Developing Disciples

This post is a reflection of what I have learned during my semester of “Congregational Spiritual Formation.”

A Key Observation:

            One thing I have observed is that the Church does not do a great job of helping people to grow into mature believers. Our tradition loves to get people into a baptistry with the assurance of going to heaven when they die. But after that, many (or even most, across churches) cease to grow. They remain spiritual infants. We must do a better job of helping people to mature in the faith. Even further, our only “means” of discipleship is the Sunday School, of which, typically only a fraction of the congregation participates.

A Partial Solution:

            In the Sunday School and the worship service, we teach people about the Bible and about Christ. We give facts and hope that people will internalize them and apply them. But truth be told, all we can do in the time that we have together is to provide familiarity. We cannot cause people to grow spiritually.

What Is Needed:

            We are called to be a church that “makes disciples who make disciples.” Discipleship is not a once-a-week thing. It is the call to daily “take up your cross and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). It is a life that is taught in Christian homes and lived out in Christian community with other members of the body of Christ. It is the responsibility of all of us to grow as disciples together. So, we will develop resources to help our senior members disciple our younger members. We will help our parents disciple their children. We will not simply “teach more.” We will equip our members to exercise the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, service, and others. We owe this to the Lord who rescued us from perishing!



Always On

This post is in response to reading Angela Williams Gorrell’s book, Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape, published in 2019 by Baker Academic.

 

Summary

            Early in her well-researched and well-written book, Gorrell starts using the term “new media” which, she says, “encompasses many forms and devices, including blogs, the internet, podcasts, social networks, streaming services, e-books, computers, cell phones, e-readers, and so on.”[1] It is unquestionable that these media and devices have changed the way that we receive and share information over the last fifteen years. Gorrell’s chief assertion is that “new media has both glorious possibilities and profound brokenness.”[2] She then goes on to prove both of these truths to provide an awareness of the pitfalls and hope for how the internet could be used to further the cause of Christ.

 

New media is addictive

            Gorrell rightly asserts that new media does not just want to get your attention but wants to hold it as well. The idea is to fuel one’s need for affirmation so that they will keep checking back. Constant updates from “friends” feeds a fear of missing out. Of course, this is not just for the sake of keeping people looking at their friends’ posts. The idea is to continue to advertise to people, because that is where the social networks make their money. The need to find more likes and to make sure that nobody is saying negative things about them fuels increased stress among users.

 

New media can diminish humanness

            It hardly needs to be said in this time, but Gorrell correctly notes that social media makes it easy to dehumanize people. She clarifies that “Diminished humanness is the result of not seeing yourself or other people as full beings with minds, hearts, emotions, hopes, friends, families, reputations, struggles. With respect to yourself, you can believe that what you do and say online or through a device is not the “real” you.”[3] While it is not actually possible to distance ourselves from our words and actions, an online presence can often give the feeling that we can. When we see other people as not real, it becomes very easy to treat them as less than human.

 

New media requires discernment

            This is the key to Gorrell’s hope for the good in the new media landscape. She assets that online spaces must be treated as real spaces. As the Holy Spirit would accompany wherever we physically go, the Holy Spirit must accompany where we go online. We must discern what sites and platforms to use (and which to not use). We must discern the Lord’s will in where and how to set up our online spaces, the same way that we would seek His will when setting up a physical location. And, above all, our interactions must be Christlike.

 

Key Insights for Ministry

            The new media is the new town square. Our people are there, and we must be, too. Whatever platforms that we use, we should use for the glory of God. We should, and do, use new media to spread the gospel. Believers can use new media to comfort and encourage each other. We will use new media to tell the stories of our faith and encourage people to godly living. In short, just as we are to live our lives as a public testimony to Christ, our online lives should also be a public testimony to Christ.

[1] Angela Williams Gorrell. Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019). 2.

[2] Gorrell, 4.

[3] Gorrell, 20.



From the Earth to the Moon

This blogpost is in response to the assigned task to watch Episode 10, “Galileo Was Right” of From the Earth to the Moon. This is a reflection on the themes present in this particular episode.

It’s not just flying to the moon.

            This episode deals with educating astronauts ahead of the Apollo 15 mission. Since their mission is more than just “fly to the moon and take some pictures,” these astronauts need to be educated on more than just how their spacecraft flies. They will be collecting samples of rocks and need to know what to look for. More than this, they need to have an actual appreciation for what they are looking for and what it means. They need to learn to see the story in their surroundings and interpret it.

It’s not just academic.

            As part of their education, at first the astronauts were stuck in a classroom with professor just speaking information. He seems to have been a more boring version of Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The poor astronauts were incredibly bored. Even worse, they were not engaged with the material that they needed to know in order to be effective in their mission. They would have finished the course of instruction without understanding what they needed to be successful.

Inspiration is key.

            When the right professors were found, they not only understood the information that they needed to provide, but they engaged the astronauts in the learning. Dr. Silver took the astronauts out of the classroom and into the desert where they explored. He helped them to see the beauty in the rocks that they were looking at and describe the formations. They learned to ask the question of “how did this get here?” Instead of being taught just answers, they were taught to search for the nugget that stood out. They also learned to describe what they saw with sufficient detail that someone listening could sketch it out. These men were not just taught facts; they were taught to observe.

What can we learn from this?

            Perhaps we have often seen the pastor’s job as simply giving out information about what’s in the Bible. There can be a genuine temptation to stand in the pulpit and spout information that people halfheartedly listen to and decide to apply sporadically. This, however, does not form people spiritually, and it does not make disciples. What it does is set people up to land somewhere without knowing what they’re looking for. It sets them up for mission failure. Our job as spiritual leaders is to give people an appreciation of the overall story of scripture and show them where we are in its narrative. We need to teach them to observe, to appreciate, and to notice the nuggets. People cannot adequately love and worship God if they do not know how to see and interpret His work. So, we must prepare them for that!



Will Our Children Have Faith?

This blogpost is in response to an assigned reading, Will Our Children Have Faith? by John H. Westerhoff, III.

            Westerhoff makes a startling assertion by saying that the way church education has been done for the last hundred years is broken. Particularly, he is referring to Sunday School. The underlying idea is that treating Christian education like secular classroom education does not lead children to grow up with a faith that sticks. There seems to be some truth to this line of thinking, because according to LifeWay Research, sixty-six percent of teens who attend church drop out as young adults.[1] As a part of his way to rethink the spiritual formation of our youngest members, Westerhoff helpfully names four “styles of faith” that read like stages.

Experienced Faith

            In Westerhoff’s view, “experienced faith” is the faith of children. As children learn through exploring, observing, copying, and other behaviors, this is the way they experience their faith. This would mean that children will start to develop faith by observing and imitating those around them, particularly parents who are living and expressing their faith in community with the children.

Affiliative Faith

            Westerhoff seems to describe affiliative faith as seeking to be accepted in a community of identity. He also describes a huge emotional component and asserts that participating in the arts is essential to faith in this stage. He asserts that it is important for the church to be aware of and tell her story so that the child feels connected with the community. One example he gave was when a youngster had been given the job of keeping attendance records. This gave him a sense of belonging.

Searching Faith

            Searching faith comes about when young people (and I would assert sometimes older people) begin thinking critically about their faith. This is a growing process when someone needs to take the community’s faith and make it his own. They may begin to learn about other faith traditions and try them out, or even reject faith. This is when it is natural to question what one has been taught. Importantly, about this stage, Westerhoff writes, “And surely they need to be encouraged to remain within the faith community during their intellectual struggle, experimentation, and first endeavors at commitment.”[2] Many of us have observed this phenomenon and watched sadly as someone in this stage pulls away from the church.

Owned Faith

            Owned faith is the strong, life-changing faith on the other side of the doubts of searching faith. The one who has owned faith is one whose thinking and behavior are transformed. Westerhoff asserts that this could happen either suddenly or gradually. I would describe the one with owned faith as a mature Christian, one whose conduct and witness is beyond reproach.

Application to Sappony

            Understanding these styles of faith as stages of spiritual development could help us in our disciple-making by helping us to understand the needs of each stage. Westerhoff asserts that needs must be met in each stage for the believer to grow into the next one. By helping our families to meet the needs in each of these stages, we better set people up to develop a faith that is, in fact, their own.

[1] Aaron Earls. “Most Teenagers Drop Out of Church When They Become Young Adults” LifeWay Research. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/01/15/most-teenagers-drop-out-of-church-as-young-adults/

 

[2] John H. Westerhoff III. Will Our Children Have Faith? (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012). Kindle Loc. 1536.

 



What Makes Education Christian?

This blogpost is in response to an assigned reading, “What Makes Education Christian” by James Riley Estep, Jr. from the 2008 book A Theology for Christian Education.

How would you have defined Christian education prior to reading this chapter?

            Before reading this chapter, I would likely have not really defined Christian education. My first thought was church-run schools that I have seen which basically added some Bible classes to a regular curriculum. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of Christian education in terms of discipleship. Primarily my thoughts go to content delivery.

What about now?

            Now I see Christian education as a form of discipleship not limited to “Christian schools” but a part of the Spiritual formation of all the members of the church. While it seems likely that this book was written for those who run Christian schools, there are principles that apply to the church. What we teach is important, therefore, how we teach it is important. We do not have time to waste on junk content and moral lessons.

Which do you value more or know better: theology or the social sciences? Why?

            Obviously, I know theology better as it was the subject of my bachelor’s degree. My program contained very little in the social sciences. While things learned from the social sciences may prove to be valuable tools, theology is how we learn about God and our place within His creation.

On a scale of 1 to 5, how well do you currently fulfill the above stated practical implications?

            Using Estep’s practical implications from the article, I would have to rate myself a “1”. As someone who is neither an educator (in the academic sense) nor a curriculum developer, I have never engaged with educational theory.

What areas of improvement did this chapter evoke for you?

            I can see the value that some other tools might bring to Christian education. Knowing for instance, what is normal for a stage of life enables one to more effectively engage that group with theological themes. We have historically divided our Sunday School classes by grade and stage of life. We do not seem to account for varying spiritual maturity levels among believers of the same age group. Sometimes a teenager can be more mature in her faith than a senior citizen who is a new believer. I feel as if understanding both the life stage and social background of an individual as well as their level of spiritual maturity, which can vary widely would be the key to developing an educational program for each one. This really requires more one on one discipleship.



Out of the Darkness

 

Can you imagine being in a mine, like these two men? It is underground. It is dark. It stinks. It is dirty. Now, can you imagine being in there and resisting the invitation to come out of the mine and into the daylight? Such is the natural state of man. In the dark and unable to come into the light.

            Fortunately, God does invite us out of the dark and into the light. But receiving the invitation does not automatically solve our problems. We must accept the invitation. Then, we have to walk. We have to actively leave the dark and dirty place behind. We must move closer and closer, with each step, to Him. With each step, we leave the darkness behind and move further into the light.

            But once we exit the mine, the work is not done. You wouldn’t meet the king like that, would you? The clothes that you’re wearing would have to go. Then, you must be bathed. The dirt and stain of that former place has to be washed away. Then you can be dressed in clean garments and made presentable.

            With each step outside the dark, cold, damp, and dirty mine, you get further away from that life. Leaving it behind and washing it off of you does no good if you turn around and go back in. When our King invites us out of the dark pit, He bids us to keep walking with Him and not to turn back to the old life. We need never look back, because where we are going is so much better than where we’ve been.



Don’t Trifle

“May it not be one of the consequences of this that so many of you are a generation of triflers; triflers with God, with one another, and with your own souls. For how few of you spend, from one week to another, a single hour in private prayer? How few have any thought of God in the general tenor of your conversation?”[1]  These words from John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity ring even more true today than when he preached them at Oxford in 1744. Read more…



Across the Bridge

Felipe Giacometti. Man Walking on Hanging Bridge During Daytime. (2019) Photo 3376 x 6000. https://unsplash.com/photos/zGtohMf8iOg

THE BEGINNING

Imagine what a thrill it must be to walk across this bridge. Imagine the wind swaying the bridge and your body. Imagine the feel in the pit of your stomach when you look over the side. What if this were you? Would you stop half-way across? Would you get tired and sit down? Would you decide that it’s too much? Or would you even take the first step?

Now, imagine that this bridge is your life as a Christian. There was a lot of life before you decided to take this walk. But at some point, by God’s grace, which John Wesley would call “prevenient grace,” you were allowed to come to the beginning of the bridge. That is where you had to make a decision. Nobody forced you to step onto the bridge. Think of this as your confession of faith. Just as you placed your faith in the planks of the bridge to hold your weight, you can place your faith in Christ to save your soul. This is commonly referred to as justification. But this is only the beginning of the journey.

THE ADVENTURE

What if you never went beyond the first step? You would never know the thrill of being suspended so far in the air and so far out of your own control. You would miss out on the sight of the valley beneath your feet, the feel of the wind swaying the bridge, and the ache of your calves as you ascended on the other side. Unfortunately, many who profess faith in Christ never know the thrill of actually walking with Him. After the baptism water dries off, they return to life as it was before.

For those with the courage to step on the bridge with Christ, there is an experience that cannot be duplicated. As we walk with Christ, we are sanctified. According to the Baptist Faith & Message (2000), “Sanctification is the experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God’s purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. Growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person’s life.” Just as a new baby doesn’t become an adult overnight (despite the perception of most parents), a new believer doesn’t instantly become a mature saint. He has to walk on the bridge, trusting in Christ.

THE OTHER SIDE

We are never fully sanctified until we reach our eternal destination in heaven. But as we walk with Christ, loving God first and others as ourselves, we become more and more like Him. If we do not take the first step, we miss out on the wonderful adventure He has for us. If we quit half-way, we will grow weaker until we can no longer walk. However, if we keep walking with Him, we will find ourselves ultimately sanctified in glory with Christ forever.



Week Two: Points of Grace

For regular readers: From January through May 2021, my blogposts will be in response to assignments for coursework at Wesley Seminary. This week’s question is, “How does your story map on John Wesley’s soteriology (doctrine of salvation)?”

            When I first professed Jesus as Lord, I was ten years old, at a very large church in Houston who offered a bus ministry. As a family who moved a lot, I now see God’s grace in allowing that situation to happen. But I don’t know that I was really experiencing conviction at that point. We moved shortly after. Four years later, I would find myself at a small church in Kansas with a bus ministry. Again, God’s grace allowed me to be in that situation. During this time, I began to be more convinced of my own sin and unworthiness. I decided to accept the offer of Christ’s sacrifice for my sins and was baptized. This was where justification truly happened. The process of regeneration, however, has been a long one. One might say that I stood in the doorway for a very long time, not fully in and not fully out of the house. Regeneration began in earnest in my late twenties at a small church in North Carolina where I found myself stationed in the Marines. I decided to go on into the house and have been being progressively sanctified since then. I have grown in my obedience to Him. I am not perfect, but I am working to become more like Christ each day. I continue to look forward to the day when I am made fully perfect.



On This Journey Together

Most readers will know that I am a student at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. Several of my assignments over the next semester will involve blogposts, which I will share here. This week’s question is, “What are you expecting God to do through you and through me as we embark on this journey together?”

REASON FOR SEEKING EDUCATION

Anyone who has been at Sappony for the duration of my tenure is aware that I was far from fully qualified when called to the pastorate. At the time, I was still 18 months away from completing my bachelor’s degree. I have joked at the Associational Ministers’ conference that I am the least educated pastor in the Association. Sappony has been very supportive of my continuing education for the last six years, for which I am thankful. Working toward this degree has never really been about putting a certificate on a wall, but rather about being more fully equipped for the work that God has called me to.

BENEFITS FOR MYSELF

            It would be wrong to fail to mention that I have experienced tremendous personal growth as the result of my education. I have grown closer to Christ, which I’m told doesn’t always happen in seminary. I like to think that I have grown as a preacher and leader. I have developed new friendships with ministers around the U. S. and even in other parts of the world. I have and expect to continue benefitting from the education that I am receiving.

BENEFITS FOR THE CHURCH

            I like to think that the church continues to benefit from what I have learned so far, whether studying doctrine, church history, or even (hopefully) how to prepare and deliver better sermons. The last two years of my seminary education have been a tremendously formative time in my life, and I hope that it has reflected in my preaching and leadership of the church. I expect that my current class, “Congregational Spiritual Formation” will also benefit, not just me directly, but the congregation as well. Those who routinely listen to me preach know that I have long said that there is a lot more to the Christian life than saying a prayer and being baptized.

There is also a lot more to being a disciple than church attendance. While I have preached this a lot, I have not really been sure how to lead people to deepen their relationship with Christ. I expect that I will gain insight into helping Sappony to be a church of disciples who make disciples.

MY EXPECTATION

            I expect over the next sixteen weeks that God will work through Dr. Grimm and the texts to show me what I need to know to close the gap between knowing and doing the Word. I also expect that God will use me as a conduit of His great grace to be an encouragement to my family, friends, and the church. This is what I see happening over the next few months.