Posts Tagged ‘spiritual formation’

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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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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Scripture: James 1: 17 -27

A number of years ago, when George Buttrick was the minister of Memorial Church, Harvard University, he addressed a group of ministers on the subject of “preaching to an alienated generation”. One of the things he told them was, “Whenever someone says to me, ‘That was such a spiritual sermon’, I know I have abysmally failed. I did not come within ten miles of his pocketbook.”

People who tell Christians that we should stick to things spiritual ought not to expect to get very far with us. Ours is a very practical, personal, down-to-earth kind of faith. “It is no good just listening to the word,” says James in his letter. “You’ve got to put it into practice.” Later on, he says, “Faith without works is dead.” He touches very close to home when he describes what he means: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” “Control your tongue or your religion is worthless.” “Take care of orphans and widows in their suffering.”

Elizabeth O’Connor, in her book Journey Inward, Journey Outward, told the story of a group of people who discovered how difficult it is to live this faith out in ordinary, everyday lives. (What follows is drawn from that book.)  These people were members of a mission group connected with the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. The group was called FLOC – For the Love of Children. “ They felt called to focus on “Junior Village”, the district’s institution for homeless children. It was overcrowded, understaffed and dirty. FLOC was committed to finding foster homes for those children who could not be returned to their own families. They worked with the families from which some of the children came so that the families could be in a position where they could be re-united. They worked for changes in legislation and social conditions.

The demands were great because the need was so great. They were committed to working not in the abstract but directly with families: helping them to find housing and jobs; intervening with the Welfare Department; helping them through crises. At one point, every family with which they were working was in crisis. They were getting overwhelmed. They invited a psychologist who was experienced in working with the poor to meet with them. They met for three nights. He challenged them at different levels and they learned some things that they needed to know in order to keep going. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 161 – 163)

The psychologist advised them to set limits on what they would do. They should decide ahead of time when they would say, “I quit.” They told him that they had become friends with these people. “You don’t decide ahead of time when you are going to quit on your friends.”

He warned them that the Welfare Department would give them cases with the greatest possibility of failure. They should keep only the most hopeful cases for themselves so that their record would look good. They told him, “We believe that God can use us and we believe the power of this God has no limits. We cannot decide ahead of time what can and cannot be accomplished.”

He asked them again and again, “Why are you here?” They got clarity in their answer: they were there because Christ had called them to serve the poor and especially the children of Junior Village. They did not expect magic intervention but they believed there was something unique about a group of people acting in the name of Christ. They did not believe that the job would be easier because Christ was there with them. They said, “No, the job will not be easier, but yes, it will be easier, When God calls a man, he equips him” (p. 163).

When the evenings with the psychologist were done, they had regained the vision that had originally sent them to Junior Village: “Christ is on mission to those families, and we are along with him.” They had also gained a new awareness of how difficult it is to respond to Christ’s call when spiritual truths bump against earthy realities.

They could have bought into the professional model of doing things by setting limits and doing only those things that would work and show visible results. They would be realistic if they did that, but they felt that would also betray Christ who had called them into committed friendship with these people.

They could begin to think that, because they were acting in the name of Jesus, their efforts would be rewarded with success. If they thought that way, when they did not experience success and when the problems continued, they would grow discouraged and doubt the call.

They realized that what had begun as a crusade in which they prayed, “Free these children immediately, Lord” had become a mission that might involve them for the rest of their lives. They were learning over and over again the challenge of not just listening to the Word but also putting it into practice. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 157)

We may have plans to change the world. God has plans to change the world by changing us. We want to, as one song says, “build the land that God has planned where love shines through”. God sets us in the midst of other people who are sometimes very difficult to get along with, much less love. They disappoint us. They hurt us deeply. They oppose us fiercely on matters we think are critical. Before very long we come face-to-face with some very real roadblocks within ourselves to building a land of love.

We are tempted to blame others. “It’s hard to soar like an eagle when you are working with a bunch of turkeys,” we say. We are good at telling politicians the things that they should do to make this world a better place. We forget that the church always has its greatest political influence not when it tells others how to live but when it exhibits in its own life together peace, justice and reconciliation.

The hardest work is not ‘out there’. It is among us in our life together and within us in our wounded hearts and spirits. What makes other people hard to love are the fears that bind our own hearts, making us jealous and suspicious of what others are doing. What makes peace hard to find are the wounds that we protect behind walls of anger and resentment. What makes changing an institution or organization so slow are the confused emotions and tangles desires within our own hearts and souls that we do not understand. What hinders love is all that we have not yet brought to Christ for healing.

When the people who formed the mission group FLOC first got together, they wrestled with the question of how much time they would give to their inward journey. The task before them was so great; the needs were so urgent; the children they wanted to free were so desperate. Could they afford time and energy for common prayer and study and theological reflection and worship? Could they not move faster without those practices? When the debate was over, they decided to keep in balance the inward and the outward journeys. They knew that they could not move the mountain ahead of them in their own strength. They believed Christ had called them to the task; he would equip them as they rested in his Word. (Journey Inward, Journey Outward, p. 154)

As we seek to live out our faith, the real enemies are within. No matter how great the opposing forces outside us are, the real resistance is always found within ourselves. It is found in that part of ourselves that yearns for power and success rather than faithfulness to a suffering Saviour; in that part of ourselves that fears the cost of peace and love in the world and in our own hearts. If you are going to be on the journey outward, if you are going to have the strength you need to do Christ’s work in that part of the world to which he has called you, you are going to have to stay in close touch with the One who is already there.

In prayer, in contemplation, in our life together under Christ’s Word, Jesus offers to take down the protective walls of fear that we have built around our hearts. Again and again, as we offer ourselves into his hands, the Holy Spirit broods over us and we experience God’s creative, healing work in our hearts. God sets us free to participate in Christ’s healing, redeeming work in the suffering of our world. We become doers of the Word, not just hearers, and we will be blessed in our doing. Thanks be to God.

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The following are some quotations and reflections on a seminar I attended at Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Symposium 2015. The seminar, “The Turn Toward the Formative in Christian Worship”, hosted four conversations: Stories of the journey, music, ‘frames’, and leadership.

Four young worship leaders and pastors offered their stories of journeying from a contemporary style of worship to a worship in which they were incorporating elements from more traditional liturgies. They were trying to ‘let the formative breathe and become expressive’. They were finding ways to lead people into participating in those traditional elements in a way that touched the deep experiences and emotions of their lives.

Miranda Dodson set the Apostle’s Creed to music (http://mirandadodson.bandcamp.com/track/apostles-creed). She explains: “Apostles Creed is an attempt to bring a sing-able melody and corporate unity to a creed that most of the Christian world professes. The aim is to remind the church of their belief in the triune God and his work by collectively proclaiming it in song. I tried to stay as close to the original Creed as possible while taking a few liberties for the purposes of congregational worship. For instance “I believe…” I changed to “We believe…” in order to unite the Church in these common beliefs.”

One of the presenters spoke about using the traditional elements but ‘changing the setting’ so that ‘the brain thinks again’. Putting quiet music under the prayers can do this. Or, inviting the congregation to face each other for the prayer of confession (which is followed always by a vigorous proclamation of God’s grace in our lives). Someone suggested leading the prayers of thanksgiving by inviting people to turn to the person beside them and to name what they were thankful to God for. The time of prayer led into a singing of “Great is Thy Faithfulness”.

Someone reflected on the impetus for working with the tradition to make it speak into the lives of the people who are gathered together in worship: “We were serving the same meal every Sunday and wondering why we weren’t getting healthy.” Worship that does not ask anything of the worshipper, that leaves the congregation as a passive audience of worship that others perform, not only leaves the people caught in the culture of consumerism; it also does not help people to grow in maturity in Christ. People’s spirits need exercise: they need to participate and to respond in ways that touch their hearts and take them deeper into God’s grace and love.

Crafting that kind of worship takes time, of course. Some participants in the seminar wondered how they could add that in to their schedules that were already too full. We were reminded that “liturgy” means “the work of the people”. We need to be looking for ways genuinely to make it the work of those who gather. More on that in the next post.

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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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The aim of the person of faith is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible — to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.”   Eugene Peterson in Run with the Horses, p. 152

I wonder what difference it would make in our churches if this were the operating assumption of what it means to be a member of  a congregation? We’re pretty committed to being ‘as comfortable as possible’ in our culture. This description of the life of faith is so countercultural. And yet, I find that people in the pews do appreciate it when sermons are deep enough to deal with ‘the reality of life’ and when we struggle together to ‘discover truth’. People do want to be part of a community that acts out love and creates beauty. Most of us would just prefer to do all that while ‘being as comfortable as possible’!

So much of my praying consists of wrestling with God about ‘the reality of life’, especially the parts where I have been hurt by the actions of other people and by my own inadequate responses to those actions. Those experiences have invited me to become deeper on many levels — more relentlessly focused on trusting God in all things, wiser about human sinfulness, less naive about the presence of evil in the world, more aware of my weaknesses and strengths. This is the way of life on which Jesus is leading me; however, I often feel out of touch with a culture that is so focused on pursuing one’s own happiness and comfort. The psalmists are great company on this path — they express not only great joy but also great anguish as they deal with the reality of life. They explore all of life in the context of God’s sovereign goodness and grace. They are better guides than those who would have us avoid or escape any unhappiness.

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