’t have the internet?’ You mean all 5 of them?” –Carey Nieuwhof

Carey explains that many church leaders believe that only outreach can happen in the building. As churches reopened, it became easy to assume that being online is optional and the building has once again become the main thing. But, the reality is that people are still connecting online. Carey expresses his concern for church leaders who don’t seem to understand the opportunity that’s available for outreach online.

[8:07–12:37] What’s behind the mindset of wanting to go back to the way things were before?

Carey says, “It’s what we knew.” He further explains that those who went to seminary didn’t learn how to run an online church or how to approach digital. It’s natural to gravitate towards what we know, because we’re afraid of things we don’t understand. 

The thing about the online world is that it’s always changing and sometimes confusing. Carey points out that church leaders are typically older (around 55 years old on average), and that could be a factor in how pastors and leaders are adapting to a digital ministry model. 

“When we like something, we create all kinds of theology to support it.” –Carey Nieuwhof

Carey ends his point with this statement: “At the end of the day, digital discipleship versus in-person is not really a matter of theology, it’s preference.”

[12:38–14:49] Church leaders are always preparing for the weekend.

Carey recalls a quote from Andy Stanley: “Sunday’s coming, Sunday’s coming, Sunday’s coming…” He explains that it’s easy to end up in a place where there’s no margin, and no time to learn about the internet. 

Leaders just go back to what they know, but Carey warns that “this is a great path to irrelevance.” Carey shares that church attendance has been on a decline since 2000, but COVID pushed it off a cliff, and it’s still dropping.

“Crisis is a disrupter and accelerator.” –Carey Nieuwhof

[14:50–17:47] Things that changed during COVID probably won’t ever return to what they once were.

Carey says that some things are not going back to the way they were. His examples are: grocery delivery, takeout food, and remote work. He explains that church members got into new habits during quarantine. They started to see Sunday as a day off. He points out that church leaders are slow to realize that church on Sunday might not be as essential as we once thought.

“Church leaders may not be rethinking church, but your church members are.” –Carey Nieuwhof

[17:48–21:47] What are some of the biggest factors for spiritual growth?

When it comes to spiritual development, Carey references studies conducted by Willow Creek and the Center for Bible Engagement that both highlight this fact: More church activity does not equal deeper discipleship.

He explains that there was a time when people believed that being more active in church meant that you were more mature. Or similarly, the more someone is volunteering, the more they’re growing with God. But that is not always the case.

Carey makes this point: “The key is to deliver discipleship to people where they’re at.” That might look something like home-based discipleship such as small groups or Bible studies.

Carey emphasizes that one important sign of spiritual maturity that few people talk about is the act of sharing your faith. Maturity is someone who’s generous and focused on others—this should be the definition of a Christian.

“Your inward faith has an outward momentum and trajectory.” –Carey Nieuwhof


Join us for part 2 of our conversation with Carey Nieuwhof. We dive in deeper on the topic of adapting to a digital strategy, and why there has been a resistance to that.

To find out how your church can better connect and engage your community online, simply fill out the form below.


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