August 17, 2012 by cbbeard
I remember coming home from church camp when I was in Jr. High and I was absolutely FIRED UP for God. I was ready to be the best disciple of Jesus I could be. So I put into action what I had learned at my church was key to being a disciple of Jesus; I read my Bible more, I prayed harder and longer, and I made sure that if the doors of the church were open for an activity or program I was there!
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is great value in Bible study, prayer, and being a part of the church. But something was missing. Following Jesus had become a checklist for me, and unfortunately, that checklist really didn’t reflect what it meant to be a disciple.
When Jesus talked about being his disciple, he talked about a lot more than prayer time and Bible reading. He used language like “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (in Luke 14) and “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (in Matthew 16). I wonder if Jesus was serious?
Well, we will talk more about the cost of discipleship and what that really means for our lives later on in this blog, and probably more than once. But as I think about discipleship and what has been known as “spiritual formation” or “spiritual growth” I can’t help but look back at the ancient examples set by the ancestors of our faith.
So I was thinking, if a Christian kid came home from “church camp” in the first century, fired up for Christ, what would HE have done when he got home? Now, I know there weren’t church camps, and things were vastly different culturally than they are now, but the question is intriguing and valid. I mean, think about it! This proverbial first century Jr. High kid would not have access to a Bible (the printing press wouldn’t even be invented for another 1300 years or so), and he didn’t have youth group activities or a church building to go to (that didn’t happen until Constantine a couple of hundred years later). So what did spiritual growth look like for this kid and the countless other followers of Jesus who carried on the faith from ancient times to modern times?
I recently read a book by M. Robert Mulholland Jr. called Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, and he identified two characteristics of spiritual formation as described in Scripture that would apply just as much for our first century Jr. High kid as it does for a Jr. High kid today: Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed into the image of Christ; and Spiritual formation occurs in the context of community. Let’s briefly consider these…
Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed into the image of Christ.
Throughout my time in ministry, I have seen many new “converts” abandon faith because they didn’t find the instant gratification they were used to in the rest of their lives. They gave their life to Christ, were baptized, and were “on fire,” but the fire burned out quickly because they thought that spiritual maturity and life-change would be instantaneous. I have also seen within the church, there is a tendency to bounce around with the latest book or study that “guarantees” (at least subliminally) spiritual growth. Again, believers are left disappointed because they did not become super-disciples upon completion.
The truth is that we are always in the process of spiritual formation; either we are being transformed to be more like Jesus, or we are being conformed to the world and its standards (see Romans 12:1-2). If we can grasp this in our lives, it will shift how most people look at faith. Spiritual formation does not just happen when we read the Bible, pray, or go to church, but each and every minute of our lives and how we choose to live. Being a disciple means not only learning by studying, but also learning by doing. One of the biggest failures of Western Christianity (in my humble opinion) is that Jesus is an accessory to life rather than life itself. Spiritual development must become life rather than just a part of life.
Spiritual formation occurs in the context of community.
Consider what Mulholland wrote:
There is a temptation to think that our spiritual growth takes place in the privacy of our personal relationship with God and then, once it is sufficiently developed, we can export it into our relationships with others and “be Christian” with them. But holistic spirituality, the process of being conformed to the image of Christ, takes place in the midst of our relationships with others, not apart from them. We learn to be Christ’s for others by seeking to be yielded and obedient to God in the midst of our relationships. (p. 42-43).
I must confess that I am a bit of an introvert, and the idea of individualized spirituality is appealing to me. But there is a problem; that’s not how God intended it. God intended his people to build one another up to grow together, to mature together, and to make disciples together! Spiritual formation is a team sport, that’s the way it was designed by God himself. The “koinonia” fellowship found in the New Testament church is not only descriptive, it is prescriptive!
And here is another truth we see in Scripture that might make us squirm a little; spiritual formation always included taking Christ to unbelievers. We have a tendency to compartmentalize and say “this is discipleship” and “that is evangelism.” But it is indeed a package deal, and you can’t have one without the other.
So this is the type of spiritual formation that would take place for the first century Jr. Higher; a process of being conformed to be like Jesus in the context of community. Certainly the Bible and prayer are primary to our spiritual growth, but perhaps the focus would be less on “quiet time” and more on “community time.” And not just community in the form of a formal Bible study, but living lives for Jesus together, day in and day out.
So the question is, how does this affect our lives? How does this affect our churches? Do you agree or disagree? How does this affect our mission to “make disciples of all nations?