I’m taking a few days for rest and reflection with my family. This week I’ll be reposting some of my favorite guest posts dealing with spiritual formation. You cannot read these and reflect on them too many times.
I find myself very unlike Jesus. You probably are too. The church I knew as a kid was wonderful. I loved it, and love it still. But I have come to believe that a failure to sufficiently understand what it means to make disciples existed in that church, and that correcting this failure could help many people take hold of blessings that God wants us to enjoy. The following story, a strong memory of mine about church one Sunday, might help explain what I mean.
I was about ten or twelve years old, attending the A&M Church of Christ, and we worshipped one particular Sunday in the large high school gym. Before the event, we invited other area churches and took out an ad in the local paper. We wanted lots of people to know that we were going to have worship in the gym on that particular Sunday. It was very well attended, and lots of people “went forward” following the sermon. I don’t remember the name of the preacher who was brought in for this event, but he made an impression on me. I remember one moment when he was discussing how terrible it would be to look across that great divide between heaven and hell and meet the eye of a hell-tormented friend I had known from life and realize that I never took the time to tell them about Jesus. The preacher was trying to impress upon us the importance of making disciples. One of the reasons my church scheduled this event was, no doubt, to make disciples.
I agree that it is important to make disciples, but I worry that my tradition never properly informed me about what a disciple is, nor how to go about making one. I knew that a disciple was a follower or student of Jesus, but I never reflected on what it really meant to be Jesus’ student. I can be a student in Mrs. Evan’s math class without ever caring a lick about math and without ever trying to be like Mrs. Evans. As a result, it took a long time for me to grasp a mature picture of what it means to be a student of Jesus. Unlike being a student of Mrs. Evans, one cannot be a student of Jesus without coming to care a great deal about what Jesus taught and who he is, nor can one be a student of Jesus without making progress in becoming like him.
Like I said, I find myself very unlike Jesus in many ways. In the waters of my spirit there is too much salt. I am short tempered with my kids when Jesus would laugh. I ignore my kids when Jesus would discipline. I forget the things I could do to show love to my wife when doing those things would come quite naturally to Jesus. I extend anger in the office when Jesus would extend grace. I wonder how an event will cause others to think about me when Jesus would wonder how the event was impacting others. I fill my daily thought-life with questions of money when Jesus’ daily thought-life would be filled with things of the Spirit.
It is a mistake to become too discouraged. A student is still just a student. It is also a mistake to spend too much time worrying about where the line between struggling student and non-student lies. Instead, we should spend our energy being a student, being a disciple. It took me a long time to know how to do that, since the church of my youth, which I love and respect dearly, thought that ‘making disciples’ meant something like convincing people that Jesus is the Son of God, getting them to say so publicly, getting them to try to quit cussing and what-not, and getting them to get baptized. Once they had done that, we seemed to think, that person was a disciple and had received everything that God has to offer – they get to go to heaven when they die.
But being a disciple is about learning to become the kind of person who can enjoy being with God in heaven (Tweet That). I am a disciple when I make use of the power of the Spirit to become the kind of person who loves my family well, who sees myself and others clearly, who is of the Spirit, and not of the flesh. I wish the church of my youth had known that making disciples is also about helping those individuals who make up the church to actually think, feel, and react like Jesus would. The abundant life that Jesus offers extends beyond the walls of paradise, and Jesus wants to help us enter that abundant life.
Understanding this, it is easy to see why spiritual formation is a vital and essential component of a healthy church. Without it, a church is not properly following Jesus’ call to make disciples. Putting ads in a paper is fine, but we also need to take the spiritual disciplines seriously. Without them, we miss out on the transformation that Jesus offers. His promise that he has come to give the abundant life rings hollow, because we have churches full of people who are unable to take part in the abundant life. Without transformation, those in our pews behave no better, love no more fully, and see no more beauty in the world than those who sleep in on Sundays.
We need practical advice on how churches can intentionally help church members be disciples, and in doing so participate in the transformation that Jesus offers. I have some ideas, and Rhesa’s blog post earlier this week has some great suggestions and fantastic resources. The first step is to begin investigating those resources and working creatively to get church members actually using the tools suggested by these resources. Personally, I think small groups can be used more effectively toward this end, but effective implementation is difficult and has to be done intentionally. The disciplines themselves are still foreign to most church members, and churches like the one I grew up in will not simply stumble upon an effective use of these tools. If we want to help the young people in our church today be able to say that the church of their youth did everything it could to give them the tools to become like Jesus, we need to continue the conversation we’re having here.