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Archive for the ‘spiritual formation’ Category

In our tradition, when we baptize someone, the congregation promises to nurture that person in the Christian faith. However, when the person being baptized is an infant or small child, and the parents seldom bring that child to worship after the baptism Sunday, congregations can struggle with how to fulfill that promise.

I read the other day (I hadn’t marked down the source) about an African-American congregation that held a family-night event with the focus on “Stories In and Through Hard Times”. Participants were invited to recall proverbs, sayings, or songs that hey had heard while they were growing up. They were then to share a story of how that wisdom had helped them through hard times.

Some of the proverbs shared were, “God didn’t bring us this far to leave us,” and “Hold on to God’s unchanging hand”, and “Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy comes in the

The children and youth were then invited to ask questions of the adults and to add their own stories.

I am thinking that this might be a way for congregations to live into the promise they made at baptism. In the “Children’s Time” spot in worship (or before or after a psalm that prays to God about trouble), the people in the congregation could be invited to share a proverb or phrase from a favourite hymn that has helped them hold on in difficult times. If they were comfortable doing so, they could tell the story of the experience in which that proverb or hymn was helpful. If the musician(s) were comfortable with playing hymns without much notice, the congregation could also sing the hymn. The children could be invited to ask questions.

And then, what about creating a “wall of hope” on which was written the proverbs or phrase from the hymns that people shared. The wall of hope would grow over time as the proverbs/phrases were shared.

 

 

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One of the tendencies in our culture is to try to manage things by making them one-dimensional. A friend and colleague, Paul Miller, has written in his blog about the importance of dealing with life’s complexity — of keeping things complex so that we experience the full richness of life; of learning to navigate life’s paradoxes. Specifically he reflects on spirituality and how the richest treasures are to be found by keeping it multi-dimensional.
I encourage you to check out what he has to say:  http://waterloopres.blogspot.ca/2016/03/more-on-dwelling-and-seeking.html

 

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Conversations about equipping the baptized for their ministries turn quickly to matters of spiritual formation and discipleship. What Christian practices need to be embraced? What does evangelism and witness look like in our context? What enables people to discern not only where the Holy Spirit is at work but also what their call is in that work?

What is apparent is that behind those questions lie more foundational questions about the nature of our congregations. What does spiritual formation and discipleship look like in a church culture where that has not been a priority? It is difficult for people to discern where the Holy Spirit is already at work when they are unpracticed in such elemental disciplines as prayer, standing under the scriptures, and talking about faith together. Exciting new initiatives lose steam when those who participate in them are not deeply grounded in the Source of Life. As Elizabeth O’Connor articulated the wisdom of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., “If you do not attend to the journey inward, you will burn out on the journey outward.” Frank Viola has warned, “You cannot raise the bar on discipleship without raising the bar on the ekklesia—the living experience of the body of Christ—the native habitat in which true disciple-making and transformation take place” (Discipleship in Crisis, e-book).

What is needed is not simply a matter of offering more courses and seminars on discipleship or evangelism. What is needed is a shift in the culture of congregations. A new imagination for what it means to be the church needs to be cultivated. A different set of symbols, metaphors and narratives need to shape the ethos of the United Church of Canada.

Chris Pullenayegem, New Ministries Animator for EDGE, outlines the process of change as a matter of asking some basic questions:

*What has to remain?

*How do we do it more efficiently so that resources are freed up for new experiments?

*What do we need to let go of in order to create space for something new?

*What new things do we need to do in order to make this new thing happen?

Andy Crouch, in Culture Making, advises that “the only way to change culture is to create more of it. . . . If culture is to change, it will be because some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world . . . if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal” (p. 67).

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What does the ministry of the baptized look like if considered through the lens of the five marks of the church? Today we look at changes that are developing in the ways congregations teach the faith and form disciples of Jesus (didache)  as they find their way into the new shape of God’s mission.

3) Didache (Teaching)

It is not uncommon for leaders to lament the biblical and doctrinal illiteracy of the people of mainline congregations. There are long-term members of congregations who, if asked, could not find the book of Genesis in a Bible. Most clergy have had the experience of congregational members telling them that they want more Bible studies but, when the study groups are offered, few people sign up to attend; even fewer stay with the group for more than a few weeks.

However, there appears to be movement toward more intentional discipleship formation in some churches. Some of this is driven by the need to form Christians who are equipped to survive as Christians in an indifferent and sometimes hostile environment. The current context brings to the fore the challenge for disciples to be transformed by Christ rather than conformed to the culture.

When people are helped to deepen their discipleship, they become more willing to take on leadership roles that are shaped by the call of the Holy Spirit upon their lives. Taking on these kinds of leadership roles, in turn, often compels them to go deeper in their discipleship. They need to learn how to pray more deeply; they need to know better the story that shapes the lenses by which they see the world and gives hope; they need to recover the distinctive language of faith that articulates what God is doing in their lives and in the world; they need to develop maturity in Christ which includes the humility that shapes faithful relationships.

Congregations are finding new ways of delivering the content of Christian faith. They are more participatory and interactive, engaging not only the mind but also the heart and the body. They recognize that many adults learn best when content is not isolated into separate subjects but is integrated into and related to actual experiences.

Many congregations are finding that adopting Christian practices have helped people deepen their spiritual life and engage in the ministry to which they are called. “Practices are shared actions that, when taken together, weave a way of life amongst a people” (Alan Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The Shape of the Church in our Time, p. 49.) In particular, in churches that understand themselves to be mission outposts of God’s reign, practices help them see the world and God’s work in it in new ways.

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This is part of a series of posts on the ways in which the structures of the church can inhibit all the people of a community of faith from fully expressing their ministry. Although congregations that are anxious about their future often try putting in place a new structure, thinking that that will solve their problems, it is important to note that changing the structures alone will not solve a church’s problems. Structures that no longer function well are often a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed. As Christendom fades, the structures that fit Christendom stop serving the mission of the church. It is helpful to understand the underlying assumptions and dynamics that structures serve.

It is basic to the gospel that we are saved by the grace of God. God welcomes us into covenant relationship even when we have nothing to bring. It also true that the condition in which we enter into a life of faith is not the place where we are meant to end up. The scriptures assume that the local church is the primary learning environment for growing into maturity in Christ.  As each person is equipped and exercises his or her gifts and vocation, the whole community of faith is built up and comes alive. The gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” ( Ephesians 4: 11-13, NRSV)

We are meant to grow into Christ, into deeper expressions of God’s grace, into mature expressions of faith. The Holy Spirit’s work is life-transforming as it disrupts the status quo and pushes the church out of its comfort zones. The work in the world that Christ entrusts to his people is tough, demanding work. It challenges each person to stretch beyond what she or he is at the present time. It challenges each person to mature in faith.

As the saying goes, “God loves us just as we are. God loves us too much to leave us that way.” Living into the grace of God, being a disciple of Jesus, joining God’s mission of compassion and reconciliation in the world — none of this comes naturally. The currency of Christian community is love in the midst of human brokenness. Maturing in faith is deeply relational. It involves learning to love, forgiving and being forgiven, and struggling to continue loving after being hurt. It requires honesty and vulnerability.
On several occasions, in Paul’s letters to young churches, he laments that the community of faith has stalled in its spiritual growth:

By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one—baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.

So come on, let’s leave the preschool finger-painting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ.  (Hebrews 5:12-6:3, The Message)

There are many reasons why people fail to mature in faith. The governing structure of the church can hinder the spiritual growth of disciples.

Maturity includes the capacity to make decisions and to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Unfortunately, the church is often structured in such a way that only a few people participate in ministry and mission decisions of a congregation. For instance, the most common governing structure for congregations in the United Church of Canada is hierarchical. Only a small percentage of the congregation is needed to run the church. When most of the authority in a congregation rests in a few people, and when the decision-making for the most important issues is done by the few on behalf of everyone else, most people in a congregation are thereby reduced to being ‘volunteers’ or onlookers. They do not sense much responsibility for the decisions made by others. “Their faith, having no sphere for its growth and development lies dormant” ( Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962), chapter 8).  The baptized often feel little need to move more deeply into faith and hope.

In the long-term, this leaves many people of the congregation feeling inadequate in their faith. They do not feel confident in their ability to live the Christian life, either within the church structures or in their life in the world. They doubt their competence to share their faith with others. The hierarchical governance structures can mean they are not placed in situations where they get to face these feelings of inadequacy.

In addition, the decision-making process in many United Church of Canada congregations is extremely cumbersome. Permission-giving requires several layers of approval and long delays. The cumbersome decision-making processes aim at ensuring that the activities of the church are done successfully. Fearing failure and disorder, the system puts measures into place to protect itself against a loss of control. The congregation is not encouraged or permitted to risk bold ventures in faith. As a result, it becomes difficult for a congregation to remain flexible enough to respond to fresh leading from the Spirit. The system becomes tame and timid. Its decisions become passive and reactive rather than creative and innovative.

It is as people are pushed beyond what they are already capable of doing  that they are forced to learn to depend more deeply upon God’s grace. As they find themselves in situations where their own strength is not enough, they are driven to praying deeper prayers. A community that expects to experience and acknowledge failure also finds that it needs to cultivate the challenging Christian practices of being forgiven and forgiving and beginning again.

Sadly, when people who are looking for fullness of life and daring adventure don’t find it in the church, they go elsewhere. The church then not only misses out on the energy and new life that comes through those who are willing to take bold risks. The church also is deprived of those persons who would encourage the whole congregation to be more bold and courageous in following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

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This is the thirteenth in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous four posts and this one, I examine the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining.

The Church in Canada is journeying through uncharted territory. The landscape is unfamiliar. There are no maps that spell out the way ahead. Still, the Church carries with it gifts that form within its people the capacity to find the way forward. Three of these gifts are essential, basic practices that keep a congregation oriented toward Christ as it navigates into the unknown future. Eugene Peterson describes the practice of these three gifts as “Working the Angles”. Just as every triangle has three angles that hold the lines together and determine its shape, there are three basic acts that are so critical that they determine everything else. These are: praying, reading Scripture, spiritual direction. They are all acts of paying attention to God. “Prayer is an act in which I bring myself to attention before God; reading Scripture is an act of attending to God in his speech and action across two millennia in Israel and Christ; spiritual direction is an act of giving attention to what God is doing in the person who happens to be before me at an given moment. God with me, with his people, with this person.” (p. 2-4)

Christendom churches could function adequately without most of their people being very skilled in these basic practices. A common complaint was that the people did not know the scriptures, did not have an active commitment to prayer, and were not interested in spiritual formation. The reality was that their people did not need to be well-grounded in those things to make the church work. The structures and systems of the congregation had a momentum of their own that carried its life forward.

Now, as Christendom disintegrates, the structures and systems that served Christendom churches are losing their power. God is leading the Church into stormy waters of discontinuous change that are being churned up by the Holy Spirit. Churches that are finding their way into God’s new future are having continually to adapt their course. “Working the angles” become imperative, both for the people of the congregation and for those who are called to lead.

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The stained glass windows in many churches portray the Holy Spirit as a gentle dove but the ancient Celtic Christians named the Holy Spirit an Geadh-Glas: ‘the wild goose’. The name conveys the sense of unpredictability that Jesus talked about in his conversation with Nicodemus: “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (John 3: 7-8, The Message)

Alan Roxburgh, in an article entitled “Join the Wild Goose Chase” (no longer available online) wrote, “The wild goose is unpredictable (like the wind). Taking seriously this sense of God, Celtic missionaries went on wild goose chases, entering the spaces, towns, hamlets, and villages of the 7th century England in the conviction that the wild goose was out there ahead of them. They were open to being surprised by the wild goose, prayerfully asking what God was doing and joining there by naming the name of Jesus, dwelling among people and opening the story of God’s love and grace”.

The adventure on which the Spirit is leading us is taking the church past some familiar landmarks. Congregations are forming regional clusters where ordered ministry personnel function in ways similar to Methodist circuit riders. People are being formed as disciples in small groups, a format John Wesley used. Ancient Christian practices and disciplines are being adopted and adapted for new contexts. The sacraments of baptism and communion are being re-visited and taking on new significance. Congregations are recovering their identity as baptized and baptizing, Spirit-gifted communities.

From its beginnings, the Church understood that, when someone is baptized, that person is ordained into ministry by the call of God. Hands are laid upon the person being baptized to signify the gift of the Holy Spirit and empowerment for God’s mission. Baptism makes every Christian one of Christ’s representatives and witnesses in the world. It gives all Christians the gift and responsibility of functioning as priests to one another and as evangelists in the world.

Baptism is the entrance into a way of life that is all-embracing and life-changing. However, the significance of baptism as commissioning into a high and holy calling was largely lost in Christendom. When the majority of the people already considered themselves to be Christians, evangelism was reduced to a concern about ‘accepting Christ as your personal Saviour so you can be sure you are going to heaven when you die’; mission became something done by specialized agencies and persons in distant places, financially supported by churches in North America; ministry, both pastoral and priestly, was something done by the paid professional minister to meet the needs of consumers of religious goods and services. Baptism became merely a cultural rite of passage, a one-time action that did not have a significant impact on the rest of one’s life.

Christendom churches may have been able to function with a majority of their members treating baptism as merely a cultural rite of passage. That is no longer adequate. In the dying days of Christendom, the church faces an indifferent and increasingly hostile culture. The mission field is no longer in distant places. It has moved into the neighbourhoods and workplaces and of every member. In the face of despair and brokenness, hurt and loneliness, people need evangelism to be something more than eternal life insurance. They need good news of authentic hope. Churches that are engaging the mission field around them need the active participation of every minister that the Holy Spirit has given them.

The way forward for congregations includes a recovery of baptism as a significant event that has ongoing effects on each Christian’s identity and practice of their faith.

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