Posts Tagged ‘discipleship’

Our lives are not just a series of disconnected episodes. Our lives are part of the story God is telling. Even though we cannot always see the design, God has a purpose that God is working out.

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, says God, “neither are my ways your ways but the word I speak will not return to me empty. It will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55: 6-13)

God’s purpose is that we shall “go out in joy and be led forth in peace, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” That is where we are headed, where the journey will take us, where the story will end.

The stories in the Bible provide a roadmap that helps us find our way there. Some of the stories we shall not like but they are stories of the encounter between God and God’s people. They represent the accumulated wisdom of the people who had committed themselves to living in covenant with this God who kept speaking to them and shaping their lives. 

When we set ourselves within these stories — when we take them seriously and meditate upon their meaning; when we let one portion of them be interpreted by the rest of them; when we allow Jesus to be the final re-interpretation of the whole — they stop being strange, peculiar stories of a distant place and long-ago time. They become stories in which God is speaking to us. We hear for ourselves how much God loves us. We hear for ourselves the ways in which God is shaping our lives so that we become capable of receiving that love.

We do not always get the message. There are some parts of scripture whose meaning will remain a mystery to us. However, we keep at it. We keep making our lives available to these stories because, whoever strange the way they speak my sound, it is not a stranger who speak them to us. It is the One who has known us and loved us from the foundation of the world. It is the One who, in Jesus of Nazareth, went to hell and back to bring us home in peace and joy. 

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Lord Jesus,
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
you have gone into our villages and cities
summoning us
gathering us into your new community of truth and love.

And we have come to follow you
such as we are —
some of us cannot see how you could ever use our lives in your kingdom;
some of us are paralyzed with fear or grief
some of us carry deep wounds that time does not heal;
some of us are lost and cannot find our way forward or home.

Have mercy on us.
Look on us with compassion
and shepherd us out of our helplessness.

Then, let us receive your claim upon our lives with gladness
and hear your summons to newness with obedient spirits.
Rule our hearts and our lives
so that we may work your harvest
wherever you send us
by the power of your Holy Spirit.

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Something new is being created in various places across the United Church of Canada. A new congregational culture is taking shape, albeit often in tentative and fragile forms. Congregations and other faith communities are finding their way forward. Based on the conversations I have been having, some trends seem to be emerging.

There is a congregational culture emerging that is focused on the ministry of all the baptized, not primarily on the ministry of the ordered ministry personnel. Clergy-centred solo pastoral ministry is giving way to participatory leadership teams in all aspects of congregational life. Authority is being distributed among the people based on gifts, relational influence, and areas of mission; power is seen as something that is to be given away to others. Clergy are recognizing that it is not their role to ‘be the minister’ but to equip the ministers of the congregation and to cultivate a congregational culture where creativity and permission-giving and risk-taking are the norm. There is an expectation that people will be engaged in deepening discipleship throughout their whole lives since the work in which they are engaged cannot be done in one’s own strength and wisdom. What ‘deepening discipleship’ looks like is localized, depending on each different context and the gifts and passions of the people involved and driven by the missionary situation in which people find themselves.

A congregational culture is emerging that prioritizes the deepening of the ministry of all the people over the continuance of the institutional structure or the building. Organizations get the results for which they are structured. That which is given attention is what grows. Churches are changing what they are paying attention to. This includes changing the way the church measures what it is doing. Rather than measuring how many people are on the membership roll or how many dollars are being raised and spent, churches are beginning to measure the people’s depth of involvement in ministry and mission in the world. Rather than paying attention to who is serving on what committee, worship services and annual reports are providing opportunities for people to witness and testify to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is working in and through their lives in their neighbourhoods, places of work and leisure times. The conversation is about ‘sightings’ of the reign of God, not the needs of the institution.

The emerging congregational culture is finding ways to attend to the pastoral care and spiritual needs of its members (often through small groups) but the dominant conversations are not about getting one’s needs met but about discerning what God is doing and what God is calling the church to be in the world. The focus is not on programmes and membership privileges but on following Jesus as a way of life. People are learning ways of listening to others outside the church. They are learning not to approach situations as ‘fixers’, with their well-intentioned agendas; rather, they are recognizing that they are often on the receiving end of the hospitality and gifts of ‘the other’. There is a humility and openness in their relationships — and a recognition that it is about building relationships rather than fixing problems.

Not every renewing congregation or developing faith community exhibits all those characteristics. However, these trends keep emerging in the conversations I have been having. What is also apparent is that congregations often are finding their way forward in isolation from others. They need to be in networks with other faith communities that are finding their way. What another church does is probably not directly transferrable to another church. ‘Cookie cutter’ solutions will not work in the diverse situations in which congregations find themselves. We live out our faith incarnationally, which means its expression is shaped by the local context. However, what is working for one church may provide inspiration for a creative initiative in another congregation. Besides, we all need companions on the journey, especially on this journey where we have no maps but only Jesus who is himself the Way.

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These posts on the changing shape of the church are the result of a project I began as an attempt to discern what supports would be most helpful for lay people who were providing ongoing worship leadership in congregations that either could not afford or could not attract ordered ministry personnel. What has become apparent is that that question is only one dimension of a much larger and more complex shift that is happening in the United Church of Canada. Across the country, increasing numbers of congregations are moving away from a clergy-centred model of church towards a model that recognizes that all who are baptized are called into ministry.

Communities of faith are seeking training and support for the ministry of the baptized in a number of different forms. There is, indeed, a growing number of congregations that are lay-led. They are looking for help for those people who are providing leadership in worship, in pastoral care, in spiritual formation and in outreach ministries. Other congregations find themselves able to afford to pay ordered ministry personnel for only part-time work and look to lay people to provide leadership in areas that would, in the past, have been done by ordered ministry personnel. They, too, are looking for ongoing training and support for these people. Even congregations that still operate with a more conventional model of church are looking for ways to engage their members more deeply in spiritual growth and practice. In all these situations, the ministries for which support is sought are largely focused on the ekklesia — the church gathered.

In some places, there is also a growing recognition that there is an equally urgent need for training and support for the baptized as they exercise their ministry in the diaspora — the church sent into the world. The United Church has given a lot of attention to the work of the church in the world as it addresses systemic injustice and oppression. However, there is room for richer and deeper support for the ministry of the baptized as they live out their faith — as individuals in the places where they live and work and play and as a community of faith in relationship to the neighbourhood in which it exists. As the Rev. David Shearman wrote in a recent post on his blog, “The local church [has been] generally focussed on making sure that worship happens, the sick are visited, the young are raised in the faith and at the end of the day, there is a good and convivial feeling.” Congregations are re-awakening to their calling to be externally focused and to engage their neighbourhoods. They are looking for resources to do that. This includes figuring out what ‘evangelism’ and ‘witness’ mean in a post-Christendom culture and for people for whom those words carry a lot of negative baggage.

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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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Today’s post is the second of three that look at some of the changing assumptions about what ‘church’ is — assumptions that have influenced the kinds of leaders congregations need. Yesterday’s post looked at the assumption that churches provide stability.

Christendom churches were also seen as being responsible: responsible to the culture in providing moral leadership and its social conscience. Membership in a church was considered part of being a good, responsible citizen. Parents brought their children to Sunday School so that they could learn good moral values. Communities looked to church leaders to provide guidance on social issues. That close alliance between church and society no longer exists. The assumptions upon which the alliance was based no longer hold.

The culture is not looking to the churches to form the morals of its citizens or to underwrite its social and political agendas. The churches can no longer count on the culture to help them form Christians. They now need to be intentional about doing that. There is a renewed interest in ‘discipleship’, but what is entailed in being a disciple of Jesus has also shifted.

Increasingly, the surrounding culture is not just indifferent to what the church is; in many places, it is actually hostile. Christians are rediscovering the counter-cultural nature of the gospel. The risen Christ is active in the world confronting and challenging the forces that diminish people’s dignity and wound their souls, the systems that degrade the social and natural environment and keep communities from flourishing, and the structures that perpetuate violence and injustice. The God of suffering love sends followers of Jesus into the suffering world to participate in God’s transformation and healing of God’s beloved creation. The community of the baptized is a counter-cultural community, living and acting in the world as a sign, witness and foretaste of the reign of God.

If you take following Jesus seriously, you will have trouble with the world. Disciples need resources for speaking truth to power, for challenging evil, and for courageously resisting what the New Testament calls the ‘powers and principalities’. Although some segments of the church already understood that to be their mission, the new dimension to the work is that Christians are no longer the dominant voice in the conversation.

Leaders are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory. They are guiding disciples who are trying to be faithful as they live on the fringes of the culture: as a minority in a culture that does not share many of their convictions about life. God’s people have often been in the minority. Many of the stories of God’s people come from similar marginal situations. Ancient metaphors that speak of the Church as being a cultural minority are being reclaimed: “resident aliens”, “a colony of heaven”, “exilic community”. They point to the hopes that formed the community of faith into a genuine alternative to the surrounding culture.

Jesus described the community of the baptized, his ‘little flock’, as salt and yeast and light — small things that change their surroundings in large ways. His disciples learn what it means to live faithfully as they journey with him ‘on the way’. They hear the stories he tells. They watch him encountering ‘the other’. They share meals with strangers. They both receive and give in mutual hospitality. In the world, in their ordinary, every-day living, they encounter God who is present in unexpected places and among unexpected people. In all of that, they are being formed to participate in God’s mission. Leaders for such communities do not function as experts. They themselves are followers on the Way, helping the community of the baptized hear questions God is asking and discerning with them ways to answer faithfully.

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This post is the second in a series of post that I am re-posting from another blog that I have hosted but will be discontinuing.  The posts are about the shift from a pastoral to a missional church.  The phrase ‘from pastoral to missional’ came from Harold Percy, who was one of the first people to articulate for me the shift I was experiencing in congregations.

I have come across a few different ways of describing the differences between the two models of church. Somewhere in the past, I picked up a chart in which Harold Percy compares the attitudes and expectations in the two models. These posts will work through that chart of comparisons and give some explanation of what I think the differences imply for the way a mainline congregation operates.

Here’s the first:

The pastoral church asks,   “How many visits are being made?”
The missional church asks, “How many disciples are being made?”

In traditional mainline churches, the paid professional minister is expected regularly to visit all the congregation’s members. In its original form, the intent of these pastoral visits by the minister was so that the minister could ask, “How is it going with your soul?”  Are you engaged in a regular practice of prayer and study of the scriptures? Do you meet regularly with other Christians who hold you accountable for your discipleship? Are you offering a portion of your wealth to the work of God? Are you involved in some form of Christian service to the world? Are you sharing your faith with others?

I suspect that, these days, most members of the congregation (even those who complain that the minister doesn’t visit enough) would not be looking for that kind of visit from their minister!

Over time, the expectation for pastoral visiting tended more towards its being a social call, perhaps with a prayer offered by the minister at the end of the visit. The minister is expected especially to visit those who are sick or lonely or dying. Medical conditions seem to merit special attention. In this sense, the minister is expected to act more like a chaplain than like a spiritual leader and guide. As The Missional Leader puts it:

“Ordained ministry staff functions to give attention to and take care of people in the church by being present for people as they are needed (if care and attention are given by people other than ordained clergy, it may be more appropriate and effective but is deemed “second-class”). [The minister’s] time, energy, and focus [are] shaped by people’s ‘need’ and ‘pain’ agendas.” (p. 12)

This model of ministry was shaped to fit a culture that considered itself “Christian”. The church counted on the culture to help it form people with “Christian values” (through magazines, radio shows, public education, etc.). The culture has changed and so has the church. The church can no longer depend upon the culture to do its work of Christian formation. It must now be more intentional about growing those who are followers of Jesus Christ.

In a missional model of church, the role of the paid ministers reverts back to one described in Ephesians 4:11 -12  — “Christ calls some to be “pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” In the missional church, it is understood that all those who are baptized are given gifts and a call into some form of ministry. That may or may not be expressed by a position in the congregation’s structures. Most probably, it will be outside the church’s walls — living out the gospel through their lives, seeking to to be instruments of transformation within the  culture, witnessing to the work of the Holy Spirit healing and renewing life. The role of the pastor/teacher is to cultivate an environment in the congregation in which people discern what their gifts and calling are. It is to attend to the life of the community so that its people are equipped to participate in God’s mission in the world.

Pastoral visiting — both providing social support and helping someone grow as a disciple of Jesus — is primarily done by the people of the congregation for each other. Most often that is done through ‘small groups’ — 4 to 10 people who meet regularly to care for one another, help each other grow in faith and act into that faith.

Such a shift takes some getting used to. People usually think that the care they provide for one another won’t feel as spiritually helpful as the care they receive from the “professional” minister. Granted, most people will have some growing to do — learning to pray for one another and to challenge each other. That is why, in a missional church model, spiritual formation and growth takes a high priority.

When a missional model is adopted by a congregation, people quickly discover that the care they get from their small group members is better than what they were getting from the paid professional(s). After all, the paid minister is only one person. His or her time and energy are limited to what any one human being can do. Any one person can only care effectively for a few others (no matter how professional she is; no matter how much s/he is  paid!). When pastoral care is provided through small groups, far more people receive far better care and attention and are encouraged to grow spiritually. The paid professional minister’s role shifts to equipping the people of the congregation to minister to each other and to participate in God’s mission in their local contexts. That is why, the critical question is not, “How many visits is the minister making?” but, “How many disciples are being made?” That question will maximize effective pastoral care and spiritual growth in the congregation.

What excites you about this different model of ministry in a missional church? What questions does it raise? What concerns?

What will it cost a congregation if it does not adopt a missional model of ministry?


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